UA-43475823-1

The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – April 21, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Bluebells in Hallerbos, Belgium – April 2018 photo by shinbaninja. Bluebells bloom only for about 10 days.

Welcome to the weekend. Let’s take a detour from the continuous drip, drip, drip, of Comey, Stormy, Syria, Cohen, Russia, and North Korea. Instead, take a look at an example of GOP maliciousness that passed under the radar, like a cruise missile, but aimed at American consumers.

The NYT’s Thursday business section reported about Senate Republicans passing a piece of legislation that will eviscerate a little bit more of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (Bureau) supervision in the financial sector: (emphasis, brackets and link by Wrongo)

The Senate voted on Wednesday to overturn an Obama-era rule that restricted automobile lenders from discriminating against minorities by charging them higher fees for car loans, in the latest attempt by Republican lawmakers to roll back financial regulations.

Republican lawmakers, along with one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, seized on the Congressional Review Act to overturn guidance issued in 2013 by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The 1996 law [Congressional Review Act] gives Congress the power to nullify rules formulated by government agencies but has primarily been used to void recently enacted rules.

After the Government Accountability Office determined late last year that the consumer bureau’s 2013 guidance on auto lending was technically a rule that could be rolled back, Republicans, led by Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA), targeted it for rescission by using the Congressional Review Act. The House is expected to follow suit and also use the Congressional Review Act to void the guidance.

Republicans have been against the Bureau, which was established under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law since it was passed. Trump’s pick to lead the agency, at least on an interim basis, Mick Mulvaney, has largely frozen its rule-making and enforcement.

Democrats and consumer watchdogs criticized the Senate’s move. Rion Dennis of Americans for Financial Reform, said:

By voting to roll back the CFPB’s work, senators have emboldened banks and finance companies to engage in racial discrimination by charging millions of people of color more for a car loan than is justified….Lawmakers have also opened the door to challenging longstanding agency actions that are crucial to protecting workers, consumers, civil rights, the environment and the economy.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT) warned that rescinding the Bureau’s guidance would lead to a flood of unfair, predatory lending:

This truly repugnant resolution ignores the unacceptable, undeniable truth that consumers’ interest rates are regularly marked up based on their race or ethnicity — a disgusting practice that continues to run rampant across the country…

A 2011 report from the Center for Responsible Lending analyzed loan level data and found that African-Americans and Latinos were receiving higher numbers of interest rate markups on their car loans than white consumers. The Bureau issued guidance in 2013 urging auto lenders to curb discriminatory lending practices and used that guidance to justify lawsuits that they brought against auto finance companies.

The Department of Justice can still bring lawsuits against auto lenders for discriminatory practices, even if the guidance is nullified. But legal experts say the government could be less successful in bringing such cases without the guidance from a government agency saying the practices are viewed as improper.

Why are Republicans so mean-spirited? This is just gratuitous maliciousness towards African-Americans and other people of color. Who benefits, except a few huge GOP donors in the financial services industry?

This is another example of why TURNOUT in November is all that we have left to save the Republic.

No way to spin it, we’ve had another tough week, so it’s time for a Saturday Soother. Let’s start by brewing a yuuge cup of Sumatra Tano Batak ($21/12 oz.). The beans come from the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and are valued for their complex earth and fruit notes. That comes from using unorthodox fruit removal and drying practices called “wet-hulling.” Then the beans are roasted by PT’s Coffee in Topeka, Kansas. According to them, drinking it invokes the experience of eating cherries in a flower garden next to a patch of fresh, fragrant, just-turned earth.

Sounds like it could be the Fields of Wrong on a warm April day.

Now settle back in a comfy chair and listen to the most underappreciated jazz singer, Johnny Hartman. He’s Wrongo’s favorite of that era. Here he is singing “I’ll Remember April” from his 1955 album, “Songs from the Heart”. It was Hartman’s debut album:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Bankers Gotta Bank

The Daily Escape:

Drake Hooded Mergansers with a female Common Merganser tagging along. Housatonic River, Litchfield County CT – January 9, 2018 photo by JH Clery

You missed it. During the Christmas holiday week, the Trump Administration published a notice in the federal register announcing that it would waive the outstanding criminal sanctions against some of the world’s largest banks: Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays, UBS and Deutsche Bank.

The banks were facing sanctions stemming from a variety of wrongdoing, including the trillions’ worth of fraud in the LIBOR scandal, and Deutsche Bank’s role in laundering $10B for Russian oligarchs.

The LIBOR fraud effected every interest rate in the world.

Four of the banks receiving waivers, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays and UBS, received temporary waivers from the Obama administration late in 2016 for one year. Now, the Trump administration has offered five-year waivers to Citigroup, JPMorgan and Barclays, and three-year waivers to UBS and Deutsche Bank.

By laws that protect retirement savings, financial firms with affiliates convicted of violating securities statutes are barred from the lucrative business of managing those savings. But, a special exemption will allow these banks to keep their status as “qualified professional asset managers”.

It makes you wonder what a bank has to do to get punished, or for a bank president to go to jail, when laundering money for drug dealers and manipulating global interest rates aren’t serious enough crimes. We’ve entered a period of extreme social stratification in this country, one that is similar to India’s: The bankers and politicians are the Brahmins and the rest of us are the untouchables.

These interactions with the Trump administration and the federal government are transpiring as Deutsche remains a key creditor for Donald Trump’s businesses. From David Sirota:

Donald Trump owes the German bank at least $130 million in loans, according to the president’s most recent financial disclosure form. Sources have told the Financial Times the total amount of money Trump owes Deutsche is likely around $300 million. The president’s relationship with the bank dates back to the late 1990s, when it was the one major Wall Street bank willing to extend him credit after a series of bankruptcies. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported Trump and his companies have received at least $2.5 billion in loans from Deutsche Bank and co-lenders since 1998.

In the year leading up to the new waiver for Deutsche Bank, Trump’s financial relationship with the firm prompted allegations of a conflict of interest. The bank also faced Justice Department scrutiny by five separate government-appointed independent monitors.

Meanwhile, the NYT recently reported that federal prosecutors subpoenaed Deutsche for:

Bank records about entities associated with the family company of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Not enough for you? The just-appointed number two in the DOJ’s office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is Robert Khuzami, formerly director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division. And before that, he was Deutsche Bank’s General Counsel.

Nothing to see here. Conflicts of interest are all over this case. Trump’s waiver is a clear conflict of interest. And both his son-in-law Jared and the new US Attorney have more than incidental relationships with Deutsche.

First Obama went easy on the banksters, and now, so does Kaiser Tweeto.

Republicans are happy to see Der Trump helping the banking industry and not pursuing them. And thanks to President Clinton, they no longer suffer under the restrictions of the Glass/Steagall act.

But, what about the conflicts of interest?

Who in this rogue’s gallery is working for us?

Facebooklinkedinrss

Saturday Soother – July 8, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Marble Caves, Patagonia – photo by Clane Gessel

Any idea which investor-types are the largest buyers of US stocks? It is the corporations themselves, buying back their own stock. They are followed by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). Here is a graphic:

From Bloomberg:

The entities shoveling more money into the stock market than any other this year, as has been the case for the past few years, remain corporations. Buybacks are on pace to reach nearly $550 billion, or $150 billion more than ETFs.

None of that cash is going into new markets, new products, R & D, or innovation. The buyback is equivalent to the CEO saying: “I’ve got no idea what we should be doing to improve profits or market share”.  Arne Alsin at Forbes said this:

For most of the 20th century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the SEC, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the C-Suite tool shed. And it’s obvious why Wall Street loves them: Buying back company stock can inflate a company’s share price and boost its earnings per share — metrics that often guide lucrative executive bonuses.

Alsin suggests that buybacks are big because we’re in a period of technological disruption. New industries like cloud computing, electric cars, and streaming video are rapidly changing the world. But older companies are slow to adapt, and rather than investing in R & D (or simply holding onto cash) the corporate boards of legacy businesses are bolstering stock prices the only way they know how: buying back their stock.

Alsin offers Hewlett-Packard as an example:

In the last decade, the company has invested $47 billion in stock buybacks — which is nearly double the company’s current market capitalization. That risk is senseless. HP knows they are facing existential threats from upstart competitors, but instead of paying out dividends or letting cash accrue on the balance sheet, HP is choosing the riskiest option.

Buybacks are the result of several converging forces: pressure from activist shareholders; executive compensation programs that tie pay to per-share earnings and share prices that buybacks can boost; increased global competition; and fear of making bets on products and services that may not pay off.

This financialization of non-financial firms increasingly crowds out other types of investment, to the detriment of lower level employees, whose jobs are less secure. It can hurt long-term investors, who hold these stocks in their 401(k)s and pension plans.

Serving customers, creating innovative new products, employing workers, and taking care of the environment are not the objectives of these firms.

So think carefully about the companies you invest in, or buy from.

Enough worrying for this week! Time to unstress. Grab a cuppa Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Company’sDarkest Roast”, $11.25/lb. (It is available in decaf), settle into your favorite chair, and listen to “Ashokan Farewell” performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band, live in the Folk Alley studio at WKSU 89.7 FM. WKSU is Kent State’s college radio station:

Wrongo supports Folk Alley, and recommends that everyone should. Ungar composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982. It is written in the style of a Scottish lament. Ungar sometimes introduces it as:

A Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.

Ungar says that Ken Burns heard the song in 1984, and asked to use it in his (then) upcoming PBS series, “The Civil War”. The original version and a few other versions are heard 25 times in the show, for a surprising total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds of the 11-hour series. For the non-math majors, that is 9% of the show!

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Audit The Federal Reserve?

Well, it should be no surprise that the Federal Reserve is already audited, but Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) re-introduced an “Audit the Fed” bill in the House on Wednesday, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced companion legislation in the US Senate. This has been a pet idea of Republicans for years. The GOP’s reasoning was summed up by Rep. Massie:

Behind closed doors, the Fed crafts monetary policy that will continue to devalue our currency, slow economic growth, and make life harder for the poor and middle class…

Mr. Massie apparently does not know that the US dollar is among the strongest currencies in international markets. Otherwise, he wouldn’t say that the Fed is debasing our currency. This guy is the exact reason why Congress’ role in directing the Fed should not be enlarged. Some suggest the bill is inaccurately named, but as the WSJ says:

Fed officials meet several times a year to decide what to do with short-term interest rates and how to influence them—actions that affect the borrowing costs of households, businesses and investors across the country. The “Audit the Fed” measures would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine those decisions.

And then report their findings to various Congressional committees. The GAO already has some Fed oversight, but the bill would repeal restrictions on their oversight. The most important restriction blocks the GAO from reviewing:

Deliberations, decisions, or actions on monetary policy matters, [as well as] discussion or communication among or between members of the Board and officers and employees related to such deliberations.

The repeal of these existing restrictions would allow the GAO to view all materials and transcripts related to meetings of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the entity that sets US interest rates. It would require the GAO, at the request of Congress, to provide recommendations on monetary policy, including the FOMC’s interest-rate decisions, to Congress.

This would make meeting-by-meeting monetary policy decisions subject to Congressional review and, potentially, Congressional pressure. Judging by Mr. Massie’s level of knowledge about central banking, it would be highly likely that political pressure and rabble-rousing would be unavoidable.

The Fed’s financial statements are already audited in the usual sense by the government’s Inspector General (IG) and by Deloitte, a world-class independent accounting firm. The resulting financial reports are available to the public online. Every security owned by the Fed, including its unique identifying CUSIP number, is also available online.

The GAO reviews the Fed’s activities at the request of Congress, and has wide latitude to review Fed operations. For example, the Dodd-Frank Act required the GAO to conduct reviews of the Fed’s emergency lending programs during the 2008 crisis, along with the Fed’s governance structure.  Since the financial crisis, the GAO has done some 70 reviews of aspects of Fed operations. That’s about 10 reviews a year since the end of the crisis.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who joined with Sen. Paul to introduce the “Audit the Fed” legislation in the Senate, speaks for many of the Right Wing political class when he says, “the Fed is a group of unaccountable, unelected philosopher kings making decisions that affect every American”.

The bill’s proponents argue that “transparency” is lacking, and this will be cured with more Congressional oversight. Or, by more finger-pointing by certain gerrymandered GOP lifers talking about how the FOMC decisions are based on incorrect assumptions and broken models. There will probably be about as much value-added oversight as the various Benghazi committees exercised over the State Department.

In 2017 we’re having the same debates about the role of the Federal Reserve Bank that America had in the early 1900s prior to the Federal Reserve Act’s passage in 1913. We still hear voices calling for either more or less restrictive monetary policy, for more or less regulation, and even for the Fed to be abolished.

These are the same issues that Sen. Nelson Aldrich, banker Paul Warburg and their colleagues debated a hundred years ago. Back then, the debate was highly politicized, since there was widespread populist mistrust of Wall Street and of the concept of a centralized federal banking authority. Sound familiar?

So, time to let the GOP politicize the Fed. Time to let the Congress get its hands on monetary policy, even though they have proven to have zero ability to handle fiscal policy. Consider Congress’s failure to pass budgets, and their willingness to let the US government default on its debt.

Shouldn’t we keep the Fed’s deliberations free from grandstanding politicians playing to a conspiracy hungry constituency?

Isn’t this supposed to be the Congress that believed in less government?

Facebooklinkedinrss

Wrongo’s Useless 2017 Predictions

It’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.”Yogi Berra

Since you have already plunged a stake into the heart of 2016, it is time for some predictions about 2017, which most likely, won’t happen. We can expect the following:

  1. There will be more global political and social turmoil:
    1. The EU could collapse. France is a Marine LePen government away from pursuing an exit from the EU, so there would be a Frexit to go along with Brexit.
    2. China’s economy is wobbling, and China’s president Xi has leaned into a populist message:

On this New Year, I am most concerned about the difficulties of the masses: how they eat, how they live, whether they can have a good New Year…

  1. The US will continue to lose influence globally despite “Mr. Unpredictable” becoming our Orange Overlord: Trump brags about winning when he negotiates. That has been undeniably true in his real estate and name brand licensing. He will find that when the other side doesn’t need access to his brand in order to succeed, he will have to resort to instilling fear. That may work once, but it will not work consistently.
  2. A corollary: Trump arrives in the Oval Office as an overconfident leader, the man with no plan but with a short attention span, and within six months, he will have his first major policy failure. Getting his hand burned will make him more subdued, more conservative and less populist thereafter.
  3. A second corollary: The triumvirate of Russia/Turkey/Iran will elbow the US firmly out of the Fertile Crescent, and secure friendly regimes in Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. This will push American influence in the Middle East back to just the Gulf States, a weakened Saudi Arabia, and an increasingly isolated Israel.
  4. Domestically, drug abuse, suicide, and general self-destructive behavior will continue to climb and become impossible to ignore.
  5. The Trump stock market rally has already turned into the Santa Selloff. The Dow peaked on December 20 at 19,975, 25 points away from party-hat time. But since then, Dow 20,000 slipped through our fingers like sand. It closed the year at 19,719, down 281 points from 20k.
  6. Regarding the stock market, many people who want to sell stocks waited until 2017 in order to pay lower capital gains tax. Selling in January could lower prices further.
  7. The growing antibiotic resistance to main stream drugs will impact health in the US.

Meta Prediction: It is certain that few Trump voters will get the results they voted for. Some people who voted for Trump have incompatible outcomes in mind, so it’s a virtual guarantee that a sizable minority are going to feel cheated when they fail to get what they were promised.

OTOH, when Trump fails, most of his base will blame anyone but the Donald. The question is, when disillusionment sets in, will the reaction be a turning away, or a doubling down on the anger?

Wrongo thinks anger will win out.

The coming Trump administration will seem like a fractious family outing: Just under half of the family (the “landslide” segment) wanted to go out, but now, the whole family has to go. Those who wanted to stay home will sulk in the back seat while Daddy tells them to stop bitching.

Meanwhile, once we are out of the driveway, it dawns on everyone that Daddy hasn’t decided yet where to go. Everyone pipes up with suggestions, but Daddy again tells everyone to shut up, because it’s his decision alone. There will be the usual “are we there yet?” complaining, some motion sickness and incessant fighting over who is touching whom.

Daddy won’t reveal the destination, but insists everyone will love it once they get there, even those who wanted to stay home, those who wanted to go the beach, and those who wanted to head over the cliff like Thelma and Louise.

Time for our Monday Wake Up Call, “Wake Up Everybody”, originally by Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass. Teddy left the group for his solo career after this album.

But, today we will hear and watch John Legend’s cover of the tune, backed by the Roots Band along with Melanie Fiona, and Common. The song is as strong as it was 42 years ago when it was released:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Facebooklinkedinrss

GOP Plans To Gut Dodd-Frank

Do you trust the banks and brokerage houses to govern themselves? Do you think that reducing banking regulations will help the economy, or your personal financial situation? Before you answer:

  • Remember that the economic meltdown of 2008 was caused by overreach by the financial industry.
  • Remember that it took the next eight years to climb out of the Great Recession and return to pre-2008 employment levels.

Dave Dayen in the Fiscal Times points out that there will be a vote this week in the Congress that will say a lot about how willing the Democrats in Congress will be to fight the deregulation avalanche that’s about to come crashing down on We the People. From Dayen: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

As early as Wednesday, the House will take up H.R. 6392, the Systemic Risk Designation Improvement Act. This bill would lift mandatory Dodd-Frank regulatory supervision for all banks with more than $50 billion in assets, meaning those financial giants would no longer be subject to blanket requirements regarding capital and leverage, public disclosures and the production of “living wills” to map out how to unwind [the bank] during a crisis.

The intent of the new regulation authored by Blaine Leutkemeyer (R-MO), isn’t about helping the biggest banks, but the relatively smaller regional players, firms like PNC Bank, Capital One and SunTrust. An estimated 28 institutions would be affected. The eight “global systemically important banks” would remain subject to the standards: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Bank of New York Mellon, Morgan Stanley and State Street Bank.

But the so-called regional banks are not small operations. These 28 regionals have combined assets of about $4.5 trillion. It is useful to remember that in the 2008 crisis, regional banks like Washington Mutual and Wachovia also came crashing down.

The American Banker says that the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), the new super-regulator charged with monitoring systemic risk, will be gutted by the Trump administration: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Because the FSOC is headed by the Treasury secretary…[a cabinet post selected]…by the White House, a Trump administration is unlikely to continue any of the council’s…priorities, including the designation of nonbanks or continued regulation of those firms already designated.

It is obvious that if this bill passes and is signed by President Trump, financial regulation will be relaxed, not by repeal, but through atrophy. Republicans want to replace any mandatory rules for regulation with discretionary ones. That way they can claim that they’re merely improving the system by putting the decisions in the hands of the experts instead of members of Congress.

A next step will be to hire regulators dedicated to turning a blind eye to what the financial industry does. The chair of FSOC is the Treasury Secretary. Trump’s candidates for Treasury Secretary include Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s national finance chair and the most likely choice for Treasury, who sits on the board of directors of CIT, a financial services company with more than $50 billion in assets. The Treasury Secretary will ensure that the rest of the FSOC board is made up of regulators and presidential appointees who share Trump’s laissez-faire philosophy.

President Obama will veto this bill if it passes the Senate before January 20th. But the Republicans plan to roll it out this week, instead of waiting for Trump to enter the Oval Office. They want to gauge just how much backbone Democrats have after their thumping in the election. More from Dayen:

This is really a moment of truth for those Democrats. If Republicans put up a big bipartisan vote in the House for this, the Senate will be more inclined to try to pass it down the road. And it will serve as a test case for Democratic resolve more generally.

Wall Street-friendly Dems have already endorsed tailoring Dodd-Frank rules to eliminate smaller regionals from the rules. This bill is a big change, and the question is whether Democrats play ball with Trump’s deregulation agenda, or will they recognize the harm it will cause?

This is an early test for those Dems whose seats are at-risk in 2018 and 2020.

Financial deregulation has rarely been a partisan political matter. Democrats and Republicans have typically worked together to roll back rules and loosen up the Wall Street casino.

HR 6392 could represent a return to those times, or it could be the moment when Democrats join together and say “no”, forcing Republicans to support the banking industry agenda on their own.

Party line resistance by Democrats could be in their longer-term best interest.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Capitalism, It’s Not You, It’s Me

There is a meme that has gone global since the early days of the Occupy movement. Here it is as a wall graffiti from Greece that uses the same meme we first saw in NYC in 2011:

Capitalism Lotek

Just kidding capitalism, it really is you.

The artist is a Greek who styles himself as Lotek. The name Lotek is derived from the short story (and later, a film) by William Gibson called Johnny Mnemonic. The story is set in 2021, in a world ruled by corporations. An anti-authoritarian gang that are called Lo-Teks, fight the power. They are in fact not low tech at all, but are high tech hackers. Sound familiar?

Greece is surely a place at war with neoliberalism and free market capitalism. So is it also time for us to reconsider capitalism?

Consider this from Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

An inherent tension exists between capitalism and democratic politics since capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through voting.

The compromises both systems have struck with each other over recent history shapes our contemporary political and economic world. Blyth observes:

  • In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems.
  • Starting in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back.

And today, capital markets and capitalists are setting the rules, and democratic governments follow them.

Some background: Cutting taxes in the 1980s caused government revenues to fall. Deficits widened, and interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the UK and the US, dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of the financial service industry since the 1940s.

The financial industry began to grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries.

This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes.

But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since WW II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. But, as govern­ments began to rely more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of today.

This transformation had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed capitalists to override the preferences of citizens:

  • Bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt.
  • Investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina
  • They can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015.
  • Citizens United dictates who runs for office in the US, and in many cases, who wins.

Now that the financial industry has become more powerful than the people, should we blindly follow capitalism’s meme as the only way forward?

Free-market rhetoric hides the dependence of corporate profits on conditions provided for, and guaranteed by, governments. For example:

  • Our financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit from the Federal Reserve.
  • Our pharmaceutical firms have resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through our patent system.

To use a sporting metaphor, it’s as if the best football team purchased not only the best coaches and facilities, but also bought the referees and the journalists as well. Those responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ in tatters.

In our country, the divide between the business oligarchs, the political class and “the people” increasingly appears unbridgeable, marked by hostility and deep distrust. When people are told for a generation that government mustn’t make decisions that interfere with free markets, it is inevitable that people will lose faith in democratic governance, and in government’s capacity to help them solve their problems.

Capitalism in its current form no longer works for the people. We have seen a reaction in the start of movements by Occupy, by Bernie, and by others in Europe.

Remember that the greatest prosperity in living memory in the US came during the brief social democratic moment, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the constraints on business were the greatest.

More democracy and more economic justice are the necessary foundations for the path to a more prosperous, and sustainable economy.

A reformed capitalism must be a part of what emerges from that fight.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Can the GOP Edge in the Primaries Carry Over?

(Note: There will not be a Sunday Cartoon post again this week. Wrongo and Ms. Right will be in Santa Barbara CA for our granddaughter’s college graduation. Blogging will resume on Tuesday, 6/14)

In 2008, the Republicans turned out a total of 20.8 million votes in 45 Primaries. In the 2016 primaries, the Republicans grew that total to 28.6 million votes.

The Democrats have 27.7 million primary votes in 2016, before the DC primary. When Clinton and Obama ran against each other in 2008, they had 37.4 million votes.

So the GOP is up 7.8 million votes or a 37.5% increase over 2008. The Democrats are down nearly 26% or, 9.7 million votes. The parties were separated by only 900,000 votes by the end of the 2016 primary season, and the GOP was on top.

The question to ask the pundits: What does the Republican increase in primary voter turnout by almost 8 million, and the Democrats’ vote shrinking by almost 10 million mean for the general election?

We could talk about the populist turn in 2016. The electorate is rebelling against the establishments of both parties. We could point to the insecurity about jobs, social security and pensions for the 98% of America who know these things are no longer certain in today’s America, and are even less certain in tomorrow’s America. These have made the Bernie promise of free education, Medicare for all, and a break-up of the banks very popular with Millennials. Trump has understood the economic fears of the white middle and lower classes, and has added fear of Muslims, fear of Mexican immigrants and a longing for a simpler world where America was unchallenged, and the 40-hour work week was nearly a right, to be the aspirational standard for tomorrow’s America.

We could talk about Hillary Clinton and the enthusiasm gap. In 2016, Hillary has garnered 15.7 million votes, and she will win the nomination. In 2008, she received 18.1 million votes, 2.4 million more than she got in 2016, and lost. This time around, she was not facing one of the best retail politicians of the last 100 years in Barack Obama, and no one thought that Bernie was real competition, until he was.

So, America is now at a point where, for the Pant Suit vs. the Pant Load, these numbers really begin to matter. Let’s remember that primary turnout doesn’t necessarily translate into a reliable indicator of the turnout in the general election.

Also, over half of the GOP turnout was for candidates other than Trump. Voter preference may change significantly for the general election.

This election will be true to previous form and will be decided in just a few states: Ohio, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania will likely decide the outcome. Obama won all but NC in his 2012 race against Mitt Romney.

Assume that Hillary will win the majority of blacks, Hispanics, other ethnic minorities and many white women. The biggest question is: What percentage of women will vote for Hillary? If Trump peels off enough, he may be able to win in a few of those states.

So, turnout will be key. As an example, Charlie Crist would be the current governor of Florida if just 50% of the African American voters who were registered Democrats, had voted in the last gubernatorial election. In just in one (populous) Florida County.

The gap in the primary voting numbers are a good indicator that the GOP primary voters were more enthusiastic than were Democratic voters in 2016. However, the Democrats were very good at “Get out the Vote” programs in 2008 and 2012. Can Donald Trump match that in 2016?

Hillary starts with better odds of winning since the Democrats have an Electoral College advantage. Romney won 206 Electoral College votes. He lost Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia each by between 150,000 and 250,000 votes. So, it’s conceivable that the enthusiasm for Trump in these states combined with less enthusiasm for Hillary could give him an Electoral College victory.

OTOH, Trump can’t change who he is. He’s not going to go toe to toe with Hillary on wonky policy details. So, he’ll continue the campaign that won him the primary in the general.

Will Pant Load fatigue set in? It hasn’t yet.

Facebooklinkedinrss

1890s Progressivism: When the Movement Worked

Last week, Wrongo read “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon and Schuster, 2013). The book covers the birth of the Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform across the US, from the 1890s to 1920.

For context about the times, does any of this sound familiar?

The gap between rich and poor has never been wider…legislative stalemate paralyzes the country…corporations resist federal regulations…spectacular mergers produce giant companies…the influence of money in politics deepens…bombs explode in crowded streets…small wars proliferate far from our shores…a dizzying array of inventions speeds the pace of daily life.

That was the political landscape in the 1890s. This was the time of the Gilded Age, a time of income and wealth inequality. From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth, while the top 10% owned roughly three-fourths of it. The bottom 40% had no wealth at all.

The Bully Pulpit” tries to do three things simultaneously: It is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and a biography of William Howard Taft; third, it introduces us to McClure’s magazine and the rise of Muckraking journalism. The muckrakers were investigative reporters who exposed corrupt politicians and business leaders at all levels. Goodwin includes mini-bios of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William A. White, all of whom were titans of investigative journalism at the time. A key finding by Goodwin is how TR encouraged the Muckrakers. He offered them access and friendship, and received information about the problems they were investigating, a synergy that enabled both to influence policy and politics for 30 years.

Consider the times: Corporations were ascendant. Politicians were reluctant to involve the federal government too heavily in the private sector. In general, they accepted the concept of laissez-faire, opposing government interference in the economy except to maintain law and order. This attitude started to change during the depression of the 1890s when small businesses, farmers, and labor movements began asking the government to intercede on their behalf.

By the start of the 20th century, the middle class was leery of the emerging corporate giants called “Trusts”. The Trusts consolidated businesses, using horizontal (controlling competitors) or vertical integration (controlling supply and distribution), and thus, created monopolies. For example, John D. Rockefeller drove other oil companies out of business and created a giant oil company, Standard Oil.

The Progressives argued the need for government regulation of business practices to ensure competition and free enterprise. Under President Benjamin Harrison, Congress regulated railroads in 1887 (the Interstate Commerce Act), and in 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prevented large firms from controlling a single industry. But, these laws were not rigorously enforced until Teddy Roosevelt, vice president under McKinley, became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901.

Roosevelt and William Howard Taft became close friends when both were part of the Harrison administration in 1888. Taft became a key member of President Roosevelt’s cabinet, and later his handpicked successor, in the election of 1908. While TR thought Taft a “genuine Progressive”, Taft was not the politician that TR was, and he was by temperament, more conservative. In 1910, TR broke bitterly with Taft on a series of issues and when in the 1912 nomination process, Roosevelt failed to block Taft’s re-nomination, he launched the Bull Moose Party. This ultimately led to them both losing in 1912 to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who also ran as a Progressive.

This wave of reforms was continued by Wilson. The legacy of the Progressive Era includes the Pure Food and Drug act, the progressive income tax, direct election of senators and the women’s vote.

All of this makes “Bully Pulpit” a very long book at 928 pages. But, it is a very worthwhile read, particularly since many of the same issues we face today were in full flower back then. And it is remarkable how similar the political and ideological arguments of the time are nearly identical to the arguments today.

The book gives us some hope that, at one time, divided government could morph into a movement that won by embracing progressive values. That happened because interest groups, including farmers, small businesses and unions joined together with local governments, journalists like the Muckrakers, and sympathetic politicians of both parties to energize a movement that was directed at solving specific problems – the consequences of the Gilded Age.

Can it happen again? Can investigative journalism return, or is it dead?

Tomorrow, we will take a look at why Progressivism died and was then reborn under another Roosevelt.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Monday Wake Up Call – March 7, 2016

Today’s wake-up call is for the Republican Party.

Beginning with Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republican Party began its deal with the Devil by starting their catering to those on the farthest Right edge of the political spectrum, inviting people who traffic in anger, hatred, religious zealotry, and fearmongering of those not like them, inside the GOP tent.

The election of Ronald Reagan helped bring these zealots some legitimacy, not because he was one of them, but because he had courted them in his first run for the White House.

We forget that in 1976, an evangelical Christian who taught Sunday school, and who endeavored to follow Christ in his daily life ran for President and won. But, despite Jimmy Carter’s strong Christian beliefs, Evangelicals went heavily for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Because they admired his Christian faith? No, his faith seemed situational. But he projected what they perceived as strength and leadership.

Evangelicals ignored one of their own in favor of a secular Republican who talked tough and affected an air of someone who could talk tough when events called for toughness. Turns out that for Evangelicals, like many groups, are primarily concerned with political power; their need for a theologically-sound candidate takes a back seat whenever it has to.

That’s the reality today, as it was back then. Trump is barely Christian, and Cruz is solidly Christian, but the politics of the Christian Right demands fealty to a political agenda that tolerates hatred, exclusion, and intolerance. Therefore, Trump and Cruz quality.

The contrast between the Democratic and Republican parties couldn’t be more sharply defined.

Since the late 1800s, when businesses were undertaking tremendous consolidation, leading to the formation of trusts, Republicans supported business, despite the fact that business was beginning to prey on people and overshadow the government.

After the brief Republican Progressive period from 1890-1917, in which Republicans were the force behind “trust-busting”, they have advanced an increasingly exclusionary and discriminatory agenda, denying a collective responsibility to care for our fellow human beings in favor of elevating corporate interests along with their view of individual liberties above all else. Government is an instrument designed to show strength, project American power, and enforce a neo-liberal, dog-eat-dog economic worldview, one that will take the social contract back to where it was in the early 1900’s.

Democrats understood that government needs to be more than a police and fire department. One of the most important roles assumed by government was ensuring that we create a level playing field for all citizens, that corporations were not first among equals in America. They also believed that we must look after those who are down on their luck by providing a social safety net.

Government was not to be primarily an instrument for projecting power and protecting the influential, but rather one of ensuring the American social contract, while protecting our citizens from the abuses of big business.

After years of courting the Radical Right, thinking that they could be kept under control, Establishment Republicans now understand that, not only do they no longer have control, the inmates are now running the asylum – poorly. Faced with the reality that the bill for their deal with the Devil has come due, Republicans trotted out Mitt Romney to make the case against The Donald, who responded with crude personal insults and inappropriate sexual innuendo:

COW Trump Miracle Worker

Congratulations, Republicans, you have only yourselves to blame. Now, you desperately need a Wrongo Wake up Call. To help you wake up, let’s return to the “small hands” innuendo of the last GOP debate.

Here are the Talking Heads doing “Born Under Punches” live in Rome in 1980, from their great album, “Remain in Light”. This 8-minute live version is worth your time, since it includes spectacular guest guitar work by Adrian Belew, who played with Frank Zappa and King Crimson.

Some think the guitar that Belew is playing was originally jimmy Hendrix’s (the one he burned at the Monterey Pop festival). Frank Zappa repaired it, and loaned it to Adrian Belew, whose main influence was Hendrix.

The bassist in the white dress is Tina Weymouth who is (still) married to Chris Franz, the Talking Heads guitarist. Here are some sample lyrics:

Take a look at these hands
Take a look at these hands
The hand speaks, the hand of a government man
Well I’m a tumbler born under punches, I’m so thin

Hmmm. Is Trump a government man?

Those who view the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Facebooklinkedinrss