Posts tagged with 'robert reich'

Campaign Cash: Tea Party Vows to Block Campaign Finance Reform

Posted Nov 4, 2010 @ 10:41 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Welcome to the final edition of Campaign Cash, which tracked political spending during this year’s midterm elections. Stay tuned for more reporting on money in politics from members of The Media Consortium. To see more stories on campaign funding, follow the Twitter hashtag #campaigncash.

Flickr/dsb nolaAnonymous millionaires just helped elect dozens of ultraconservative congressional candidates, by pumping millions of dollars into national Tea Party organizations. And guess what’s at the top of the legislative to-do list for those same Tea Party groups? Blocking campaign finance reform legislation.

As Stephanie Mencimer explains for Mother Jones, one of the nation’s largest Tea Party organizations, the Tea Party Patriots, is already coming out guns-a-blazing against any lame duck effort to crack down on secret corporate spending in elections.

And with good cause. The Tea Party’s appeal, after all, is based on its populist, grassroots image. If anybody knew that secret right-wing millionaires were bankrolling the entire operation, the “movement” would lose its luster.

But whether reformers are able to force front-groups to disclose their donors or not, the broader effort to eliminate undue corporate influence from the political process will take years.


Weekly Audit: Congressional Inaction Feeding Unemployment Crisis

Posted Jul 6, 2010 @ 9:52 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

After months of modest gains, the U.S. economy lost 125,000 jobs during June. That’s the worst jobs-related news this year. Without serious action soon, the struggling U.S. economy is going to get even uglier. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s economic team was slow to recognize the severity of the jobs crisis, and now seems unable to get Congress to actually do something about it.

As David Corn notes for Mother Jones, the recent jobs data is actually much worse than the 125,000 figure implies:

“The economy needs about 150,000 new jobs a month to keep up with population growth and new entries into the jobs market. It needs a lot more than that to make up for the 8 million or so jobs lost in 2008 and 2009.”


Weekly Audit: How Deregulation Fueled Goldman Sachs’ Scam

Posted Apr 20, 2010 @ 8:58 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr user SEIU_International via Creative Commons LicenseLast week, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed fraud charges against Goldman Sachs and underscored what most Americans have believed for some time: Wall Street has rigged the economy in its own favor, and will stop at nothing—not even outright theft—to boost its profits. What’s worse, Goldman’s scam could have been completely prevented by better regulations and law enforcement.

Goldman’s heist

Let’s be clear. “Financial fraud” means “theft.” Goldman Sachs sold investors securities that were stocked with subprime mortgages and had been cherry-picked by a hedge fund manager named John Paulson. Paulson believed these mortgages were about to go bust, so he helped Goldman Sachs concoct the securities so that he could bet against them himself.

Goldman Sachs, like Paulson, also bet against the securities. But when Goldman sold the securities to investors, it didn’t tell them that Paulson had devised the securities, or that he was betting on their failure. By withholding crucial information from investors, Goldman directly profited from the scam at the expense of its own clients. If ordinary citizens did what the SEC’s alleges Goldman did, we’d call it stealing. (more…)

Weekly Audit: The Unemployment Epidemic

Posted Nov 10, 2009 @ 9:06 am by
Filed under: Economy     Bookmark and Share

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

On Friday, we learned that the U.S. unemployment rate officially broke 10% for the first time since the early Reagan years. This is about as bad as it gets for a modern, developed economy. No economic force takes a heavier toll on a society than rampant joblessness, and few personal setbacks take a deeper psychological toll than being out of a job for months on end. If Congress and President Obama don’t do something to create jobs fast, both are going to pay a hefty political price when next year’s mid-term elections roll around. (more…)

Daily Pulse: Happy Public Option Day!

Posted Sep 29, 2009 @ 11:06 am by
Filed under: Health Care     Bookmark and Share

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

Today, the Senate Finance Committee will consider amendments that would add a public option to the highly contested bill. Committee members Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) seek to force their colleagues into an up or down vote on the public option. (more…)

Weekly Audit: Four More Years of Bailout Ben

Posted Sep 1, 2009 @ 8:55 am by
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By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

After Ben Bernanke allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to ravage the global economy and nearly destroy the U.S. financial system, President Barack Obama has decided he deserves another term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. (The UpTake has video of Obama’s announcement here.) As the Fed Chair, Bernanke has more economic power than any other person on the planet. By heading the committee that sets interest rates, he can control the economy’s rate of growth or contraction; as head regulator of the largest banks, Bernanke has more influence over the rules of the economic game than anyone else.

Why is the Bernanke reappointment a mistake? Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive turns to Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent democratic socialist from Vermont. Put simply, Bernanke is completely culpable for allowing an economic crisis to foment.

“Like the rest of the Bush administration, he was asleep at the wheel during this period and did nothing to move our financial system onto safer grounds,” Sanders said.

Corporate media generally neglects to mention Bernanke’s role at the Fed prior to 2008, and instead credits him with stopping a second Great Depression. It’s true that the Fed has done everything possible to keep Wall Street from imploding, but Bernanke also repeatedly insisted that the subprime mortgage crisis would be “contained” as late as 2007 and made no plans for a situation that might prove worse than his rosy forecasts.

As William Greider explains for The Nation, it’s a bit too soon to celebrate our economic salvation at Bernanke’s hands. Small banks are failing at an alarming rate, job losses remain heavy and households are being squeezed by plummeting property values and growing credit card debt.

Greider emphasizes that Bernanke repeatedly bailed out financial giants without demanding anything in return, which bodes poorly for any future economic crisis. Kenneth Lewis remains Bank of America’s CEO, even though the company has needed $45 billion in taxpayer funds to date, and high-level Fed officials think Lewis may be guilty of securities fraud. On the one bailout where the Fed did assume ownership of the company and discharge it’s top-level management, AIG, the deal was structured to funnel no-strings-attached money to other Wall Street companies. Goldman Sachs raked in $12.9 billion from the arrangement. It’s one thing to funnel money to financial firms in the name of economic necessity. It’s quite another to allow executives at those companies to be paid like princes and subsidize their shareholders.

As economist James K. Galbraith discusses in a piece for The Washington Monthly, it’s not clear if Bernanke and Co. actually saved the economy. Even if the financial system gets back to normal functioning, that stability has been purchased with massive taxpayer support. In order to do just about anything involving finance in the United States, a company now needs a very explicit government seal of approval to convince investors that they’re safe to do business with. Just ask Colonial Bank, which failed earlier this summer after being denied bailout funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But there has been secret support as well. Bernanke’s Fed committed over $2 trillion in emergency loans to keep the financial system from collapsing during the crisis, and has refused to tell the public who got the money, and on what terms. We don’t know who we saved, or at what the consequences of this massive bank support operation will be. Bernanke always believed that rescuing Wall Street would prevent major damage to the broader economy, but Galbraith questions whether the economy would be stronger if policymakers had focused more on direct aid to workers and homeowners, including an earlier, more robust economic stimulus package.

“Perhaps the right thing would have been less focus on saving banks, and much more on saving jobs, families, and homes.”

Writing for In These Times, Roger Bybee profiles a new group called Americans for Financial Reform, which is pushing for changes on Wall Street and fighting against business-as-usual at the Fed. The bank lobby is probably the most powerful interest group on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a strong and consistent voice urging lawmakers to protect the entire economy, rather than the banks. The very structure of the Fed makes it more responsive to Wall Street interests than those of the general public. Private-sector banks like Citigroup and Bank of America are shareholders in each of the Fed’s regional branches, while private-sector bank executives sit on the board of directors at each branch. Since the boards get to name the regional presidents, private-sector bank CEOs are given major power to name their own regulators. Regional presidents also rotate through positions on the Fed’s monetary policy board, making decisions to set interest rates.

The Fed’s institutional structure, and its reliance on mainstream economists overly acquiescent to the financial sector has helped fuel the boom-and-bust bubble economy, as the Real News explains in this video piece:

In addition to the turmoil surrounding the Bernanke appointment, the recent budget deficit projections have been receiving a lot of attention lately. By throwing around a lot of big numbers that end in “trillion,” deficit hawks have created the impression of crisis where none exists. The government will have a $1.6 trillion shortfall this year, equal to about 11% of the U.S. economy. That’s the highest such number since the U.S. economy started to soar in the years after World War II, high enough to mobilize CNBC pundits to warn of financial apocalypse and a bankrupt U.S. government.

But as Robert Reich notes for Salon, it’s not really worth getting too worked up over the current deficit projections. In a recession, countries want to run a deficit: the government needs to fill hole created by the drop-off in private-sector economic activity. If the U.S. doesn’t run a big deficit, it will shed millions of additional jobs. And the country is nowhere near losing control of its currency. The federal debt stands at about 54% of our economic output right now, and is projected to reach 68% by 2019. But Reich notes that in 1945, the number was far higher: 120%. This number shrank dramatically over the next few years, not because of draconian cuts to government programs, but because the economy grew so much that the debt burden became less severe. We are nowhere near a crisis with the budget that compares to the current unemployment crisis, so pulling back spending right now doesn’t make much sense.

Bernanke has always argued that the Fed chair’s only duty is to control inflation. But managing the economy means not only attending to inflation, but making sure the true engine of economic growth—financially secure households—isn’t sacrificed to the short-term interests of a few Wall Street elites. Bernanke failed to block that economic predation early in his tenure as Fed Chairman. If Bernanke is going to be with us for another four years, President Obama needs to find other ways to restore our economic balance.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit and for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out and This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Audit: Bigger Than ‘Too Big to Fail’

Posted Jul 21, 2009 @ 7:29 am by
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by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Now that trillions of taxpayer dollars have been pumped through the financial system, Wall Street giants JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are reporting record profits—and giving out record bonuses. Goldman is planning to pay out $11.4 billion in compensation “earned” with our money. Even worse, attempts to regulate reckless financiers or empower ordinary workers are still being stymied by influential corporate lobbyists.

How did Goldman score the biggest quarterly profit in its history? Matt Taibbi explains in an interview with GritTV’s Laura Flanders. The $10 billion in direct capital that Goldman received from taxpayers under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is actually one of the minor offenses. The company also converted corporate charters to become eligible for guarantees, and issued a whopping $28 billion in debt guaranteed by the government.

Banks were foundering last Fall, and very few investors were willing to supply them with emergency capital. So the FDIC guaranteed their debt, which allowed banks to raise funds at extremely low interest rates. The FDIC guarantee means that taxpayers will get stuck with the bill if the company defaults. If you can raise money at absurdly low rates, its very easy to turn over huge profits, as both Goldman and JPMorgan did.

There are other outrages: We still don’t know how much money the Federal Reserve loaned Goldman through its emergency lending facilities. The government’s bailout of AIG served as a huge windfall for the company, funneling at least $12.9 billion in taxpayer largesse directly to Goldman Sachs.

“AIG owed Goldman about $20 billion, and if AIG had gone through a normal bankruptcy, Goldman probably would have gone out of business. Instead, they got paid 100 cents on the dollar for every dollar that AIG owed them,” says Taibbi, author of a blistering take-down of the investment banking giant in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone.

In Salon, former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says that this year’s big bank failures have resulted in a heavier concentration of financial influence in the few surviving firms, namely Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. We have taken the “too big to fail” problem and made it bigger. JPMorgan acquired rival Bear Stearns for a pittance last March with billions of dollars in government guarantees. The company also picked up national banking giant Washington Mutual last fall. That means more risk in our economy and a greater concentration of lobbying power in our political system.

“We’ve ended up with two giants that now have most of the casino to themselves, are playing with poker chips backed by taxpayers, and have a big say in what the rules of the game are to be,” Reich writes.

Adam Schlesinger of Air America took to Wall Street to compile a hodgepodge of one-on-one interviews with bailout critics and condescending financiers. Schlesinger underscores the absurdity of Goldman’s pending bonuses by posting his own checking account balance ($13.75). The point of this massive bailout was to make the economy function for ordinary people. Instead, we’ve made sure that it benefits extremely wealthy bankers.

The government so completely resists doing anything about this staggering inequality, as Eyal Press writes for The Nation. There are two ways to approach the inequality problem. We can rein in the recklessness at the top by imposing serious regulations, and empower those at the bottom by giving them greater negotiating leverage with their employers (i.e., promoting unionization). While the bonus money flows on Wall Street, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a key bill to empowering unions, was just stripped of a crucial provision that would have made it easier for workers to organize, as David Moberg reports for In These Times.

As EFCA is gutted, bills proposing regulations for the financial sector are moving at a snail’s pace—even after two years of economic turmoil. Last week, Congressional leaders from both parties nominated members for a new panel, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, to investigate the causes of the financial crisis. The investigation seems doomed to failure by its very design. Zachary Roth details the committee’s various shortcomings for Talking Points Memo. Of the panelists, six were nominated by the Democratic leadership, while four were nominated by the Republican leadership. If all four Republican nominees vote to block a subpoena, the committee cannot issue it, and without broad subpoena power, the entire exercise is futile.

Roth also emphasizes the excessively political nature of the appointees, particularly on the Republican side, which named former Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., as Vice Chair. The Democratic picks are generally uninspiring, except for Brooksley Born, who fought to regulate derivatives in the 1990s as head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. But the Democrats have nobody anywhere near as frightening as Rep. Thomas, a vicious partisan who specialized in ushering money to special interests during his tenure as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Mary Kane of The Washington Independent explains the troubling record of another Republican commission appointee, Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. The various conspiracy theories Wallison peddled include a robustly debunked belief that a decades-old anti-discrimination law is responsible for the mortgage meltdown. The law in question, known as the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), dates back to 1977, and Wallison’s conspiracy theory has been rejected by nearly everyone in the financial commentariat, including regulators appointed by George W. Bush.

The Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to make loans to communities where they collect deposits. If you accept deposits at a branch in a poor neighborhood, you have to offer responsible loans in the same community. The idea is to expand access to affordable credit in the inner cities, while the subprime crisis is heavily concentrated in the suburbs. CRA loans have to be affordable, which means high-interest subprime loans do not count. CRA does not require banks to lower their lending standards, because any recipients have to be credit-worthy. Only 6% of high-interest mortgages were made by companies subject to CRA regulations, and lest we forget, this law was passed in 1977, while financial crisis erupted in 2007.

Instead of appointing toothless commissions, we should be making sure the financial oligarchs do things that are good for the rest of us. Congress should be writing regulations to curb risk in the financial system as fast as bankers are paying themselves bonuses. They’re our representatives, after all, and it’s our money.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit and for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out and This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Audit: Unions and Wage Growth Can Fuel Recovery

Posted Jul 14, 2009 @ 8:07 am by
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by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire blogger

The U.S. economy is in big trouble right now, and the reform process may be missing a key point. When banks ran into severe trouble late last year, the government responded quickly with a massive bailout, but very little has been done to address a major structural flaw that has left our economy so vulnerable: rampant income inequality. In a system based on consumer spending, we have stretched consumers beyond their limit.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues that we are in for a long period of economic woe over at Talking Points Memo. Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the U.S. economy, so when consumers go broke, everything shuts down. Ordinary Americans’ wages have been declining for decades, and the collapse of the housing bubble wiped out roughly $14 trillion in household wealth. Simply rebooting in the hopes that our simultaneous assault and dependence on consumer pocketbooks will work again will not be effective.

“This economy can’t get back on track because the track we were on for years—featuring flat or declining median wages, mounting consumer debt, and widening insecurity, not to mention increasing carbon in the atmosphere—simply cannot be sustained,” Reich writes.

Strengthening our labor unions is probably the biggest single step the U.S. can take toward economic stability. And the best way to do that would be passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it much easier for unions to organize by circumventing executive intimidation. Empowered workers can demand fair wages, decent benefits and help build a society that values all labor as an important part of collective existence.

In a profile of AFL-CIO leader David Trumka for The Nation, David Moberg presents a vision of an economy in which policymakers and voters are concerned with how much wealth exists and how that wealth is distributed. Widespread prosperity does not inevitably flow from technological or financial innovation if the resulting gains are diverted to a select few.

“In Trumka’s view, the unionism of the 1930s forged a social compact that made possible the middle class prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s,” Moberg writes. “But since the early 1970s, Wall Street and financial interests have dominated American politics, dismantling the compact and increasing inequality, debt and insecurity as workers struggled to keep up.”

It may be surprising for those of us who don’t work on Wall Street, but there is actually an enormously influential school of thought in Washington, D.C. that believes recessions are actually good for the economy. The reasoning goes something like this: When economies gorge themselves, something has to happen to correct the mistake—to “purge the rottenness from the system,” as Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon once said. The idea has some level of intuitive appeal, but as Christopher Hayes writes for The American Prospect, it’s also a complete distortion of how recessions actually work.

“Economic contraction feels quite different to a bond trader and an unskilled worker,” Hayes writes. “A spike in unemployment hits those on the margins of the labor market the hardest, while contractions also usher in deflation, which has a strong tendency to make the rich richer.”

In reality, the government almost never makes the perpetrators of an economic collapse pay serious consequences. When the economy gets into trouble, the government usually takes emergency measures to avert a crisis, and then refuses to adopt reforms that would protect those dealt the most harm. It’s been this way for decades.

Not only have workers been neglected, but billions of their tax dollars have bailed out banks that ran themselves into the ground via predatory loans. But even that bailout money is not being used to help strengthen the broader economy. Writing for The Washington Independent, Mary Kane highlights a host of reports that indicate banks are  booting people out of their homes, and then refusing to care for the houses once they’re vacant. When homes are overgrown and infested with all kinds of critters, the value of nearby properties plummets. Banks are hurting completely innocent homeowners whose tax dollars helped bail them out.

We don’t even know the full extent of the favors the government has performed for financial firms. In a video for the American News Project, Lagan Sebert, Harry Hanbury and Mike Fritz detail some of the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented actions during the financial crisis. The Fed has lent out over $1 trillion to banks over the course of the financial crisis without disclosing who received the loans or what kind of collateral the Fed received in return.

Much of what we do know about the Fed’s rescue plans is disquieting, as William Greider, an economics journalist with The Nation, explains in the ANP video. When Bear Stearns collapsed in March 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York negotiated a rescue plan in which JPMorgan would acquire the failed Wall Street icon in exchange for $30 billion in loss protection from the Fed. But JPMorgan would have been one of the hardest hit by a Bear Stearns collapse, and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon sits on the board of directors at the New York Fed.

“Tim Geithner, who was then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and is now Treasury Secretary, was negotiating with his own board member,” Greider says.

Going back to labor: Hourly workers will get some much-needed relief later this month, when the federal minimum wage increases from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour, as Doug Ramsey explains for Public News Service of Arizona. While executives like to argue that raising the minimum wage is a job-killer, the fact is that no serious study has ever linked the two phenomena. Interestingly, the wage increase was not a response to the economic crisis. It was one of the first legislative victories for the Democratic Party when it won back majorities in the House and Senate in 2006.

Anybody who lives on less than $7.00 an hour can attest that the added income is a welcome improvement over the status quo. But $7.25 an hour is just $15,000 a year—not nearly enough to save for the future or pay for a serious medical procedure. Our economy is suffering because many, many ordinary people are living paycheck to paycheck. We have to create an economy where work and workers are given their fair value.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit and for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out and This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Audit: Curbing Credit Card Abuses

Posted Apr 28, 2009 @ 8:25 am by
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by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

While the bank lobby continues to hold significant clout in Congress, President Barack Obama entered the fray on behalf of consumers Thursday, demanding that lenders put an end to abusive fees and predatory interest rates.

Writing for Air America, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich highlights parallels between credit card problems, which are just now starting to take a serious toll on bank balance sheets, and the subprime mortgage meltdown that triggered today’s economic crisis. In both cases, Reich notes, banks used a vast array of traps to trick people into high-interest loans they couldn’t afford. Now that credit card loans are also going bad and eating up bank profits, lenders have deployed another set of fine-print gimmickry to gouge borrowers and make up for the losses.

Banks are currently jacking up interest rates on previously accumulated credit card debt and charging outrageous fees for simple mistakes, like exceeding the credit limit. There is no law that says credit card lenders have to charge such fees—when a borrower hits the credit limit, the company could simply deny the transaction.

Lawmakers have protected the unfair credit card playing field for years. In 2008, a House bill to ban retroactive interest rate hikes, limit abusive fees and rein in deceptive marketing techniques passed by an overwhelming margin, but the banking lobby successfully prevented a similar measure from coming to a vote in the Senate. Sadly, as Mike Lillis emphasizes in The Washington Independent, policy observers are experiencing déjà vu on the current round of credit card legislation.

Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve finalized new regulations that would ban many abuses by credit card lenders, but the rules don’t go into effect until July 2010. This absurd delay was the source of much of the initial support for the legislation in Congress: lawmakers had hoped to protect consumers in the middle of a dangerous recession. While versions of the bill have cleared key committees in both the House and Senate, Lillis notes that the bank lobby has already exacted its pound of flesh, convincing members of Congress to delay the effective date of the legislation until—you guessed it—the middle of 2010. Lawmakers insist that the battle isn’t over, but we won’t know the result until the bills actually go to the floor for a vote, if they get voted on at all. No vote on the legislation is currently scheduled in either chamber.

Amid this Congressional stalemate, Obama met with credit card executives last week to emphasize his administration’s support for stronger regulations. Ezra Klein argues that the meeting bodes well for consumers in The American Prospect. The banking lobby routinely fights tighter regulation by claiming that stricter rules will lower profits, which, in turn, will force them to raise interest rates on other loans. If you reign in these abusive practices, the lobbyists say, we’ll have to raise interest rates on other borrowers. No administration in recent memory has bothered to challenge banks on the issue. A reporter raised the question at a press conference following Obama’s meeing with executives, asking whether the president believes there is a trade-off between credit card industry profits and consumer protection. Klein notes that Obama’s answer in the affirmative (“We think that it’s been out of balance.”) is a statement that has enormous implications for the policy debate, especially in the context of the president’s other comments on ensuring the extension of economically productive credit.

“We are confident that we can arrive at something that is commonsensical, something that allows the industry to continue to provide loans and to run a stable business model that’s not dependent on bubbles, that’s not dependent on people getting over-extended or finding themselves in over their heads,” Obama said.

Credit card companies clearly make a lot of money from these tricks and traps, otherwise they wouldn’t deploy them. If lenders could easily replace what they currently rake in with income from responsible loans, then there would be no trade-off between consumer protection and bank profits. But for lenders to argue that they need money earned by conning their customers is to admit that their business is dependent on predatory, economically destructive lending. This is not something that a company dependent on taxpayer support wants to acknowledge.

Obama, who has been very lenient with the banking industry, is essentially saying that banks have to earn their profits by playing a useful role in the economy, acknowledging that they have real obligations not just to their shareholders, but to the general public.

Obama’s sheer popularity will make it harder for members of Congress to water down regulations, but his willingness to play legislative hardball has already score a major victory over another key bank lobby priority: student loan subsidies. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the government has been giving money to private student loan companies for years in hopes that the funds are used to make responsible loans. In reality, the subsidies are squandered on executive compensation and shareholder dividends. As a solution, Obama proposed eliminating the bank handouts and replacing them with direct government loans to students.

The plan hit a temporary roadblock when Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., tried to scuttle the legislation to benefit lenders in his home state. As Benen explains, the student loan proposal wouldn’t have cleared the Senate without Nelson’s support. With 60 votes needed for any proposal to clear a filibuster, Obama usually needs every Democrat he can get. But instead of diluting the plan to win over Nelson, Obama just went around him by forging an agreement with negotiators in the House and Senate. The student lending changes will be pushed through the budget reconciliation process, allowing the measure can pass the Senate with just 51 votes, a situation which all but guarantees passage of any measure.

If Obama can win so easily on student loans, he can win on credit cards, but he has to move quickly. Unemployment call centers are being completely overwhelmed by the volume of laid-off workers seeking relief. As Marty Durlin notes for High Country News, The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is currently taking more than 10 times the call volume it received during the recession of the early 1990s. As job cuts continue to escalate, people are relying more and more on credit cards to fund necessities. The recession is happening right now. Reform can’t wait.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit and for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out and This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Audit: Progressive Pressure is Repairing the Economy

Posted Mar 17, 2009 @ 8:32 am by
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Progressive media is sounding the alarm on the AIG bonus scandal, demanding that policymakers stop repeating Bush administration mistakes and offering concrete solutions to the dire economic situation those missteps have created.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich describes the bonus insanity in a blog distributed by AlterNet. “Had AIG gone into chapter 11 bankruptcy or been liquidated, as it would have without government aid, no bonuses would ever be paid,” Reich writes, noting that institutions like AIG “are no longer within the capitalist system because they are no longer accountable to the market.” If AIG is not accountable to the Treasury Secretary of the country that owns an 80% stake in AIG, then the company has unlimited access to taxpayer coffers without being accountable to anyone at all.

The government’s first set of actions after it took control of its AIG stake back in September should have been to identify and renegotiate every important contract the company was tied up in. Whether those contracts were guaranteed bonuses with current employees or complex credit default swap transactions with Goldman Sachs, the extraordinary assistance the government had agreed to provide would have been a perfectly legitimate legal justification to demand new contractual terms. In short, the government should have exercised the benefits of ownership—exactly what progressive economists, columnists and bloggers have been demanding since the bailout debate began.

But while the uproar over AIG’s bonuses vindicates progressive calls for more stringent action to rein in the financial predators, President Barack Obama inherited an economy in very real danger of collapse, with the banking crisis is the epicenter of the economic earthquake.

While most economists are warning of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Robert Kuttner reveals for The American Prospect why this one might actually be worse. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the U.S. financial system was still generally healthy. It took another three years for unemployment and general economic malaise to overwhelm the banking world. Today, the banking system is already broken and could get even worse without swift and dramatic action from the Obama administration. The U.S. is not a major international creditor as it was in 1929, but rather the world’s largest debtor, and today far more Americans have their life savings tied up in the value of their home and in the stock market than in the early years of the Depression. Millions of Americans have already seen their nest eggs decimated in the current recession, a process which took years during the Herbert Hoover administration.

Kuttner emphasizes that the situation is not hopeless—it will simply require a bigger set of policy tools than the Bush administration was willing to wield. “All of these economic calamities have solutions, but each is more radical that what’s currently on offer,” Kuttner writes. Temporarily nationalizing big banks has become inevitable if recovery is going to be taken seriously. We’ll also have to get used to very large federal deficits—World War II deficits were nearly triple the deficit we will see this year. If foreign creditors decide to stop footing the bill, the U.S. may need to finance its economic salvation by selling recovery bonds to our own citizens just as we sold war bonds in the 1940s war bonds.

The key is to keep the progressive pressure on high. In an interview with GritTV’s Laura Flanders, Barbara Ehrenreich emphasizes the importance of the current economic situation for the future of progressive ideals. Ehrenreich identifies as a socialist and is most famous for her book Nickel and Dimed about living on poverty-level wages. The fact that we have allowed Wall Street to drain hundreds of billions of dollars in public sector resources should be terrifying, according to Ehrenreich, and even those who do not share her ideological affiliations can see that the current loot-and-let-die arrangement is not only unfair, but not working.

“[Obama] needs a left on the economic issue,” Ehrenreich argues. “We’ve got to make the pressure real.”

The AIG debacle proves her point. Writing for The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen highlights Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s “I feel your pain” moment during Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview in which he voiced outrage over AIG’s destructive behavior. “If Bernanke thinks that’s going to dissipate the public anger, he’s likely to be disappointed,” according to Benen.

And indeed, a handful of commentators including Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo laid into the government’s bailout engineers over the past couple of weeks for refusing to disclose AIG’s counterparties. The Treasury finally caved on Monday, so despite Geithner’s protests, we now know exactly who AIG paid with its bailout money from 2008, mostly European banks. But as TruthDig’s Ear to the Ground blog notes, even this victory is just a step in the right direction—Treasury is yet to explain how AIG bailout funds have been spent in 2009. Better still, the administration might also stop bestowing taxpayer largesse on Wall Street incorrigibles who, let’s not forget, created the economic problem in the first place.

Political discourse is not the only forum for progressive pressure. To that end, the NAACP has filed class-action lawsuits against subprime behemoths Wells Fargo and HSBC seeking some for discriminatory mortgage lending. As Michelle Chen explains for Colorlines, black Americans routinely pay more for their mortgages than white borrowers with identical qualifications, and are often denied loans entirely based on nothing but the color of their skin.

If you want social justice, this is the economic moment to demand it.

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