Monday, November 30, 2009


President Obama has decided to put more troops in Afghanistan. This decision is not a surprise. We have been hearing about this decision for weeks now. While the White House is making it clear that this is not an open-ended commitment I don't know that this is going to make things better. What's the mission? What's the exit strategy? How are we going to pay for this?

Without answering these questions, or at leat addressing them, more troops will only serve to transfer President Bush's Blundering Wars Project on to President Obama. We should be leaving Afghanistan rather than - as John McCain might put it - "muddling through." I don't like this.

- Mark

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I've been gone for a couple of days. Grading and turkey have kept me busy. So I'll start back with "This Modern World" cartoon.

Those of you who follow my blog know that I haven't written too much about the Attorney General's decision to try some of the 9/11 conspirators in New York. This cartoon captures the moment (click on the cartoon to enlarge).

Simply put - and as I have pointed out many times on my radio program - conservatives and Republicans have no other meme except for "be afraid because I am." I know, it's pathetic but they're the bedwetters ...

- Mark

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


The Obama skeptics are bound to find comfort in these two articles.

These two articles - one from Germany's Der Spiegel and the other from the NY Times - suggest that President Obama's approach to world affairs isn't winning him any friends. Indeed, the Der Spiegel piece ("Obama's Nice Guy Act Gets Him Nowhere on the World Stage") suggests that President Obama is losing stature because of the "new limits" of the United States, which President Obama is just learning about. Our financial mess here at home, and the wars in the Middle East are draining both our capacity to influence and our moral authority, according to Gabor Steingart. Fair enough.

The Times' article, "Obama in his Labyrinth," written by Roger Cohen, points to a President that is on the verge of being overwhelmed by what Fareed Zakaria might call the "rise of the rest." Simply put, other nations have taken advantage of the relatively peaceful post-war world created by the United States and its allies to develop and become more assertive on the world stage. While the results of our post-war plans should be hailed, they also are now placing greater demands on U.S. relations around the world. In a world made less stable by President Bush's Blundering Wars Project, the rise of the rest was bound to place strains on any U.S. president in the 21st century.

So how is President Obama really doing? While I haven't always agreed with Henry Kissinger he makes a poignant observation about President Obama:

He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games ... But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”

Simply put, you can't judge a grandmaster by his opening moves. I agree. Those of you who have taken my courses in international relations understand why. For those of you who haven't taken my IR classes, let me be clear: Politics on the world stage demands a grandmaster. Our previous president didn't understand the grand chessboard. President Obama is trying to dig us out of a checkers' player nightmare. If he succeeds he becomes the next Disaraeli, Bismarck, Metternich and perhaps even a Cardinal Richelieu.

If he fails, the Carter references will be loud and wide. I'll leave it at that for now.

- Mark


In this post-article, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One (and current Roosevelt Institute Braintruster), William K. Black, takes a look at the currrent state of our "finance economy" and what it has done to the long-term vitality of our nation.

I like what Black - who is a lawyer, an economist, and a former bank regulator - writes because it mirrors what I say in my book about the "financialization" of the American economy. Specifically, he makes it clear that easy money (Greenspan's cheap interest rates), favorable legislation (deregulation like Gramm-Leach), and growing debt loads (both consumer and national) have undermined our nation's economic health and our system of democracy over the past thirty years. Among the many points that Black makes include:

* Forty years ago, our real economy grew better with a financial sector that received only 2% of our nation's profits rather than the 40% it receives today.

* That the financial sector misallocates capital by encouraging financial firms to - as Joseph Schumpeter might have put it - play monopoly rather than loan the funds necessary for building monopolies.

* The financial sector produces and hyper-inflates bubbles that cause severe economic crises (think about the many bailouts over the past 30 years).

* Finance CEOs and those that they help to enrich adopt and spread the myth that they are smarter, harder working, and more innovative than the rest of us (they're not; favorable legislation makes them think they are). 

* This Social Darwinistic approach not only contributes to accounting and control fraud, but is cancerous to our nation's moral fabric. Indeed, the CEO’s of our largest financial firms are so powerful that they now pose a critical risk to the financial sector, the real economy, and our democracy

There's much more so I encourage you to read the article. If the article seems a bit long (or too technical) you might want to try this more recent one penned by Black at Huffington Post. It questions President Obama's decision to keep Tim Geithner and other Bush-era economic gurus around. Both make it clear, the banksters are winning the day because the economic Mandarins in our government are doing the bidding of the banks.

- Mark

Monday, November 23, 2009


This Modern World pretty much sums up the health care debate as it currently stands. Not much on health care, but much ado about mindless (and paranoid) politics* and Joe Lieberman's real constituents: (1) The health care lobby and (2) his bruised ego (click on cartoon to enlarge).

And Lieberman's bruised ego speaks ...

I'd say the health care lobby has gotten their money's worth, especially if the health care vote goes into 2010.

- Mark

* After suggesting that the country would become dependent on the Democratic Party for everything, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (R) squared his conspiratorial circle by referring to Democrats who support the proposed health care plan as "diabolical."

Friday, November 20, 2009


If you're wondering why Washington DC is abuzz with talk about having Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's job you need look no further than the incredibly pathetic job's picture, and the fact that Wall Street has been laughing all the way to the (taxpayer funded) bank. People are not happy that after spending (or guaranteeing) trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars on failed Wall Street institutions there's little to no good news (1) on the job's front, (2) in the area of commercial lending, or (3) tied to consumer confidence. Americans are pissed, and with reason.

So, how do you screw up a multi-trillion dollar bailout and expect a pat on the back? That's a good question. Unfortunately, Tim Geithner and Team Obama aren't prepared to answer this one.

It appears that things aren't going to get any better for President Obama. Neil M. Barofsky, special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), is going to issue a report on Tuesday. The report will say that while the New York branch of the Federal Reserve was under Tim Geithner's leadership it “refused to use its considerable leverage” to extract concessions from the failed institutions as it handed out hundreds of billions in the form of U.S. taxpayer dollars and other guarantees.

The New York Fed did several other things wrong when it was under Geithner's stewardship.

* At the beginning of the first bailout the New York Fed saw itself a creditor of failed institutions like AIG, rather than a regulator.

* It treated foreign banks as if they were domestic banks because they didn't want to incur the retaliation of their host nations (anyone who continues to think "We're #1" and the "bad ass of the world" needs to let that one sink in).

* Because the New York Fed - again, then headed by Tim Geithner - was bailing out Wall Street, and refused to consider imposing bankruptcy terms on firms like AIG, other countries wouldn't consider intervening in the affairs of their banks. Nor would they ask their banks to consider reducing the amount owed to them by U.S. insititutions because of the legal implications.

The end result? In spite of all the stupidity that Wall Street concocted we ended up using bailout money to pay the failed financial institutions and their creditors 100 cents on the dollar. More succinctly, we rewarded stupidity, greed, and failure.

Worse, as Paul Krugman points out, both President Bush and President Obama ended up bungling the rescue of an economy by throwing a lifeline only to the idiots who did their level best to sink our economic ship.

This, in turn, has soured Americans on additional bailouts that are necessary for getting money into small and local community banks, and for the infrastructure projects necessary for creating much needed jobs.  The highest ranking person who spans this incompetence is Tim Geithner (first as head of the NY Fed, and now as U.S. Treasury Secretary).

It should not come as a surprise that people are now calling for his head.

- Mark


How do we get people to do what's good for them? This is pretty cool ...

- Mark

Thursday, November 19, 2009


One of the more exciting series I've watched is the Bourne trilogy, starring Matt Damon. Painted as an out of control experiment gone bad, Jason Bourne is pursued by powerful forces trying to protect both themselves and a turf they believe others simply don't understand. The Bourne reference to Elizabeth Warren will become clearer below ...

In 2007 Elizabeth Warren, head of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, penned an article that argued for a new model of financial regulation. She wrote that financial products should be subject to the same - and by now routine - safety screens that "governs every toaster, washing machine, and child's car seat." You know, the kind of government-driven safety measures that we all take for granted, and assume are "market-driven."

As is the case with all good legislation, Warren was clear that the focus should be "primarily on consumer safety rather than corporate profitability." Specifically, Warren wrote:

No one expects every customer to become an engineer to buy a toaster that doesn’t burst into flames, or analyze complex diagrams to buy an infant car seat that doesn’t collapse on impact. By the same reasoning, no customer should be forced to read the fine print in 30-plus-page credit card contracts to determine whether the company claims it can seize property paid for with the credit card or raise the interest rate by more than 20 points if the customer gets into a dispute with the water company.

After what we've learned about the financial sector's abuses of consumers and their own markets in 2008 and 2009 one would think that developing a financial product safety commission that focuses on the economic health of consumers would be a slam dunk. Think again.

Thomas Cooley, dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business, is part of growing group of special interests - led by the Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association and the Financial Services Roundtable - who sees a wild-eyed fundamentalist in Elizabeth Warren. Cooley argues that her regulatory efforts make her little more than “an ideological crusader” who will "stir up a lot of trouble.”

Using the same tired arguments built around "free markets" and their magical powers to reign in stupidity, greed, and fraud, Cooley is effectively arguing that the same markets that helped create and fund lending activities before the 2008 market collapse only need to be tinkered with by "thoughtful people" doing "thoughtful analysis." Elizabeth Warren, according to Thomas Cooley, is not one of these people.

Accusing her of “waging a self-righteous holy war” Cooley makes the same arguments that were made about Brooksley Born, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), who warned about the dangers of an unregulated derivatives market in the mid-1990s.

Born, whose warnings were famously ignored and criticized at the time by Alan Greenspan (Federal Reserve Chair), Larry Summers (Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors), Robert Rubin (Treasury Secretary), and Arthur Levitt (SEC Chair), was labled as an out of control zealot. Because of her efforts to audit and regulate the derivative market, which helped bring down the American economy in 2008, Born was painted as an "irrascible, difficult, stubborn" woman who was "unreasonable" when it came to judging the power of markets.

The logic of the market was presumed to be so powerful at the time that Alan Greenspan even went so far as to argue that fraud could be handled by the market and should not be regulated. This is all discussed in the Frontline video, The Warning (Arthur Levitt is not pictured in this Frontline ad/promo; presumably because he later regretted going after Born, and was interviewed saying as much).

For her efforts, Greenspan, Summers, Rubin, and Levitt conspired to work against Born, eventually forcing her from her post as director of the CFTC. In many respects their efforts could have been labled The Born Conspiracy.

Cooley revives this anti-regulatory mentality, implying that Warren is devoid of "rational and clear-headed perspective." He even goes so far as to disparagingly suggest that Warren's goals are Crusade-like and little more than her war of "faith" on markets. The implication is clear. Like Jason Bourne in the trilogy - and Brooksley Born in the 1990s - regardless of the talent, skill, and motives involved in her efforts, Elizabeth Warren is viewed as an out of control force that needs to be stopped.   

That this kind of mentality exists, so close to the market collapse, is troubling. It also helps explain how, if we continue to do nothing to discipline or regulate market players, we're setting ourselves up for another market collapse.

- Mark

Monday, November 16, 2009


This clip on the Birthers is too funny ...

- Mark


Of all the "fun" things humanity has figured out the prolonged and brutal torture of each other seems to be among the most creative of our efforts. Among the many tools that we've concocted include the Iron Maiden. While there were many variants, one iron cast model, like the one shown here, was built to follow the general contours of the human body.

In this model, a hinged front door allowed torturers to put their subjects in, and helped keep them upright. Generally there was a small opening around the face so that the torturer could interrogate their victim, and hear their confessions (they usually confessed), with knives and nails fastened securely on the inside for maximum effect.

Often times slits were placed throughout the Iron Maiden so that the torturer could continue to pierce and/or kill their standing target at their discretion. Most often the slits were placed, by design, so that they would miss important organs which allowed for slower death and greater pain and suffering. These little toys of humanity worked so well that even Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, had one. But, apparently, it didn't look like this one ...

I bring all of this up because it would appear that the financial mandarins of America are not only afraid of having their emergency treasure chest of TARP money dry up, but that they have assigned the name "Maiden" to the institutions they created to help transfer money to the failed financial sector. How appropriate.

More specifically, as Willem Buiter pointed out about seven months ago, the Federal Reserve created three "Maiden Lane" corporations. If we cut through all the legalese, at the end of the day these institutions forcefully extract and transfer money from the American taxpayer to America's collapsed financial institutions. For this reason I think it would be more appropriate to call these institutions Financial Iron Maidens, or Iron Maiden Lanes.

Instead of extracting confessions - and under the authority of 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act - today's Financial Iron Maidens are forcefully extracting money from the American taxpayer ... and lots of it ($23.7 trillion to date). And like the Medieval model, modern day Financial Iron Maidens are propping up dying entities.

In real simple terms Iron Maiden Lane I made the debts of Bear Stearns good by taking Federal Reserve funds (i.e. taxpayer money) and using them to replace the toxic assets Bear Stearns had on the books. Iron Maiden Lane I then handed the cash over to JP Morgan Chase whose "innocence" in this mess, as we all know, made them prime candidates for taxpayer money.

JP Morgan Chase executives celebrated like any Grand Inquisitor who got what they wanted by giving each other bonuses and jacking up the credit card rates of America's card holders. American taxpayers, for their part, are getting the functional equivalent of this ...

Things worked out so well for JP Morgan Chase that Iron Maiden Lane II (for AIG loans) and Iron Maiden Lane III (for AIG default swaps) were created and used to make hundreds of billions in toxic and failed AIG contracts whole. If the market continues to slowly collapse we just might have to bring out the "skull splitter" ...

Good times. Whoever thought the instruments of torture could be so educational?

- Mark


It appears that lobbyists and members of Congress got caught making each other's job much easier. Statements made by House members during the health care debate were written either in part or entirely by lobbyists from Genentech, one of the world's largest biotech companies.

No surprise here.

Members of Congress have been writing favorable legislation and doing industry business for some time now (the dergulation of the financial sector is just one example). Still, it's interesting that the NY Times actually got a hold of e-mails confirming what most of us already know: Lobbyists are writing legislation, and they're also telling our members of Congress what to think.

Also in the news ... As I've been arguing for some time now, it appears that things will get worse on the job front rather than better.

Economist Nouriel Roubini, who was one of several people telling the world that the market was going to collapse in 2008, says the worst is not over. The result of our job's picture isn't good. According to Roubini:

... we can expect weak recovery of consumption and economic growth; larger budget deficits; greater delinquencies in residential and commercial real estate and greater fall in home and commercial real estate prices; greater losses for banks and financial institutions on residential and commercial real estate mortgages, and in credit cards, auto loans and student loans and thus a greater rate of failures of banks; and greater protectionist pressures.
Those of you who read this blog regularly know why I agree with this assessment. I'll be posting some graphs by the end of the month showing why things will get worse, rather than better.

Finally, on the war front (with a hat tip to Dogan). We have former Marine (who served in Iraq) and U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Mathew Hoh, discussing why we need to leave Afghanistan

Hoh - who resigned his diplomatic post recently - has been hearing from active military who see no end in sight, and who don't have any real sense what the mission is now. This is not good. Still, I'm sure, the military crazies in this country we cry foul if we don't stay, in the process propping up a corrupt and kleptocratic regime that only wants us to stay to help keep them in power.

- Mark

Friday, November 13, 2009


In my classes, and in my book, I discuss the history behind the Glass-Steagall Act (1933), and why it was so important to the post-war economic stability and growth we enjoyed throughout the end of the 20th century. MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan presents us with a humorous take on how Glass-Steagall came to an end in 1999, and what it means for us today.

If you're still unsure about the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) and/or Gramm-Leach-Bliley (1999), which effectively repealed what was left of Glass-Steagall (the financial sector had been hammering away at it for years), you can do two things: (1) click on the labels below for references on my blog, or (2) you can read all about it in my book.

- Mark

Thursday, November 12, 2009


If you want to have a better understanding of the dynamics behind the 2008 meltdown, and don't have the time to read all the great books out there, try these FRONTLINE videos.

First up, we have Inside the Meltdown, which describes the lead up to meltdown, and what was happening in Congress during those ugly September through December 2008 days.

Next, we have Breaking the Bank, the story of the forced Bank of America and Merrill Lynch merger.

Finally, we have The Warning, which introduces us to those who saw it coming ... but were ignored.

- Mark


Here's a classic case of the left hand not knowing it has a right hand ....

Left Hand: According to Neil Barofsky, the head of the the federal government's program responsible for overseeing the $700 billion financial industry bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) will “almost certainly” result in a loss to U.S. taxpayers. Why? Because the auto bailout, the steady string of failed banks, and our role in the management of failed firms will continue to lose money, and drain our national treasure.

Why is this important? Because ...

Right Hand: According to, the Obama administration’s special master for executive compensation, Kenneth Feinberg, said that he is “very concerned” that his pay cuts may drive talent away from companies bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. According to Feinberg he is walking a fine line to insure that executives (who, in my world, would be unemployed and/or in prison) are properly compensated for the bang up job they did last year.

Hey, I have an idea. Why doesn't Neil Barofsky call Kenneth Feinberg. He could tell him that he shouldn't allow anyone in the taxpayer rescued industry to make any real money until (1) the American taxpayer is paid back in full and (2) the trillion dollar guarantees created for the financial sector are removed.

If the executives don't like it they can always leave, and flood the market with all their talent. God knows that with all the insider trading still going on, there are plenty of options for the talented but morally bankrupt out there ...

- Mark

P.S.: I almost forgot. All those "smart" market players aren't really that smart. They're just greedy. Here's an excellent Bloomberg piece from Michael Lewis - of Liar's Poker fame - outlining how self-absorbed and clueless these "talented" people really are. It was written before the meltdown.


Most of you have already seen this clip. It features Jon Stewart catching Sean Hannity and FOX News manipulating the news.

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Here's Hannity's apology, which included another lie.

Look, anyone who has ever worked in the media, or with the media, knows that these developments don't just happen. Putting these kind of clips together takes effort. For Hannity to suggest that using a clip from two months earlier was "inadvertent" or an honest mistake is, quite frankly, another lie.

From Media Matters, here's a long (and, no doubt, partial) list of FOX News' "video-doctoring iceberg."

- Mark

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


While I have become a bit disappointed in President Obama's handling of Wall Street's corruption, his lackluster effort in pushing for a real Public Option, and his continued embrace of President Bush's Blundering Wars Project, this bit of news is both stunning and promising.

President Barack Obama does not plan to accept any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, pushing instead for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government.
It turns out that "forceful reservations" from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, may have had an impact on President Obama. Ambassador Ikenberry, a former military commander in the region, simply doesn't trust President Karzai. With this in mind, and because of his concerns over an open-ended commitment, President Obama appears ready to "reject all Aghanistan options" currently being prepared (all of which involve more troops and no withdrawal timelines).

If true, this is very good news. As I noted in the previous post, the reasons for leaving Afghanistan are many:

* We have no money and are breaking the bank.
* The Afghanis are not afraid of us.
* The Afghanis now see us as occupiers.
Throw in the fact that the people we're really after, al Qaeda, are in Pakistan and the reasons for staying in  Afghanistan are weak at best.

Apart from a lack of withdrawal timelines and mounting questions about the credibility of the Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai, President Obama could also be looking at these developments: Current military spending is now increasing unemployment and reducing economic growth in our nation at a faster rate than previously projected, while the Iraq war alone is projected to cost our nation $3-5 trillion.

At the end of the day - and apart from appeasing the War Crazies - it's clear that there are few reasons to up the ante in Afghanistan. We need to put some distance between the policies of a president who once thought reducing troop levels in Afghanistan was a good idea because he naively believed (as Senator John McCain famously put it) we could "muddle through" in Afghanistan.

Now if we can just get President Obama to alter his policy course and become more aggressive when it comes to Wall Street and the Public Option.

- Mark


If anyone is wondering whether the Bush Debacalypse is over we need to look no further than these three stories ...

Robert Benmosche, the CEO of government bail out champion AIG, is threatening to quit because he's not getting his way on everything he wants from the federal government. Will the government cave in to his demands? I don't know, but I suspect so.

Given the Obama administration's reluctance to take on Wall Steet's malfeasance and incompetence I have to believe that Benmosche's arrogance will somehow be rewarded. Here's an overview from of a man who (1) took a two week vacation before he started work, (2) then told everyone that he - and not Uncle Sam - was in charge, (3) handed out bonuses to incompetents in a collapsed industry, and (4) then publicly went after NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for drawing attention to the bonuses. It's not pretty.

If you're not sure whether to support the notoriously weak health care reform passed out of the House of Representatives on Saturday this link from Firedoglake won't help. But it provides more information than most media outlets have on what's really wrong with the House bill. At this point, while I don't like much of what's in the House bill, the trajectory we're on is worse. Damn.

Finally, we have the Obama administration's uncertainty over what to do with President Bush's Bungled Wars Project (Here's a hint: We're broke, they're not afraid, and they see us as occupiers. Leave).

With Congress operating as if it's business as usual on something as important as health care, corporate America's CEOs still pushing their weight around as if their industry deserves a prize for ruining the economy, and President Obama's uncertainty over a failed wars project that threatens to last longer than any war in American history (whatever happened to the "last throes" Cheney talked about?), my hunch is that things are going to get worse before they get better.

Is the Bush Debacalypse spreading into the Obama administration? It would appear so. Stay tuned.

- Mark

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


OK, I've been looking for the right moment to shift the two stories below from one section of my blog to the regular post section. With the ugly events at Fort Hood, and the Right Wing medias immediate turn to stereotypes, I think I've found it.

It turns out that the nut jobs on the Far Right are ready to go after Muslim-Americans because of the recent actions of Major Malik Nadal Hasan. What they forget is that our military personnel have been under stress, and killing themselves at record rates, for some time now. The following two posts detail the strain of conducting a never-ending war on the backs of soldiers doing 3-4 tours of duty because of "stop-loss" orders. The following (in red) were originally posted during November/December 2007 ...

No, Seriously, We're Not Overstretched ...
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of service members returning from Iraq with mental health problems is 19.1% (compared with 11.3% after returning from Afghanistan and 8.5% after returning from other locations). So, what does Mr. Compassionate Conservative “I’m the Decider” Guy do? He maintains his back door draft “stop-loss” orders which have reportedly been used more than 50,000 times to keep military personnel on extended duty (currently there are 12,500 "stop-loss" troops). The results should have been predictable.

According to the Associated Press U.S. military personnel, strained by six years at war and constant rotations, are now deserting their posts at the highest rates since 1980. Indeed, the number of Army deserters this year showed an 80 percent increase since the United States invaded Iraq. This should not come as a surprise. For many, desertion is better than the alternative: It turns out that Army suicide rates are the highest ever since suicides were tracked in war time.

Still, the Associated Press found that despite the increase in desertions the military does little to find those who bolt. Unless, of course, you’re this guy, and need help ... (follow me to the next "Support the Troops" post)

Support the Troops ... But Only if They're Healthy
According to the Military Times Kentucky soldier, SPC. Justin Faulkner, shared his concerns over his deteriorating mental condition with his superiors. He was rebuffed. So Faulkner checked himself into a Veteran's Administration hospital on his own, where doctors wanted to hold him for observation.

To bad for Faulkner. By checking himself into the VA hospital, where he could be found with minimal effort from the MP, Faulkner got himself arrested … for going AWOL.

“It’s humiliating, degrading,” Faulkner said in an interview with The Associated Press Monday afternoon, just minutes before his release from the Fayette County Detention Center. “It’s made me lose respect for the military. To come and arrest me at the VA, it wasn’t like I was trying to hide, trying to run. I was getting help. I am being punished for getting help.”

It’s no wonder that more U.S. troops disapproved of the president’s handling of the war than approved of it (35% approval) last year. While there are those who believe the insurgents are in their “last throes” (I guess a “throe” unit equals 2 ½ years), somehow I can’t see the president’s standing with the troops improving this year.

The Fort Hood Connection
One of the things that becomes clear from these posts is that mental stress from a war with unclear objectives (Democracy? Nation building? al Qaeda?) has already caused some serious problems with our military personnel. Record desertions, record suicide rates, divorce rates double the national average, and lower recruiting standards, are not an indicator of an organization that is running on all cylinders. These problems will only get worse now as we continue to be mired in a war longer than we were involved in World War II, and now are on the verge of surpassing our presence in Vietnam.

Incredibly enough, it's taken a sordid and ugly event at Fort Hood to get the nation's attention on how President Bush's Bungled Wars Project is affecting our military. Sadly, because of the Right-Wing media's penchant to promote stereotypes our attention is being directed away from the stress placed on our military personnel, and our military as an organization, and shifted to American muslims and Islam. Specifically,

* To declare that "every jihadist is a Muslim" while losing sight of what abortion clinic bombers do and doctor killers do (and Pat Robertson's fatwa) is to suggest that only Muslims advocate killing in the name of their faith.

* To declare that only Muslims conduct indiscriminate violence and mass murder in this manner loses sight of Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma (and the KKK in the early 20th century).

* To declare that all Muslims serving their country should be "debriefed" loses sight of how Japanese-Americans - many with parents in internment camps - performed as American soldiers during war.

At the end of the day, to suggest that we need to focus on all Muslims rather than seeing a disturbed and cowardly man in a difficult situation loses sight of how a bungled a seemingly never-ending war is affecting our military on many levels. Were signals missed by Hasan's superiors (and the FBI)? No doubt. But record suicides, record desertion rates, divorce, and lower recruiting standards all suggest that our military and political leadership need to reevaluate more than the events that led up to the massacre at Fort Hood.

- Mark


I've written about this in the past but it bears repeating.

The people who put together, begged for, and then pushed the toxic instruments that got us into this economic mess don't deserve to be compensated a kingly sum for their efforts. Everyone knows that if you offer someone insurance and then fail to pay because there's no money in the bank (or collateral) there would be problems. In the legal world there would be criminal proceedings. In the underworld you would get whacked.

Yet, the clowns at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase did exactly that. They created "insurance" for toxic products and then said, "We can't pay ... Oooops."

So why is it that we continue to see this?

The firms -- the three biggest banks to exit the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- will hand out $29.7 billion in bonuses, according to analysts’ estimates. That’s up 60 percent from last year and more than the previous high of $26.8 billion in 2007. The money, split among 119,000 employees, equals $250,400 each, almost five times the $50,303 median household income in the U.S. last year ...
These people would be out of work if we had let their industry collapse. We saved their bacon. Why are they getting bonuses? Oh, that's easy, according Michael Karp, co-founder of Options Group:

“Wall Street is all about creating wealth, and when banks start making money again, they have to pay their people.”
I think it would be easier if I just went and banged my head against a wall.

Seriously, in what world does drowning an economy on bad bets and then sucking off the American taxpayer to finish the payoff constitute "creating wealth." This is akin to Al Capone saying, "Hey, I kept da' streets safe for merchants to make da' money ... I gotta pay my people ... so I extort."

Both Al Capone's gangsters and today's banksters participated in wealth extraction through fraudulent means. Both deserve to be in jail. Yet, the banksters are getting bonuses.

Al Capone's real crime was that he didn't work on Wall Street.

- Mark

Monday, November 9, 2009


Paul Krugman’s most recent op-ed makes an interesting observation. Currently the Republican Party - a.k.a. the Party of No - is bent on standing in the way of legislation that might hand President Obama any degree of success. As a result our national political scene has become more and more burlesque and may soon become “Californified.”

Having become the minority party, and tethered to an increasingly ideological and symbol-responsive base, the G.O.P. has essentially arrived at the point where it has become a “rump” party, interested in little more than making sure that if it can’t govern no else will.
For those of you who are a bit dusty in history, the rump party reference is a nod to the Rump Parliament that rose up during England’s Civil War. The background is illustrative for what it tells us about today’s political environment, and deserves a few brief words.

A Brief History Lesson: The Rump Parliament
Like the Republican and conservative radicals today who refuse to believe that anyone but themselves are capable of virtue and governing, those who rose to oppose King Charles I during the English Civil War (c. 1641-1653) didn’t trust the business of governing to those in Parliament. This was especially the case for members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army.

Cromwell’s army eventually surrounded Parliament in 1648 and only let those who they favored back in. This left a Rump Parliament that was made up of about 20% of its actual membership. These virtuous guarders of English “liberties” went after "enemies" of the state, eventually executed Charles I, and attempted to establish a Puritan republic, with Oliver Cromwell as its leader.

Over time Cromwell, who naturally distrusted assemblies, grew weary of the Rump Parliamentarians inability to create a “godly reformation” in England. Former radicals were no longer held in good standing, or were not seen as pure enough. Cromwell would dissolve the Parliament that brought him to power in a military coup in 1653, which marked the beginning of The Protectorate (1653-1658).

The Tea Baggers as Rump Republicans
The fact that former radicals during the English Civil War were no longer seen as sufficiently loyal is instructive for our political scene today. Paul Krugman finds it especially ironic that Newt Gingrich is now seen as a “sober, reasonable elder statesman of the G.O.P.” The problem, as Krugman points out, is that Gingrich “has no authority: Republican voters ignored his call to support a relatively moderate, electable candidate in New York’s special Congressional election … Real power in the party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.”

Put another way, moderation in the Republican Party has been buried by a Radical Right who is either unwilling or incapable of reaching out to middle America. Imagine what this means. The first Republican Puritans of the modern age - Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America crowd - are no longer seen as pure enough. They have been replaced by a group of ideologues who, one would assume, can bring the “godly reformation” and the market purity demanded by Conservative Independents and the dwindling but faithful 20% who continue to claim they belong to the Republican Party.

The problem, according to Krugman, is that because “these people aren’t interested in actually governing” their only recourse is to “feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it.” These people want blood. This explains why the Republican Party and Conservatives in general have increasingly been captured by a tea-bagging movement that puts hate, empty slogans, and symbolism above social purpose and our nation’s political health.

How does this affect people like you and me? I'm glad you asked.

I'm Cast Out (as a Non-Patriot)
Today, purity tests and name-calling stand in where analysis and judgment once did. While I have had the honor of enduring my share of name-calling while on air, I especially enjoyed this Facebook exchange directed at me (on another FB account) I had over the weekend.

… you belong to that low life, scum sucking, bottom dwelling, dingy smelling group of nefarious would be communist Marxist who are by some twisted fate, members of that disgraceful group known as the Barney Frank, act alike, Democrats.
Interestingly, being part of a “disgraceful group” (the Democratic Party) was not enough. I was also told that I should hide myself in shame, and then was cast out of the “real American patriot” campaign (I didn’t know a drive was going on).

… you really are not American at heart or of mind. But most definitely are an accumulation from some oderferious, decayed part of the world, like the bottom of a human waste pit. Consider yourself properly vetted and cast out of membership with any real American patriot. "WE THE PEOPLE" shall overcome the likes of detrimental ilk, such as you. I will pray for you, but not very much!
And to think, this is the response I got (from a Christian, no less) because I support health care reform. At least he's praying for me (but not very hard). 

For anyone interested in historical lessons the experiences of England's Rump Parliament does not bode well for America. Ideological and spiritual purity are not what the the Framers had in mind when they fought for and shaped our Constitution. Losing an election because your team left a mess of things does not give you the right to throw in the towel on democracy, in the process giving America a case of political constipation.

Should we be worried? Paul Krugman thinks there's something afoot. If the movement driving the tea baggers today gains any real traction, I think he's on to something.

- Mark

NOTE: "Rump" normally means the hind end of an animal; Since 1649, the term "rump parliament" has been used to refer to any parliament left over from the actual legitimate parliament.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


In my book I argue that the economic growth we experienced after Ronald Reagan arrived at the White House was a product of "state-led" initiatives. There were no invisible hands involved.

Spurred by deficit spending, Federal Reserve policies, state subsidies, successive bailouts, and deregulation the laggard American economy of the 1970s was able to stabilize and then take off in the 1980 and 1990s. But it did so on the backs of the American taxpayer and because of favorable legislation.

More specifically, the idea that the "free market" brought America back is a myth. The causes behind the market collapse - which many are just learning about for the first time - are evidence of this. Still, we have free market zombies telling us that, on the road ahead, we need to follow the same path that got us into this mess.

Famed bond trader Bill Gross (of PIMCO) is not one of these zombies.

One of the reasons that Gross is not one of these free market zombies is that he sees the same things about our past that I discussed in my book. He argues that the period of government-sponsored easy money (from low interest rates), managed inflation, and the excessive use of debt to take advantage of deregulation (the "accelerated use of financial leverage" for "increasingly complex financial innovation") may have brought growth. But he also recognizes that this period is now officially over. In its place we are going to see slower growth and the rise of new financial power centers, like Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the so-called BRIC countries).

So where does this leave us?

In market speak Bill Gross likes to discuss how "deleveraging, reregulation and de-globalization" must occur and that we must be prepared for what follows. But we are resisting change. Why? Because, as PIMCO Managing Director Mohamed El-Erian explains, many are inclined to "look back to what we are familiar with, rather than try to define the new paradigm."

In plain English what both Gross and El-Erian are saying is that as we scramble to adapt to and fix this mess there are many others who only want to save themselves, and are standing in the way of real change. Look no further than Wall Street's pay/bonus scale and their lobbying efforts in DC to understand how this works.

From what I can see, selfish and greedy people are winning the day. Or, to paraphrase the kid in Sixth Sense, I see stupid people, and they're walking away with our money.

Still, there is hope. David Einhorn, founder of Greenlight Capital, and one of the earliest users of credit default swaps (a from of insurance) is now calling for a ban on these instruments. He argues, convincingly, that “trying to make safer credit default swaps is like trying to make safer asbestos.”

Others, like the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan, Martin Feldstein, call for innovative ways to help stabilize housing prices. His approach includes allowing American homeowners to borrow up 20% of the value of their mortgage at low interest rates from the U.S. Treasury. This would cut out the private sector, which has effectively been gouging American taxpayers through higher credit card rates, while holding back small business and personal loans.

All of this is important because Bill Gross appears to support a plan that resembles what Professor Feldstein is proposing. According to Chicago mortgage broker Michael White, Mr. Gross has signed on to Plan Orange. In a few words Plan Orange would have the American government pay down the mortgage debt of all property owners in the United States, to 80% of the value of their home today. This would make mortgage debt more affordable and help make most deliquent mortgage (now running at a record 13%) current. It would also strengthen the banks who own mortgages and are now worrying about defaults. See the details here.

(In my world I would also call for a forced unwinding of the CDO market, which would help to take care of much of the mess that the CDS market is worried about. But that's another story for another day.)

To be sure, the bill for Plan Orange may be as high as $5 trillion. But consider this. We've already spent and/or guaranteed $20+ trillion in toxic wealth. Worse, we have little to show for it other than "stability" that includes record deficits, 10% unemployment, record bankruptcies, record bank failures, collapsed and falling home prices, decling consumer confidence, and banks that won't lend (if I missed one, I apologize). Put another way, we've raised the Titanic, but have it sailing through the same ice-berg filled waters.

We should also consider the following. We're already on the hook to the banks for about $23 trillion in the form of loans, credits, and numerous other financial guarantees. The banks - or the banksters - will get their money one way or the other. The bonuses will continue (because they're doing such a fine job). Would you rather take a shot at saving family homes and neighborhoods, which just might make additionial trillion dollar guarantees to Wall Street unecessary? Or would you rather sit around waiting for the banks to lend money, in the process suffering through a steady drip of news of how Wall Street has become "liquid" with $20+ trillion of our money? 

I don't know about you, but a self-imposed financial waterboarding - that includes giving Wall Street what they want but leaves Main Street drowing in debt - is not what I'm looking forward to.

Let me repeat. The people on Wall Street already have their money and their guarantees. I think it's time we start thinking about Main Street. Especially since it just might curb the housing free fall, and make much of the incredibly toxic CDS-CDO payoff unnecessary.

- Mark

Friday, November 6, 2009


This is a succinct - and entertaining - look at the mortgage collapse. While the title suggests otherwise, it doesn't just explain the sub-prime mess, it explains the logic behind the entire mess.

I picked this up from this Michael White's site, where the discussion centers around solving the real estate crisis by paying down all the mortgages in America by 20%. It's going to cost about $5 trillion, but the discussion has merits. You can take a look at the discussion here.

- Mark

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


My Introduction to American Politics class is having a mid-term tomorrow night. I told them that I would post a brief overview of my lecture on political parties here on my blog. What I present below is also from an earlier, more contentious, post.


The history of the two major political parties in America is not well known and often misunderstood. Up front we need to understand that political parties are nothing more than a coalition of interests. On their own these interests are often categorized simply as interest groups (among other names). As interests and groups change so do coalitions and alliances. This is an all too brief history of political parties in America.


A brief introduction to the history of the republican and democratic parties requires that we understand two basic points about each party. First, what we see as the Democratic Party was founded largely by anti-federalist, state’s rights supporters, and led initially by Thomas Jefferson. Since most of America was dominated by small farmers it should come as no surprise that the Anti-Federalists were early supporters of small farmers, local political issues, and states’ rights. This was the forerunner of the Democratic-Republican Party, which would become simply the Democratic Party.

The modern Republican Party, on the other hand, is a product of industrial Northern interests who were partial to the Federalists. This group was originally led by Alexander Hamilton. They focused on the need for a strong federal government to help deal with emerging industrial and growing business interests (like the value of money, tariffs, etc.).

In the first phase of party growth you generally had the Jeffersonians (anti-Federalist, small farmer supporters) and the Hamiltonians (Federalists, business supporters). Because the South was dominated by slave trading farmers, and the north was the home of emerging industrialists, we begin to see the basic contours of our current Democratic-Republican-party split: Democrats supporting local interests and small players, Republicans supporting money and business interests.

Led by Thomas Jefferson, the Anti-Federalists (soon to be Democratic-Republicans and, later, simply “Democrats”) focused on small farmers who did not want the federal government intervening in their affairs or undermining their sovereignty. This helps us understand why the south, filled with slave-holders, would embrace states rights and gravitate to “Jefferson’s Party.” Later, southerner and war hero Andrew Jackson united southern farmers and urban workers under a party that focused on a populist message, emerging machine politics, and city patronage (which grew significantly as immigrants streamed into the east coast’s cities). His personal style attracted newcomers, while westerners and the “New Frontier” advocates (Manifest Destiny, and all that) gravitated to Jackson, which allowed the party to consolidate a number of disparate interests into a strong Democratic party.

On the Federalists side things weren’t going as well. In fact, Jackson was so popular that opposition to Jackson was the real driving force behind the emergence of the Whig Party (the immediate predecessor to the Republican Party). The Whig Party broke down and reemerged as the Republican Party, putting together enough supporters from industrialists, Whig hold-overs, and Northern Democrats opposed to slavery. This coalition – and not simply the Republican party – got Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860.

And here lies a key point. First, Lincoln’s majority was really a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, emerging business interests, and anti-slavery Democrats. Second, it was at this point that the Democratic Party began to split along two lines. Those who supported slavery (the south) and those who opposed it (the north), choosing instead to focus on machine politics, patronage, populist policies, the working class, etc.

The Republican Party begins its history after the Civil War as a supporter of the business class (the northern industrial elites) and, when it suited them, opposition to emerging Jim Crow laws in the Democratic, slave-holding south. I say this because people often forget – or never learn – it was the Republican Party that agreed in 1876 to sign away the protective Reconstruction Troops placed throughout the south in the post-Civil War era. They did this so that they could get southern Democrats to concede the contested 1876 presidential election and get the incompetent Rutherford B. Hayes in office.

With the removal of federal troops from the post-civil war south the region was free to create its own social system. Jim Crow was on his way, as the Black Codes became a part of the southern law and culture (e.g. it was illegal for black men to be unemployed in some states, black men could not look at white women, etc.). It was at this time that the Civil Rights legislation of the 1870s (yes, there was a Civil Rights revolution then) was either ignored or broken down by the push for state’s rights in the south. Once established, Jim Crow pushed to every part of the country, and the southern caste system was generally accepted by the early 1900s (Democrat Woodrow Wilson was especially no help).

Southern Democrats continued to remain an integral part of the larger Democratic Party not because the party embraced their view on race (as did the Republicans), but because the party sided with southern farmers on the issue of tariffs and prices. Tariffs were key because northern industrialists needed them to keep out competition, which Republicans supported. But tariffs also hurt southern interests as importers of southern farm goods also kept tariffs artificially high, thus blocking out or reducing the profits of farmers.

It is at this time that the Republican Party becomes entrenched as the party of Big Business. Placing high tariffs on imports, the United States had the highest overall tariffs in the industrial world from the mid-1800s through World War I. At the same time, Republicans create a larger economic and political environment that was so industry friendly that regulations and codes were willfully ignored, while labor rights were ignored or put up for sale.

Corruption became rampant throughout the political system, as state legislatures were regularly bought and sold (some of the stories of former California Governor Leland Stanford are quite interesting). This is one of the reasons a populist backlash emerged, which allowed progressives like Hiram Johnson in California, and Teddy Roosevelt nationally, to become popular, at least for a time (corruption was so rampant it was at this time that California got its referendum, recall, and initiative process). This Progressive Era subsided, but returned with a vengeance after the market collapse of 1929. It is at this time coalitions within parties begin to switch, or become uncomfortable where they are.

But before this happens a political tidal wave ushered in an anti-business environment, which led to the regulatory capitalism of the post-war era. Republican industrialists retrenched, while FDR wove together a coalition of organized labor, southern farmers, Big City machines (who weren’t wiped out by the progressive movement in the early 1900s), and northern liberals. By the 1960s, however, southern farmers were not happy with the emerging civil rights legislation and other “liberal” ideas associated with “northern elites.” Simply put, they threatened the cultural status quo of the south.

After Barry Goldwater was crushed in the 1964 presidential elections Richard Nixon, coming off his own defeat in 1960 (where, yes, JFK won with corrupt political bosses), he saw a political opening in the south. Disgruntled southerners opposed federal legislation, and argued for state’s rights, because they were opposed to emerging civil rights legislation (and other liberal ideas like women’s rights, labor rights, etc.) that would undo almost a century of Jim Crow.

Embarking on what would become known as his “southern strategy” Nixon deliberately played to the cultural fears of the south; e.g.. the "dangers" brought by civil rights and liberal thinkers which threatened to undermine a culture and a lifestyle. This attracted southern democrats to the Republican Party which, by this time, was also known as the Grand Old Party, or G.O.P. Southern Democrats who supported the Republican Party at this time became known as “dixiecrats,” were pandered to by Ronald Reagan in 1980, and eventually became – along with big business and, later, the religious right (another story for another day) – the base of the modern Republican Party.

- Mark

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Here's an updated graph from Chicago mortgage broker Michael D. White. In a few words, if we're using historical trends in housing prices we can expect housing prices to drop ... another 43%!

Indeed, as Michael White previously pointed out (and I commented on here), whatever stabilization we're seeing in current housing prices may be an anomaly due the character of new purchases, and the trillions in government bailout cash that are propping up the economy. Worse, there's another issue that doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar at the moment. While it's one thing to be worried about declining home values no one seems to be looking at rising (and total) liabilities for the American homeowner.

Incredibly, according to the Sept. 17, 2009 Federal Reserve Statistical Release, total mortgage liabilities for the American homeowner (page 63 on the document, page 70 on the PDF scroll) are higher in 2009 than they were during the peak housing value years of 2006-2007. Yet, housing values have been going down.

Think about what this means. Since the market began it's collapse over a year ago very little new money has been lent out for new home purchases. Even less has been lent out for refinancing. We also know that housing prices have tanked from the 2006-2007 peak years. But Americans now carry more mortgage debt than they did before the market collapse?

Why is this happening? I'm not sure.

Can it be bigger (or more) refis? I doubt it. Are deliquent mortgage loans being reassessed with late penalties and fees tacked on? I have no idea. In all cases, something doesn't seem right.

Stay tuned.

- Mark

Monday, November 2, 2009


Via FaceBook I was sent this Wall Street Journal article titled, "The Worst Bill Ever." It could have easily been titled, "Worst Piece of Partisan Hackery Ever." Here's my short response:

What an intellectually dishonest piece. The article takes a few Frank Luntz quotables, focuses on taxes, throws in Nancy Pelosi for good measure, and says nothing about how we got to the point where 44,000 die from having no insurance each year, or how bad things will get if nothing is done. What about the CBO estimate that says HR 3962 will save money over time? Who really penned this? The insurance industry?
Look, I'm not going to be happy with the final version of HR 3692. It's a mess. I suspect the health care-insurance industry understands something is going to pass, so they've gotten some of their industry-bought members of Congress to insert a few poison pills, which will water down the effectiveness of the public option, fatten industry wallets, and generally make no one happy with the outcome. There's a reason sausage making and legislation are not something to be watched by commoners.

Still, for the WSJ to suggest that HR 3692 is the worst piece of legislation is simply absurd. This is especially the case since their editorial board essentially gave the Bush administration a pass on his legislative agenda, which helped drive our economy into the ground and doubled our national debt.

Let's take just a couple of the absurdities that come from what may well be "The Worst Editorial Ever" (my comments in bold) ...

"... as ObamaCare so dramatically expands government control of health care that eventually all medicine will be rationed via politics."
- Republicans going back to the scare-mongering is not good analysis. These kind of statements simply don't stand up to scrutiny, especially since America's elderly, it's military, and government employees (like our members of Congress) seem to enjoy their government "controlled" healthcare. So do those who work in the private sector, but are presently subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer.

"The goal is to ram through whatever income-redistribution scheme they can ..."
- Short Response: Did the WSJ object to President Bush's "income-redistribution scheme" when he took projected trillion dollar surpluses and shifted them over to America's wealthiest class, who then took the money and gambled and speculated in a casino market they had created?
- Long Response: Read my book.

"... Democrats have dumped any pretense of genuine bipartisan "reform" and moved into the realm of pure power politics"
- My response to this is, So What. The Party of No has demonstrated little beyond their capacity to do Rush Limbaugh's bidding, and to help make sure that President Obama and the Democratically controlled Congress fails, at all costs.

"The Congressional Budget Office figures the House program will cost $1.055 trillion over a decade, which while far above the $829 billion net cost that Mrs. Pelosi fed to credulous reporters is still a low-ball estimate"
- The WSJ editorial famously left out that the same CBO estimate also said that "H.R. 3962 would result in a net reduction in federal budget deficits of $104 billion over the 2010–2019 period."

"... ObamaCare will be lucky to cost under $2 trillion over 10 years; it will grow more after that."
- Curiously missing are projected cost estimates if nothing is done. By 2052 America will be spending almost 50 cents of every dollar we earn on health care if we do nothing.

There's more, much more. But you get the picture. The point is, the Wall Street Journal is not an honest player in this debate.

- Mark


Those of you who listened to the program on Saturday were no doubt inspired by Congressman Alan Grayson's comments during the interview. As noted, Congressman Grayson is running a "Money Bomb" designed to raise money for his campaign next year.

As noted during the interview, he's become FNC-Republican-Target-#1. Even with FOX News and the Republican Party going after him, Congressman Grayson wants to show America that you don't need to be a slave to corporate money in order to run a congressional campaign in America. Today is the day for Congressman Grayson to raise $400,000.

You can go here and here if you want to donate and/or see the progress.

- Mark