Matt Taibbi writes in Rolling Stone:
The bottom line is that the “unfunded liability” crisis is, if not exactly fictional, certainly exaggerated to an outrageous degree. Yes, we live in a new economy and, yes, it may be time to have a discussion about whether certain kinds of public employees should be receiving sizable benefit checks until death. But the idea that these benefit packages are causing the fiscal crises in our states is almost entirely a fabrication crafted by the very people who actually caused the problem. It’s like Voltaire’s maxim about noses having evolved to fit spectacles, so therefore we wear spectacles. In this case, we have an unfunded-pension-liability problem because we’ve been ripping retirees off for decades – but the solution being offered is to rip them off even more.
Everybody following this story should remember what went on in the immediate aftermath of the crash of 2008, when the federal government was so worried about the sanctity of private contracts that it doled out $182 billion in public money to AIG. That bailout guaranteed that firms like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank could be paid off on their bets against a subprime market they themselves helped overheat, and that AIG executives could be paid the huge bonuses they naturally deserved for having run one of the world’s largest corporations into the ground. When asked why the state was paying those bonuses, Obama economic adviser Larry Summers said, “We are a country of law. . . . The government cannot just abrogate contracts.”
Now, though, states all over the country are claiming they not only need to abrogate legally binding contracts with state workers but also should seize retirement money from widows to finance years of illegal loans, giant fees to billionaires like Dan Loeb and billions in tax breaks to the Curt Schillings of the world. It ain’t right. If someone has to tighten a belt or two, let’s start there. If we’ve still got a problem after squaring those assholes away, that’s something that can be discussed. But asking cops, firefighters and teachers to take the first hit for a crisis caused by reckless pols and thieves on Wall Street is low, even by American standards.
Read the piece here.
See Taibbi interviewed by Democracy Now! on the Great Pension Fund Rip-off here.
What are CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), anyway? Paddy Hirsch of Marketplace explains how financial institutions used them to build the house of cards that came tumbling down five years ago and plunged the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Capitalism Unmasked, a new eBook edited by Lynn Parramore, was produced in a partnership between AlterNet and Econ4 to expose the myths of unbridled capitalism and show the way to a better future. You can download the PDF here.
Gretchen Morgenson recounts Tim Geithner’s accomplishments as Treasury Secretary for Obama 1.0:
How did Treasury favor the banks? Consider its answer to the foreclosure mess. After promising to help four million borrowers, its Home Affordable Modification Program at last count had helped about one-quarter of that number.
One reason for this is that the program was flawed from the start.
First, the Treasury made the program voluntary, awarding funds to participating banks but failing to penalize those that did not. The program was all carrot, no stick.
Worse, the initial plan didn’t require the banks to write down second liens they may have held — like home equity lines — from borrowers whose original loans were modified. This let the banks put their interests ahead of both borrowers and those who held the first mortgages.
Read how HAMP was hampered here.
The Times reports free-market funnies from documents unearthed in a case now before the New York State Supreme Court:
On March 16, 2007, Morgan Stanley employees working on one of the toxic assets that helped blow up the world economy discussed what to name it. Among the team members’ suggestions: “Subprime Meltdown,” “Hitman,” “Nuclear Holocaust” and “Mike Tyson’s Punchout,” as well a simple yet direct reference to a bag of excrement.
Ha ha. Those hilarious investment bankers.
Then they gave it its real name and sold it to a Chinese bank.
Read here what they don’t teach about banking in B-school.
Austerity policies are founded on a fallacy of composition: the mistaken notion that if something is true of the part (in this case, households), it must be true of the whole (in this case, the nation’s economy). Paul Krugman, writing in the Times, explains the difference:
An economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: my spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall — and unemployment will soar….
The crisis in Greece [from 2010] was taken, wrongly, as a sign that all governments had better slash spending and deficits right away. Austerity became the order of the day, and supposed experts who should have known better cheered the process on, while the warnings of some (but not enough) economists that austerity would derail recovery were ignored. For example, the president of the European Central Bank confidently asserted that “the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect.”
Well, someone was incorrect, all right.
Read his piece here.
Advancing democratic alternatives to oligarchy:
Extreme inequality undermines democracy, the economy, public health and culture. Concentrated wealth translates into political power to further shape elections, legislative priorities and rules in favor of global corporations and the already wealthy. This in turn leads to the kind of economic distortions that caused the 2008 financial collapse. In the lead up to the collapse, the bottom 70 percent of the U.S. population responded to stagnant wages by borrowing beyond their means, while the top 1 percent engaged in reckless speculation on highly rated but essentially worthless securities in financial markets freed from essential regulation and public oversight.
Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz writes on revealed preference in our political system:
President George W. Bush claimed that we did not have enough money for health insurance for poor American children, costing a few billion dollars a year. But all of a sudden we had $150 billion to bail out AIG, the insurance company. That shows that something is wrong with our political system. It is more akin to “one dollar, one vote” than to “one person, one vote.”
Read the whole interview here.
Robert Scheer, writing in Truthdig, applauds Sheila Bair’s new book:
If you want a compelling-if-unintended reason to loathe the two-party choice, check out the new book “Bull by the Horns” by former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair. Her principled but ultimately futile effort to check the overwhelming power of the Wall Street lobby under both Republican and Democratic administrations indelibly documents the hoax that now passes for our representative democracy.
Read his take on the first presidential debate here.
Does “Too Big To Fail” also mean Too Big To Regulate?
Gretchen Morgenson talks with Neil Barofsky, former special inspector general for TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program) about his new book, Bailout:
“So much of what’s wrong with Dodd-Frank is it trusts the regulators to be completely immune to the corrupting influences of the banks,” he said in the interview. “That’s so unrealistic. Congress has to take a meat cleaver to these banks and not trust regulators to do the job with a scalpel.”
Finally, Mr. Barofsky joins the ranks of those who believe that another crisis is likely because of the failed response to this one. “Incentives are baked into the system to take advantage of it for short-term profit,” he said. “The incentives are to cheat, and cheating is profitable because there are no consequences.”
Read her piece here.
Meanwhile Gar Alperovitz finds a surprising source of support for nationalization of banks that are TBTF and TBTR:
Most liberals in Washington — President Obama included — keep hoping the banks can be more tightly controlled but otherwise left as is. That’s the theory behind the two-year-old Dodd-Frank law, which Republicans and Wall Street are still working to eviscerate.
Some economists in and around the University of Chicago, who founded the modern conservative tradition, had a surprisingly different take: When it comes to the really big fish in the economic pond, some felt, the only way to preserve competition was to nationalize the largest ones, which defied regulation.
Read his column here.