Last week Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, announced a change in his institution’s recession-fighting strategies. In so doing he seemed to be responding to the arguments of critics who have said the Fed can and should be doing more. And Republicans went wild.
Now, many people on the right have long been obsessed with the notion that we’ll be facing runaway inflation any day now. The surprise was how readily Mitt Romney joined in the craziness.
So what did Mr. Bernanke announce, and why?
The Fed normally responds to a weak economy by buying short-term U.S. government debt from banks. This adds to bank reserves; the banks go out and lend more; and the economy perks up.
Unfortunately, the scale of the financial crisis, which left behind a huge overhang of consumer debt, depressed the economy so severely that the usual channels of monetary policy don’t work. The Fed can bulk up bank reserves, but the banks have little incentive to lend the money out, because short-term interest rates are near zero. So the reserves just sit there.
The Fed’s response to this problem has been “quantitative easing,” a confusing term for buying assets other than Treasury bills, such as long-term U.S. debt. The hope has been that such purchases will drive down the cost of borrowing, and boost the economy even though conventional monetary policy has reached its limit.
Sure enough, last week’s Fed announcement included another round of quantitative easing, this time involving mortgage-backed securities. The big news, however, was the Fed’s declaration that “a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.” In plain English, the Fed is more or less promising that it won’t start raising interest rates as soon as the economy looks better, that it will hold off until the economy is actually booming and (perhaps) until inflation has gone significantly higher.
The idea here is that by indicating its willingness to let the economy rip for a while, the Fed can encourage more private-sector spending right away. Potential home buyers will be encouraged by the prospect of moderately higher inflation that will make their debt easier to repay; corporations will be encouraged by the prospect of higher future sales; stocks will rise, increasing wealth, and the dollar will fall, making U.S. exports more competitive.
This is very much the kind of action Fed critics have advocated — and that Mr. Bernanke himself used to advocate before he became Fed chairman. True, it’s a lot less explicit than the critics would have liked. But it’s still a welcome move, although far from being a panacea for the economy’s troubles (a point Mr. Bernanke himself emphasized).
And Republicans, as I said, have gone wild, with Mr. Romney joining in the craziness. His campaign issued a news release denouncing the Fed’s move as giving the economy an “artificial” boost — he later described it as a “sugar high” — and declaring that “we should be creating wealth, not printing dollars.”
Mr. Romney’s language echoed that of the “liquidationists” of the 1930s, who argued against doing anything to mitigate the Great Depression. Until recently, the verdict on liquidationism seemed clear: it has been rejected and ridiculed not just by liberals and Keynesians but by conservatives too, including none other than Milton Friedman. “Aggressive monetary policy can reduce the depth of a recession,” declared the George W. Bush administration in its 2004 Economic Report of the President. And the author of that report, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, has actually advocated a much more aggressive Fed policy than the one announced last week.
Now Mr. Mankiw is allegedly a Romney adviser — but the candidate’s position on economic policy is evidently being dictated by extremists who warn that any effort to fight this slump will turn us into Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe I tell you.
Oh, and what about Mr. Romney’s ideas for “creating wealth”? The Romney economic “plan” offers no specifics about what he would actually do. The thrust of it, however, is that what America needs is less environmental protection and lower taxes on the wealthy. Surprise!
Indeed, as Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute points out, the Romney plan of 2012 is almost identical — and with the same turns of phrase — to John McCain’s plan in 2008, not to mention the plans laid out by George W. Bush in 2004 and 2006. The situation changes, but the song remains the same.
So last week we learned that Ben Bernanke is willing to listen to sensible critics and change course. But we also learned that on economic policy, as on foreign policy, Mitt Romney has abandoned any pose of moderation and taken up residence in the right’s intellectual fever swamps.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, September 16, 2012
With deficit hawks circling overhead, the responsibility for creating jobs has fallen by default to Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. Last week the Fed said it expected to keep interest rates near zero through mid 2015 in order to stimulate employment.
The problem is, low interest rates alone won’t do it. The Fed has held interest rates near zero for several years without that much to show for it. A smaller portion of American adults is now working than at any time in the last thirty years.
So far, the biggest beneficiaries of near-zero interest rates haven’t been average Americans. They’ve been too weighed down with debt to borrow more, and their wages keep dropping. And because they won’t and can’t borrow more, businesses haven’t had more customers. So there’s been no reason for businesses to borrow to expand and hire more people, even at low interest rates.
The biggest winners from the Fed’s near-zero rates have been the big banks, which are now assured of two or more years of almost free money. The big banks haven’t used the money to refinance mortgages – why should they when they can squeeze more money out of homeowners by keeping them at higher rates? Instead, they’ve used the almost free money to make big bets on derivatives. If the bets continue to go well, the bankers will continue to make a bundle. If the bets sour, well, you know what happens then. Watch your wallets.
The truth is, low interest rates won’t boost the economy without an expansive fiscal policy that makes up for the timid spending of consumers and businesses. Until more Americans have more money in their pockets, government spending has to fill the gap.
On this score, the big news isn’t the Fed’s renewed determination to keep interest rates low. The big news is global lender’s desperation to park their savings in Treasury bills. The euro is way too risky, the yen is still a basket case, China is slowing down and no one knows what will happen to its currency, and you’d have to be crazy to park your savings in Russia.
It’s a match made in heaven – or should be. Because foreigners are so willing to buy T-bills, America can borrow money more cheaply than ever. We could use it to put Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges and schools, cleaning up our national parks and city parks and playgrounds, and doing everything else that needs doing that we’ve neglected for too long.
This would put money in people’s pockets and encourage them to take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates to borrow even more. And their spending, in turn, would induce businesses to expand and create more jobs. A virtuous cycle.
Yet for purely ideological reasons we’re heading in the opposite direction. The federal government is cutting back spending. It’s not even helping state and local governments — which continue to lay off teachers, fire fighters, social workers, and police officers.
Worst of all, we’re facing a so-called “fiscal cliff” next year when $109 billion in federal spending cuts automatically go into effect. The Congressional Budget Office warns this may push us into recession – which will cause more joblessness and make the federal budget deficit even larger relative to the size of the economy. That’s the austerity trap Europe has fallen into.
Mitt Romney has been criticizing the Obama administration for not doing more to avoid the cliff, but he seems to forget that congressional Republicans brought it on when they refused to raise the debt ceiling. They then created the cliff as a fall-back mechanism. Romney’s vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan, chair of the House budget committee, voted for it.
It’s a mindless gimmick that presumes our biggest problem is the deficit, when even the Fed understands our biggest problem right now is unemployment. Yet even the nation’s credit-rating agencies have bought into the mindlessness. Last week Moody’s said it would likely downgrade U.S. government bonds if Congress and the White House don’t come up with a credible plan to reduce the federal budget deficit. (Standard & Poor’s has already downgraded U.S. debt.)
Hello? Can we please stop obsessing about the federal budget deficit? Repeat after me: America’s #1 economic problem is unemployment. Our #1 goal should be to restore job growth. Period.
The Federal Reserve Board understands this. And at least it’s trying. But it can’t succeed on its own. Global lenders are giving us a way out. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.
By: Robert Reich, Robert Reich Blog, September 15, 2012
Of course Mitt Romney’s arrival in London was awkward. Mitt Romney’s arrival anywhere is awkward.
But don’t think that Romney’s jaunt across the pond has been a complete disaster.
Aside from some public relations missteps, he has accomplished precisely what he set out to do.
Romney’s bumpkin-in-chief beginning in London was epic: he suggested the Brits had done a poor job organizing the Olympics, violated international security protocols and struggled to keep the names of his hosts straight. Britain’s Sun, a particularly conservative tabloid, went so far as to dub him “Mitt the Twit” on a frontpage that the Brits—and plenty of American Democrats—will dub a “keeper.”
What with an aide making cryptic comments about how Romney has a better understanding than President Obama of “Anglo-Saxon heritage,” nothing about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s step onto the global stage seemed to go right.
Except, of course, for the real purpose of the trip, which was to collect cash from the most scandal-plagued of London’s financial insiders— and to assure the embattled banksters that he would, if elected, use the power of the presidency to protect them from regulation and oversight.
That task Romney managed with the agility of the “vulture capitalist” described by his Republican primary foes.
Within the well-guarded confines of London’s posh Mandarin Oriental hotel Thursday night, Romney met with at least 250 of the top bankers, speculators and financial manipulators in the world—including representatives of Barclays, the bank that recently paid almost $500 million in fines after its officials were charged with providing false information to interest-rate regulators.
Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond had to withdraw as a co-chair of Romney’s London fundraiser festivities—after Diamond was forced out of his position and then dragged before a Parliamentary select committee for a round of “what did you know and when did you know it” questioning about the filing of false reports and the manipulation of global markets. Embarrassing? Not really. The no-shame-when-it-comes-to-money-grabbing Romney campaign just made another Barclays insider a co-chair, along with representatives of of Bank of Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Blackstone and Wells Fargo Securities—and, of course, Bain Capital Europe.
What was Romney thinking?
First and foremost, he wanted the estimated $2 million in campaign contributions that the global financiers ponied up Thursday night.
But the Republican presidential candidate came to London to offer the the scandal-plagued bankers something in return for the checks that were delivered in increments of as much as $75,000: reassurance that he really is one of them. And that a Romney presidency would serve their interests.
Referring to the signature Wall Street regulatory reform of the Obama presidency, Romney reassured the bankers that “I’d like to get rid of Dodd Frank and go back and look at regulation piece by piece.”
While he couldn’t quite get the hang of international diplomacy, Mitt Romney was entirely comfortable standing on foreign soil and promising international bankers that, as president, he would take care of them.
By: John Nichols, The Nation, July 27, 2012
Republicans often say that the business community feels threatened by President Obama — that he’s hostile to money, hostile to business, etc. You’ve heard this before. And much of it is campaign chatter. But not all. I don’t think we can understand the dynamics of this campaign without getting that a lot of it is actually true — not the reality necessarily (in my mind not the reality at all) but the perception of it in key parts of the financial sector like Wall Street, venture capital and the dread world of private equity.
The case of Wall Street is in many ways the hardest nut to crack. President Obama took a huge political hit for massive amounts of public money that went to bailing out the major banks. By most measures, along with his predecessor, he more or less saved US and global capitalism. And yet, when you talk to people in finance, this is entirely forgotten. What you most often hear about are two or three statements from the President that are still potently remembered.
Most often it’s a late 2009 quote when he said “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street. They’re still puzzled why it is that people are mad at the banks. Well, let’s see. You guys are drawing down 10, 20 million dollar bonuses after America went through the worst economic year in decades and you guys caused the problem.”
That’s not something you’d expect folks in finance to like particularly. But it did come after about a year of the President getting grief from Wall Street while simultaneously taking the political hit for bailing the same folks out with tax payer dollars.
I’ve heard similar things talking to folks in the business community in DC. And what strikes me again and again is how much it comes back to a handful of statements and anecdotes, things people remember the President saying over the last three plus years.
Some of this shouldn’t surprise us, I suppose. President Obama has pushed more regulation of business than his predecessor. (It’s certainly a change after eight years of George W. Bush; and it’s an eight years over which quite a lot has changed in the country.) He’s supported — though as yet not acted on — his call to roll back the Bush tax cuts. But Bill Clinton did all of this and more. Clinton after all is the guy whose tax hikes the Bush tax cuts in large part repealed. By most objective standards the President is actually more solicitous of the business community than most or all Democratic presidents over the last half century.
So what’s the explanation? Over recent weeks I’ve come to think that something else is in play: namely, the dramatic run up in wealth at the top of the income scale, not just over the last 35 years but particularly over the last 15 years. More or less since the beginning of the Clinton years. In a sense it’s the other side of the 99% vs 1% meme that has been the most successful legacy of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
This is less an argument than a theory in progress. So I’d like your input. But I think the very wealthy and those who work in the most advanced and aggressive parts of finance are more defensive about their wealth than in the past — at least in terms of the political expression of it. There’s really no time in the last century in which you’d expect that a candidate running for a major political office who’d been responsible for shutting down a lot of factories wouldn’t have that come up in a major way in a campaign. Simply no way. Agree or not, it would be entirely par for the course. And yet now it’s treated as a possibly unexpected or unacceptable development.
At the same time, the most important voices in the media are much, much wealthier than in earlier eras. The very wealthy are their friends and peers. Concentrated wealth simply has a stronger hold over mass communications than in the past — not necessarily in venal or corrupt terms but often simply by owning minds and mentalities. What all that amounts to is that people on Wall Street and the financial sector aren’t accustomed to a lot of criticism.
All of it goes to explaining a basic conundrum — President Obama is, when compared to Democrats over the last half century, objectively quite middle of the road. And yet the reaction from Wall Street and the halls of finance is one you’d think meant he was trying to bring capitalism to its knees. The President’s policies and tenure in office simply don’t explain the reaction. And I don’t think political spin does either. We need to look deeper into the political economy of the nation at large to understand it.
By: Josh Marshall, Editor and Publisher, Talking Points Memo, May 21, 2012
Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.
The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.
Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.
It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.
The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.
Government Joins the Looters of the Poor
You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.
These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributesabout $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.
And while government generally turns a blind eye to the tens of billions of dollars in exorbitant interest that businesses charge the poor, it is notably chary with public benefits for the poor. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help.
At the local level though, government is increasingly opting to join in the looting. In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.
And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country — from California and Texas to Pennsylvania — counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours. In New York City, it’s now a crime to put your feet up on a subway seat, even if the rest of the car is empty, and a South Carolina woman spent six days in jail when she was unable to pay a $480 fine for the crime of having a “messy yard.” Some cities — most recently, Houston and Philadelphia — have made it a crime to share foodwith indigent people in public places.
Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense — having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light — at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail.
Local Governments as Predators
Each of these crimes, neo-crimes, and pseudo-crimes carries financial penalties as well as the threat of jail time, but the amount of money thus extracted from the poor is fiendishly hard to pin down. No central agency tracks law enforcement at the local level, and local records can be almost willfully sketchy.
According to one of the few recent nationwide estimates, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 10.5 million misdemeanors were committed in 2006. No one would risk estimating the average financial penalty for a misdemeanor, although the experts I interviewed all affirmed that the amount is typically in the “hundreds of dollars.” If we take an extremely lowball $200 per misdemeanor, and bear in mind that 80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent, then local governments are using law enforcement to extract, or attempt to extract, at least $2 billion a year from the poor.
And that is only a small fraction of what governments would like to collect from the poor. Katherine Beckett, a sociologist at the University of Washington, estimates that “deadbeat dads” (and moms) owe $105 billion in back child-support payments, about half of which is owed to state governments as reimbursement for prior welfare payments made to the children. Yes, parents have a moral obligation to their children, but the great majority of child-support debtors are indigent.
Attempts to collect from the already-poor can be vicious and often, one would think, self-defeating. Most states confiscate the drivers’ licenses of people owing child support, virtually guaranteeing that they will not be able to work. Michigan just started suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who owe money for parking tickets. Las Cruces, New Mexico, just passed a law that punishes people who owe overdue traffic fines by cutting off their water, gas, and sewage.
Once a person falls into the clutches of the criminal justice system, we encounter the kind of slapstick sadism familiar to viewers of Wipeout. Many courts impose fees without any determination of whether the offender is able to pay, and the privilege of having a payment plan will itself cost money.
In a study of 15 states, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found 14 of them contained jurisdictions that charge a lump-sum “poverty penalty” of up to $300 for those who cannot pay their fees and fines, plus late fees and “collection fees” for those who need to pay over time. If any jail time is imposed, that too may cost money, as the hapless Edwina Nowlin discovered, and the costs of parole and probation are increasingly being passed along to the offender.
The predatory activities of local governments give new meaning to that tired phrase “the cycle of poverty.” Poor people are more far more likely than the affluent to get into trouble with the law, either by failing to pay parking fines or by incurring the wrath of a private-sector creditor like a landlord or a hospital.
Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell. The further you descend, the faster you fall — until you eventually end up on the streets and get busted for an offense like urinating in public or sleeping on a sidewalk.
I could propose all kinds of policies to curb the ongoing predation on the poor. Limits on usury should be reinstated. Theft should be taken seriously even when it’s committed by millionaire employers. No one should be incarcerated for debt or squeezed for money they have no chance of getting their hands on. These are no-brainers, and should take precedence over any long term talk about generating jobs or strengthening the safety net. Before we can “do something” for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.
By: Barbara Ehrenreich, Mother Jones, Originally Published on the TomDispatch website, May 18, 2012