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Eric Cantor’s Glaring Conflict Of Interest

When Eric Cantor shut down debt ceiling negotiations last week, it did more than just rekindle fears that the U.S. government might soon default on its debt obligations — it also brought him closer to reaping a small financial windfall from his investment in a mutual fund whose performance is directly affected by debt ceiling brinkmanship.

Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, had between $1,000 and $15,000 invested in ProShares Trust Ultrashort 20+ Year Treasury EFT. The fund aggressively “shorts” long-term U.S. Treasury bonds, meaning that it performs well when U.S. debt is undesirable. (A short is when the trader hopes to profit from the decline in the value of an asset.)

According to his latest financial disclosure statement, which covers the year 2010 and has been publicly available since this spring, Cantor still has up to $15,000 in the same fund. Contacted by Salon this week, Cantor’s office gave no indication that the Virginia Republican, who has played a leading role in the debt ceiling negotiations, has divested himself of these holdings since his last filing. Unless an agreement can be reached, the U.S. could begin defaulting on its debt payments on Aug. 2. If that happens and Cantor is still invested in the fund, the value of his holdings would skyrocket.

“If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, investors would start fleeing U.S. Treasuries,” said Matt Koppenheffer, who writes for the investment website the Motley Fool. “Yields would rise, prices would fall, and the Proshares ETF should do very well. It would spike.”

The fund hasn’t significantly spiked yet because many investors believe Congress will eventually raise the debt ceiling. However, since Cantor abruptly called off debt ceiling negotiations last Thursday, the fund is up 3.3 percent. Even if an agreement is ultimately reached before Aug. 2, the fund could continue to benefit between now and then from the uncertainty. (One tactic some speculators are using is to “trade the debt ceiling debate” — that is, to place short-term bets on prices as they fluctuate with the news out of Washington.)

Salon’s Andrew Leonard calls the debt ceiling negotiations “Washington’s titanic game of chicken,” and the longer the game goes on, the more skittish the bond markets will become.

“Cantor’s involvement in the fund and negotiations is not ideal,” Koppenheffer said. “I don’t think someone negotiating the debt ceiling should be invested in this kind of an ultra-short. We can only guess how much he understands what’s in his portfolio, but you’d think a politician would know better. It looks pretty bad.”

Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring noted that U.S. Treasury bonds make up a large portion of the congressman’s pension, and said investment in ProShares ETF serves to balance that investment and to diversify his portfolio. Disclosure forms indicate that Cantor has considerable personal assets, including real estate in Virginia worth up to $1 million, and a number of six- and seven-figure loans to private entities and limited liability companies. So his investment in ProShares ETF represents only a small portion of his overall portfolio — but that share could grow a little larger just over a month from now.

 

By: Jonathan Easley, Editorial Fellow, Salo, June 27, 2011

June 28, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yes, Paul Ryan Does Cut Taxes For The Rich

A number of conservatives have asserted that, contrary to what I’ve written, the House Republican budget written by Paul Ryan does not cut taxes for high earners. (See John McCormack, Ramesh Ponnuru, Charles Krauthammer, and McCormack again quoting Ryan.) Here’s the argument. Ryan keeps overall tax levels the same as they are right now by making the tax cuts permanent. He would then reduce the corporate tax rate and the top income tax rate by ten percentage points, from 35% to 25%. But he would make up for that additional revenue loss by closing “loopholes and deductions,” many of which benefit the rich. Therefore, his plan doesn’t really cut taxes on the rich.

There are four problems with this claim, each of them fatal.

First, the argument simply reflects a legitimate difference in baselines. Under current law, the Bush tax cuts are in full effect, but expire at the end of 2012. Keep Bush-era tax levels in place is not a tax cut compared with the tax code now, but it is a tax cut compared with the tax code in 2013. Which is the true baseline? I think both sides have a point, and Congressional scorekeepers have taken to using both baselines.

When President Obama accuses Ryan of cutting taxes for the rich, he’s using the post-2012 baseline. I consider that the best point of reference because the most important force in our political system is inertia. Given our multiple veto points, it takes great effort to enact a policy change that the parties disagree upon. Ryan proposes to make that change. Therefore, I think it’s fair to describe him as “cutting taxes,” even if revenues did remain at present levels (which I dispute, but more on that later.) I do think there’s merit in both baselines. The argument that Obama is lying about Ryan — that calling him a tax-cutter is, in Krauthammer’s characteristically understated phrasing, “scurrilous” — rests upon the assumption that the current-policy baseline is not only more preferable but the only remotely honest point of reference. That seems like a huge stretch.

Second, even if we accept Ryan’s preferred baseline, his description of his plan is hard to accept at face value. Tax reform is a trade where you take away deductions (that’s hard) and use the money to reduce rates (that’s easy.) The rate reductions are specified. The reduced deductions aren’t. Another way to put this is that Ryan has proposed a specific tax cut that would benefit the affluent, accompanied by utterly vague promises to find offsets. At the very least, the rate-lowering portion ought to carry more weight than the deduction-closing portion.

Third, even if we accept both Ryan’s baseline and assume he will match every dollar in lost revenue from the rate cuts with another dollar in reduced deductions, he will almost certainly wind up cutting taxes for the rich relative even to the post-Bush tax code. Ryan implies that his plan would leave the rich paying the same effective tax rates as they do now because he’s “getting rid of loopholes and deductions, which by the way are enjoyed by the top [tax] rate filers, the people in the top two brackets.” But he hasn’t put out any details. In 1995, House Republicans loudly promised to promote shared sacrifice by rooting out corporate welfare in the tax code. The actual savings they produced turned out to consist of proposals that hurt the poor (by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit), benefited business (by letting them swipe funds from employee pensions, keeping the money as profit and thus increasing corporate tax revenue), or other reverse-Robin Hood measures.

Now, Ryan was not around then. But we can get a measure of his intentions from the more specific tax plan laid out in his “Roadmap” from 2010. That plan constituted a massive tax cut for the rich, combined with a tax hike on the middle class.

The Tax Policy Center examined various proposals to reduce tax deductions while using the revenue to lower rates across the board. All the plans decreased the tax burden for the top-earning 1%. The problem is that tax deductions are just not worth as much to very rich people as low tax rates.

It’s true that the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan includes proposals that would lower rates to around 25% while increasing the effective tax rate paid by the very rich. To do that, you have to do things like raise the estate tax rate and completely eliminate the preferential treatment of capital gains. But Ryan’s budget promises instead — and this is the only specific policy commitment in its tax section, other than lowering rates — to expand the preferential treatment of income from wealth:

Raising taxes on capital is another idea that purports to affect the wealthy but actually hurts all participants in the economy. Mainstream economics, not to mention common sense, teaches that raising taxes on any activity generally results in less of it. Economics and common sense also teach that the size of a nation’s capital stock – the pool of saved money available for investment and job creation – has an effect on employment, productivity, and wages. Tax reform should promote savings and investment because more savings and more investment mean a larger stock of capital available for job creation. That means more jobs, more productivity, and higher wages for all American workers.

Fourth — almost there! — even if you reject everything I’ve written to this point, Ryan’s plan includes the repeal of all the taxes in the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes on the affluent. Here’s the Path to Prosperity’s description of health care taxes he proposes to undo:

The new law imposes a 0.9 percent surtax on wages and a 3.8 percent surtax on interest, dividends, and capital gains. Both taxes only apply to filers in the top two income brackets, but as discussed elsewhere in this section, those filers include small businesses employing millions of Americans, and the new taxes on capital will reduce the pool of capital available for investment and job creation.

There. Per Paul Ryan, these are upper-bracket taxes he proposes to lower. He could keep those taxes in effect, and cover a few of the uninsured people he throws off their coverage, or make the progressively-more-inadequate health care vouchers he uses to replace Medicare slightly less inadequate. But he chooses not to do that, because he believes it’s more important to tax capital at lower rates. It’s fine for him to believe that. But he and his defenders have to stop insisting that he doesn’t propose tax cuts for the rich. He indisputably does so.

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, April 20, 2011

April 23, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Budget, Businesses, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Health Care, Health Reform, Jobs, Politics, President Obama, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Uninsured, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Quickly We Forget: Dick Cheney, “Deficits Don’t Matter”

Sure, it’s huge, but big deficits don’t always lead to bad economic health. As we found during The Great Depression, the opposite is also true.

For those worried about the future, huge federal deficits remain the gift that keeps on giving, or taking, depending on your point of view. They are always around, always huge, and seem to be an issue that neither party has immunity from.

If you care to bash Republicans over this issue you need look no further than former Vice President Dick Cheney who told former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “deficits don’t matter” when the latter voiced concerns about the size of the federal bill. Cheney later fired O’Neill, presumably for thinking deficits actually mattered.

Still, Cheney was true to his word, as the White House of George W. Bush raised the federal deficit every year it was in office. When Bush started his presidency, the national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product hovered at 60%. By the time he exited, it was closer to 80%. Surely the first part of President Obama’s term will see that ratio only rise further, as the federal government fully deploys the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $200 billion Term Asset Backed Loan Securities Facility and the $500-$1 trillion Public-Private Investment Program, among other alphabet soup bailouts.

Of course, to critics of Obama, including conservatives, now deficits do matter a lot more than they did a year ago. Look no further than the well-covered “tea parties” to see an instance where partisanship has seemed to trump fiscal stewardship, or at least short-term memory.

By: David Serchuk: Article originally posted August 5, 2009, Forbes.com

April 16, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Dick Cheney, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Ideology, Lawmakers, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Y Article: The Pentagon’s Secret Plan To Slash It’s Own Budget

On Friday, April 8, as members of the U.S. Congress engaged in a last-minute game of chicken over the federal budget, the Pentagon quietly issued a report that received little initial attention: “A National Strategic Narrative.” The report was issued under the pseudonym of “Mr. Y,” a takeoff on George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow (published under the name “X” the following year in Foreign Affairs) that helped set containment as the cornerstone of U.S. strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union.

 The piece was written by two senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a “personal” capacity, but it is clear that it would not have seen the light of day without a measure of official approval. Its findings are revelatory, and they deserve to be read and appreciated not only by every lawmaker in Congress, but by every American citizen.

The narrative argues that the United States is fundamentally getting it wrong when it comes to setting its priorities, particularly with regard to the budget and how Americans as a nation use their resources more broadly. The report says Americans are overreacting to Islamic extremism, underinvesting in their youth, and failing to embrace the sense of competition and opportunity that made America a world power. The United States has been increasingly consumed by seeing the world through the lens of threat, while failing to understand that influence, competitiveness, and innovation are the key to advancing American interests in the modern world.

Courageously, the authors make the case that America continues to rely far too heavily on its military as the primary tool for how it engages the world. Instead of simply pumping more and more dollars into defense, the narrative argues:

By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans — the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow — we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth.

Yet, it is investments in America’s long-term human resources that have come under the fiercest attack in the current budget environment. As the United States tries to compete with China, India, and the European Union, does it make sense to have almost doubled the Pentagon budget in the last decade while slashing education budgets across the country?

The report places considerable emphasis on the importance of achieving a more sustainable approach to security, energy, agriculture, and the environment. Again, it is important to stress that this narrative was penned by senior military thinkers, not the Sierra Club. The simple fact is that any clear-eyed analysis pretty quickly comes to the same conclusion: The United States has established an incentive system that just doesn’t make any sense. It continues to pour tens of billions of dollars into agricultural and oil subsidies every single year even as these subsidies make the gravity of the environmental, health, and land-use problems the country faces in the future ever graver. As the report argues, America cannot truly practice the use of “smart power” until it practices “smart growth” at home. While some may be quick to argue that the Pentagon should not be considering issues like smart growth and investments in America’s youth, this goes to another key point from the authors: America won’t get its approach to policy right if it leaves foreign policy and domestic policy in tidy little silos that ignore the interconnection between the two.

The paper argues persuasively that the tendency of Americans to broadly label the rest of the world has been hugely counterproductive. The authors point out that the tendency over the last decade by some Americans to view all Muslims as terrorists has made it more difficult to marginalize genuine extremism, while alienating vast swaths of the global Muslim community. In a world where credibility is so central to America’s national interest and reach around the globe, the overheated domestic debate about the war on terror has never served it very well.

Lastly, the narrative makes a clarion call for America to look forward, not back, in today’s interconnected world:

And yet with globalization, we seem to have developed a strange apprehension about the efficacy of our ability to apply the innovation and hard work necessary to successfully compete in a complex security and economic environment. Further, we have misunderstood interdependence as a weakness rather than recognizing it as a strength. The key to sustaining our competitive edge, at home or on the world stage, is credibility — and credibility is a difficult capital to foster. It cannot be won through intimidation and threat, it cannot be sustained through protectionism or exclusion. Credibility requires engagement, strength, and reliability — imaginatively applied through the national tools of development, diplomacy, and defense.

The budget deal over the weekend lopped $8 billion off of funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Defense spending was left untouched. Congress doesn’t seem to have gotten the wake-up call.

By: John Norris, Foreign Policy, April 13, 2011

April 15, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Democracy, Education, Energy, Environment, Federal Budget, Foreign Governments, Foreign Policy, Freedom, Government, Health Care, Ideology, Military Intervention, National Security, Pentagon, Politics | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No More Republican Hostage Strategies: On Debt Ceiling, Just A “Clean Bill”

On Fox News this morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he’s prepared to play a dangerous game with the federal debt limit — he’ll help block an extension without “guaranteed steps” on unspecified cuts to public investments.

It is, in other words, another hostage strategy. Last week, the message was, “Give us what we want or we’ll shut down the government.” Going forward, the new message is, “Give us what we want or we’ll wreak havoc on the global economy and trash the full faith and credit of the United States government.

The details of the ransom note apparently haven’t been written yet, but we’re getting clues.

The down-to-the-wire partisan struggle over cuts to this year’s federal budget has intensified concern in Washington, on Wall Street and among economists about the more consequential clash coming over increasing the government’s borrowing limit.

Congressional Republicans are vowing that before they will agree to raise the current $14.25 trillion federal debt ceiling — a step that will become necessary in as little as five weeks — President Obama and Senate Democrats will have to agree to far deeper spending cuts for next year and beyond than those contained in the six-month budget deal agreed to late Friday night that cut $38 billion and averted a government shutdown.

Republicans have also signaled that they will again demand fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling.

The stakes of the Republicans’ hostage strategy are significantly higher than the budget fight, at least insofar as the consequences would be more severe. Had the GOP shut down the government, it would have been awful for the economy; if the GOP blocks an extension of the debt ceiling, the results could prove catastrophic. As the NYT noted, “The repercussions in that event would be as much economic as political, rippling from the bond market into the lives of ordinary citizens through higher interest rates and financial uncertainty of the sort that the economy is only now overcoming.” The likelihood of “provoking another credit crisis like that in 2008” is very real.

It’s exactly why Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently warned congressional Republicans not to “play around with” this, adding that lawmakers shouldn’t view the debt ceiling as a “bargaining chip.”

Republicans freely admit they’re doing it anyway. Indeed, they’ve been rather shameless about it.
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_03/028426.php

It seems to me President Obama’s message should be pretty straightforward: “To prevent a crisis, I expect a clean bill.”

This isn’t complicated. Democrats and Republicans have, routinely, raised the debt limit many times. Neither party has ever held it hostage, or made sweeping demands. Economists, government officials, and even financial industry leaders have all told Republicans to reject the political games and do what’s right.

What’s more, as we discussed yesterday, even Republicans know how this has to turn out. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently said failing to raise the debt limit “would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said failure to raise the debt limit would lead to “financial collapse and calamity throughout the world.”

Democrats and Republicans can have a larger debate about entitlements and debt reduction in the fight over the next fiscal year budget. But there’s not enough time for that to occur before we hit the debt ceiling.

Just pass a clean bill, prevent a calamity, and get ready for the larger budget fight.

April 10, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Health Care, Politics, President Obama, Republicans | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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