Showing posts with label Bush. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bush. Show all posts

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Alternative Reality

It's easy to be cynical in this presidential election year, the rhetoric and posturing of the scripted, agnotological "debates," the Super PAC ads, the robo-calls, the deluge of direct mail, sending out those sound bites to "the undecided."  But what would this election cycle be like if McCain had won in 2008?  Ironically, it would have been the Democrats finger pointing about the economy because we'd probably be in a similar situation, or worse, who knows -- it's impossible to prove an alternative reality, but we can speculate.

The debt Romney carps about was first ramped up by the Treasury Department of the previous administration, not by Obama, with the enactment of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008 to stabilize the financial system and it was quite necessary at the time.  Jobs were falling off the cliff before Obama took office. Our financial system was in melt down.  And what would have been a McCain administration response as that crisis just continued to deepen?  Go into an austerity spending mode?  Cut taxes?  No, that would have been impossible.  The time for government to reign in its spending is when the economy is NOT falling off the cliff and even a Republican administration would have had to take similar action (and the Federal Reserve's Ben Bernanke was an appointee of the Republican administration as well).

Reviewing some of the more distant past, Clinton enacted tax increases in 1994, mostly on high income earners. Eventually, those, as well as a booming economy (note, no loss of jobs due to raising taxes on the upper 1%), turned around President George Bush Sr.'s deficits into surpluses. After three consecutive years of national debt reduction under Clinton, the surplus in 2000 amounted to $230 billion. 

The first fiscal year impacted by George W. Bush's tax cuts was 2002 when the surplus swung to a $159 billion deficit, a $286 billion negative change from the previous year.  True, we were now embroiled in the war on terror, but the administration persisted on raising the stakes with tax cuts.  Bush said while campaigning for a local Alabama congressman. “In order to make sure that our economy grows, in order to make sure the job base is strong, you need to have a congressman who will join me in making sure that tax relief plan we passed is permanent and doesn’t go away.”  Where were the jobs after nine years of this "temporary" but massive tax cut, mostly benefiting the upper 1%?

When Paul O'Neill, Bush's Treasury Secretary, argued against a second round of tax cuts, VP Cheney purportedly said "You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. We won the mid-term elections, this is our due."   This was Cheney speaking, not some liberal Democrat. O'Neill said in an interview "It was not just about not wanting the tax cut. It was about how to use the nation's resources to improve the condition of our society. And I thought the weight of working on Social Security and fundamental tax reform was a lot more important than a tax reduction."  For that view, O'Neill was eventually fired.

Obama clearly underestimated how long it would take to reverse years of deficit spending, not only his administration's (necessary as the private sector was not spending), but his predecessor's as well. (He also didn't anticipate being stonewalled by Congress.)   But if McCain had defeated Obama in 2008, he would have inherited the same mess and today we might have Hillary Clinton running against McCain (or Palin or Romney) making some of the same arguments about fiscal responsibility being spun by Romney. 

As I said, it is hard not to be cynical about this particular election, but I respect Paul O'Neill's admonishment:  "It was not just about not wanting the tax cut. It was about how to use the nation's resources to improve the condition of our society." That is why I support President Obama and hopefully in a second term he would have Congress' cooperation to achieve some fundamental tax reform and make inroads in controlling the growth of entitlements. 

And last night, as I was preparing to post this, a bit of serendipity led me to watch the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, it depicts Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter who is found in a jail by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who she enlists to sing and talk on a local Arkansas radio station, he ultimately rising to the pinnacle of media demagoguery.  He is nicknamed "Lonesome" Rhodes by Marcia, and she goes on the journey with him from obscurity to fame to fall.  

The relevancy of this film, made more than fifty years ago, to today is striking.  Lonesome is drawn into the political arena, and is brought in to help transform the film's Senator Worthington Fuller into a Presidential candidate.  Lonesome instinctively and sardonically understands the manipulative power of language and media. 

When he first meets the Senator, he advises him to abandon his stiff personality and give himself over to Lonesome's control:  "...Your problem is getting the voters to listen to you. Getting them to like you enough to listen to you. We've got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, television. Instead of long-winded debates, the people want slogans. 'Time for a change' 'The mess in Washington' 'More bang for a buck'. Punch-lines and glamour....We've got to find  a  million buyers for the product 'Worthington Fuller'....Respect? Did you ever hear of anyone buying any product beer, hair rinse, tissue, because they respect it? You've got to be loved, man. Loved....Senator, I'm a professional. I look at the image on that screen same as at a performer on my show. And I have to'll never get over to my audience not to the millions of people who welcome me into their living rooms each week. And if I wouldn't buy him, do you realize what that means? If I wouldn't buy him, the people of this country aren't ready to buy him for that big job on Pennsylvania Avenue....I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion...a force. A force."

To Marcia he says :"This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!....Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me."

An actor on Rhodes' show asks him about Senator Fuller: "You really sell that stiff as a man among men?" Lonesome Rhodes replies: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers."

'Nuff said before next Monday's "debate" after which the "undecided" can flap their flippers.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Anecdotal Headlines Redux

One of the advantages of writing a blog is to be able to understand what I was thinking (or not thinking) at a certain point in time.  It can be satisfying, or amusing, or downright embarrassing looking back. We are all adrift in an ocean of information, the seas fomenting more than ever, that affecting our perception of the horizon, when we can see it at all.  Sometimes, the headlines of the Wall Street Journal seem to cry out a general national Zeitgeist and this weekend's edition was such a moment.  I've noted this phenomenon before, first on Wednesday, December 10, 2008, Anecdotal Headline Annotations, which I prefaced with a sentence that could exactly apply to the most recent edition, three and a half years later: If I was handed a copy of today’s Wall Street Journal only a couple of years ago, I would have thought the headlines were a forecast of an ethical and economic Armageddon. How otherwise does one interpret the following captions, from just one day’s newspaper?  
Then, a little more than two years ago, Friday, April 9, 2010, I posted another such moment, Anecdotal Headlines, writing at the time: ...while the Dow basks in the glow of massive liquidity injections in a low interest rate environment, approaching 11,000 as I write this, and investment bankers are rewarding themselves with record bonuses, the economy swims on against the tide of high unemployment (much higher than reported), kicking the state/municipal finance crisis down the road, and rising foreclosures

Usually, extreme headlines happen at inflection points.  Certainly the Dec. 2008 posting was one as far as the stock market is concerned (the Dow bottoming three months later), but the April 2010 posting was during the market's ascent. However, the so called "market" seems to be disconnected from the economy and jobs and whatever recovery there has been of Main Street mostly has been induced by the Federal Reserve and other government stimuli.  Some like to finger point, believing that recent deficit spending is the cause of our economic malaise.  I don't like deficit spending any more than they, but it is overly simplistic to think that if we ran our government like a responsible family, sitting around the ole' kitchen table, budgeting our expenses, tightening our belts, all will be OK.  Running a country is not like running a household, and without the stimulus, who knows where we would be today. 

We are going to hear a lot about the economy, everything being Obama's fault (note now that gas prices have fallen in the last few weeks we no longer hear about his being responsible for those) but another benefit (there are not many) of writing this blog is some of the documentation it provides. The Monday, September 22, 2008 entry, This Fundamental is Whining  is worth revisiting in this regard. Senator Phil Gramm, who had then become a lead economic adviser for McCain’s presidential run, called us (the American public) "a bunch of whiners," saying the only economic problem we have is a "mental recession."  Well we now know that this little "mental recession" was real, could have been a depression (who knows, it still might become one), and it was set in motion long before Obama took office.  Nonetheless, at the time McCain was already blaming Obama for the economy, saying “We've heard a lot of words from Senator Obama over the course of this campaign…But maybe just this once he could spare us the lectures, and admit to his own poor judgment in contributing to these problems. The crisis on Wall Street started in the Washington culture of lobbying and influence peddling, and he was right square in the middle of it."  Obama was to blame even before he became president!  And today, we not only have the residual effects of our own economic problems baked into the cake, there is also the exogenous factor of Europe's slow-motion economic collapse -- something we have no direct ability to control, even if we could agree on anything.  Then, there is the sun-setting of the Bush tax cuts, a fiscal cliff that desperately needs our malfunctioning government to agree on something. What are the chances?

Unfortunately, presidential elections do focus on how people feel at the time, and while we were feeling lousy in 2008 and "hope" was a mantra we eagerly seized, now we will be asked to "hope" some more, or rely on the magic wand of a private equity bailout specialist, Mitt Romney.  It is a nice fantasy (the magic wand), and as the Federal Reserve may be running out of its own magic bullets, the economy and the leading economic indicators will dictate the election, no matter how much tinder the Super Pacs throw on the campaign fires. 

The headlines of today are not much different in tone than those that preceded them, two years ago, and almost four years ago. Two of my favorites from 2010 are: Greek Bond Crisis Spreads and  Fed Chiefs Hint at Low Rates Possibly Into 2011.  Where is Yogi Berra when you need him? "It's deja vu all over again."  But he might have got it wrong with,  "The future ain't what it used to be."

So, how are we to divine our economic and moral future from today's headlines (presented in the order as they appear, just from the first section of the Wall Street Journal June 2/3 2012)?.....

Grim Job Report Sinks Markets
Feeble hiring by U.S. employers in May roiled markets and dimmed the already-cloudy outlook for an economy that appears to be following Europe and Asia into a slowdown

As Costs Soar, Taxpayers Target Pensions of Cops and Firefighters

Edwards Jury Saw Guilt, but Lack of Proof

State Takes Fresh Crack at Mortgages
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will participate in a Nevada program to cut loan balances for certain homeowners who are current on their mortgages but owe more than their houses are worth in what could be a model for other hard-hit states.

Big Scandal for Small Town
Sunland Park, N.M. sees Mayor-elect indicted amid host of lurid allegations.

Sen. Kirk Of Illinois Pushed Coin Bills
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois pushed for legislation authorizing a collectible coin that generated $2.5 million for an organization that had hired a firm that employed his former girlfriend to lobby for the bill, according to people involved in the matter.

Campaign's Focus Turns to Grim Data
Friday's weaker-than-expected jobs report quickly became the central focus of the presidential campaign, with President Barack Obama seeking to mitigate the political fallout and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney trying to seize on the disappointing numbers.

Fed is Sure to Step Up Debate on More Stimulus
Friday's dismal jobs report is sure to sharpen a debate at the Federal Reserve about whether to take new actions to spur economic growth, but it likely doesn't settle it.

Euro-Zone Reports Deepen Gloom
Block sets record in number of Jobless as manufacturing activity falls; figures highlight widening North-South divide.

Asia Weakness Heightens Fears of Contagion
Manufacturing activity in China and across a wide swath of Asia slowed in May, heightening fears that the turmoil in Western economies is dragging down one of the few remaining engines of global growth.

Brazil Loses Steam As World Slows
Brazil grew at its slowest pace in more than two years during the first quarter as weak industrial production and a weakening global picture undermined Latin America's largest economy.

Cyprus Is Close to a Request for Bailout
Cyprus looks increasingly set to become the fourth euro-zone country to seek financial aid under Europe's temporary bailout fund, as early as this month, as it scrambles to protect its banking system from Greece's widening financial crisis that is threatening to engulf its tiny island neighbor.

Japan Gives Warning on Yen
The Japanese government went on high alert against the newly rising yen Friday, trying to scare off global investors with multiple threats of intervention in currency markets, but stopping short of direct action to drive the yen down.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Another Mission Accomplished Moment

It is more than embarrassing. It could be politically devastating, the Obama administration caught in the cross hairs of political posturing as reported by the Washington Post, Solyndra docs: Politics infused energy programs. These documents show "Obama's May 2010 stop at Solyndra's headquarters was closely managed political theater....Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama's green-technology program was infused with politics at every level."

Am I disappointed that Solyndra was allowed to get so out of hand? -- yes, but not surprised. There are parallels to the "Bush moment" in 2003 after Iraq had been invaded, when he arrived on the decks of an aircraft carrier in a fighter plane, dressed as a fighter pilot, to declare "Mission Accomplished!" -- the navy personnel cheering him on. It doesn't get any more of a political show than that. But, they call it "politics" for a reason.

The worst aspect of these parallel moments is no mission was accomplished. The Iraq war, slogged on while thousands more Americans were killed, tens of thousands injured, not to mention a multiple number of Iraqis maimed or killed. And, when it is said and done, more than a trillion dollars will have been spent on the Iraq war. No mission accomplished there.

While Solyndra did not cost lives, and will not cost the American taxpayer anything remotely resembling the Iraq war, it also epitomizes a failed mission -- a serious detour in the attempt to achieve a modicum of energy independence, and to create jobs. Simply put, the Obama administration misspent valuable political capital on its "mission accomplished" moment.

So, while I understand the political posturing, and do not think Solyndra is out of character with what we have long become inured to, I am dismayed that Obama's first term is being squandered without serious progress in energy independence.

Obama made an interesting remark during his 60 minutes interview: "Don't judge me against the Almighty; judge me against the alternative." Obama choose hope and change as his mantra, a nice thought but unrealistic in Washington. So he is saddled with the sweeping generalization of his "promise" and it is probably why he is so despised by his adversaries. But when I think of the alternatives it makes me hope that he will change.

In the meantime we enter that dreaded season leading up to the presidential election. This year dinosauric Super PACs will be allowed to roam free in the Jurassic political park, organizations that can raise unlimited sums from anyone, including corporations and unions. Be prepared for an unprecedented level of vitriol in this election, with a constant barrage of negative political ads. Even if nothing else comes from the Solyndra debacle, it will feed the PAC beast.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Taking One for the Team

Ever since I heard that Hillary Clinton was planning to "retire" I've been thinking, what a waste of skill and experience. My thought was that Obama needs a new running mate, one that can handle the stalemated war of Republican and Democrat ideologues, and what better person than a former, and very effective, Secretary of State. Of course it means true sharing of power at the top, but Obama does not seem to be threatened by that, and as evidence he himself appointed his former rival to the position of Secretary of State.

Today the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece by Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen, both former Democratic pollsters, ups the ante with their article The Hillary Moment, which suggests Obama should actually step aside for the good of the Democratic party so Hillary Clinton can run for President, their argument being that Obama will not be able to run a positive campaign based on his [economic] record and even if he wins we will still be left with a highly charged partisan political landscape, something he will not be able to change. In effect, President Obama should take one for the team.

While I might agree with his difficulty in achieving bipartisan consensus (and that is why I thought Hillary would be the ideal running mate in 2012), I have a problem with ascribing every economic ill to Obama. It is impossible to prove an alternative reality, but if Hillary had run in 2008 and won, we would not be in a much different economic place. And if McCain won, we would have been as equally bad off, or worse ("you betcha" if you know what I mean). After all, the economic problems leading to today were long in the making: regulatory failures, ill conceived Federal Reserve actions, the housing bubble with the attendant rapacity of investment banking firms, Bush tax cuts, 9/11, and ill-chosen wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you live beyond your means for such a long time, it takes years to repair the balance sheet, especially when dealing with one the size of the United States'. It can't be done overnight and it can't even be done in one four-year Presidential term.

Making such repairs without doing further damage to the economy means compromise, spending cuts and tax increases, ones that do not further exacerbate the steadily growing division between the haves and the have nots, the one percenters and the ninety-nine percenters.

Expecting Obama to step aside is to concede an imaginary failure, undeserved and such a concession would only feed opposition blathering. And that is where you come in Hillary, perhaps you will consider taking one for the team by agreeing to become Obama's running mate in 2012.

I continue to have high hopes for the Obama presidency in a second term. Hillary, I still hear America singing.
PS: Barry Ritholtz's Presidential Blame & Credit, is well worth reading in conjunction with the above.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

“A Glide Path to Zero Debt Post 2011”

This “glide path” was forecast in George W. Bush’s Feb. 28th, 2001 budget, A Blueprint for New Beginnings; A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities.

The centerpiece of the legislation was a $1.35 trillion tax cut over 10 years which was signed into law on June 7, 2001. This cut was supposed to spur growth and thus increase federal revenues in spite of the tax cut (sound familiar?)

The exact wording from Blueprint for New Beginnings:

Over the next 10 years, the Federal Government is projected to collect $28 trillion in revenues from American taxpayers. The President’s Budget devotes roughly $22.4 trillion to extend the Government we have today, including the President’s new initiatives. This leaves a $5.6 trillion surplus. The President’s Budget takes a cautious approach to allocating this staggering sum, starting by saving the entire Social Security surplus—nearly 50 percent of the total surplus—for Social Security and debt retirement. None of the Social Security surplus will be used to fund other spending initiatives or tax relief.

By devoting these revenues to debt retirement, the Nation will be able to pay off all the debt that can be redeemed—an historic $2 trillion reduction in debt over the next 10 years. The only remaining debt will be those securities with maturity dates beyond 2011. In all likelihood, American taxpayers would have to spend an additional $50 to $150 billion in bonus payments to bondholders to accelerate the repayment of those notes, a wasteful and senseless transaction. It makes more sense to allow the securities to mature naturally, leaving the Nation on a glide path to zero debt post 2011.

By 2011, Federal debt will have fallen to only seven percent of GDP—its lowest level in more than 80 years. Net interest payments on this debt will be less than 0.5 percent of GDP, less than one quarter of today’s share and only three percent of the budget. This represents a great national achievement

Meanwhile, the threat of recession intervened, and the Federal Reserve ratcheted down interest rates. America went on a borrowing and speculation binge, focused on real estate and the building industry. Government, Wall Street and Main Street were all complicit, greedy investors buying up “investment property,” Wall Street packaging them as “risk-free” CMO’s, and homeowners indulging in the practice of using their homes as a piggy bank, with exotic no money down, no initial interest payment loans, the repayment of which was dependent on future appreciated real estate values. At the same time we continued to outsource our manufacturing capabilities to China and other emerging economies. Why work when Utopia could be achieved by merely borrowing?

So returning to the halcyon Blueprint for New Beginnings, another lesson to be learned from China: "Forecasting is difficult, especially about the future.” This is why the brinksmanship of raising the debt limit is such political grandstanding. Where was the outcry about the buildup of the national debt during the Bush years or holding Congress accountable for the failure of Blueprint for New Beginnings? While the stock market was climbing to new highs by 2007 and real estate prices were soaring, making homeowners and investors feel (not be) wealthy, not one peep about the national debt. We were borrowing against the future.

Depending on how one defines accountability to an administration (which takes control in late January every four years, but really does not have much impact until at least the end of the following Sept. 30 fiscal year), one could argue that Bush administrations were responsible for about a $6 trillion increase in National Debt (9/30/2001 - 9/30/2009) and the Obama administration for about $2.5 trillion thus far. (See this link for historical figures.)

Of course, debt growth has been more dramatic over the last few years (including the final year of the Bush administration) as Keynesian spending of “saving the world” from a depression soared. In spite of that spending, economic growth has been slow, unemployment persistently high, and real estate and associated industries remain in the doldrums.

These are the serious issues, as well as the national debt, which must be addressed. While I am the first to argue for fiscal responsibility, a balanced budget cannot be achieved overnight and cannot be achieved without some revenue increases via taxes. The best argument against pinning hopes that spending cuts, alone, will achieve a balanced budget is simply to reread Blueprint for New Beginnings. Allowing the US to default on its debt is a hopelessly reckless option.

PS: An interesting follow up to the above published by Bloomberg news two days later.