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Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Five Most Wanted Rip-off Artists from Wall Street and Washington | AlterNet

Jim Hightower

What the hell's happening here? Why is my bank in the tank? And my house and job? And my retirement money? Even my state's teetering on the brink of broke! Who did this to us?

Fair questions, but we're not getting honest answers. Last year, at the first signs of the global financial slide toward the abyss, we were told that it's just a little hiccup caused by something called subprime mortgages. Not to worry, the Powers That Be declared confidently, for we have the damage contained. And rest assured that "the fundamentals of our economy are sound."

Then, this spring, Bear Stearns cratered, requiring an emergency federal subsidy to cover billions in bad loans. Okay, admitted those in charge, that subprime stuff actually is leveraged on up the financial system, and maybe there's been a bit of greed among a few of the big players, but we really do have the problem contained now, and, hey, "the fundamentals of our economy are sound."

But in September--Omigosh!--there went Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, WaMu, Wachovia, and others. Well, yes, conceded the now-frazzled financial establishment, but gollies, we're throwing hundreds of billions of your tax dollars into sandbags to contain the problem, and remember: "The fundamentals of our economy are sound."

In October, the contagion rolled through Britain, Canada, and Europe; it spread to Brazil and across to China and Japan; and--Holy Schmoly--suddenly all of Iceland was melting in bankruptcy! Stay calm, cried an openly panicked chorus of Washington officials, for we're holding some big summit meetings soon and consulting our Ouija boards, and...uh...ah...um...y'all just keep clinging to the thought that "the fundamentals of our economy are sound."

Laissez Fairies

You don't have to be in Who's Who to know What's What, do you? The fundamentals are NOT sound.

Wall Street and Washington (excuse the redundancy there) want us commoners to believe that this viral spread of economic grief was caused by those lower-income homeowners who couldn't pay their subprime loans--merely an unforeseeable glitch in a complex and otherwise healthy financial system. Hogwash. The source of today's pain is the same as it was in America's previous financial collapses: the unbridled greed of economic elites, enabled by their political courtesans in Washington.

This unbridling has been the long-sought goal of a cabal of deregulation ideologues who dwell in laissez-fairyland. During the past two decades, they have relentlessly pushed their economic fantasies into law. Their theory was that (to use Ronald Reagan's simple construct) "the magic of the marketplace" would create an eternal rainbow of prosperity through financial "innovation"--if only the market was unshackled from any pesky public regulations. What the dereg theorists missed, however, is that magicians don't perform magic. They perform illusions.

Let's meet some of the illusionists who are directly responsible for hurling you, me, America, and most of the world into this dark and as-yet unplumbed economic hole.

Phil Gramm

Snide, sour, and sanctimonious, this former senator from Texas is now head lobbyist for the Swiss-based banking giant, UBS, as well as chief economic adviser for his old chum John McCain. A bathed-in-the-blood, footwashing, free-market absolutist, Gramm advocates a virulent brand of antigovernment, market-knows-best, Rambo capitalism.

In 1999, as chair of the Senate Banking Committee, he had the power to implement some of his cockamamie dogmas. First, he pushed through a bill to dissolve the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, a New Deal reform that prohibited banks, investment houses, and insurance companies from combining into one corporation. By keeping these components of our financial system separate, Glass-Steagall made sure that the crash of one of them would not bring down the other two. But a number of Wall Street banks, led by what would become Citigroup, saw a profit windfall for themselves if only they could scuttle the old law and merge banking, investment, and insurance into huge financial conglomerates. The senator was their ideological soul mate, and he was delighted to rig the system for them.

On November 12, 1999, a gloating Gramm celebrated having sledgehammered the regulatory walls that separated the three financial functions:

"We are here today to repeal Glass-Steagall because we have learned that government is not the answer. We have learned that freedom and competition are the answers. We have learned that we promote economic growth and we promote stability by having competition and freedom. I am proud to be here because this is an important bill; it is a deregulatory bill. I believe that's the wave of the future, and I am awfully proud to have been a part of making it a reality."

But repealing Glass-Steagall was only step one for this free-market holy roller. In literally the dead of night, just before Congress's Christmas break in 2000, Chairman Gramm snuck a short provision into an 11,000-page appropriations bill. The item, which only a few lobbyists and lawmakers knew had been inserted, became law when the larger bill was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Gramm's little legislative sticky note decreed that a relatively new, exotic, and inherently risky form of investments called "derivatives" were not to be regulated--or even monitored--by the government.

It should be noted here that Democrats were also butt-deep in the dereg orthodoxy. Such Wall Street sycophants as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had drunk deeply from the holy cup of derivatives deregulation, and Clinton's top economic advisors Robert Rubin (formerly with Goldman Sachs and now with Citigroup) and Lawrence Summers (also a veteran of Wall Street) were in harness with the Republicans on this effort.

By 2008, the freewheeling derivatives market, including derivatives based on those lowly subprime housing loans, bloated to a stunning $531 trillion. That's 531 followed by 12 zeroes! These little-understood, essentially secret investment schemes came to dominate our entire financial system--and when thousands of regular folks began defaulting on their subprime loans, the derivatives based on them essentially became worthless. Investment houses, which were up to their corporate keisters in these funny-money subprime derivatives, began collapsing, and the now-interlocked banks and insurance companies began tumbling down with them. Gramm's deregulatory "wave of the future" had become a financial tsunami.

Alan Greenspan

This guy's mug should be on wanted posters in every post office in America. As Federal Reserve chairman from 1987 to 2006, he held the regulatory power to prevent the irrational inflation of the huge derivatives bubble that has now burst-- yet he fought fiercely through four presidencies to prevent even the meekest oversight by the Fed or any other agency. Nicknamed "The Oracle," Chairman Greenspan was inscrutable and arrogant, but he also possessed a detailed knowledge of financial minutiae and an air of superiority that simultaneously bedazzled and intimidated presidents, lawmakers, and other public officials.

However, not everyone was sanguine about the chairman's reliance on derivatives as the pillar of Wall Street's financial strength. Many wise heads viewed these financial "products" as speculative mumbo-jumbo. Billionaire financier George Soros says his firm never invested in them "because we don't really understand how they work." Investment banker Felix Rohatyn described them as "hydrogen bombs." Back in 2003, investment guru Warren Buffett called them "financial weapons of mass destruction" that were "potentially lethal" for our economy.

But Greenspan's voice was the most powerful, and he was both a determined bureaucratic protector and an exuberant cheerleader for derivatives. Meanwhile, wealthy investors worldwide were making a killing from their investments in these bizarre pieces of paper, and few in Washington were willing even to question The Oracle.

"I always felt that the titans of our legislature didn't want to reveal their own inability to understand some of the concepts that Mr. Greenspan was setting forth," said Arthur Levitt, a well-regarded Wall Street regulator under Clinton. "I don't recall anyone ever saying, 'What do you mean by that, Alan?'"

So the bubble kept expanding.

Why was Greenspan so insistent on no regulation? Because he is the hardest of hardcore laissez-faire ideologues, holding a blazing disdain for government. An avowed worshiper of libertarian novelist Ayn Rand, he views public oversight of business as an evil force that deters the creativity of smart elites. He is so psyched by his religious-like faith in the "free market" that he fervently believes in what he considers to be the innate good will and moral superiority of investors and bankers. He asserts that these self-interested individuals can simply be trusted to do the right thing, and that government should not second-guess their decisions.

Even the faith of snake handlers is not as devout as Greenspan's. Unfortunately, however, he was able to hitch our nation's economic well-being to his own absurdist ideological fancy. The guy who was lionized as the smartest, most- stable economic thinker in the land essentially turns out to have been a quasi-religious nut.

Chris Cox

A GOP member of Congress for 17 years, Cox was another deregulation diehard and a reliable advocate for Wall Street's pampered CEO class--a role he continued to play after Bush chose him in 2005 to succeed Donaldson as SEC chair. At the commission, he weakened the ability of the enforcement staff even to investigate securities violations by Wall Street firms, much less prosecute them. Also, in an act of pure ideological folly, he eliminated an office that had been set up specifically to watch out for future problems with such high-risk investments as derivatives.

In essence, he took the cops off the beat at the very time more cops were needed. In October, when the stuff was hitting the fan, a chagrined Cox offered this brilliant insight: "The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work." Thanks, Chris.

William Donaldson

The Securities and Exchange Commission supposedly regulates investment banks, and in 2004 it was headed by--guess who?--a Wall Street investment banker, Bill Donaldson. On April 28 of that year, he presided over a little-noticed SEC meeting held in the commission's basement to consider an obscure rule change urgently requested by the Big Five investment banks (including Goldman Sachs, then headed by Henry Paulson--yes, the same treasury secretary who just designed George W's Wall Street bailout). The bankers wanted an exemption from a sensible requirement that they keep a sizeable pool of money on hand to cover potential losses. Turn these reserve funds loose, pleaded the bankers, so we can put more of our investors' money into this opaque but lucrative area known as derivatives.

After less than an hour of discussion, Donaldson and his four SEC colleagues voted unanimously to do this favor for the bankers. As a bonus, the generous commissioners also decided to let the banks themselves monitor the level of risk they were putting on investors--and ultimately on the backs of taxpayers.

In this one meeting, which was not covered by the media, the dereg geniuses had struck another major blow for banker recklessness, and the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and others were sent further down the giddy path to their--and our--ruin. "The problem with such voluntary [regulations]," said Roderick Hills, Gerald Ford's former SEC chairman, "is that, as we've seen throughout history, they often don't work." Duh!

Henry Paulson

As honcho of Goldman Sachs, Hank drew a $37 million paycheck the year before Bush waved him into the Treasury Department to oversee the whole U.S. economy. At Goldman, he was considered one of Wall Street's "smart guys" who had figured out how to make billions in brokerage fees by packaging and selling these wondrous pieces of wizardry called derivatives, and he came into government as an unquestioning believer in deregulatory doctrine. Now that deregulated derivatives have turned out to be so much hokum, Hank's in charge of the bailout--and his former firm is in line to get at least $10 billion from it.

The Paulson bailout plan is flawed in many awful ways, but start with this basic one: the money (some estimates now put the total taxpayer cost above $2 trillion) is being handed to the same schemers and finaglers who caused the crash. The public gets to contribute the funds, but it gets no seat at the table to decide how the system (and who in it) will be "rescued."

With typical antigovernment extremism, Paulson's plan makes the public passive investors in the banks we're saving, leaving all the say-so to the banks' current executives and directors. Our money is being given away by the Bush ideologues with no strings attached--not even a requirement that it go into new loans so credit can quickly flow into the American economy again! Excuse me? Unclogging that credit flow was Paulson's rationale for giving $125 billion to nine giant banks (Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of New York, and State Street). He now says he "hopes" the banks will use the money to make loans, but he refuses to require them to do so.

Meanwhile, bankers themselves say they are more likely simply to sit on the money for awhile or--get this--use it to buy up smaller competitors! Yes, that means that our tax dollars will go toward eliminating competition in America's banking market. Not only will this leave consumers and businesses with fewer choices, but this will also increase the size of poorly managed megabanks that have already been designated by the Bush-Paulson regime as "too big to fail."

Laissez-faire follies

One positive to come from this collapse is that it exposes the bankruptcy of several core ideas that have been pushed by free-market illusionists. For example, market infallibility--the notion that Wall Street investors, analysts, and bankers know more than anyone else, and the government (aka the public) should just get the hell out of the way and behold unfettered genius at work. So, behold. (And, by the way, these are the exact same people who only months ago were insisting that Americans would be so much better off if they would move their Social Security money from government hands to the more adventuresome wizards of Wall Street.)

Yet, those bankers and politicos who pushed this antigovernment ethos to today's disastrous conclusion remain delusional. They cry for trillions of our tax dollars, but they insist that the profiteers must control the bailout and remain free of public supervision. George W himself still sticks with fantasy over reality, claiming that the fundamentals of the system are sound and that it is "essential" that any reforms not interfere with the "free market."

It's been a scream to hear these devout market ideologues explain how they've just become Wall Street socialists. Having big, bad government buy up the failed investments, then partially nationalize America's financial system, is an unwelcome choice for Bush. "I frankly don't want the government involved," he said. "It was necessary." Bailout chief Paulson (dubbed "King Henry" by Newsweek) said, "We regret having to take these actions"--but they're necessary.

Why necessary? Because laissez-faire ideology is a crock. It failed. Americans are not being told the blunt truth, which is that the financial mess we're in today is a direct result of the laissez-faire fraud that Wall Street and Washington willfully imposed on our nation. CEOs and banking lobbyists, presidents and treasury secretaries, regulators and lawmakers (of both parties) failed to protect America from money-grubbing bankers, hedge-fund speculators, and other big players.

As we've learned in the past few weeks, there is no "free" market. Indeed, it's quite pricey when it trips and falls over the inevitable outcroppings of greed. That's why strong, vigilant, and aggressive public regulation is essential. Don't be fooled by claims that just throwing money at the hucksters will fix the problem. The only way to make America's financial system trustworthy is to return to the sound fundamentals of public oversight--starting with the bailout itself.

The Five Most Wanted Rip-off Artists from Wall Street and Washington | AlterNet

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Can Obama Stop the Bush Administration's Final Economic Heist? | Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace | AlterNet

To understand the meaning of the U.S. election results, it is worth looking back to the moment when everything changed for the Obama campaign. It was, without question, the moment when the economic crisis hit Wall Street.

Up to that point, things weren't looking all that good for Barack Obama. The Democratic National Convention barely delivered a bump, while the appointment of Sarah Palin seemed to have shifted the momentum decisively over to John McCain.

Then, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failed, followed by insurance giant AIG, then Lehman Brothers. It was in this moment of economic vertigo that Obama found a new language. With tremendous clarity, he turned his campaign into a referendum into the deregulation and trickle down policies that have dominated mainstream economic discourse since Ronald Reagan. He said his opponent represented more of the same while he stood for a new direction, one that would rebuild the economy from the ground up, rather than the top down. Obama stayed on this message for the rest of the campaign and, as we just saw, it worked.

The question now is whether Obama will have the courage to take the ideas that won him this election and turn them into policy. Or, alternately, whether he will use the financial crisis to rationalize a move to what pundits call "the middle" (if there is one thing this election has proved, it is that the real middle is far to the left of its previously advertised address). Predictably, Obama is already coming under enormous pressure to break his election promises, particularly those relating to raising taxes on the wealthy and imposing real environmental regulations on polluters. All day on the business networks, we hear that, in light of the economic crisis, corporations need lower taxes, and fewer regulations -- in other words, more of the same.

The new president's only hope of resisting this campaign being waged by the elites is if the remarkable grassroots movement that carried him to victory can somehow stay energized, networked, mobilized -- and most of all, critical. Now that the election has been won, this movement's new missions should be clear: loudly holding Obama to his campaign promises, and letting the Democrats know that there will be consequences for betrayal.

The first order of business -- and one that cannot wait until inauguration -- must be halting the robbery-in-progress known as the "economic bailout." I have spent the past month examining the loopholes and conflicts of interest embedded in the U.S. Treasury Department's plans. The results of that research can be found in a just published feature article in Rolling Stone, The Bailout Profiteers, as well as my most recent Nation column, Bush's Final Pillage.

Both these pieces argue that the $700-billion "rescue plan" should be regarded as the Bush Administration's final heist. Not only does it transfer billions of dollars of public wealth into the hands of politically connected corporations (a Bush specialty), but it passes on such an enormous debt burden to the next administration that it will make real investments in green infrastructure and universal health care close to impossible. If this final looting is not stopped (and yes, there is still time), we can forget about Obama making good on the more progressive aspects of his campaign platform, let alone the hope that he will offer the country some kind of grand Green New Deal.

Readers of The Shock Doctrine know that terrible thefts have a habit of taking place during periods of dramatic political transition. When societies are changing quickly, the media and the people are naturally focused on big "P" politics -- who gets the top appointments, what was said in the most recent speech. Meanwhile, safe from public scrutiny, far reaching pro-corporate policies are locked into place, dramatically restricting future possibilities for real change.

It's not too late to halt the robbery in progress, but it cannot wait until inauguration. Several great initiatives to shift the nature of the bailout are already underway, including http://bailoutmainstreet.com. I added my name to the "Call to Action: Time for a 21st Century Green America" and invite you to do the same.

Stopping the bailout profiteers is about more than money. It is about democracy. Specifically, it is about whether Americans will be able to afford the change they have just voted for so conclusively.

Can Obama Stop the Bush Administration's Final Economic Heist? | Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace | AlterNet

Joe The Welfare King

Joe The Welfare King

Single Payer Minute 5

YouTube - Single Payer Minute 5

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama: Obama And McCain In Race-Switch Surprise!

Here, you see, an ad agency employee named Tor Myhren has designed a poster that asks the question: What if Barack Obama was a white dude named Chet who probably calls his girlfriend "Lovie," and John McCain was an elderly black man? I'll tell you what: McCain rallies would be much more interesting. It's a neat poster, but don't let it fall into the wrong hands (the hands of South Carolina).

Obama: Obama And McCain In Race-Switch Surprise!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

t r u t h o u t | Paulson's Swindle Revealed

The swindle of American taxpayers is proceeding more or less in broad daylight, as the unwitting voters are preoccupied with the national election. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson agreed to invest $125 billion in the nine largest banks, including $10 billion for Goldman Sachs, his old firm. But, if you look more closely at Paulson's transaction, the taxpayers were taken for a ride - a very expensive ride. They paid $125 billion for bank stock that a private investor could purchase for $62.5 billion. That means half of the public's money was a straight-out gift to Wall Street, for which taxpayers got nothing in return.

    These are dynamite facts that demand immediate action to halt the bailout deal and correct its giveaway terms. Stop payment on the Treasury checks before the bankers can cash them. Open an immediate Congressional investigation into how Paulson and his staff determined such a sweetheart deal for leading players in the financial sector and for their own former employer. Paulson's bailout staff is heavily populated with Goldman Sachs veterans and individuals from other Wall Street firms. Yet we do not know whether these financiers have fully divested their own Wall Street holdings. Were they perhaps enriching themselves as they engineered this generous distribution of public wealth to embattled private banks and their shareholders?

    Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, raised these explosive questions in a stinging letter sent to Paulson this week. The union did what any private investor would do. Its finance experts vetted the terms of the bailout investment and calculated the real value of what Treasury bought with the public's money. In the case of Goldman Sachs, the analysis could conveniently rely on a comparable sale twenty days earlier. Billionaire Warren Buffett invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs and bought the same types of securities - preferred stock and warrants to purchase common stock in the future. Only Buffett's preferred shares pay a 10 percent dividend, while the public gets only 5 percent. Dollar for dollar, Buffett "received at least seven and perhaps up to 14 times more warrants than Treasury did and his warrants have more favorable terms," Gerard pointed out.

    "I am sure that someone at Treasury saw the terms of Buffett's investment," the union president wrote. "In fact, my suspicion is that you studied it pretty closely and knew exactly what you were doing. The 50-50 deal - 50 percent invested and 50 percent as a gift - is quite consistent with the Republican version of spread-the-wealth-around philosophy."

    The Steelworkers' close analysis was done by Ron W. Bloom, director of the union's corporate research and a Wall Street veteran himself who worked at Larzard Freres, the investment house. Bloom applied standard valuation techniques to establish the market price Buffett paid per share compared to Treasury's price. "The analysis is based on the assumption that Warren Buffett is an intelligent third party investor who paid no more for his investment than he had to," Bloom's report explained. "It also assumes that Gold Sachs' job is to protect its existing shareholders so that it extracted from Mr. Buffett the most that it could.... Further, it is assumed that Henry Paulson is likewise an intelligent man and that if he paid any more than Mr. Buffett - if he paid $1 for something for which Mr. Buffett would have paid 50 cents - that the difference is a gift from the taxpayers of the United States to the shareholders of Goldman Sachs."

    The implications are staggering. Leo Gerard told Paulson: "If the result of our analysis is applied to the deals that you made at the other eight institutions - which on average most would view as being less well positioned than Goldman and therefore requiring an even greater rate of return - you paid a$125 billion for securities for which a disinterested party would have paid $62.5 billion. That means you gifted the other $62.5 billion to the shareholders of these nine institutions."

    If the same rule of thumb is applied to Paulson's grand $700 billion bailout fund, Gerard said this will constitute a gift of $350 billion from the American taxpayers "to reward the institutions that have driven our nation and it now appears the whole world into its most serious economic crisis in 75 years."

    Is anyone angry? Will anyone look into these very serious accusations? Congress is off campaigning. The financiers at Treasury probably assume any public outrage will be lost in the election returns. I hope they are mistaken.

t r u t h o u t | Paulson's Swindle Revealed