Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Feeble Reform

Break up the big banks

By: Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times

The six largest Wall Street firms now control assets equal to 60 percent of the entire U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). The gap between the incomes and wealth of the richest and poorest Americans is now greater than in any developed nation, and many third world, third rate nations. The wealth of the United States is daily more concentrated in the hands of ever fewer Americans.

This concentration of wealth has led inevitably to a concentration of political power in the same hands, now accompanied by an arrogance of power not seen in the United States since the days of the last robber barons.

The legalized bribes funneled to federal office holders through the system of lobbying and campaign finance regulations are but one example of this breathtaking arrogance.

Now Americans are learning that widespread criminal fraud born of this arrogance - and not the workings of a free market, as has been fatuously argued by the crooks - crashed the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

So what do we do?

The obvious place to start is by attacking the concentration of wealth and the resulting concentration of political power. There is an opportunity at hand: the financial “reform” legislation pending before the Congress.

Sadly, this opportunity is being turned the same way health care “reform” was turned.

At the start of the health care debate, Mr. Obama invited the health care industry to join him. When he did, he gave up half the field. The industry then poured millions into lobbying and campaign contributions in the Congress and pushed reform back to its own goal line.

The result was legislation that will drive tens of millions more Americans into the same failed system – under threat and penalty of law – and leaves health care costs and industry profits unchecked.

Mr. Obama is repeating the same failed strategy with reform of the finance industry. He has invited his “friends” on Wall Street to join him; possibly because he is a slower learner than widely believed, or possibly because his administration is staffed top to bottom with Wall Street agents.

One indication of how close are the ties between Obama and Wall Street: Goldman Sachs has hired Gregg Craig to defend it against the recent civil indictment brought (By one vote!) by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Until January, Mr. Craig was White House counsel, the president’s personal lawyer.

But however Mr. Obama settled on his financial “reform” strategy, the one essential measure is off the table – breaking up the big banks.

The lobbyists are pouring millions into the GOP to fight any change, so that what little emerges from the Democrats, who are getting even more millions, can be passed off as a “victory” for reform.

Worse, whatever watered down new regulation survives will be enforced by the Federal Reserve, which is not just figuratively in the pocket of the banks, but is actually owned by the banks, which are in fact its shareholders!

In the end, all the underlying incentives and causes of the crash of 2008 will be preserved. Writing in the New York Times, Gretchen Morgansen explains the inadequacy of the proposed legislation.

“The central problem is that neither the Senate nor House bills would chop down big banks to a more manageable and less threatening size. The bills also don’t eliminate the prospect of future bailouts of interconnected and powerful companies.

“Too big to fail is alive and well… Indeed, several aspects of the legislative proposals sanction and codify the special status conferred on institutions that are seen as systemically important… The bills would encourage smaller companies to grow large and dangerous so that they, too, could have a seat at the bailout buffet.”

She concludes, “The leading proposals would do little to cure the epidemic unleashed on American taxpayers by the lords of finance and their bailout partners.” By “bailout partners” Morgansen means the Bush and Obama administrations, the congressional leadership and Federal Reserve.

The first and essential step to restoring the prosperity of the American people is to break up the six big banks that now control 60 percent of the wealth of America. Limits must be set on the total assets and wealth any bank controls and taxes placed on the profits they generate from financial “products” that produce only vast private gain, but nothing of use to the American people.

The freed up capital and taxes can then be re-directed into creating jobs that produce goods and services of real use for the American market – which is still an enormous asset.

When Wall Street’s control of the wealth of America is finally limited - and not before - it will be possible to confront its control of the U.S. government. Americans can then begin to undo the transformation of the most productive nation on earth into a nation of anemic consumers, to be preyed upon by profiteering, transnational corporations and all the Wall Street wanna be’s in London, Zurich, Dubai, Delhi and Hong Kong – the global club of parasites in pinstripes.

First things first: break up the “big six” banks and put an end to the “too big to fail” blackmail. If this Congress cannot find the backbone to get the job done, Americans must replace it with one that will.

April 27, 2010


By Barry Grey
Global Research

President Barack Obama went to lower Manhattan Thursday to deliver a message to Wall Street: Your profits and bonuses will not be disturbed by the regulatory overhaul making its way through Congress.

In a deferential speech pitched to top bankers in the Cooper Union audience, Obama urged what he called the “titans of industry” to call off their lobbyists and “join us” in passing his so-called reform. The subtext was that the White House and congressional Democrats had already removed most of the provisions to which the bankers objected, and were prepared to go even further in accommodating them.

The speech came less than a week after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) indicted Goldman Sachs, the most profitable Wall Street bank, for defrauding its clients in order to cash in on—and encourage—the collapse of the subprime housing market in 2007. Obama did not mention the indictment. Nor did he suggest that what he called a “failure of responsibility” on Wall Street included criminal activities.

Among those in the audience to whom Obama appealed was Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman, who attended the event to underscore his contempt and defiance of the SEC.
It was also a week in which the top five banks reported combined profits of more than $15 billion for the first three months of 2010—a huge increase over the previous year.

As the Goldman indictment makes clear, these profits are bound up with rampant fraud that helped crash the financial system--driving millions in the US and around the world into unemployment and poverty—followed by trillions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts and virtually free credit from the Federal Reserve.

Obama took pains to affirm his obeisance to capitalism. “I believe in the power of the free market,” he declared. “I believe in a strong financial sector …” To reassure Wall Street that his financial overhaul would not impose serious restrictions, he said, “We do not have to choose between markets that are unfettered by even modest protections against crisis, or markets that are stymied by onerous rules that suppress enterprise and innovation.”

There was no suggestion that a single banker or trader should be held accountable for the social catastrophe he helped create. Yet less than two months ago, addressing the US Chamber of Commerce, Obama hailed the mass firing of teachers in an impoverished school district in Rhode Island as a positive educational “reform” measure. “There’s got to be a sense of accountability,” Obama said.

With complete cynicism, Obama and congressional Democrats, with the assistance of the media, are presenting their regulatory proposals as a sweeping reform comparable to the banking measures implemented by the Roosevelt administration in the Great Depression.

In reality, the Senate measure, like the bill passed last December by the House of Representatives, proposes certain marginal changes in the way government agencies monitor financial firms, but does nothing to reverse the deregulation of banking carried out over the past three decades, which dismantled the restrictions imposed during the 1930s. It introduces no structural reforms to limit, let alone ban, the speculative practices that have become central to the accumulation of profit and personal wealth by the American ruling class.

Obama and the congressional Democrats have rejected capping executive pay or banning credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, structured investment vehicles and other exotic forms of speculation that played a major role in the financial crash and global recession.

Provisions to regulate derivatives markets, a major source of profits for the top Wall Street banks, are loaded with loopholes and exemptions. A financial consumer protection body will have no power over 98 percent of banks or any car dealerships, and will be subject to a Federal Reserve veto.

The most important innovation in the House and Senate bills is the establishment of a procedure for the government to wind down large financial firms, including insurance companies and other non-bank entities, whose failure could trigger a systemic collapse. This is being billed as an end to “too-big-to-fail” financial companies and a guarantee against future taxpayer-funded bailouts.

It is nothing of the kind. The proposal would institutionalize government rescue operations to protect the interests of bank executives, shareholders and creditors and the wealth of the financial elite as a whole, ultimately at public expense. It is designed to keep the banking system in private hands while preparing for the inevitable consequences of allowing the banks and big investors to continue “business as usual,” i.e., another financial crisis on the order of the crash of 2008.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama declared that “a vote for reform is a vote to put a stop to taxpayer-funded bailouts.” This is a lie. The administration-backed bill passed by the House would give the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with the consent of the treasury secretary and the Federal Reserve, the power to “extend credit or guarantee obligations … to prevent financial instability during times of severe economic distress.” This amounts to a blank check to use taxpayer funds for future bailouts.

Obama has continued Bush administration policies that, far from reining in Wall Street, have strengthened the power of the biggest financial firms. The share of all banking industry assets held by the top 10 banks rose to 58 percent in 2009, from 44 percent in 2000 and 24 percent in 1990.

Nothing other than a license for Wall Street to continue stealing from the American people could possibly emerge from a political system dominated by an all-powerful financial aristocracy and awash in corruption and bribery. The financial industry has to date spent $455 million to lobby Congress on the financial overhaul.

The securities and investment industry has thus far handed out $34 million for the 2010 election cycle. Goldman Sachs is the second biggest corporate donor to political campaigns, after AT&T.

Since 1989, the bank’s political action committee and employees have given $31.6 million in campaign contributions, two-thirds of the total to Democratic candidates.

The financial industry funded Obama’s presidential election campaign to the amount of $15 million. Goldman was Obama’s single biggest donor, giving nearly $1 million.

One indication of the ties between Wall Street and the White House: Gregg Craig, who until January was Obama’s White House counsel, has been hired by Goldman Sachs to defend the firm against the SEC indictment.

Barry Grey is a frequent contributor to Global Research.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Missing: An Employment Strategy

State Banks
By: Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times

The collapse of the American middle class continues.

While administration officials and members of Congress running for re-election peddle bogus unemployment statistics and claims of recovery the way Wall Street peddled worthless mortgage securities, another tidal wave of home foreclosures is rolling past the subprime borrowers and deep into the once credit worthy.

As CNBC’s Diana Olick reported, almost 8 million Americans are now behind in their mortgage payments. The real estate industry monitor, Irvine Housing blog reported that one bank alone, “Bank of America, which currently forecloses on 7,500 homes every month will see that number rise to 45,000 by December 2010.”

No wages and low wages are taking a fearful toll in the U.S.

Based on the official Department of Labor unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, there are 14.8 million unemployed. But add in those who have stopped looking for work, or are getting by on part time work, and the dimension of the catastrophe comes into view. The AFL CIO puts it at 25.5 million Americans.

A sobering analysis in The Atlantic magazine recently described how long term, widespread unemployment is resulting in “a slowly sinking generation, a remorseless assault on the identity of many men; the dissolution of families and the collapse of neighborhoods.” The author concluded, “(Americans) are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe.”

To arrest this collapse, America needs jobs. It is the most urgent national priority.

Jobs create taxpayers and tax revenue, a demand for goods and services and more jobs. Jobs reduce the costs of unemployment, welfare and health care. Jobs shrink the deficit and debt. Jobs keep families in their homes, protect children and maintain communities. Jobs create hope.

America needs jobs. Infrastructure on a massive scale – the forgotten promise of both political parties in 2008 – is the place to start. Millions can be trained now for jobs in infrastructure and the supply chain of goods and services.

Partnerships of community colleges and the private industry which will need the new hires can provide the training.

The growing legion of the unemployed who are already better educated and trained – veterans coming home to no job, recent college graduates – will find jobs in the management and professional services required to support a large scale, long term infrastructure initiative.

America needs jobs, but it does not need to wait for Washington to create them. There is an alternative.

While almost every state in the nation is in dire financial straits and slashing spending for the needs of people, North Dakota is posting $1 billion surpluses. Since 2000, the state’s GNP has grown 56%, personal income is up 43%, and wages up 34%.

How does North Dakota manage to swim against the tide? The answer is that North Dakota is the only state with its own bank. Apart from returning about a third of a billion dollars to the state’s general fund in the past ten years, it has invested in businesses, infrastructure, start-ups and education.

The bank has on its books all the assets of the state, which are leveraged to create new credit and investment. Most states have similar assets to put in play.

For example, the State of California owns about $200 billion in real estate, roughly $62 billion in investments and has more than $100 billion in projected 2010 revenues. Reasonably leveraged, that asset base could support almost $4 trillion in loans – a river of new credit and investment.

California is instructive because the City of Los Angeles is now asking the feds for a loan guarantee backed by a voter approved sales tax – not another unfunded hand out – to get going on an ambitious plan to expand an electric rail line. The Washington Post reported that this project will create 150,000 jobs.

This is the scale of job creation America needs. But Washington has no such program to help California or any other state. Again as reported in the Post, efforts to create a National Infrastructure Bank have gone nowhere since first proposed in 1994.

There are no photo-ops for check-bearing members of Congress, just that boring banking stuff.

A State Bank of California could provide the loans, loan guarantees or direct investment needed by LA. State banks all over the nation could do the same.

The implication is revolutionary. The American people can bypass Wall Street and Washington and get on with a decentralized, locally directed recovery of the nation's stolen prosperity.

Even if smaller states such as Pennsylvania or New Jersey (where this column appears) had access to only one tenth of California’s state assets, it would generate $400 billion in credit and investment in each.

Pennsylvanians can rebuild unsafe bridges, crumbling highways and dilapidated water treatment facilities, renovate parks and cherished national monuments to world class status, modernize transportation systems, transform waterfronts, blighted urban neighborhoods and abandoned small town centers, build or renovate schools and health centers - and put people to work on the scale required.

The idea is catching fire. The legislatures of half a dozen states are taking steps to create a state bank. As of today, candidates in Florida, Oregon, Illinois, California, Washington State, Vermont, and Idaho have platforms which contain this game changing proposal.

Americans need jobs. They do not need and cannot afford to wait for Washington to create them.

State banks now!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Health Care for Corporations

Insurance dodgers headed to Canada?

By: Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times

There are two ways to look at President Obama’s effort to reform health care in the U.S. One is that it is a sell out. The other is that Mr. Obama has taken a page from President Nixon’s playbook.

The sell out argument goes like this.

Prior to the legislation, health care in the U.S. was dominated by a system of private insurance characterized by out-of-control costs, driven by: a lack of primary care physicians, little or no competition among insurers in most markets, soaring prescription drug use and costs and a malpractice racket run by ambulance chasing lawyers, with the added costs of the resulting “defensive” medicine of endless tests and consultations.

The major feature of the legislation enacted by Mr. Obama and the Democrats is that it drives tens of millions more Americans into that system.

Drug manufacturers are supposed to lower some prices, but will of course raise others. The lawyers have been left unmolested and the insurers have been busy raising premiums, including among the young and healthy, to set a new floor for prices before millions more are forced to buy their policies.

It is true that insurers have been asked to insure the already ill – at higher premiums – and to please stop canceling coverage on technicalities.

But those two proposed “user friendly” measures will have to be policed and regulated. By who? Almost certainly, by federal regulators dominated by the industry, just like Wall Street and all the other “regulated” industries.

That’s the sell out argument. The other is more subtle.

The one provision in the “new, improved” U.S. health care system that will without a doubt be enforced is the requirement that all Americans have insurance – whether they want it or not – especially the largest group, the young and healthy. That is something the insurers will insist on. Corporate profit is at stake. And in the U.S. today, corporate profit trumps all.

Who will do the enforcing, and how?

Perhaps a new federal bureaucracy: the Health Insurance Compliance Division of the Department of Justice? More likely, the job will be outsourced to private contractors, set up by the insurance companies to bully consumers into accepting a new fraud – policies with “low introductory rates” and deductibles and co-pays so high, they will never be used.

I mean, there will be no incentive to offer a good product at a fair price. This is a sellers’ market. “These schmucks gotta buy one!”

But, how to ferret out the insurance dodgers?

Require proof of insurance on all job applications? That’s a no go. There are no jobs to apply for. Submit proof of insurance with tax returns? Again, with no jobs and income to report, or money with which to pay, especially among the young, lots of Americans will not be filing for a while. Submit proof of insurance with an application for a driver’s license or renewal? That may work. For most Americans, mass transit is not an option.

Or perhaps send inspectors onto college campuses and into workplaces? Random insurance checks on the highways, at baseball and football games or when boarding an aircraft?

“We got an insurance dodger here, officer. Lock him up!”

And how to make sure illegal aliens sign up and buy? There are millions, and the insurance companies will not want to leave them out.

However it is done, this enforcement is very likely to be as unpopular as the draft during the Viet Nam War. Which brings us back to Nixon.

Nixon wanted to end the Viet Nam War. His problem was the “hawks” on the right in his own party, the same crowd that wanted Eisenhower to nuke China, go to war with the Soviets in Eastern Europe and with Egypt over the Suez Canal.

Nixon needed a counter weight. He got it when he ended the exemption of college students from the draft, which mobilized the white middle class to oppose the war - the previously “Silent Majority” whom Nixon called out to support his war end-game, even as they were mobilized to hasten its end.

The man had a very sly sense of humor.

If compulsory insurance is as onerous as it is likely to be costly, “Obamacare” may mobilize the troops to end private insurance and institute a single payer system as candidate Obama promised.

It took the very able Richard Nixon his entire first term and more to get out of Viet Nam. If Mr. Obama comes back before 2012 for changes in health care that actually strike at the profits of the insurers, drug manufacturers and ambulance chasing lawyers, you will know he had a strategy to actually change and reform U.S. health care, and did not just sell out.

But either way, there will be time to decide how to deal with the insurance draft. Because it will be as unpopular as the military draft, there is no way it will be enforced until 2011 – after the Congressional elections.

Plenty of time to figure out a strategy: elect a new Congress to help Mr. Obama finally get the job done, or buy a one way ticket to Canada.

Mike Krauss is a writer and international logistics executive, and a former office of PA county and state government. Reach him at mike@mikekrausscomments.com