Tuesday, August 3, 2010


"... A New Paradigm
of Active Credit Management."

- ALAN GREENSPAN (October 5, 2004)

Translation: "I don't see no credit 
market Chernobyl-like meltdowns in America."

One of the things you get when you follow free market ideologues long enough is that their words come back to haunt them. In this case former Federal Reserve Chair (1987-2006), Alan Greenspan, claimed in 2004 that credit markets were just fine. Big private market players, rather than "over regulated" banks, were spreading money and credit around efficiently.

Private market players (our shadow banking system), Greenspan argued, know what they're doing. Even if they were funding the purchase of toxic assets, and providing easy money that helped create our housing bubble, they were the ones who were on the hook if they lost money -- so the argument went. The market not only knew best according to Greenspan but, in this case, had created a "new paradigm of active credit management."

No Chernobyl-like credit market meltdowns were on his horizon.

Then the September 2008 credit market meltdown happened. Ooops.

Mr. Greenspan spoke up again on Sunday (Aug. 1). He claimed that we should repeal President Bush's tax cuts for the rich because we can't afford them. Specifically, he said (in typical Greenspanspeak):

"We believe it is appropriate to let those tax cuts that go to the most fortunate expire,"

I have only one question. Where the hell was this Alan Greenspan when President Bush said we needed tax cuts for the rich in 2001?

If  you recall, when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 he gained considerable support telling America that the surpluses generated during the Clinton administration was "your money." It didn't matter that we had a $5.6 trillion national debt to pay down. In his mind budget surpluses should be given back to the American taxpayer in the form of tax cuts. So, instead of paying down our national debt (where were the Tea Bag crazies then?), President Bush proposed tax cuts, most of which would go to the nation's wealthiest Americans.

As he pointed out in his book The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan supported tax cuts at the time because "chronic surpluses could be almost as destabilizing as chronic deficits." We have two problems here. First, while we had a budget surplus in 2001, we hadn't started to run "chronic" surpluses. Second, Greenspan ignored how previous Republican tax cut policies had effectively quadrupled our national debt between 1981 and 1993.

What's key here is that Alan Greenspan knew all of this. Yet he still supported tax cuts that would primarily benefit the wealthy (yes, he understood the Bush proposal) to deal with "chronic surpluses."

To be sure, Greenspan was careful to say at the time that he supported tax cuts in general, and not necessarily President Bush's tax cut proposal. But he was being politically naive, at best. More probably, as an Ayn Rand sycophant, Greenspan was using his position to help get more money into the hands of private market players. More bluntly, he was playing a parlor game and was deliberately disingenuous.

Whatever inspired him, with decades of experience in Washington, Greenspan had to know that his congressional testimony supporting tax cuts would give President Bush the political gravitas - or greenlight - he needed to ram his tax cut program through congress. Ten years later, and with an additional $5 trillion added to our national debt, Mr. Greenspan is now saying "Hey, I think we need to pay for these tax cuts."

Still, perhaps we shouldn't be so hard on Greenspan and his sudden fiscal two-step. As chair of President Reagan's National Commission on Social Security Reform (the "Greenspan Commission") Alan Greenspan supported raising social security (FICA) taxes on the middle class in 1983 to help pay for projected social security shortfalls.

Got that? To deal with looming deficits in 1983 a tax hike on middle-class America was fine. This helps explain why the payroll (FICA) tax was raised in the 1980s (yes, President Reagan raised taxes). But to deal with real deficits in 2001 ($5.6 trillion) Mr. Greenspan was fine with tax cuts, most of which would go to America's wealthiest class.

Are you kidding me? How do you go from, "Let's raise taxes on the middle class to pay for projected shortfalls" in 1983 to "In spite of an actual $5.6 trillion debt, let's take projected surpluses and use them for tax cuts, which will go primarily to the rich" in 2001?

Now, in 2010, we have Mr. Greenspan saying that we should allow tax cut legislation that benefitted primarily the richest Americans to "expire" because we can't afford them. I guess you're never wrong if you're an intellectual schizoid ...

So, which Mr. Greenspan should we go with? Mr. We-Should-Pay-Our-Bills-So-Let's-Tax-The-Middle-Class? (1983), or Mr. To-Hell-With-the-Deficits-Taxes-for-the-Rich-Are-OK-by-Me? (2001), or Mr. Ooops-Now-We-Should-Pay-Our-Bills? (2010). Will the real Mr. Greenspan please stand up. Cue the music...

For my money, we also run into problems when we sit down and do the math.

What we find is that the billion dollar surpluses, generated in part by the social security tax hike, were effectively handed over to America's wealthiest during the Bush years -- making it one of the greatest transfers of wealth in human history. No wonder the far right is afraid of discussing class warfare. They're winning, and they don't want America to find out how it happened.

Today America finds itself staring at bloated budget deficits (a product of Bush's failed policies), more than $12 trillion in debt (due to a failed trickle-down theory), and another social security hole that Republicans claim can only be fixed with more tax cuts and deregulation.

(To be sure, the vast majority of our projected social security short fall is attributed to slowing wage growth and increased inequality in America. These are two economic shifts that Greenspan's commission didn't anticipate. Then again, they probably didn't anticipate the Republican Party tearing up the post-war social contract, which helped slow wage growth and increased income gaps in America.)

In all cases, Mr. Greenspan now concedes there was a flaw in his model, and that he was shocked by the results of the casino mentality that he helped create.

Incredible. Still, the damage has been done. And Alan Greenspan was there egging it on, every step of the way.

While Greenspan 2010 seems to be channeling Greenspan 1983, the reality is Greenspan 2001-2006  -- and the policies he rubber stamped during his time at the Fed -- is emerging as the winner in this Greenspan vs. Greenspan Cage Match.

Unfortunately, that's bad news for the rest of us.

- Mark

UPDATE (12/17/12): I just found this Tom Tomorrow cartoon. It pretty much explains the post ...

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