Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Meaning of Libor-gate

by PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS
 
The price of Treasury bonds is supported by the Federal Reserve’s large purchases. The Federal Reserve’s purchases are often misread as demand arising from a “flight to quality” due to concern about the EU sovereign debt problem and possible failure of the euro.

Another rationale used to explain the demand for Treasuries despite their negative yield is the “flight to safety.” A 2% yield on a Treasury bond is less of a negative interest rate than the yield of a few basis points on a bank CD, and the US government, unlike banks, can use its central bank to print the money to pay off its debts.

It is possible that some investors purchase Treasuries for these reasons. However, the “safety” and “flight to quality” explanations could not exist if interest rates were rising or were expected to rise. The Federal Reserve prevents the rise in interest rates and decline in bond prices, which normally result from continually issuing new debt in enormous quantities at negative interest rates, by announcing that it has a low interest rate policy and will purchase bonds to keep bond prices high. Without this Fed policy, there could be no flight to safety or quality.

It is the prospect of ever lower interest rates that causes investors to purchase bonds that do not pay a real rate of interest. Bond purchasers make up for the negative interest rate by the rise in price in the bonds caused by the next round of low interest rates. As the Federal Reserve and the banks drive down the interest rate, the issued bonds rise in value, and their purchasers enjoy capital gains.

As the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England are themselves fixing interest rates at historic lows in order to mask the insolvency of their respective banking systems, they naturally do not object that the banks themselves contribute to the success of this policy by fixing the LIbor rate and by selling massive amounts of interest rate swaps, a way of shorting interest rates and driving them down or preventing them from rising.

The lower is Libor, the higher is the price or evaluations of floating-rate debt instruments, such as CDOs, and thus the stronger the banks’ balance sheets appear.

Does this mean that the US and UK financial systems can only be kept afloat by fraud that harms purchasers of interest rate swaps, which include municipalities advised by sellers of interest rate swaps, and those with saving accounts?

The answer is yes, but the Libor scandal is only a small part of the interest rate rigging scandal. The Federal Reserve itself has been rigging interest rates. How else could debt issued in profusion be bearing negative interest rates?

As villainous as they might be, Barclays bank chief executive Bob Diamond, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs are not the main villains. The main villains are former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs chairman Robert Rubin, who pushed Congress for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the sponsors of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill, which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. Glass-Steagall was put in place in 1933 in order to prevent the kind of financial excesses that produced the current ongoing financial crisis.

President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, presented the removal of all constraints on financial chicanery as “financial modernization.” Taking restraints off of banks was part of the hubristic response to “the end of history.” Capitalism had won the struggle with socialism and communism. Vindicated capitalism no longer needed its concessions to social welfare and regulation that capitalism used in order to compete with socialism.

The constraints on capitalism could now be thrown off, because markets were self-regulating as Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, among many, declared. It was financial deregulation–the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the removal of limits on debt leverage, the absence of regulation of OTC derivatives, the removal of limits on speculative positions in future markets–that caused the ongoing financial crisis. No doubt but that JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and others were after maximum profits by hook or crook, but their opportunity came from the neoconservative triumphalism of “democratic capitalism’s” historical victory over alternative socio-politico-economic systems.

The ongoing crisis cannot be addressed without restoring the laws and regulations that were repealed and discarded. But putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again is an enormous task full of its own perils.

The financial concentration that deregulation fostered has left us with broken financial institutions that are too big to fail. To understand the fullness of the problem, consider the law suits that are expected to be filed against the banks that fixed the Libor rate by those who were harmed by the fraud. Some are saying that as the fraud was known by the central banks and not reported, that the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England should be indicted for their participation in the fraud.

What follows is not an apology for fraud. It merely describes consequences of holding those responsible accountable.

Imagine the Federal reserve called before Congress or the Department of Justice to answer why it did not report on the fraud perpetrated by private banks, fraud that was supporting the Federal Reserve’s own rigging of interest rates (and the same in the UK.)

The Federal reserve will reply: “So, you want us to let interest rates go up? Are you prepared to come up with the money to bail out the FDIC-insured depositors of JPMorganChase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, etc.? Are you prepared for US Treasury prices to collapse, wiping out bond funds and the remaining wealth in the US and driving up interest rates, making the interest rate on new federal debt necessary to finance the huge budget deficits impossible to pay, and finishing off what is left of the real estate market? Are you prepared to take responsibility, you who deregulated the financial system, for this economic armageddon?

Obviously, the politicians will say NO, continue with the fraud. The harm to people from collapse far exceeds the harm in lost interest from fixing the low interest rates in order to forestall collapse. The Federal Reserve will say that we are doing our best to create profits for the banks that will permit us eventually to unwind the fraud and return to normal. Congress will see no better alternative to this.

But the question remains: How long can the regime of negative interest rates continue while debt explodes upward? Currently, everyone in the US who counts and most who don’t have an interest in holding off armageddon. No one wants to tip over the boat. If the banks are sued for damages and lack the money to pay, the Federal Reserve can create the money for the banks to pay.

If the collapse of the system does not result from scandals, it will come from outside. The dollar is the world reserve currency. This means that the dollar’s exchange value is boosted, despite the dismal economic outlook in the US, by the fact that, as the currency for settling international accounts, there is international demand for the dollar. Country A settles its trade deficit with country B in dollars; country B settles its account with country C in dollars; and so on throughout the countries of the world.

For whatever the reason–perhaps to curtail their accumulation of suspect dollars or to bring Washington’s power to an end–the BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, are agreeing to settle their trade between themselves in their own currencies, thus abandoning the use of the dollar.

According to reports, China and Japan have reached agreement to settle their trade between themselves in their own currencies.

The moves away from the dollar as the currency of international transactions means that the dollar’s exchange value will fall as the demand for dollars falls. Whereas the Federal Reserve can create dollars with which to purchase the Treasury’s debt, thus preventing a fall in bond prices, the Federal Reserve cannot prop up the dollar’s exchange value by creating more dollars with which to purchase dollars. Dollars would have to be taken off the foreign exchange market by purchasing them with other currencies, but in order to have these currencies the US would have to be running a trade surplus, not a long-term trade deficit.

In the short-run, the Federal Reserve could arrange currency swap agreements in which foreign central banks swap their currencies for dollars in order to supply the Federal Reserve with currencies with which to soak up dollars. However, only a limited number of swaps could be negotiated before foreign central banks understood that the dollar’s fall in value was not a temporary event that could be propped up with currency swaps.

As the value of the dollar will fall as countries move away from its use as reserve currency, the values of dollar-denominated assets also will fall. The Federal Reserve, even with full cooperation from the banking system employing every fraud technique known, cannot prevent interest rates from rising on debt instruments denominated in a currency whose value is falling.
Think about it this way. A person, fund, or institution owns bonds or any debt instruments carrying a negative rate of interest, but continues to hold the instruments because interest rates, despite the increase in debt, are creeping down, raising bond prices and producing capital gains in the bonds. What happens when the exchange value of the currency in which the debt instruments are denominated falls? Can the price of the bond stay high even though the value of the currency in which the bond is denominated falls?

The drop in the exchange value of the currency hits the bond price in a second way. The price of imports rise, and this pushes up prices. The inflation measures will show higher inflation. How long will people hold debt instruments paying negative interest rates as inflation rises? Perhaps there are historical cases in which bond prices continue to rise indefinitely (or even hold firm) as inflation rises, but I have never heard of them.

As the Federal Reserve can create money, theoretically the Federal Reserve’s prop-up schemes could continue until the Federal Reserve owns all dollar-denominated financial assets. To cover the holes in its own balance sheet, the Federal Reserve could just print more money.

Some suspect that the Federal Reserve, in order to forestall a declining dollar and thus declining prices of dollar-denominated financial instruments, is behind the sales of naked shorts every time demand for physical bullion drives up the price of gold and silver. The short sales–paper sales–cancel the impact on price of the increased demand for bullion.

Some also believe that they see the Federal Reserve’s hand in the stock market. One day stocks fall 200 points. The next day stocks rise 200 points. This up and down pattern has been ongoing for a long time. One possible explanation is that as wary investors sell their equity holdings, the Federal Reserve, or the “plunge protection team,” steps in and buys.

Just as the “terrorist threat” was used to destroy the laws that protect US civil liberty, the financial crisis has resulted in the Federal Reserve moving far outside its charter and normal operating behavior.

To sum up, what has happened is that irresponsible and thoughtless–in fact, ideological–deregulation of the financial sector has caused a financial crisis that can only be managed by fraud. Civil damages might be paid, but to halt the fraud itself would mean the collapse of the financial system. Those in charge of the system would prefer the collapse to come from outside, such as from a collapse in the value of the dollar that could be blamed on foreigners, because an outside cause gives them something to blame other than themselves.

The GOP's Goal of Disabling the Government

by ROBERT HUNZIKER
 
The “GOP right wing is serious about disabling government.” This is the chilling byline from The Hill’s Congress Blog, July 19, 2012 by Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) referencing:  H.R. 4078- Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act.

H.R. 4078 will be considered by the House next week, and according to former Rep. Boehlert, “If one wants to fully appreciate the stranglehold the right wing has on the Republican Congressional agenda, and its attendant dangers, one need look no further than the bill the House plans to consider… which would shut down the entire regulatory system.” 

The message behind this Republican-sponsored bill to the Democrats is: Put this in your pipe and smoke it you wild-eyed, chicken-livered, pantywaisted, pinko, lefty liberals. And, just to reflect, Ann Coulter is the one who famously said, “ The left is out to destroy the country.”

H. R. 4078 places a moratorium on the issuance of all new major governmental regulations, until unemployment averages 6%, or less, for an entire quarter. This bill is so cleverly worded that it essentially shuts down the future of government, including the prospect that, if a newly elected President Romney wants to impose new limitations on how government funds are expended, so sorry.  He’ll be blocked. Therefore, it is clear the right-wingers do not even trust their own kind, and what an irony considering it is reasonably probable the billionaire right-wingers will purchase the presidency but will not know what to do with it!

The media has largely ignored H.R. 4078 because the whole affaire surrounding the bill seems so far-fetched and ignorant they figure there is no way that Congress could be stupid enough to literally tie the hands of the government. For example, what if a brilliant bill is initiated to help prevent another financial meltdown? Nope! No can do because the H.R. 4078 prohibits issuance of new standards and safeguards and any action that might lead to the issuance of new standards and safeguards.

This bunch of Republicans now running our Congress constitute a throw back to the acumen of an earlier era when the nation’s top ranking leadership was characterized by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, and one of his famous statements: “I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.”  This festering Quaylitis virus, similar to the Black Plague of old, re-emerges every so often, and it bewilders every politician it touches. The recent outbreak appears to have already infected a large component of the Republicans on the Hill.

In combination with Tea Partiers and the other heavy-duty right-wing extremists, the virus is an unbelievably toxic cocktail, something the country has never witnessed before. It is not a stretch of one’s imagination to say the country is now in the hands of a revitalized Know-Nothing Party (1850s), a bunch of xenophobes who form secretive groups to influence national policy by hiding within the dark enclaves of Citizens United, spewing out falsehoods so flamboyantly outrageous as to confuse a credulous public that falls head over heels for the faux credibility of TV’s electronic signal warfare, capturing the minds and the voters of the country by instilling fear of the present and despair for the future. This is the Know-Nothing way!

These Know-Nothings amazingly link ‘employment’ and ‘regulations’ as if a freeze on regulations will lift employment; otherwise, why set criteria of 6% unemployment as the hallmark for success of the bill? This is a patently false claim that has been roundly debunked by: the Economic Policy Institute, American Sustainable Business Council, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and, American Association of University Professors.

Furthermore, according to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, “Widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation’s financial markets,” leading to the Great Financial Meltdown of 2007-08. H.R. 4078 throws out the window any possibility of window dressing to address the systemic cancerous outgrowth of a failed regulatory environment that nearly shattered the country.

And, unbeknownst to the Know Nothings, their bill will step on the toes of their colleagues because the proposed act will hit the NRA and Dick Cheney’s hunting escapades right between the eyes. Every year the Fish and Wildlife Service analyzes data to determine appropriate bird hunting season for each state. The Migratory Bird Hunting study tells hunters which birds they can hunt, when seasons begin and end, where hunting is permitted, kill limits, etc. The Regulatory Freeze Act, H.R. 4078 will block this annual regulatory action. Where, when, and what will they hunt? This could lead to nationwide pandemonium with orange-suited hunters blasting away at anything, and everything, that flies!

And, even more alarming yet, the bill endangers the health of the nation at large because, every five years, Congress reauthorizes the Prescription Drug and User Fee Act, establishing the framework for FDA approval of new medicines and new medical devices. Reauthorization of this act is scheduled for 2012.

The bill sponsor is Tim Griffin (R-AR), and there are 20 Republican co-sponsors with no Democrats on board. Griffin is the one who infamously resigned from his position with George W. Bush’s re-election campaign after his Swift Boat (2004) involvement became public.

Previously Griffin was a legal advisor for the Bush-Cheney 2000 Florida Recount Team, and appearing in a BBC documentary, “Digging the Dirt,” he stated, “We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war. We make the bullets.” During Griffin’s 2010 campaign for the House, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named him as one of the “Crooked Candidates of 2010.” He has served in the House since January 3, 2011.

Griffin believes new regulations and/or changes in regulations hurt the economy, and he opines a moratorium on regulations will increase employment… What?  However, it is worth noting his bill does have limited exemptions to respond to health or safety threats to the country and for national security.

Nevertheless, the Congressional Budge Office says the bill could have a big, and hard to predict, effect on revenue, spending and implementation of legislation. As currently written, the bill will prevent annual updates of Medicare service payment levels, and it will delay implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 2010, informally referred to as Obamacare, including provisions for creation of a new system of health insurance.

Additionally, the bill appears to eradicate numerous pending energy-related bills like a New Refinery Standards act and a new EPA Fracking Rule as well as new energy standards for housing and industrial coolers.

You can bet your bottom dollar this bill is destined to become a very expensive affair, but whether it passes, or not, that is altogether another story for another time.

How Banks Cheat

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI
I think a lie with a purpose is wan iv the’ worst kind an’ the mos’ profitable.
– Finley Peter Dunne On Lying
There was something refreshing about Bernie Madoff.  He robbed Peters to pay Pauls and it worked well until there were more Pauls than Peters. It was straightforward and simple.  And that is the difference between him and Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the many other large financial institutions that cheat those with whom they deal. Bernie was not subtle.  No Congressional hearings or hearings in the British parliament were required in order to understand what happened.

A man named Diamond runs Barclays and a man named Dimon runs JPMorgan Chase. The similarity in names is not all they have in common. Each man has presided over an institution that has dealt less than fairly, in the case of JPMorgan, with its customers,  and in the case of Barclays, with consumers everywhere.  JPMorgan did it by ripping off its customers and Barclays did it by manipulating the LIBOR rate.  (It is now reported that four other major European banks are being investigated for similar behavior.)

Barclays manipulated the LIBOR rate from 2005-2009.  The LIBOR rate is the rate banks charge each other for inter-bank loans.   

According to Ezra Klein from 2005 to 2007 Barclay’s placed bets that LIBOR rates would increase.  Barclays would then report artificially high rates to the authority gathering the rates from the banks to establish the LIBOR rate thus improving the chance that the LIBOR rate would go up and the bets the firm made would pay off.    Investors on the other side of the bet were losers and borrowers whose interest rates on loans were set to LIBOR were paying artificially high rates. Beginning in 2008 when the solvency of financial institutions was being questioned, instead of reporting artificially high rates Barclays reported artificially low rates leading regulators to believe the bank was healthier than it was thus reducing the likelihood that its stability would be questioned.  (When rates were low consumers benefitted since mortgages, credit card loans and other financial transactions are tied to those rates.)   When the LIBOR manipulation came to light, Mr. Diamond sent a memo to staff saying he was “disappointed because many of these things happened on my watch.” 

On July 2 he said that although disappointed he would not resign his position.  On July 3 he resigned.  Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said the episode was “evidence of systematic greed at the expense of financial integrity and stability” and said the bank was in flagrant breach of its duty “to observe proper standards of market conduct. . . .”  Any reader who tries to understand my attempt to describe the LIBOR manipulation and its effects will certainly appreciate the simplicity of Mr. Madoff’s scheme.

JPMorgan Chase is one of the largest mutual fund managers in the country.  In addition to selling its own funds, it is in a position to sell other funds to its customers.  According to a story in the New York Times its sales personnel were encouraged to sell customers its proprietary funds rather than those of competitors, even when the competitors’ funds had historically performed better than the bank’s funds. One former employee said he was “selling JPMorgan funds that often had weak performance records, and  I was doing it for no other reason than to enrich the firm.  I couldn’t call myself objective.”  Some people might have been surprised at those disclosures thinking that the bank would have reformed its ways after 2011.  That was the year the bank was ordered to pay $373 million to American Century Investments because it failed to honor its agreement with American Century to promote American Century products when it acquired that firm’s retirement-plan services unit.  The arbitrators who heard the case said JPMorgan employees were rewarded for pushing JPMorgan’s own products.

Goldman Sachs is another venerable institution that benefits itself at the expense of its customers.  In March 2012 Chancellor Leo Strine of the Court of Chancery in Delaware issued a lengthy ruling in the case of in re El Paso Shareholder Litigation.   He criticized Goldman for its blatant conflict of interest when trying to acquire El Paso Corp describing it as “disturbing behavior.” Jonathan Weil who writes for Bloomberg,  made the observation about Goldman’s conduct in that transaction that  Goldman had “every incentive to maximize its own investment and fleece El Paso shareholders.”   

At roughly the same time Chancellor Strine’s opinion was making the news a former Goldman employee published an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he said, among other things, that the firm’s clients were “sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. . . . It is purely about how we can make the most possible money off them {clients.}.”

Readers should understand that the foregoing does not purport to be a complete list of banks that have devised schemes to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers. It is only a small sampling.  As I said at the outset, the nice thing about Bernie was how straightforward his malfeasance was.   Everyone can understand it.  The banks are no more honest than he-just more artful.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Planned Obsolescence: Products Designed to Fail

Planned Obsolescence: How Companies Encourage Hyperconsumption
by Sylvain Lapoix - OWNI.eu


Like many of their professors, students at the Sorbonne had become used to going to buy their ink cartridges from a small shop on a nearby street. With no manufacturer affiliations, it carried shelves full of ‘generic’ cartridges that worked with printers from big name brands like Epson, Canon, HP and Brother. But that small shop soon faced a very big problem: some new printers only recognise ‘proprietary’ consumables that they can detect by matching their hardware signature against a signature in a chip on the cartridge. Anybody hoping to get round that by using a syringe to top up their existing cartridge with new ink was soon caught out because the chips can also track ink levels. But try seeing things from the manufacturers’ point of view: print cartridge sales can represent up to 90% of their turnover, so it’s not hard to see why they want to prevent consumers from going elsewhere. This process of trapping consumers in an endless cycle of buying more by supplying products that soon become unusable or beyond repair has taken on the almost cult name of ‘planned obsolescence.

This rather abstract term hides a whole range of manufacturing and marketing techniques that all share a single aim: encouraging consumers to buy more to keep factories busy and products flying off the shelves. The easiest way to achieve this is to reduce a product’s life cycle by employing different techniques that lead to a constant squeeze on labour costs and a wasteful use of natural resources, with little concern for the current shortages in raw materials, although the practice has managed to hold back the price of rare metals and copper.

From disposable light bulbs to the iPad 2


Just after the First World War, the future of filament-based electric bulbs looked very bright when a commercial agreement between the Allies and Germany was signed. Before the ink was even dry on the Treaty of Versailles, Dutch firm Philips, the American General Electric and German Osram joined forces with other European and Japanese companies in an agreement to limit the lifespan of their light bulbs and fix prices as part of the Phoebus cartel.


 

But it would take the simultaneous arrival of the Depression and Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management to bring about the idea that it was both technically possible and commercially desirable to stimulate demand in the consumer. Often quoted as the first recorded mention of the term ‘planned obsolescence’, this 1932 text by Bernard London puts the problem as follows:
“In a word, people generally, in a frightened and hysterical mood, are using everything that they own longer than was their custom before the depression. In the earlier period of prosperity, the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity. They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-dateness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out, merely because they were obsolete.”
For industrialists, the idea represented something of a commercial Holy Grail, a way to create more demand in a market that was already saturated. How could they sell more fridges, cars and shoes to customers that already had what they needed? They had three main solutions:
  • technical: built weaker, less durable products that are impossible to repair;
  • design: artificially age older products by making them seem old-fashioned and out-of date;
  • legal: lobby for new legal requirements and standards that mean customers have to buy a new product to stay within the law.
Not every industry uses all three methods. Built-in technical planned obsolescence is more common with white goods (fridges, ovens and so on), but brand new designs and increasingly short turnaround times in between different generations of the same product is a something of a speciality for consumer electronics manufacturers. Apple has managed to achieve remarkable success by using both methods at the same time: its Macs are entirely proprietary and very difficult for the user to modify; if you try taking one apart yourself, you’ll find you’re no longer covered by the guarantee.





They form a closed system, meaning it’s hard to switch the hard drive or graphics card, or tweak the performance in any way, because the manufacturer is the only one that supplies the parts. Finally, software and hardware updates come along incredibly frequently. The manufacturer’s ‘addicted’ fans are encouraged by incessant publicity to upgrade to the latest expensive mobile phone, laptop or MP3 player—despite the fact that Apple’s products are part of the same low-cost supply chain with poorly-paid workers and cheap raw materials as everybody else’s. The firm’s main sub-contractor, Foxconn, uses parts of its factories to work on products for Apple’s rivals, including HP, Sony, Intel and Dell.

Writing planned obsolescence into law: the ‘lift cartel’


A great example of this ‘forced consumption’ is the humble lift.  The four main lift cabin manufacturers, Thyssenkrupp, KonĂ©, Otis and Schindler, appealed to the French standards-setting body, AFNOR, after fatal accidents in Amiens and Strasbourg. They expressed their concerns to the minister, Gilles de Robien, who tabled a law that will lead to a huge replacement programme to ensure the country’s lifts are safe to run between 2013 and 2018.  This safety-critical upgrade is set to cost between four and eight billion euros.

But according to a report by Parisian councillor Ian Brossat published last year by Marianne2, the programme is very unlikely to be of much use to the general public. It’s not the lift cabins themselves that cause problems, but poor maintenance carried out by overworked technicians.  And the two accidents that led to the de Robien law were both triggered by insufficient maintenance …


These techniques have certainly had the desired effect. According to a joint report by Friends of the Earth and the French Centre for Independent Information on Waste, despite the fact that the market for manufactured goods was already saturated by the beginning of the 1980s, purchases of electronic and electrical equipment have grown six-fold since the 1990s. In the same time, another report by consumer organisation Que Choisir has shown that the average lifespan for white goods has fallen from 10-12 years before 2000 to just 6-8/9 years today.

A trend in favour of consumption

Guarantees and warranties, which have been getting shorter and shorter since the start of the last decade, represent the final chapter in this story. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, journalist Jane Spencer observed that “in the past year Dell Computer has slashed warranty periods from three years to one.”  At the same time, Apple’s earliest iPods were amongst the first products to offer users a mere 90 days of protection.

That’s just three months. The rapid reduction in labour costs in Asia, South Africa and former Eastern Bloc countries has meant that even pricey gadgets are now seen as disposable. Repairing is left to geeks, eco-activists or anybody nostalgic enough to still have an old soldering iron.

Putting these various ways of implementing planned obsolescence to one side though, it’s propaganda—in the original sense of the word, being able to convince the masses—that has had the biggest impact.  It has served to maintain the idea that using these techniques is legitimate, despite the disastrous consequences they have for society and the environment. Edward Bernays, the so-called ‘father of public relations’ goes much further than Bernard London ever did. His work contains the real basis of the idea that consumerism is a social fait accompli that now defines how we think about ourselves, what we do and our interactions with others. Woodrow Wilson asked the Austrian to help him encourage the American people to join the war effort in 1917, and in his 1928 book Propaganda, he explains how, while working for Lucky Strike, he managed to persuade women to start smoking.

Previously seen as primarily a men’s activity, Bernays succeeded in convincing American women to take up the habit by giving leading suffragettes free cigarettes and encouraging them to brandish them as ‘torches of freedom.’  This inversion of social meaning by attaching an artificial political meaning to an ordinary consumer product foreshadowed Noam Chomsky’s idea of ‘manufacturing consent.’

When marketing finally won the day over engineering, non-durability became a principle of industrial design forever.  But even before then, it was a social construct, as Victor Lebow, a distributor, explained in a 1955 article that is examined in documentary film The Story of Stuff:
“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
Permanent consumption is seen as proof of a happy, fulfilled life and leaves individuals with only one objective, accumulating and replacing material goods, with design contributing to making them more or less attractive. The mobile phone, the car, and the watch are the three examples par excellence of this vision. Linked with Bernays’ idea that we take pleasure in destroying our obsolete possessions, this world view also has echoes of Freud’s ‘death drive’, something also found in the writing of John Maynard Keynes by Gilles Dostaller and Bernard Maris. Except that at the time, the two economists were hoping to find an explanation for what had gone wrong with the system that led to it to destroying itself. But there is no reason to make the distinction: bankers and businessmen are consumers like the rest of us, but on a different scale. On their scale, the talk is of systemic crises rather than planned obsolescence. And these crises, we’re told, are equally vital in keeping the whole system turning.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

War on All Fronts

by PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS
 
The Russian government has finally caught on that its political opposition is being financed by the US taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy and other CIA/State Department fronts in an attempt to subvert the Russian government and install an American puppet state in the geographically largest country on earth, the one country with a nuclear arsenal sufficient to deter Washington’s aggression.

Just as earlier this year Egypt expelled hundreds of people associated with foreign-funded “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) for “instilling dissent and meddling in domestic policies,”  the Russian Duma (parliament) has just passed a law that Putin is expected to sign that requires political organizations that receive foreign funding to register as foreign agents.  The law is based on the US law requiring the registration of foreign agents.

Much of the Russian political opposition consists of foreign-paid agents, and once the law passes leading elements of the Russian political opposition will have to sign in with the Russian Ministry of Justice as foreign agents of Washington.  The Itar-Tass News Agency reported on July 3 that there are about 1,000 organizations in Russia that are funded from abroad and engaged in political activity.  Try to imagine the outcry if the Russians were funding 1,000 organizations in the US engaged in an effort to turn America into a Russian puppet state. (In the US the Russians would find a lot of competition from Israel.)

The Washington-funded Russian political opposition masquerades behind “human rights” and says it works to “open Russia.”  What the disloyal and treasonous Washington-funded Russian “political opposition” means by “open Russia” is to open Russia for brainwashing by Western propaganda, to open Russia to economic plunder by the West, and to open Russia to having its domestic and foreign policies determined by Washington.

“Non-governmental organizations” are very governmental. They have played pivotal roles in both financing and running the various “color revolutions” that have established American puppet states in former constituent parts of the Soviet Empire. NGOs have been called “coup d’etat machines,” and they have served Washington well in this role. They are currently working in Venezuela against Chavez.

Of course, Washington is infuriated that its plans for achieving hegemony over a country too dangerous to attack militarily have been derailed by Russia’s awakening, after two decades, to the threat of being politically subverted by Washington-financed NGOs.  Washington requires foreign-funded organizations to register as foreign agents (unless they are Israeli funded). 

However, this fact doesn’t stop Washington from denouncing the new Russian law as “anti-democratic,” “police state,” blah-blah.  Caught with its hand in subversion, Washington calls Putin names. The pity is that most of the brainwashed West will fall for Washington’s lies, and we will hear more about “gangster state Russia.”

China is also in Washington’s crosshairs.  China’s rapid rise as an economic power is perceived in Washington as a dire threat. China must be contained. Obama’s US Trade Representative has been secretly negotiating for the last 2 or 3 years a Trans Pacific Partnership, whose purpose is to derail China’s natural economic leadership in its own sphere of influence and replace it with Washington’s leadership.

Washington is also pushing to form new military alliances in Asia and to establish new military bases in the Philippines, S. Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
Washington quickly inserted itself into disputes between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines. Washington aligned with its former Vietnamese enemy in Vietnam’s dispute with China over the resource rich Paracel and Spratly islands and with the Philippines in its dispute with China over the resource rich Scarborough Shoal.

Thus, like England’s interference in the dispute between Poland and National Socialist Germany over the return to Germany of German territories that were given to Poland as World War I booty, Washington sets the stage for war.

China has been cooperative with Washington, because the offshoring of the US economy to China was an important component in China’s unprecedented high rate of economic development. American capitalists got their short-run profits, and China got the capital and technology to build an economy that in another 2 or 3 years will have surpassed the sinking US economy.  Jobs offshoring, mistaken for free trade by free market economists, has built China and destroyed America.

Washington’s growing interference in Chinese affairs has convinced China’s government that military countermeasures are required to neutralize Washington’s announced intentions to build its military presence in China’s sphere of influence.  Washington’s view is that only Washington, no one else, has a sphere of influence, and Washington’s sphere of influence is the entire world.
On July 14 China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said that Washington was interfering in Chinese affairs and making China’s disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines impossible to resolve.

It looks as if an over-confident US government is determined to have a three-front war: Syria, Lebanon, and Iran in the Middle East, China in the Far East, and Russia in Europe. This would appear to be an ambitious agenda for a government whose military was unable to occupy Iraq after nine years or to defeat the lightly-armed Taliban after eleven years, and whose economy and those of its NATO puppets are in trouble and decline with corresponding rising internal unrest and loss of confidence in political leadership.

Images that Say Something or Other






Wednesday, July 18, 2012

FDA to Ban BPA from Baby Bottles; Plan Falls Short of Needed Protections: Scientists





The US Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) is now officially banned from the manufacturing of baby bottles and sippy cups -- a move that researchers say still falls short of sufficient regulation. Environmental groups say more should be done to ban BPA from all consumer products including infant formula and food and beverage packaging, which are not included under the new rules.
 
 The F.D.A. said that its decision was a response to a request by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association, that rules allowing BPA in those products be phased out, in part to boost "consumer confidence."

The Environmental Working Group says the move is purely cosmetic, as most companies have already stopped using BPA for baby bottles and sippy cups due to public pressure. Allowing BPA to go unchallenged in products it is actually still used in is a blow to the anti-BPA fight.

“Once again, the FDA has come so late to the party that the public and the marketplace have already left,” said Jason Rano, Director of Government Affairs for EWG. “If the agency truly wants to prevent people from being exposed to this toxic chemical associated with a variety of serious and chronic conditions it should ban its use in cans of infant formula, food and beverages."

BPA is a synthetic estrogen that scientists say can disrupt the hormone system, interfere with development of the reproductive and nervous systems in babies and young children, and is likely carcinogenic.

In the US, BPA is an almost ubiquitous substance found in most food packaging, water bottles, and dental sealants. Roughly 90 percent of Americans have traces of BPA in their urine, due to exposure. Traces have also been found in breast milk, the blood of pregnant women and umbilical cord blood.

“This is only a baby step in the fight to eradicate BPA. To truly protect the public, FDA needs to ban BPA from all food packaging. This half-hearted action—taken only after consumers shifted away from BPA in children’s products — is inadequate. FDA continues to dodge the bigger questions of BPA’s safety,” said Dr. Sarah Janssen, senior scientist in the public health program at Natural Resources Defense Council.

Nearly all of Congress refuses to release tax returns

By Eric W. Dolan - RAW Story
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
 
 
Democrats in Congress have called on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to release more tax returns, but most of them have refused to release their own tax forms.

For three months, McClatchy requested the most recent tax returns from all 535 members of Congress, but only 13 Democrats and 3 Republicans shared their detailed tax information. The rest either refused to share their tax returns or ignored McClatchy’s request.

Members of Congress are required to file financial disclosure reports that list their major sources of earned and unearned income. However, the disclosure reports do not contain the same detail of information found in tax returns, omitting financial data such as spousal income.

Romney has repeatedly insisted that he would not release more than his 2010 and 2011 tax returns, even though his own father set a standard of releasing 12 years of returns.

“In the political environment that exists today, the opposition research of the Obama campaign is looking for anything they can use to distract from the failure of the president to reignite our economy,” Romney told the conservative National Review Online.

“I’m simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort and lie about,” he added.

Senate Republicans Kill Disclose Act in Blow to Campaign Transparency


Citizens United Remains Unscathed as GOP Senators 'keep public in the dark'

Senate Republicans blocked the Disclose Act Monday night, effectively killing a bid for campaign donor transparency in the post-Citizens United world. The Disclose Act, which was defeated 51-44, would have required independent groups to release the names of campaign donors who give more than $10,000 for political ads and other campaign tactics.

The Act was drafted in response to the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allows limitless corporate donations to be given to outside political campaigners, known as super PACs, in secret.

"The DISCLOSE Act would help the American people understand who is behind the political messages we’re bombarded with every day,” said Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way. “Apparently, GOP senators would rather keep the public in the dark about who is bankrolling their campaigns. What do they have to hide?"

"Today, the Senate had a chance to protect the American people’s right to know who is trying to sway their vote. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans chose to protect the anonymity of the wealthy few at the expense of the American public."

The Republican filibuster of the bill was led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) one of several republican senators who once supported campaign finance disclosure but have recently favored increased secrecy in Washington, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

"These same politicians were for the disclosure measure for years, until there was a chance it might actually pass. Now they are filibustering it," said Michael Waldman, at the Brennan Center at NYU.

As a result, corporations will continue to spend large sums of money to influence elections and subsequent policy while remaining anonymous.

* * *

Question: On Cloture on the Motion to Proceed (Motion to Invoke Cloture on the Motion to Proceed to S.3369 )
Vote Number: 179 Vote Date: July 16, 2012, 06:08 PM
Required For Majority: 3/5 Vote Result: Cloture on the Motion to Proceed Rejected
Measure Number: S. 3369
Measure Title: A bill to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to provide for additional disclosure requirements for corporations, labor organizations, Super PACs and other entities, and for other purposes.
Vote Counts: YEAs 51
  NAYs 44
  Not Voting 5  
# # #

Republicans Join Mounting Calls for Romney to Release Tax Returns



Pressure on Mitt Romney to release his tax returns has reached a critical point as a stampede of Republican voices are now joining the call.

Screengrab from Mitt & Ann Romney's 2010 Return
  So far Romney has released just his 2010 return and an estimate of his 2011 return.

As the negative attention over the issue grows, Pema Leva wonders at TPM, "if it’s worth the bad press to keep the tax returns private, they must contain something worse."

While Romney's submitted returns show "an effective 2010 tax rate of 13.9 percent," previous years may be even more damning, making the bad press worth it.  Kevin Drum writes that "there are probably multiple years in which Romney paid no taxes at all."

Steve Benen speculates on other reasons for Romney taking the heat rather than releasing the returns, suggesting Romney "may have had to pay fines" for skirting tax laws or "may have additional offshore investments."

When asked by the conservative National Review about not releasing his returns, Romney stated:
My tax returns that have already been released number into the hundreds of pages. And we will be releasing tax returns for the most current year as soon as those are prepared. They will also number in the hundreds of pages. In the political environment that exists today, the opposition research of the Obama campaign is looking for anything they can use to distract from the failure of the president to reignite our economy. And I’m simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort, and lie about.
Calls for Romney to release his tax returns are now also coming from fellow Republicans.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday whether Romney should release more of his return, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, “I’m a big believer that no matter who you are, or what office you’re running for, you should be as transparent as you can be with your tax returns and other aspects of your life so that people have the appropriate ability to judge your background and what have you."

The National Journal has a list of 14 prominent Republicans, including Perry, who also say Romney should release his returns. Their list includes Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who said, "I have no idea on why he has restricted the number to this point."

The National Review Online also published an editorial Tuesday urging Romney to release his returns.

Truth In Trials Act, Medical Marijuana Protection Bill, Proposed By Bipartisan Group Of Lawmakers

The Huffington Post | By Nick Wing Posted: 07/18/2012

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced a bill this week designed to create enhanced legal protections for valid medical marijuana patients prosecuted due to conflicting state and federal laws regarding the legality of the substance.

Under the Truth In Trials Act, sponsored by California Democratic Rep. Sam Farr and co-sponsored by other representatives such as Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), state-licensed medical marijuana users would be given the right to provide an "affirmative defense" in the case of a federal prosecution. This effectively allows them to prove that their actions, while illegal at the federal level, were in fact protected under state law.

"Any person facing prosecution or a proceeding for any marijuana-related offense under any federal law shall have the right to introduce evidence demonstrating that the marijuana-related activities for which the person stands accused were performed in compliance with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana, or that the property which is subject to a proceeding was possessed in compliance with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana," the bill reads.

The legislation also lays out specific language stating that cannabis plants grown legally under state law may not be seized. Under the legislation, marijuana and other property confiscated in the process of a prosecution must also be maintained -- not destroyed -- and returned to the defendant if they are able to prove it was for a use accepted by the state.

The latest version of the Truth In Trials Act comes as federal crackdowns on dispensaries in medical marijuana states continue to surge. Last week, federal officials targeted one of the nation's largest pot shops. The Associated Press reported:
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has threatened to seize the Oakland property where Harborside Health Center has operated since 2006, as well as its sister shop in San Jose, executive director and co-founder Steve DeAngelo said Wednesday. His employees found court papers announcing asset forfeiture proceedings against Harborside's landlords taped to the doors at the two locations on Tuesday.
Read more relevant text from the bill below:
(a) Any person facing prosecution or a proceeding for any marijuana-related offense under any Federal law shall have the right to introduce evidence demonstrating that the marijuana-related activities for which the person stands accused were performed in compliance with State law regarding the medical use of marijuana, or that the property which is subject to a proceeding was possessed in compliance with State law regarding the medical use of marijuana. 
`(b)(1) It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution or proceeding under any Federal law for marijuana-related activities, which the proponent must establish by a preponderance of the evidence, that those activities comply with State law regarding the medical use of marijuana.
`(2) In a prosecution or a proceeding for a marijuana-related offense under any Federal criminal law, should a finder of fact determine, based on State law regarding the medical use of marijuana, that a defendant's marijuana-related activity was performed primarily, but not exclusively, for medical purposes, the defendant may be found guilty of an offense only corresponding to the amount of marijuana determined to be for nonmedical purposes.
`(c) Any property seized in connection with a prosecution or proceeding to which this section applies, with respect to which a person successfully makes a defense under this section, shall be returned to the owner not later than 10 days after the court finds the defense is valid, minus such material necessarily destroyed for testing purposes.
`(d) Any marijuana seized under any Federal law shall be retained and not destroyed pending resolution of any forfeiture claim, if not later than 30 days after seizure the owner of the property notifies the Attorney General, or a duly authorized agent of the Attorney General, that a person with an ownership interest in the property is asserting an affirmative defense for the medical use of marijuana.
`(e) No plant may be seized under any Federal law otherwise permitting such seizure if the plant is being grown or stored pursuant to a recommendation by a physician or an order of a State or municipal agency in accordance with State law regarding the medical use of marijuana.
`(f) In this section, the term State includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other territory or possession of the United States.'

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Real Libor Scandal

by PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS and NOMI PRINS
 
According to news reports, UK banks fixed the London interbank borrowing rate (Libor) with the complicity of the Bank of England (UK central bank) at a low rate in order to obtain a cheap borrowing cost.  The way this scandal is playing out is that the banks benefitted from borrowing at these low rates. Whereas this is true, it also strikes us as simplistic and as a diversion from the deeper, darker scandal.Banks are not the only beneficiaries of lower Libor rates.  Debtors (and investors) whose floating or variable rate loans are pegged in some way to Libor also benefit.  One could argue that by fixing the rate low, the banks were cheating themselves out of interest income, because the effect of the low Libor rate is to lower the interest rate on customer loans, such as variable rate mortgages that banks possess in their portfolios. But the banks did not fix the Libor rate with their customers in mind. Instead, the fixed Libor rate enabled them to improve their balance sheets, as well as help to perpetuate the regime of low interest rates. The last thing the banks want is a rise in interest rates that would drive down the values of their holdings and reveal large losses masked by rigged interest rates.

Indicative of greater deceit and a larger scandal than simply borrowing from one another at lower rates, banks gained far more from the rise in the prices, or higher evaluations of floating rate financial instruments (such as CDOs), that resulted from lower Libor rates. As prices of debt instruments all tend to move in the same direction, and in the opposite direction from interest rates (low interest rates mean high bond prices, and vice versa), the effect of lower Libor rates is to prop up the prices of bonds, asset-backed financial instruments, and other “securities.” The end result is that the banks’ balance sheets look healthier than they really are.

On the losing side of the scandal are purchasers of interest rate swaps, savers who receive less interest on their accounts, and ultimately all bond holders when the bond bubble pops and prices collapse.

We think we can conclude that Libor rates were manipulated lower as a means to bolster the prices of bonds and asset-backed securities.  In the UK, as in the US, the interest rate on government bonds is less than the rate of inflation.  The UK inflation rate is about 2.8%, and the interest rate on 20-year government bonds is 2.5%. Also, in the UK, as in the US, the government debt to GDP ratio is rising. Currently the ratio in the UK is about double its average during the 1980-2011 period.

The question is, why do investors purchase long term bonds, which pay less than the rate of inflation, from governments whose debt is rising as a share of GDP?  One might think that investors would understand that they are losing money and sell the bonds, thus lowering their price and raising the interest rate.

Why isn’t this happening?

Despite the negative interest rate, investors have been making capital gains from their Treasury bond holdings, because the prices were rising as interest rates were pushed lower.
What was pushing the interest rates lower?

The answer is even clearer now.  Wall Street has been selling huge amounts of interest rate swaps, essentially a way of shorting interest rates and driving them down.  Thus, causing bond prices to rise.

Secondly, fixing Libor at lower rates has the same effect. Lower UK interest rates on government bonds drive up their prices.

In other words, we would argue that the bailed-out banks in the US and UK are returning the favor that they received from the bailouts and from the Fed and Bank of England’s low rate policy by rigging government bond prices, thus propping up a government bond market that would otherwise, one would think, be driven down by the abundance of new debt and monetization of this debt, or some part of it.

How long can the government bond bubble be sustained?  How negative can interest rates be driven?

Can a declining economy offset the impact on inflation of debt creation and its monetization, with the result that inflation falls to zero, thus making the low interest rates on government bonds positive?

According to his public statements, zero inflation is not the goal of the Federal Reserve chairman.  He believes that some inflation is a spur to economic growth, and he has said that his target is 2% inflation.  At current bond prices, that means a continuation of negative interest rates.

The latest news completes the picture of banks and central banks manipulating interest rates in order to prop up the prices of bonds and other debt instruments.  We have learned that the Fed has been aware of Libor manipulation  (and thus apparently supportive of it) since 2008. Thus, the circle of complicity is closed. The motives of the Fed, Bank of England, US and UK banks are aligned, their policies mutually reinforcing and beneficial. The Libor fixing is another indication of this collusion.

Unless bond prices can continue to rise as new debt is issued, the era of rigged bond prices might be drawing to an end. It would seem to be only a matter of time before the bond bubble bursts.

The Political Pathology of Deficit Panic

by MATTEA KRAMER
 
We’re at the edge of the cliff of deficit disaster!  National security spending is being, or will soon be, slashed to the bone!  Obamacare will sink the ship of state!

Each of these claims has grabbed national attention in a big way, sucking up years’ worth of precious airtime. That’s a serious bummer, since each of them is a spending myth of the first order. Let’s pop them, one by one, and move on to the truly urgent business of a nation that is indeed on the edge.

Spending Myth 1:  Today’s deficits have taken us to a historically unprecedented, economically catastrophic place.

This myth has had the effect of binding the hands of elected officials and policymakers at every level of government.  It has also emboldened those who claim that we must cut government spending as quickly, as radically, as deeply as possible.

In fact, we’ve been here before.  In 2009, the federal budget deficit was a whopping 10.1% of the American economy and back in 1943, in the midst of World War II, it was three times that — 30.3%. This fiscal year the deficit will total around 7.6%. Yes, that is big. But in the Congressional Budget Office’s grimmest projections, that figure will fall to 6.3% next year, and 5.8% in fiscal 2014. In 1983, under President Reagan, the deficit hit 6% of the economy, and by 1998, that had turned into a surplus. So, while projected deficits remain large, they’re neither historically unprecedented, nor insurmountable.

More important still, the size of the deficit is no sign that lawmakers should make immediate deep cuts in spending. In fact, history tells us that such reductions are guaranteed to harm, if not cripple, an economy still teetering at the edge of recession.

A number of leading economists are now busy explaining why the deficit this year actually ought to be a lot larger, not smaller; why there should be more government spending, including aid to state and local governments, which would create new jobs and prevent layoffs in areas like education and law enforcement. Such efforts, working in tandem with slow but positive job growth in the private sector, might indeed mean genuine recovery. Government budget cuts, on the other hand, offset private-sector gains with the huge and depressing effect of public-sector layoffs, and have damaging ripple effects on the rest of the economy as well.

When the economy is healthier, a host of promising options are at hand for lawmakers who want to narrow the gap between spending and tax revenue. For example, loopholes and deductions in the tax code that hand enormous subsidies to wealthy Americans and corporations will cost the Treasury around $1.3 trillion in lost revenue this year alone — more, that is, than the entire budget deficit. Closing some of them would make great strides toward significant deficit reductions.

Alarmingly, the deficit-reduction fever that’s resulted from this first spending myth has led many Americans to throw their support behind de-investment in domestic priorities like education, research, and infrastructure — cuts that threaten to undo generations of progress. This is in part the result of myth number two.

Spending Myth 2: Military and other national security spending have already taken their lumps and future budget-cutting efforts will have to take aim at domestic programs instead.

The very idea that military spending has already been deeply cut in service to deficit reduction is not only false, but in the realm of fantasy.  The real story: despite headlines about “slashed” Pentagon spending and “doomsday” plans for more, no actual cuts to the defense budget have yet taken place. In fact, since 2001, to quote former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, defense spending has grown like a “gusher.”  The Department of Defense base budget nearly doubled in the space of a decade. Now, the Pentagon is likely to face an exceedingly modest 2.5% budget cut in fiscal 2013, “paring” its budget down to a mere $525 billion — with possible additional cuts shaving off another $55 billion next year if Congress allows the Budget Control Act, a.k.a. “sequestration,” to take effect.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.  It’s likely that lawmakers will, at the last moment, come to an agreement to cancel those extra cuts.  In other words, the notion that our military, which has been experiencing financial boom times even in tough times, has felt significant deficit-slashing pain — or has even been cut at all — is the Pentagon equivalent of a unicorn.

What this does mean, however, is that lawmakers heading down the budget-cutting path can find plenty of savings in the enormous defense and national security budgets. Moreover, cuts there would be less harmful to the economy than reductions in domestic spending.

A group of military budget experts, for example, found that cutting many costly and obsolete weapons programs could save billions of dollars each year, and investing that money in domestic priorities like education and health care would spur the economy. That’s because those sectors create more jobs per dollar than military programs do.  And that leads us to myth three.

Spending Myth 3: Government health-insurance programs are more costly than private insurance.

False claims about the higher cost of government health programs have led many people to demand that health-care solutions come from the private sector. Advocates of this have been much aided by the complexity of sorting out health costs, which has provided the necessary smoke and mirrors to camouflage this whopping lie.

Health spending is indeed growing faster than any other part of the federal budget. It’s gone from a measly 7% in 1976 to nearly a quarter today — and that’s truly a cause for concern. But health care costs, public and private, have been on the rise across the developed world for decades. And cost growth in government programs like Medicare has actually been slower than in private health insurance. That’s because the federal government has important advantages over private insurance companies when it comes to health care. For example, as a huge player in the health-care market, the federal government has been successful at negotiating lower prices than small private insurers can. And that helps us de-bunk myth number four.

Spending Myth 4: The Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — will bankrupt the federal government while levying the biggest tax in U.S. history.

Wrong again. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this health-reform legislation will reduce budget deficits by $119 billion between now and 2019.  And only around 1% of American households will end up paying a penalty for lacking health insurance.

While the Affordable Care Act is hardly a panacea for the many problems in U.S. health care, it does at least start to address the pressing issue of rising costs — and it incorporates some of the best wisdom on how to do so. Health-policy experts have explored phasing out the fee-for-service payment system — in which doctors are paid for each test and procedure they perform — in favor of something akin to pay-for-performance. This transition would reward medical professionals for delivering more effective, coordinated, and efficient care — and save a lot of money by reducing waste.

The Affordable Care Act begins implementing such changes in the Medicare program, and it explores other important cost-containment measures. In other words, it lays the groundwork for potentially far deeper budgetary savings down the road.

Having cleared the landscape of four stubborn spending myths, it should be easier to see straight to the stuff that really matters. Financial hardship facing millions of Americans ought to be our top concern. Between 2007 and 2010, the median family lost nearly 40% of its net worth. Neither steep deficits, nor disagreement over military spending and health reform should eclipse this as our most pressing challenge.

If lawmakers skipped the myth-making and began putting America’s resources into a series of domestic investments that would spur the economy now, their acts would yield dividends for years to come. That means pushing education and job training, plus a host of job-creation measures, to the top of the priority list, and setting aside initiatives based on fear and fantasy.

Technology and Inequality

by DEAN BAKER
 
The people who have been the winners in the massive upward redistribution of income over the last three decades have a happy story that they like to tell themselves and the rest of us: technology did it. The reason why this is a happy story is that technology develops to a large extent beyond our control.

None of us can decide exactly what direction innovations in computers, automation, or medicine will take. Scientists and engineers in these areas follow their leads and innovate where they can. If the outcome of these innovations is an economy that is more unequal, that may be unfortunate, but you can’t get mad at the technology. This is why the beneficiaries of growing inequality are always happy to tell us that the problem is technology.

There is another story that can be told. In this story the upward redistribution of income was a conscious policy by those in power. This story points to a number of different policies that had the effect of redistributing income upward. For example, exposing manufacturing workers to direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world, while protecting highly educated professionals (e.g. doctors and lawyers), would be expected to lower the wages of both manufacturing workers and the large number of workers who will compete for jobs with displaced manufacturing workers.

Central banks that target low inflation even at the cost of higher unemployment will also increase inequality. When a central bank like the Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy and reduce inflationary pressures, it is factory workers and retail clerks who lose their jobs, not doctors and lawyers. Even an economist can figure out that this will depress the wages of the former to benefit the latter.

And when a government adopts a one-sided approach to enforcing labor laws, so that courts intervene to benefit management and weaken unions, it will reduce workers’ bargaining power. This will mean lower pay for ordinary workers and higher corporate profits and pay for those at the top.

These and other policy changes over the last three decades can explain the massive upward redistribution that we have seen over this period. In this story there is no happy coincidence about the upward redistribution of income. It was done by human hands with the finger prints of the 1 percent everywhere.

But people involved in policy debates often have difficulty seeing these fingerprints. That is the context in which we have to understand the report that the OECD released on inequality at the end of last year. While this volume contained much interesting data and useful analysis, the main villain in its inequality story was technology.

This led to the happy conclusion that those calling the shots were not responsible. As decent caring human beings they had ideas about how to redress the harm that technology had caused, but this was only because they were good people. There was no sense of undoing the damage brought about by deliberate policy.

On closer examination it turns out that the OECD technology story is wrong. Ananalysis by my colleague at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, David Rosnick, found that they appeared to have made a mistake in their analysis substituting a coefficient on a cyclical technology variable for the coefficient of the trend technology variable. Essentially, their results (and ours) found that spending on technology may influence inequality over the course of a business cycle, but that the increase in spending on technology over the last three decades had no impact on inequality over this period.

The OECD analysis did find that lower unionization rates and weaker labor protections contributed to inequality; although this rise was offset by the impact of an increasingly educated workforce. On net, their analysis explained none of the rise in inequality they identified.

Our analysis found that the growth of the financial sector could explain much of the rise of inequality over this period. The rise in the financial sector share of compensation was strongly associated with a rise in inequality. This is not surprising. The huge paychecks of the Wall Street crew have to come from somewhere and our analysis indicates that it came from those below the 90th percentile in the income distribution. The growth of the financial sector is in turn a story of too-big-to-fail insurance and having the government look the other way in the face of financial sector corruption, as we see most recently with the LIBOR scandal.

In short, the OECD struck out in trying to produce a volume that supported the benign technology caused inequality story. When done correctly their analysis does not support this conclusion. Our modification of their analysis fingers the financial industry as a major villain in the inequality story.

If we are serious about reducing inequality, reining in the financial sector must be a big part of the plan. And, a tax on financial speculation would be a great place to start.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This Global Financial Fraud and Its Gatekeepers


The media's 'bad apple' thesis no longer works. We're seeing systemic corruption in banking – and systemic collusion
by Naomi Wolf
 
Last fall, I argued that the violent reaction to Occupy and other protests around the world had to do with the 1%ers' fear of the rank and file exposing massive fraud if they ever managed get their hands on the books. At that time, I had no evidence of this motivation beyond the fact that financial system reform and increased transparency were at the top of many protesters' list of demands.

But this week presents a sick-making trove of new data that abundantly fills in this hypothesis and confirms this picture. The notion that the entire global financial system is riddled with systemic fraud – and that key players in the gatekeeper roles, both in finance and in government, including regulatory bodies, know it and choose to quietly sustain this reality – is one that would have only recently seemed like the frenzied hypothesis of tinhat-wearers, but this week's headlines make such a conclusion, sadly, inevitable.

The New York Times business section on 12 July shows multiple exposes of systemic fraud throughout banks: banks colluding with other banks in manipulation of interest rates, regulators aware of systemic fraud, and key government officials (at least one banker who became the most key government official) aware of it and colluding as well. Fraud in banks has been understood conventionally and, I would say, messaged as a glitch. As in London Mayor Boris Johnson's full-throated defense of Barclay's leadership last week, bank fraud is portrayed as a case, when it surfaces, of a few "bad apples" gone astray.

In the New York Times business section, we read that the HSBC banking group is being fined up to $1bn, for not preventing money-laundering (a highly profitable activity not to prevent) between 2004 and 2010 – a six years' long "oops". In another article that day, Republican Senator Charles Grassley says of the financial group Peregrine capital: "This is a company that is on top of things." The article goes onto explain that at Peregrine Financial, "regulators discovered about $215m in customer money was missing." Its founder now faces criminal charges. Later, the article mentions that this revelation comes a few months after MF Global "lost" more than $1bn in clients' money.

What is weird is how these reports so consistently describe the activity that led to all this vanishing cash as simple bumbling: "regulators missed the red flag for years." They note that a Peregrine client alerted the firm's primary regulator in 2004 and another raised issues with the regulator five years later – yet "signs of trouble seemingly missed for years", muses the Times headline.

A page later, "Wells Fargo will Settle Mortgage Bias Charges" as that bank agrees to pay $175m in fines resulting from its having – again, very lucratively – charged African-American and Hispanic mortgagees costlier rates on their subprime mortgages than their counterparts who were white and had the same credit scores. Remember, this was a time when "Wall Street firms developed a huge demand for subprime loans that they purchased and bundled into securities for investors, creating financial incentives for lenders to make such loans." So, Wells Fargo was profiting from overcharging minority clients and profiting from products based on the higher-than-average bad loan rate expected. The piece discreetly ends mentioning that a Bank of America lawsuit of $335m and a Sun Trust mortgage settlement of $21m for having engaged is similar kinds of discrimination.

Are all these examples of oversight failure and banking fraud just big ol' mistakes? Are the regulators simply distracted?

The top headline of the day's news sums up why it is not that simple: "Geithner Tried to Curb Bank's Rate Rigging in 2008". The story reports that when Timothy Geithner, at the time he ran the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, learned of "problems" with how interest rates were fixed in London, the financial center at the heart of the Libor Barclays scandal. He let "top British authorities" know of the issues and wrote an email to his counterparts suggesting reforms. Were his actions ethical, or prudent? A possible interpretation of Geithner's action is that he was "covering his ass", without serious expectation of effecting reform of what he knew to be systemic abuse.

And what, in fact, happened? Barclays kept reporting false rates, seeking to boost its profit.

Last month, the bank agreed to pay $450m to US and UK authorities for manipulating the Libor and other key benchmarks, upon which great swaths of the economy depended. This manipulation is alleged in numerous lawsuits to have defrauded thousands of bank clients. So Geithner's "warnings came too late, and his efforts did not stop the illegal activity".

And then what happened? Did Geithner, presumably frustrated that his warnings had gone unheeded, call a press conference? No. He stayed silent, as a practice that now looks as if several major banks also perpetrated, continued.

And then what happened? Tim Geithner became Treasury Secretary. At which point, he still did nothing.

It is very hard, looking at the elaborate edifices of fraud that are emerging across the financial system, to ignore the possibility that this kind of silence – "the willingness to not rock the boat" – is simply rewarded by promotion to ever higher positions, ever greater authority. If you learn that rate-rigging and regulatory failures are systemic, but stay quiet, well, perhaps you have shown that you are genuinely reliable and deserve membership of the club.

Whatever motivated Geithner's silence, or that of the "government official" in the emails to Barclays, this much is obvious: the mainstream media need to drop their narratives of "Gosh, another oversight". The financial sector's corruption must be recognized as systemic.

Meanwhile, Britain is sleepwalking in a march toward total email surveillance, even as the US brings forward new proposals to punish whistleblowers by extending the Espionage Act. In an electronic world, evidence of these crimes lasts forever – if people get their hands on the books. In the Libor case, notably, a major crime has not been greeted by much demand at the top for criminal prosecutions. That asymmetry is one of the insurance policies of power.

Another is to crack down on citizens' protest.