Sunday, May 25, 2014

Innovation is Secondary

Ever notice how little time politicians spend debating the core issues that concern the politically literate? And how easily our media chases after, or creates, secondary issues? It was painful enough to watch the tepid and interminable process known as the presidential election campaigns. And now with mid-terms approaching, we are reminded just how shallow American elections, and the media that feeds off them, have become. What really is killing us is the abject inability or unwillingness to understand and confront our rigged and dysfunctional system. Our overclass has no intention of letting public discourse ever become constructive and insightful. Our corporate media is only too happy to fixate on the trivial, or otherwise shine its investigative spotlight on important but secondary issues, including education, the federal debt, and other seemingly constructive topics such as innovation.

As America continues to struggle, many continue to tout the value of innovation-- in technology and commerce, mostly-- but also in education and government. President Obama himself has often stressed the importance of innovation; how we once had it in abundance, how it now is eroding, and what we must do to get it back. The value of innovation would seem to be something that progressives and conservatives could mostly agree on, and that helps explain why the President talks about it. It seems, on its face, to be non-partisan.

However, when President Obama talks about the importance of innovation, he has often, inadvertently or not, folded it in with other conservative talking points. We need to "work harder," "stay in school," --or go back to school-- and get that degree or those credentials. It's a competitive world out there; if you can't get the job you want, it's because you are not properly trained and credentialed. And, of course, you cannot blame corporate America if you don't have the proper skills. We must not let down them down; work harder and prove your value to the job creators. This is the central tenant of individualism. 

It's all quite clever, really, for the constant adulation of individualism tends to shut down debate and analysis of US political economy. It is all up to you. The rich earned all they have, and if you don't like your lot in life, it is your fault and only you can change it. This mantra allows the overclass to largely avoid honest media examination or a concerted pushback from a mostly insouciant population that is chockablock with low-information voters, has a short attention span, allows itself to be constantly distracted by inanity, and takes solace in religion. Corporate media operates within this milieu, invariably giving voice to conservative operatives who lecture and berate as class warfare any attempt to lay bare our breath-taking inequality. The ideology of individualism allows our overclass to pin society's ills on our growing underclass.

Obviously, there is much to be said for staying is school, seeking additional training, or more broadly, the role of innovation. American commerce still provides sundry example of where hard work and innovation can take you; they are the twin edges we must sharpen if we are to meet future challenges.

However, every speech devoted to either of these takes the focus away from the underlying causes of US difficulty; jobs, to be sure, but also wage levels for the jobs we still have. Most people are in fact employed, and most jobs have not been outsourced or lost to foreign competition. What is not being acknowledged is that a disproportionate number of the jobs Americans now have face little foreign competition. That's the good part; the bad part is modest wages, benefits, and skill requirements for so many of these jobs. You don't need a degree to work fast food, retailing, and the like. And what about that other more technical job you went to back to school for, got a degree in, and now are heavily in debt for? Sorry, that job has been filled.

The problem of our sluggish economic growth is not a lack of innovation. We have bought into an economic doctrine that sanctifies free trade, financial deregulation, including unfettered flow of capital, and an obsession with credit and debt. It is a system designed by and for banks and the investor class, with little regard for main street or the middle class. The result is an indifference to massive trade deficits, dangerously leveraged banks, and an increasingly ability of the wealthy to avoid taxation and accountability. Employees are seen as a mere input in this profit model. Low wages are good since they improve the bottom line. If workers are recalcitrant and actually want a living wage, management should be free to outsource production to low wage countries. To hear some tell it, management is virtually obligated to fire its American workers and seek cheap unregulated workers abroad for improving the bottom line is management's only real responsibility. It's what the investors want, you know.

And the people who work for the company? That's labor, an input. Lower input costs mean higher profits. Why pay more? Any manager who does not seek to maximize profits is doing a disservice to investors, just like they were all taught in American business schools. It's all very rational and efficient, don't you see? 

Innovation does not directly address any of this. We have innovated like crazy and what are the results? Entire industries have been shipped overseas. Because we have allowed our industrial base and concomitant skills to erode, seeking out overseas producers has become the default position. A generation has grown up assuming that American reliance on foreign manufacturers is the natural order of things.

Nor do the calls for greater innovation say who will benefit from the results. Asia is a huge beneficiary of US economic policy. For generations our tax dollars have poured into basic R&D, much of it going to public universities. It has been a great success story, and it has played a key role in America's development. As with the recent rounds of stimulus spending, many of those tax dollars end up in Asia. Working harder, as both Republicans and Obama have exhorted, does nothing to change the imbalances. US corporations already have what they always want; cheap labor, huge profits, and a compliant, cheer-leader government. The investor class took a hit in 2008, but they have recovered nicely, and have fat dividends and lightly-taxed capital gains to show for it. 

So the middle class needs to work harder? Because corporate America's profits are not high enough? Because the job creators need help? Americans are already working harder than elsewhere in the OECD; we also have, in recent decades, relatively little to show for it. Wages have been suppressed, union membership has plummeted, and pensions and benefits have become even more rarefied, not because of foreign competition, or globalization, but by design. It is the direct result of illegitimate policies made in response to legitimate economic challenges. 

Innovation will help; it always has. But the role of innovation has been undermined for the same reason our middle class and techno-industrial base have. A little history shows that nations that support each of these have thrived. Those that let their financial sector dominate have crumbled. America will not be an exception.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Enrichment for the Few

Former AT&T Broadband CEO Leo Hindery recently acknowledged that executive pay in America has gotten completely out of control, and that it has caused a "structural breakdown of the meritocracy of our nation."

Hindery says it is "born out of cronyism." Well, yes, shameless cronyism is certainly a defining feature of American corporate culture, but who are the cronies and how do they get that way? Cronyism is an American way to avoid the obvious Marxian reality that corporatism in America is and always has been class-based and is intended to be an enrichment mechanism for the well-placed and the wealthy. It is all about enriching the upper class and not Americans in general.

All the same, Hindery's disgust is fully merited. In a recent interview;
Hindery observed that, even as CEO pay has skyrocketed in recent decades, it has not "trickled down" to workers, who must increasingly borrow money to finance their spending. That dynamic helped set the stage for the most recent recession and helps explain today's sluggish recovery.
That's exactly it; rich CEOs are not directly the problem, but more of a symptom. The real problem is how little of the country's growth in the last 30+ years has gone to the middle and working class and instead has gone to those at the very top, the 1/10th of 1%, a class of individuals who were already rich when inequality was merely significant instead of obscene. 

The problem is that too many of us must hunker down just to pay the basics. There is nothing left in a growing number of paychecks for families to buy groceries, pay the rent, pay or save for education, and put away some for retirement. So at the end of the week, something must go. A low-wage economy, which America now is, means increasing numbers of us have nothing left for an occasional splurge on just the products corporations want so much to sell us. Neoliberal politicians, some Democrats, mostly Republicans, have forgotten that one company's employee is another company's customer.
  
As Hindery states; "The only time the U.S. economy and any of the developed economies prosper is when there's a vibrant middle class that grows from the bottom up...We've trashed that whole principle."

To make matters much worse, the figures on inequality generally do not include assets CEOs and their investor class enablers are able to shield from taxation. And that means many billions of dollars leave the US and end up in foreign banks accounts. That does nothing for the US economy, though it is quite beneficial for places such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland. It isn't the middle class that sends these huge sums offshore. It is the very wealthy, who quite literally have more money than they know what to do with. While some of that wealth continues to be productively employed, an increasing amount is pumped into the political process--overtly creating a plutocracy--or is frittered away on ostentatious displays; the hyperwealthy's version of crass consumption.

Recent evidence of the astronomical sums the super-wealthy hide or send abroad, you know, people like Mitt Romney, demonstrates we have been seriously underestimating the amount of wealth that has left the United States. 

In a recent article in Slate, Jordan Weissmann shares the findings:
Economists Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California–Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman, of the London School of Economics, are out with a new set of findings on American wealth inequality, and their numbers are startling. Wealth, for reference, is the value of what you own—assets like housing, stocks, and bonds, minus your debts. And while it certainly comes up from time to time, it has tended to play second fiddle to income in conversations about America’s widening class divide. In part, that’s because it’s a trickier conversation subject. Wealth has always been far more concentrated than income in the United States. Plus, research suggested that the top 1 percent of households had actually lost some of its share since the 1980s. 
That might not really have been the case. 
Forget the 1 percent. The winners of this race, according to Zucman and Saez, have been the 0.1 percent. Since the 1960s, the richest one-thousandth of U.S. households, with a minimum net worth today above $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Take a moment to process that. One-thousandth of the country owns one-fifth of the wealth. By comparison, the entire top 1 percent of households takes in about 22 percent of U.S. income, counting capital gains.

This is hideous, not because a few people are hyperwealthy, but because they helped create the deeply unfair and unsustainable economy that allowed them to attain that wealth. Now they dominate society, law, commerce, media, banking, and the democratic process to ensure their interests are protected and a Dixified, socioeconomic heirarchy is ever more institutionalized.

Say good bye to democracy. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Morals or Ignorance?

It's not just a morality play.

There has been a plethora of books, papers, and articles in recent years on how personality determines politics. In particular we find an effort to understand the gap between liberals and conservatives on the myriad ways they, we, interpret social phenomena, our religious orientation, our social attitudes, and of course, our political motivations and, ultimately, how we vote. Prominent among these are Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain; Jonathan Haidt's most recent, The Righteous Mind, and material referenced in earlier posts, such as George Lackoff's, The Political Mind, Drew Westin's, The Political Brain, along with the numerous works of Robert Altemeyer.

It is true that different values are driving us, as well as different ways in which people process data, through a moral filtering process. There is also growing evidence that small physical differences in our brains may help explain our different emotional responses, whether we feel disgust, fear, or anger on the one hand, or acceptance, curiosity, or even indifference, on the other.

There remains something lacking in this narrative, however, a narrative that is promoted most enthusiastically by psychologists. And that may be the problem. In a nutshell, it gives too much credence to what are seen as additional moral foundations, and understates the role of ignorance. Indeed, there is a tendency for some, and that would include Jonathan Haidt, to lump such fine qualities as ignorance, prejudice, hate, bigotry, racism and xenophobia into a new sanitized category called morality. Doing so deemphasizes the demonstrable fact that many people are not just processing issues and data through a different set of moral filters, though that is part of it. Nor will it do to declare such reactionary attitudes as simply different but equally legitimate moral code, something that, as Haidt would have it, defines conservative values in ways that liberals seem to not understand and don't appreciate. 

Much of the other material by Mooney, et, al, is not prone to equating hate with morality, but it too may be understating the role of abject ignorance and how it helps drive behavior.

There is a component to all of this that is far more prosaic. Many of us are cocksure in our views on sundry issues and policies, yet the briefest of inquiries reveals not merely different opinions, but testable ignorance of the most elementary facts. In other words, many will arrive at their viewpoints not through or entirely through, considered analysis, different world view, moral framework, or ethical sensibilities. Instead, opinions and attitudes are far too often developed and retained through abject ignorance. People are, as the saying goes, entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

You cannot, for example, make a scientific or factual case for creationism. You hold creationist views because they accord with your religion-imbued sense of morality, to be sure, but also because you do not understand evolution, will not consider it, and often find comfort making demonstrably misinformed comments about it.

Creationism is but one example; the same goes for so much else. I've mentioned Haidt, who has developed the idea of conservatism as additional layers of morality, layers he says liberals don't have. I will revisit his theses, because there is much there, and much that is challengeable.

Of course, the issue remains why many of us have the propensity to misinterpret or show a willful refusal to consider alternative analyses. Apparently it is easier for certain squeamish academics to pretend that wildly different viewpoints are, on some level, equally valid, than it is to declare that an opinion on various issues of the day is flat-out wrong and arrived at not because proponents have a factual basis for their view, but because they don't. They may have a moral filter that data must pass, as we all do, but their assessments are destined to be flawed without a greater determination to come to grips with empirical reality, no matter how irritating some find it. Perhaps this is why psychologists can more easily engage in sometimes dry and abstract theorizing on the nexus of personality, attitudes, and political orientation. Many political scientists and other policy wonks facing real world problems have more difficulty with such aloof equanimity.


Let me be very clear on this point. If I believed the crap that teabaggers do, I would be upset too. If I thought ACORN had helped Obama steal the election, or that he was willfully undermining our country because he is morally debased, or black, or Muslim, or Benghazi!, I would be upset too. But I know the stream of examples the Right trots out, such as stories involving the IRS or Benghazi, to be non-scandals, because I am willing to read complete analyses.

There is, of course, an element of subjectivity in deciding, for example, whether Obama used the IRS to attack conservative non-profits (he didn't). But what struck so many of us as ideological determinism-and jaw-dropping stupidity- was the astounding ability of right-wing voters to ignore mountains of data and context, and draw hard, fast, self-serving conclusions. It was not the venom so much as it was the mangling of the issues, facts, and storyline. It is clear that those with the most toxic views aren't even trying to understand hot-button topics. And yet if you tell Fox-viewing devotees that Ronald Reagan raised taxes multiple times, that he dramatically increased federal spending, or that the US went from the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation on his watch, they may go apoplectic with rage. But these are not opinions, or moral values, or policy preferences: they are facts. 

To be human is to be flawed, but conservatives are especially adept at holding views that reveal their indifference to how they arrived at them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Austerity's Strange Logic

I have had a few things to say about Social Security over the years (including here, and here). My prime concerns have focused on how mischaracterized it is as a drag on the federal debt, which it isn't, and how successful it has been, despite repeated and wildly inaccurate claims to the contrary.

A recent article by Marty Wolfson has helped put some perspective on how Social Security works, and why current attempts, by Republicans mostly, but also by some Democrats, to curtail it in the name of austerity is so wrong. When speaking of the federal debt, Wolfson reminds us that: 

Two quick points should be noted here: 1) Recall the long-standing theme presented mostly by Republicans who howl that social security will run out of money by (insert scary date here), and use that questionable assertion as evidence that social security does not work, and that the solution is to either privatize it or cut benefits immediately. The implication is that cutting benefits will reduce the Social Security payout and thus increase its viability. Two) Although supporters of social security like to point out, correctly, that the program pays for itself, by law, through contributions, I now think I see why conservatives believe the system adds to the federal debt. By law, paid-in Social Security contributions don't sit in a shoe box, nor are they invested in stocks, like Wall Street would like. The US government takes the $ billions in cash it receives each year and puts it in Treasury securities. As Wolfson puts it:

The $17 trillion (federal debt) figure is a measure of “gross debt,” which means that it includes debt owed by the U.S. Treasury to more than 230 other U.S. government agencies and trust funds. On the consolidated financial statements of the federal government, this intragovernmental debt is, in effect, canceled out. Basically, this is money the government owes itself. What is left is termed “debt held by the public.” It is this measure of debt that is relevant to a possible increase in interest rates due to competition for funding between the private and public sectors. It is also the category of government debt used by the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts. (Of course, the full economic significance of any debt measure needs to be considered in context, in relationship to the income available to service the debt.) The total debt held by the public is $12 trillion. 
The Social Security Trust Fund comprises $2.7 trillion of the total $5 trillion of various US Treasury debt instruments held in those myriad intragovernmental accounts. Not bad for a governmental agency that is supposedly going broke.
Social Security accumulated all these Treasury securities because of the way that its finances are organized. Social Security benefits to retirees (and to the disabled) are paid for by a payroll tax of 12.4 % on workers’ wages (with 6.2% paid by the worker and 6.2% paid by the employer), up to a limit, currently $113,700. If, in any year, Social Security revenue is greater than what is needed to pay current retiree benefits, the surplus must, by law, be invested in Treasury securities (most of which are “special obligation bonds” issued only to the Social Security Trust Fund).
So why are the calls for austerity so ill-advised?  And why is it so obvious to those of us who bother to research the issues (and have a coherent analytic framework, but I digress) see that "fixing" Social Security is not the true objective? The fact that the program is running up large surpluses which then must be parked in Treasury securities sounds good in a way; surpluses sound better than deficits, which would surely drive fiscal hawks crazy. I'm guessing that some congressional supporters in years past helped to ensure a surplus condition so that conservative critics would have less to bitch about. No such luck, for now the critics bemoan the large surplus the Social Security Trust Fund now maintains, though they invariably just call it debt, and then they still insist that the money will run out in, what?, 28 years? 75 years? As if suddenly there were no adjusting allowed, as we have successfully done in the past.

Here is the simple reality. The Social Security Trust Fund was not envisioned to have such large surpluses as it currently has. The fact that there is a meaningful surplus is a signal that contributions are unnecessarily high, or that the payout in benefits is needlessly low, or some combination of the two.

As Wolfson writes: 
Therefore the $2.7 trillion of Treasury securities held by the Trust Fund came about not because entitlements are out of control and the government has been forced to borrow to meet retiree benefits, but rather because future retirees have paid more taxes than necessary to meet benefit obligations. Workers have essentially been prepaying into the Trust Fund in order to provide for their future benefits.
The most pointedly ignorant response, the one that Congressional Republicans keep making, is to suggest that we cut benefits. Doing so will only serve to drive the imbalance further by decreasing the outflow of benefits and further increasing the need to issue or maintain Treasury securities for the inflow of money earmarked for future claims. It is precisely the opposite of what austerity proponents claim. A far more useful solution would be to increase benefits, and pump more money into the economy and at the same time reduce the need to buy ever more Treasury securities. 

A careful reading of Republican proposals and positions makes it clear that actually fixing most government institutions, programs, or issues, is no longer that party's objective, certainly not with this tea bagging crowd. The most jaw-droppingly obvious solutions, which have worked well in the past, are studiously avoided, and kept from the public, the media, and legislative consideration. And that is because the objective, not of all conservatives, but of true Tea Party devotees, is to emasculate the federal government. Those who actually read American history know this has always been the case.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Democracy's Ills

How does that quote go again: "These are the times that try men's souls"? There is a frustrating duopoly at play; in our elections, in civil discourse, in our constitution, and certainly in our strained sense of democracy. We have come to learn, again, that our constitution is flawed and limiting. We, or most of us, say we support democracy, but we can't avoid the question as to why democracy and free elections have led us to the abyss. We speak of equality, think of ourselves, naively, as a classless society, and insist on such time-tested homilies as equal representation, or no taxation without representation (yeah, that's a good one). We have created or inherited a political system that we once urged, or sometimes forced, upon the world but which is now badly failing us.

On the one hand we continue to espouse boilerplate straight from civics class: freedom of expression, free markets makes for free people, a free press is the bedrock of a free society, all this freedom wrapped in a proud belief that minimum government yields maximum democracy --but it's all painfully juxtaposed against the urgently felt need to take back the public arena from the oligarchs, the corrupt, and religious fanatics. We, most of us, value freedom of speech; some of us still venerate the oh-so-learned Supreme Court for protecting our rights, but how many of us really believe Citizens United was a good decision? Or that denying the hyper-wealthy--or corporations--the right to buy elections, politicians, and the media is an affront to their free speech? 


On the other hand, do we know, or care to know, how much voter ignorance and apathy have contributed to our condition? I didn't vote for the jackasses that say we need to cut social security and food stamps from the poor because that's a good way to balance the budget. But millions did.


We may lament that people vote for selfish or irrational reasons, but we must remind ourselves that in the formative years of our republic, universal suffrage was seen as a horrible idea by the aristocracy and most of the founding fathers. The argument always given was that commoners, the illiterate, women, the melanin-enriched, the unpropertied, all of them would make poor voting choices. Specifically, they would vote themselves goods and services that were economically unsustainable, and would destabilize government. They usually left unstated their fear that the power and privileges of the upper class would be threatened by true democracy. 


So it might seem ironic that the most powerful and privileged in society, and among the best educated, are now the ones pushing and protecting policies, practices and legislation that are selfish, reckless, and demonstrably unsustainable. The middle class largely supports the same stabilizing policies of the past, including responsible taxation, support for the self-funding and efficient social security system, regulations that return us to the decades of stable banking we once enjoyed, and more.


And yet just enough people vote for politicians who have made it clear they don't want Americans to have better health care, have no intention of reining in Wall Street, will forever feed the military-industrial gravy train, and consistently vote for the interests of the wealthy and against the poor and working class. 


The real tragedy of American democracy is not just that so many politicians, mostly Republicans, actively support a Dixified nation with a small ruling class at the bidding of corporations. It is that many others, mostly Democrats, claim to support working class folks, but end up going along with the money train; it is they who will settle for scraps and claim progress; it is they who will support legislation so weak, toothless, and watered down as to be useless. They, not all, but too many of them, want you to believe they are fighting for middle America. 


What is depressing about this is though there are many politicians who want to and try to do the right thing, there always seems to be enough politicians, either outright reactionaries or compromised "moderates" who either bitterly oppose anyone who tries to do anything that most Americans actually support, or quietly insist-mostly at election time--that they are for you, but cannot or will not actually promote legislation that is, in fact, popular. Who do they think votes them into office? Why don't they get behind legislation that their base supports? You would think that far-right Republicans would abandon bills that even their Republican base is cool to, just as Democrats should be more enthusiastic about, say, a minimum wage increase. How politically popular does something have to be before Democrats will come out of hiding and publicly support it? It's as if they would rather dodge the attacks from Republicans and right-wing media, and chase Wall Street dollars, than respond to the voters who actually put them into office. It is little wonder that so many of America's poor and working class are disaffected and don't bother to vote. 


But hey, congrats to Harry Reid on filibuster reform; you too Diane Feinstein. It took you a while, but you finally decided that after years of record obstructionism that you should step in and actually do something about it. Too bad it took you five years to notice what Republicans were doing to the economy, the political process, and your party's president.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wall Street Should Reconsider Its Allies

By now it should be clear that Wall Street money was behind the rise of the Tea Party, a loose ragtag collection that felt empowered enough to attend rallies and hold misspelled signs as they vented and raged. Call them Wall Street's shock troops. It was a deft move; convince the middle class, at least enough of it- the white, disaffected, conservative, Republican-voting, mostly Southern portion, to howl against President Obama and how his radical Marxism was going to destroy the economy. But by all means ignore what Wall Street banks had been doing to the economy and how relentlessly wealth trickled upwards--out of the middle class communities, including those in reliably Republican Red states, and into the hands of banks and the investor class. That the investor class has been able to shield huge amounts of money from taxation, often sending it abroad where it did no good for the middle class communities that once held it, and how this is the primary driver of government debt; its all several dots that teabaggers refuse to connect.

Wall Street appears to be reassessing its strategy. It was never the investor class's intention that a right-wing, pseudo-populist Tea Party would actually win more than a token few seats in Congress. The intention was to deflect government from doing anything to rein in Wall Street's gravy train and to make sure rank and file Republican voters didn't start caring that Wall Street is corrupt and reckless. A couple more dots not connected.

Instead, we are now witnessing, once again, what happens when right-wing extremists, the perpetually-aggrieved sons of the South, actively undermine that which they cannot control. The South with its deeply undemocratic instincts on full display, has proven to us once again that this country has never truly been a united states.

Wall Street may have seriously misjudged Southern animosity towards government, the one that feeds and protects the investor class, but it also misjudged Barack Obama. The instinctive reaction to Democratic presidents, one that is seriously at odds with reality, and one that even the moneyed class makes, is that they are bad for business: They raise taxes and impose regulations. And everyone knows that doing that slows growth and kills jobs. "You can't tax your way to prosperity." "Government just gets in the way." The bromides are endless.

Sorting out whether such boiler-plate corporate talking points are actually true will have to wait for another post (Actually, the data is compelling: Wall Street is a blight on the US and Democrats have a better record on growth, job creation, and the budget). The point here is that corporate America, and especially Wall Street, have much for which to be thankful. In a more just and equitable world, one that believes that equal application of the law is not a mere slogan, many bankers and traders would be doing hard time and not printing their own "get-out-of-for-free" cards.

But prison terms and inadequate legal representation are for the poor and working class. White shoe lawyers, fines, and no admission of guilt are the quite acceptable cost of doing business for the wealthy. This is an arrangement that Obama need not have tolerated, but he did. And the re-imposition of regulations proven to be highly effective in the past, the ones that brought us decades of banking stability? Obama didn't go there either, to the utter dismay of many banking experts.

I don't expect teabaggers to figure it out, but Wall Street should know that energy production in the US has increased dramatically since Obama took office. Remember how Republicans told America that Obama would cave to environmentalists and implement job-killing energy legislation, all because of that hoax called global warming? How we would have $10/gal gasoline, and how it was all part of his socialist plan? The reality is this: "US oil output hit its highest level in 20 years in July in a power shift with big geopolitical consequences." And this: "U.S. To Become World's Largest Oil Producer, Overtaking Russia."

Wall Street knows this and benefits from it. Instead, it feared that Obama would raise their taxes to a level that still would have been lower than that under Reagan, implement sensible regulations that had been in place under Reagan, and, I don't know, uphold the law.

So right wing operatives, financed by Wall Street and others, told a gullible and poorly-informed America that Barack Obama was radically anti-business and therefore anti-American. Two easy marks: Teabaggers, who are predictable prey to fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And President Obama himself, who should have done more to put an end to Wall Street's plunder. If Wall Street were more honest, and if teabaggers were more educated, they would realize Barack Obama has governed like a moderate Republican. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dude, Where's My Pension?

One of the most egregiously inaccurate memes in America today is that there is a large class of takers/losers/slackers/Democrats who rake in money, benefits, and services they did not earn so they can continue an indolent lifestyle. They take it, as the story goes, from hard-working Americans, the ones who have jobs, pay their taxes, are pro-family, and vote Republican. I can hear it now: "This country would be fine if it weren't for certain of us getting what they don't deserve."

But as has been so common as of late, redstate angst has been fueled and then redirected by those who jerk their nose ring. One wonders how unequal wealth has to get in this country before all of us, not just some of us, realize how jaw-droppingly wrong the "creators vs takers" mythology really is.

Wall Street continues to play the central role in the trickle-up of assets from the middle class to the one percent. One way not well publicized, no surprise, is how these financiers raid public pension funds.

First a prelude. You have undoubtedly heard how burdensome state and local pension funds have become and how the gap between funded and unfunded obligations continues to grow. It is this growing gap that has conservatives howling about how public employees, goaded on by their reckless unions, are destroying state finances. Underneath it all is the conviction that the teachers and other workers have padded themselves enormous nest eggs they not only don't deserve, but have to be paid by the rest of us. Teachers living high on the hog? Who knew?
  
That brings us to Matt Taibbi, a journalist among the best at getting at the facts and telling a great story, especially the kind oligarchs would prefer you didn't hear. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Taibbi relates how pension funds are being looted by Wall Street. There is a lot in it, including some background on Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo and her Wall Street-financed role in gutting her state's public pensions and how Rhode Island became a model now being inflicted on the rest of us.

I urge you to read it all, but I'll highlight several points here. Whiz-kid Raimondo helped push through state legislation a cynic would call "pension reform", but financiers call gravy. The new legislation has enabled Raimondo to turn over millions of dollars of pension assets to hedge funds, who have the unmatched ability to generate huge fees, regardless of performance. Worse, the hedgies are run by ideologues who sit on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes privatizing public pensions. Nice way to get paid.

One implication, as Taibbi notes, is that Rhode Island's public workers are losing control of their assets, where they are invested, and how hefty the fees might be.
The state's workers, in other words, were being forced to subsidize their own political disenfranchisement, coughing up at least $200 million to members of a group that had supported anti-labor laws. Later, when Edward Siedle, a former SEC lawyer, asked Raimondo in a column for Forbes.com how much the state was paying in fees to these hedge funds, she first claimed she didn't know. Raimondo later told the Providence Journal she was contractually obliged to defer to hedge funds on the release of "proprietary" information, which immediately prompted a letter in protest from a series of freaked-out interest groups. Under pressure, the state later released some fee information, but the information was originally kept hidden, even from the workers themselves. "When I asked, I was basically hammered," says Marcia Reback, a former sixth-grade schoolteacher and retired Providence Teachers Union president who serves as the lone union rep on Rhode Island's nine-member State Investment Commission. "I couldn't get any information about the actual costs."
 Taibbi goes on to say:
Today, the same Wall Street crowd that caused the crash is not merely rolling in money again but aggressively counterattacking on the public-relations front. The battle increasingly centers around public funds like state and municipal pensions. This war isn't just about money. Crucially, in ways invisible to most Americans, it's also about blame. In state after state, politicians are following the Rhode Island playbook, using scare tactics and lavishly funded PR campaigns to cast teachers, firefighters and cops - not bankers - as the budget-devouring bogeymen responsible for the mounting fiscal problems of America's states and cities.
Taibbi tells us that the looting began as early as 1974, with the passage of ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Not a bad law, as it was intended to protect retirement accounts in sundry ways. Unfortunately, congress saw to that a huge loophole exempted public pensions. And that is when the fun began. The loophole in ERISA is what has allowed politicians of all stripes to raid --they would say "borrow"-- public pensions to redirect funds to more immediate needs, some worthy, some less so. But this is the reason there are unfunded pension liabilities; it's easier to borrow than it is to pay back.

It is not unlike social security, which has grown an enormous surplus-- the opposite of what conservatives tell you--only to see it "borrowed." Paying back the unfunded pension plans, just as putting the money back into the Social Security Trust Fund, is indeed painful, but it is not because the funding requirements have been onerous. Wall Street and mostly Republican politicians want you to think they are, so you will acquiesce to the ongoing destruction of middle class pensions.  

This shit gets so depressing. What galls me is not just that Wall Street and the politicians it has bought continue to reshape the country to suit moneyed interests, it's that so many of us don't see it, or believe crap that tries to pin it all on unions, spending, deficits, or those "job-killing" regulations. People at the top, where the money and power are, have convinced people in the middle, where the votes are, that undeserving people at the bottom, where the misery is, are the problem.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Trade Gets No Respect

I posted earlier this summer about international trade and why the US media has little to say about it. I contended that the investor class does not want to talk much about international trade because an informed electorate would threaten the continuance of free trade's role in an inherently unequal economic system on which the privileged and powerful depend.

For some, mostly wealthy, mostly Republican, and mostly on the Right,  there is not much to discuss regarding free trade; for them it is the default position that rarely needs defending, except to marginalize and shame heretics who might be tempted to explore the vast chasm between the orthodox gospel theory of free trade and the brutal empiricism of what the rest of us call the real world. They are rather oblivious to distinctions between global trade, which has many benefits, and unfettered free trade, which doesn't.

There is, of course, the cynical proponent, the paid operative, side by side with the ideologically-committed true believer. The former are less interested in the vagaries of free trade as an economic doctrine, but are determined to crack the whip of orthodoxy because they are, like the true believers, pleased to see global trade increase, but also because ever-increasing global trade contributes to what they view as the proper hierarchy of power, the one that puts corporations, the powerful men who run them, and that ever-astute risk-taking investor on top, and workers and other less morally-deserving hoi polloi on the bottom. Their incessant message is that robust and unfettered trade represents efficiency, choice, and competition, all of which we are told to crave and admire. You can't compete? Don't be weak, it's your fault anyway, so suck it up.

Having said this, it is also true that many on the Left do not have much to say about international trade, as it is currently playing out, despite bountiful data and a well-developed but under-utilized theoretical framework that vividly describes reality: unfettered, global trade impoverishes the working class and enriches (most) corporations and the managerial and investor classes.

Of course, there has been some protest against globalization. There is currently a push-back, one that may be growing, against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just as there was against NAFTA. Nevertheless, the TPP remains a second-tier concern for the Left.

The Left finds itself once again ideologically divided, its modest resources spread thin. Protesting the ravages of aggressive trade means the Left, to some extent, aligns itself with Corporate America. If you protest, say, Chinese or Korean steel dumping in the US, you not only are taking the ostensible view of the US Chamber of Commerce (e.g., imports are fine, but only at market prices), but you are uniting with the America's economic aristocracy, largely white, Republican, and reactionary.

And this is something the Left cannot abide. It is easier to view the US as economic aggressor. With that as their default position, few are willing to rally against Chinese trade aggression or systemic Korean disregard for American patents, copyrights, or intellectual property. We see occasional outbursts against China's export quality control, such as with food additives, but that is because our health as individuals is threatened. But cheap Chinese products as a growing threat to America's economic interests? Yeah, maybe, but I have a save-a-bug rally to attend, so later, dude.

What the US does in international commerce is considered an existential threat. To report critically about what China does is effortlessly labeled as fear-mongering and bigotry. The Left will do anything to avoid such charges, so any viewpoint that might equate the two countries is embraced very reluctantly. Accordingly, we rarely see any on the Left protesting the systematic circle jerk to which China subjects American companies.

The Left wants to see other nations, at least the non-white ones, as valiantly defending their economic sovereignty. American corporations are the modern exemplars of economic imperialism. The Left too often is content to view avarice as uniquely American (or western); nations whose citizens have brown or black skin are perpetually the designated victim.

To be sure, the American Left opposes oppression of civil rights abroad, be it China, Iran, or Zimbabwe. But when they care to look at the massive, chronic trade deficits the US has with Asia and elsewhere, or when they read how corrupt officials stonewall foreign companies in China, steal technology, or hack our government's computers, the protests are muted. Instead a blame-America-first mentality kicks in. Those on the Right complain about this all the time, and they have a point.

To fairly examine East Asia's neo-mercantilist complicity in America's de-industrialization requires a willingness to confront uncomfortable realities, so most on the Left move on to something less ambiguous, like minimum wage increases, or social security. Others, of course, focus on social issues, such as gay marriage or abortion rights. The dismantling of American industry remains a low priority with purveyors of identity politics.