Monday, November 23, 2009

Time To Change Recession Strategy

It's time for the US to spend its money where it's needed, for the common people. The NYT article on debt repayment points out the problems facing the US if it borrows a ton more money for another stimulus or further bailouts. The main beneficiary so far of the taxpayer largess has been Wall Street, which got us into this fix in the first place. It was initially necessary to save the banks and the financial system, but now the idea seems to be that if we make the Wall Street financiers insanely, obscenely rich, some of that wealth will trickle down to ordinary people. It's not happening, as the 10% unemployment rate demonstrates.

Everybody says we need more jobs. So, why doesn't the government create jobs, rather than throw money at the banks and the Wall Street fat cats? It could do this more or less the way FDR did, just create make-work jobs. Construction projects only go so far, since we now have a lot of women and older men in the work force. One office version of make-work would be data entry. The government must have tons of data that it would like to have, or it could get started on computerizing medical records.

Another helpful step would be to impose a year or two of compulsory public service on all young people when they finish their studies, or when they are 18. We wouldn't need to impose a military draft, but military service would be one way to fill the compulsory service requirement. We need more soldiers, and we need fewer people entering the labor market. The compulsory service could be in the US, working in slums, or doing menial work in hospitals, or doing environmental conservation work, or many other things. They could also serve in the Peace Corps, or in the military. The military claims they prefer the all-volunteer Army, but these people could be cooks, or clean latrines, or do other menial work that the military now contracts out for much higher fees that the young people would get. They could get something like $10 per hour, and if they are married and have children, one spouse could be paid the same amount to stay home and take care of the children, thus doubling their income. They would generally live in barracks or group housing and eat in group cafeterias or mess halls, but in some cases could get food stamps or other subsidies as needed for a family living alone. Some young people would opt to serve in the military, thus easing the recruiting strain created by fighting two wars.

We needed Geithner and the bailout when we were on the verge of going over the financial cliff at the end of 2008. But that's over according to the economists. We're growing again. So, let's break up the banks that are too big to fail, raise taxes on the rich, give jobs to people who need them, and prevent young people from entering the labor market immediately by requiring a yar of two of public service.

One other thing -- raise interest rates. Everybody says that raising taxes and interest rates will kill the recovery. Okay, but save the ordinary people by giving them government jobs. Then let the rich fend for themselves if the recovery stumbles. They might have to sell one of their four houses. Good!

The perverse effect of keeping the recovery going is that it is creating the same asset bubbles that got us into this mess in the first place. Low interest rates are a primary culprit. We at least need some minimal interest. It's ridiculous that banks can borrow from the Fed at zero percent and then charge 25% or 30% to their credit card holders. There should be some cost of money to discourage the creation of new bubbles by the greedy barons of Wall Street. Ask Paul Volker!

Wall Street Salaries Are Too High

Everybody is talking about Wall Street salaries being too high, but this article in the Washington Post by the organization that runs the Rhodes scholarship program is what put me over the top. He says that the huge differential between business salaries and public service or academic pursuits is pushing more and more Rhodes scholars into the business and financial world, which means that a big percentage of the America's best talent is going to one place, and areas that need the best people -- to keep us out of war for example -- don't get any.

Something needs to be done. I don't see how you can regulate salaries in general to get at the huge salaries in business and finance, although a very few are being regulated under the bailout program. The problem is really the huge gap between them and everybody else, even including doctors and lawyers, according to the article. So, I propose a huge tax on huge incomes. It could start at say $1 million annual income. Increase the marginal tax on income over $1 million at something like 50%. Then maybe tax income over $10 million at 70%. Annual income over $100 million at 90%. These rich people will have so many loopholes, deductions, credits, etc., that the actual net tax on them will be much lower.

In addition, to level the income gap, there should be less preference for income generated from financial transactions and activities. Capital gains and dividends should be taxed at a higher rate. One old justification for lower capital gains taxes was inflation, but there is no inflation anymore. Another argument is that low capital gains taxes encourage innovation and entrepeneurship. Okay, but limit that advantage to income that actually comes from innovation. Give the break only to those who fund startups. There shouldn't be a lower tax for people who buy IBM or Walmart today and sell it for a profit in a week or even many years later; they didn't create IBM or Walmart.

Similarly, an argument for dividends is that corporations already pay income tax, and thus dividend income is taxed twice. But like rich individuals, few corporations pay anything like the full corporate tax (35%?) on their full gross income. They have many credits, deductions, writeoffs, etc. You could also tax the first relatively small amount of dividends at a lower rate, to encourage investment by individuals, but tax dividends at a higher rate for individuals who receive more than $10,000 or $20,000 annually in dividends.

It's easy to tax people who earn a salary, but difficult to tax people's income from business and financial activities. Thus, you can be pretty sure what an average worker's gross income is, but it's much more difficult to know for someone involved in business and finance. That argues for even higher taxes on the rich, because they will evade taxes anyway.

The recent dust-up about people who were hiding money in secret bank accounts overseas and not paying taxes on the income is just one example of the problem.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Steve Simon on Terror

Steve Simon now has an op-ed in the New York Times, following up on his op-ed in the Financial Times. He cranks out stuff for major papers faster than I can blog. Once again I basically agree with him that having the terror trials for Khalid Sheik Mohammad and others in New York is a good thing.

I am outraged that the Republicans are so opposed to these trials. Their opposition is based on fear, a poor starting point for a serious country. They have no confidence in the US military, the FBI, the CIA, and the New York police to protect the city during the trial. It's true that Bush and the Republicans failed to protect New York on 9/11. I don't think the Democrats will be as lazy as Bush and Cheney were pre-9/11.

Of course, the civil trials in New York are also a political rebuke to the Republicans, who wanted to hold some kind of kangaroo court in Cuba. The Republicans are now the leaders of what is basically a lynch mob, saying no trial, just shoot 'em. Of course, they'd say that the want military trials before they shoot 'em, but to the world those military trials would look a lot like kangaroo courts or Communist show trials.

So why are we still having military trials for some of the Guantanamo prisoners? I don't really know, but I'm happy that some of them will get real, legal trials.

The old Bush approach to combating terrorism reminds me of Argentina's way of handling its discontents, by "disappearing" them. The government picked them up and they were never seen again. KSM was snatched in Pakistan, and we've just had a number of CIA agents convicted of kidnapping a suspected terrorist in Milan. We grab 'em and stick 'em in Guantanamo or send them by extraordinary rendition some friendly country that will torture them for us. Not a very high class act! Thank goodness the Obama administration has more morals and character. The US should adhere to a higher standard than Argentina did.

Meanwhile the Republican Party displays absolute fear and panic. How can former Presidential candidate John McCain lead such a band of cowards?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Almost Time for Geithner to Go

It was a good decision to name Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary when Obama came in at the height of the banking crisis. He needed someone who knew what had happened, where the bodies were buried on Wall Street. Now the crisis has moved on. We need someone who is more an outsider, someone who is not an executive or director of Goldman Sachs. The Geithner move can wait until the health care debate is over, but should come as soon as the system can bear it. He's not the best man for the job.

I don't have a recommendation. The two financial people I trust at the moment are Elizabeth Warren and Paul Volker. People say Obama is ignoring Volker; he does so at his peril. It's understandable, because people say that Larry Summers is so in-your-face that it's hard to oppose him, but the time is coming to do that. Summers needs to be moved away from the center of power. He should continue to be an advisor, but not the advisor. Between Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers, Obama has his hands full of loud, brash, aggressive, pushy Jews. Volker, of course, is Jewish, but seems to be much nicer personally than his competitors; the same goes for Bernanke. Obama should recognize that and draw on Volker (and Bernanke) despite the tantrums of his other Jewish advisors.

Ideally, a new Treasury Secretary should come from outside of Wall Street, perhaps someone from Obama's old home of Chicago. An academic might be a possibility. Bernanke has done a good job at the Fed, despite coming from an academic background. A businessman or banker is not out of the question, as long as he is not a Wall Street insider.

Gambling on Wall Street

CNBC, which is on in the other room, is doing a story on some poker player in a Las Vegas tournament, who came from a very simply background and is winning tons of cash. First, why is this a financial network story? Because Wall Street is basically a big poker game; it's not about the economy or jobs or any of that stuff that they talk about.

As an example, John Paulson made billions betting against sub-prime mortgage paper, speculating that the housing market would self-destruct. He was right and made billions, but did that have a positive effect on the market? No. His insight, which arguably was important to help the US manage the biggest financial crisis is 80 years, had no effect, except to make him rich. If Wall Street really worked as the commentators want us to believe, his insight into the housing market should have helped avoid the crisis, but it didn't. It's just gambling, unrelated to the real world, except to the extent that if the Wall Street gamblers lose too many billions, the taxpayers will bail them out. Ironically, the WSJ article about Paulson says that he he has hired Alan Greenspan, who aided Paulson's strategy by keeping interest rates abnormally low for too long. That's more a criticism of Greenspan than Paulson. But they are clearly too cozy.

Buying Patriotism

Tom Friedman's Wednesday NYT column on government contractors was once again right on the money. The US government no longer performs the functions that it is charged with and used to do itself, such as fighting wars and negotiating with other countries. It now contracts those and other essential functions out to private business. Of course the main impetus is to avoid re instituting the draft to maintain armed force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, but secondarily is the Republican (and Democratic) impetus to give money to their campaign contributors.

To me, this represents a failure to support the American government. The government should perform essential functions such as war fighting and diplomacy. The Republicans claim that they love America but hate the government. They go back to Reagan's old claim that government is not the solution, it's the problem. I think that's wrong. In many cases government is not only the solution, it's the only solution. Private sector contractors are not subject to the same constraints that government employees are. Republicans like this because it means that they can resort to nepotism and other forms of favoritism. Democrats, too; look at John Murtha. But I think that if you dislike or hate the US government, you dislike or hate the United States. The government is the country, particularly when you're talking about the military or diplomacy.

As a former soldier and diplomat, I take strong exception to the Republican rejection of government. Granted, government may need a lot of reform, but it should be improved, not destroyed.

Kudos to Tom Friedman for pointing out the failures of government outsourcing and contracting. One of the ironic things is that the government is actually outsourcing a lot of functions to foreigners. It's doing what it criticizes American business for doing: taking American domestic jobs and outsourcing them to foreigners, such as the foreign mercenaries who do a lot of guard duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, in many cases working for American paymasters like Blackwater (or whatever their new name is), who just take the Congressional appropriation and pass it on to the foreigners who work for them, scraping a good chunk off the top for the Blackwater executives. Even when they employ Americans, they tend to take the cream of the crop of Army and Marine veterans by paying them much more than the government can afford to pay them as servicemen. It's a mess, created by people who are destroying America for their personal profit.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Steve Simon Against Afghan Buildup

Steve Simon, with whom I worked in State's old Politico-Military Bureau, has an op-ed in yesterday's Financial Times, "Pull the Plug on the Afghan Surge." I agree with most of his reasons to oppose a surge, except the last one: that if we withdraw troops from Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, the bad guys in Pakistan will probably return to Afghanistan and ease the situation in Pakistan, which is more serious. I don't think that making Afghanistan more attractive to the bad guys, whether Taliban or al-Qaeda, is a good argument for a military strategy. We should not offer them an unfettered base of operations in either country. But I don't think we need huge forces in Afghanistan to interdict the bad guys, but we should attack them whenever we are able to, and we should maintain enough forces to make their life unpleasant, if not impossible.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Corruption on Wall Street

This article from the Wall Street Journal is an apology or explanation of the claims of insider trading at Galleon and other hedge funds, but I don't buy it. On top of the sub-prime, over-leveraging bank debacle, the Madoff ponzi scheme, and other misdeeds by Wall Street, the claims of insider trading ring true. The commentators all say that there is a "fine line" between legitimate information and illegal, insider information. Wall Streeters cross this line every day. They all get information that is not available to people who are not professional, insider stock traders. The editorial says that insider tips are no sure thing for long-term profits. That may be true, but if you can get rich in the short term, who cares about the long term? Nobody on Wall Street. The whole crisis was created by bankers and traders who just wanted to make a buck on their trade, get the asset off of their books, and move on to the next, short-term, insider deal. They're all crooked. They're smart like Al Capone was smart, like Adolph Hitler was smart. They may be masters of the universe, but it's not a universe that anybody else would choose to live in.