Posts tagged with 'The Washington Monthly'

Weekly Audit: Will Obama Save Homeowners From Wall Street’s Latest Fraud Scheme?

Posted Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:12 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

A massive foreclosure fraud scandal is rocking the U.S. mortgage market. Wall Street banks and their lawyers are fabricating documents, forging signatures and lying to judges—all to exploit troubled borrowers with enormous, illegal fees, and in some cases, improperly foreclose on borrowers who haven’t missed any payments.

The fraud is so widespread that it could put some big banks out of business and even spark another financial collapse. Fortunately, things haven’t fallen apart just yet. With strong leadership from President Barack Obama and Congress, the government can help keep troubled borrowers in their homes and prevent another meltdown. (more…)

Weekly Audit: Save Affordable Housing, Help Revive America’s Middle Class

Posted Aug 24, 2010 @ 10:27 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Over the past decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac transformed themselves into some of the worst-run companies in recent history. But contrary to current talking points, the firms’ failings had almost nothing to do with their programs for low-income borrowers. As policymakers debate what should be done with the mortgage giants, a battle is now beginning in which the very availability of affordable housing for the middle class may be at stake.

A history of affordable housing

As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, before the U.S. government created Fannie Mae in 1938, mortgages were very pricey 5-year loans, so expensive that only very wealthy Americans could ever hope to own a home. Fannie Mae changed all that by rolling out the 30-year mortgage, which lowered monthly payments for borrowers by providing a government guarantee against losses for banks. It worked.

But as Fernholz notes, without some kind of government involvement in the housing market, home ownership will revert to its pre-Depression status a privilege reserved for elites. Policymakers will have to implement significant changes in the mortgage finance system to ensure stability in the U.S. housing market, but whatever changes may come, a robust role for the government in housing will be essential.

Fannie and Freddie have been justifiably but inaccurately maligned in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis. In recent years, their executives ran the firms like out-of-control hedge funds, lobbied Congress like arrogant Wall Street banks and did nothing beyond the bare minimum required by law to help low-income borrowers. But Fannie and Freddie did not go headlong into subprime mortgages—the primary source of their losses came from loans to relatively high-quality borrowers.

The terrible mortgages that crashed the economy were issued by banking conglomerates and Wall Street megabanks—Fannie and Freddie were almost entirely divorced from that line of business. The problem with Fannie and Freddie was largely structural– investors and managers saw the potential for big profits from taking on loads of risk, but believed (accurately) that the government would eat losses if those risks backfired. So Fannie and Freddie ramped up risk, taking on as many mortgages as they could while keeping as little money as possible on hand to cushion against losses. Eventually the strategy destroyed them.

Fixing the mortgage system

Exactly how the government stays involved in the mortgage market is still open to debate, as Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent. Nearly every member of the private sector who testified at a recent housing forum sponsored by the Treasury Department endorsed some kind of government backing for the housing market. This was a meeting of private-sector bigwigs—no community groups or affordable housing advocates were invited to speak at the meeting. Proposals ranged from scaling back government support for some types of mortgages, to the full nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Fannie was a nationalized entity for the first 30 years of its existence).

In other words, the government is going to have to keep subsidizing housing, but it will have to find new ways to do it. The old Fannie and Freddie model didn’t work, but the private sector will be unable to get the job done by itself. Private-sector banks and mortgage brokers, after all, were the source of all the predatory loans issued during the subprime crisis, and the source of all of the most offensive loans that drove the economy off a cliff.

Inefficient and often predatory players on Wall Street are still causing problems today. As Ellen Brown highlights for Yes! Magazine, the mortgage system is so bizarre that banks are finding themselves unable to document their right to foreclose on properties—and courts are (fortunately) refusing to let them do it.

It’s a rare situation in which borrowers may actually hold the higher legal ground against powerful corporations. About 62 mortgages are registered through an electronic documentation system called the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which helps banks with the foreclosure process. But MERS has repeatedly been unable to show proper documentation assigning a mortgage to a specific bank, and courts are now challenging its right to foreclose on behalf of big banks.

That’s good news, Brown notes, because MERS’ shoddy documentation has made it very difficult for borrowers to figure out who actually owns their loan. If you don’t know who owns your mortgage, it’s impossible to modify it if you find yourself unable to pay it off.

As Shamus Cooke argues for Truthout, even successful innovations like the 30-year mortgage are beginning to look a little outdated in an era of heavy, chronic unemployment. Many people can no longer expect to be gainfully employed for three decades on end. If the government refuses to repair our damaged jobs infrastructure, even simply maintaining the status quo in housing could become impossible.

Deficit reduction is not a cure-all

That brings us to another favorite conservative bogeyman, the federal budget deficit. The deficit and jobs generally stand in direct opposition. Creating jobs costs money, and spending that money expands the deficit. Cutting the deficit, by contrast, means cutting support for jobs.

As Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly, conservative lawmakers are still harping on deficit reduction as a cure for everything that ills the nation, when the real solution to our problems is a serious jobs bill.

Even if the deficit were a huge problem, trying to cut important social services in the middle of a deep recession is not a good way to go about solving it. Drastic cuts to government spending in a recession result in lower tax returns for the government, which can often be self-defeating, especially in the face of expanding joblessness. The resulting push for deficit reduction—known in economic circles as an “austerity policy,” is better understood as the active pursuit of economic decline. As economist Robert Johnson notes in a New Deal 2.0 piece carried by AlterNet:

Deterioration of government services is bad enough, but imposing austerity due to lack of trust in a time of high unemployment and slack resources is tragic. It is a means to accelerate the decline of living standards of those who have taken a beating since 2007. Double dip or stagnation is too subtle a distinction. We are amidst an unfolding collective choice to pursue a downward spiral.

The government has taken several dramatic steps to repair the nation’s financial system, but it has done almost nothing to help troubled borrowers and not nearly enough to create jobs. Some of this is due to misguided policies enacted by President Barack Obama, and much of it is due to cynical obstructionism. But we cannot repair the economy without fixing jobs and housing. Both are still in a full-blown crisis, and policymakers should feel an urgent need to deal with them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Silencing Conservative Deficit Hawks

Posted Aug 3, 2010 @ 9:22 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

The same conservatives who spent the past year senselessly screaming about the U.S. budget deficit are now demanding an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. The extension simply doesn’t make sense, and the policies implied are a recipe for massive job loss in the middle of the worst employment crisis in 75 years.

Deflation nation

As William Greider explains for The Nation, the major problem facing the U.S. economy is not the budget deficit, but the prospect of deflation. Deflation was one of the driving forces behind the Great Depression. Under deflation, the value of money increases, which drives prices down. When millions of Americans are deep in debt, deflation makes those debts much larger. It also creates total economic paralysis, as Greider explains:

Deflation essentially tells everyone to hunker down and wait. Instead of buying big-ticket items, consumers wait for prices to fall further. Instead of investing in new production, companies wait for cheaper opportunities, cheaper labor. (more…)

Weekly Audit: Why Are Unemployment Benefits A Major Political Fight?

Posted Jul 27, 2010 @ 9:17 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr user khalilshah, via Creative Commons LicenseCongress finally authorized an extension of unemployment benefits on Wednesday, providing a critical lifeline to families across the country and an absolutely essential boost to the economy.

But with the jobless rate hovering near 10 percent, minimum measures like unemployment benefits shouldn’t be a source of controversy. Lawmakers should be debating big-picture jobs packages to get people back to work, not drips and drabs that keep a worst-case-scenario from getting unbearable.

As Annie Lowrey notes for the Iowa Independent, Senate Republicans blocked the unemployment benefits bill for two months, causing benefits to lapse for 2.6 million Americans. That’s a humanitarian outrage. When people don’t have access to this minimal support, they can’t pay bills or feed their kids. There is no excuse for anyone in a position of power to cut off access to such basic social necessities. So what’s the hold up? (more…)

Weekly Audit: Deficit Reduction = Selling Out to Wall Street

Posted Jun 8, 2010 @ 10:35 am by
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by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

 

Image courtesy of Flickr user epicharmus, via Creative Commons LicenseIn the fall of 2008, decades of finance-first, bankers-know-best economic policies coalesced to create one of the worst economic crises in history, one that the banks themselves could not survive without staggering levels of government support.

 

Yet astonishingly, nearly two years after the crash, Wall Street is still setting the economic agenda in Washington. As Congress begins to examine broader economic policy, lawmakers are under heavy Wall Street pressure to reduce the federal budget deficit—even though that could mean deepening the jobs crisis without any substantive economic benefits. (more…)

Weekly Diaspora: Obama Deploys Troops to Border Amid Rising Civil Disobedience

Posted May 27, 2010 @ 10:45 am by
Filed under: Immigration     Bookmark and Share

by Erin Rosa, Media Consortium blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr user jim.greenhill, via Creative Commons LicensePresident Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that he would be deploying 1,200 National Guard troops to the Mexican border to beef up security along the Río Bravo. This surprise move has garnered criticism from immigrant rights supporters, who argue that it will dehumanize and endanger immigrant and Latino communities.

Julianne Hing at RaceWire offers more details on the plan, reporting that an extra $500 million has also been allocated to law enforcement along the border.

“Obama is reportedly asking for these troop increases in anticipation of Republicans’ demands on a war spending bill this week,” Hing writes. “But Obama’s already outpaced his predecessors in spending on border security and military presence at the border.” (more…)

Weekly Mulch: Massey Energy coal costs the environment

Posted Apr 9, 2010 @ 10:47 am by
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By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Coal consumption has costs — this week’s explosion at a West Virginia mine, which killed 25, made that clear. Those costs aren’t limited to human lives, either. Massey Energy Co., the owner of the West Virginia mine, has not just racked up safety violations but also consistently disregarded the environmental effects of its work.

Black marks on Massey’s record

This week’s explosion is far from the first debacle associated with a Massey project, and past incidents have had disastrous impacts on the environment. In 2000, a break in a Massey-owned reservoir, filled with coal waste, caused more damage than the Exxon Valdez spill, Steve Benen writes at The Washington Monthly. Clara Bingham described the flood of sludge for the magazine in 2005:

“The gooey mixture of black water and coal tailings traveled downstream through Coldwater and Wolf creeks, and later through the river’s main stem, Tug Fork. Ten days later, an inky plume appeared in the Ohio River. On its 75-mile path of destruction, the sludge obliterated wildlife, killed 1.6 million fish, ransacked property, washed away roads and bridges, and contaminated the water systems of 27,623 people.”

A year later, another 30,000 gallons of sludge poured into a river in Madison, WV, “with nary a peep from Massey,” Kevin Connor points out at AlterNet.

(more…)

Weekly Audit: How Superhero Hilda Solis is Winning the Fight for Workers’ Rights

Posted Mar 30, 2010 @ 8:09 am by
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By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

While the poor judgment of top-level officials at Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget frequently makes the news, there is another, unrecognized economic crew doing terrific work: Officials at the Department of Labor are restoring workers’ rights after nearly a decade of neglect.

To top it all off, President Barack Obama appears ready to make another set of strong, though less high-profile, economic appointments that will help rein in Wall Street excess.

DoL All-Stars

As Esther Kaplan documents in a masterful piece for The Nation, the Department of Labor  (DoL) has been transformed from an agency that enabled corporate excess to one that holds companies accountable.  In less than a year, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and her team of deputies significantly leveled the playing field between ordinary workers and high-flying executives.

For decades, when conservatives have attempted to confront social problems, they’ve relied on the mantra of enforcement. If we had more cops, we’d fix everything. But as Kaplan documents, under President George W. Bush and his Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the DoL simply stopped enforcing worker protection laws. From wage theft to mine safety, the Department essentially allowed corrupt employers to do anything they wanted.

That neglect has already ended. Armed with a budget of just $1.5 billion—that’s roughly 0.2% of the Troubled Asset Relief Program—Solis and company have cultivated a list of economic accomplishments that seemed impossible when they took office. As Kaplan details:

“Facing badly depleted enforcement ranks, Solis hired 710 additional enforcement staff, including 130 at OSHA and 250 for the crucial wage-and-hour division, upping inspectors by more than a third. Another hundred will come on next year to staff a crackdown on the misclassification of millions of employees as “independent contractors”–a dodge to avoid paying taxes and benefits–a move that has set off enormous buzz on business blogs. Her team took a plunger to the stagnant regulatory pipeline, moving forward new rules on coal mine dust, silica, and cranes and derricks. She restored prevailing wages for agricultural guest workers and is poised to restore reporting rules on ergonomic injuries.”

Fixing the Fed

Obama also appears ready to make another slate of strong economic appointments at the Federal Reserve, an agency stuffed with free-marketers who helped engineer both an economic catastrophe and resulting bailouts. Obama’s rumored picks—economists Janet Yellen and Peter Diamond and bank regulator Sarah Bloom Raskin—are aggressive about making the economy work for everyday citizens, as I emphasize for AlterNet.

If Congress passes financial reforms similar to what Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) has proposed, the Fed’s regulatory responsibilities will actually expand, despite its failures over the past decade. The Fed has never effectively regulated anything and it’s not very concerned with unemployment as an economic problem.

That makes Obama’s pending slate of officials who prioritize bank regulation and broader employment very important. Raskin, in particular, stands out with her strong record as a state banking regulator. If Obama ultimately nominates her, she’ll be the first pure regulator ever appointed to the Fed. The potential picks don’t make up for Obama’s reappointment of bailouteer Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman, but they do show that the President is capable of sound judgment.

Strengthening the Dodd bill

But the strength of Obama’s potential Fed nominees doesn’t justify the weakness of Dodd’s financial regulation bill. As Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! reveal in interviews with economist Robert Johnson and ColorLines Editorial Director Kai Wright , the bill leaves plenty to be desired. Dodd is currently making the rounds and declaring that his bill will end the abuses giant banks deployed against the broader economy, but the truth is, the bill has largely been gutted by bank lobbyists. Here’s Johnson:

“We’re engaged in a Kabuki theater right now, hoping the material is too complex for the American people to understand, declaring victory, and yet basically encoding into law current practices of the banks. Every one of your listeners should ask the question, given this legislation, if the President, House and Senate pass it, will we be in a place where AIG couldn’t have happened, Lehman Brothers couldn’t have happened, Bear Stearns couldn’t have happened, and, more importantly, nine, ten percent unemployment caused by the banking crisis couldn’t have happened? I argue this bill does very little.”

The importance of trust-busting

So Dodd’s bill needs to be substantially strengthened as it moves through the Senate. But there’s plenty of other economic work to be done outside of Wall Street. As Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman explain for The Washington Monthly, the steady expansion of corporate monopolies has resulted in a fundamentally unstable economy.

The U.S. simply does not create jobs at the rate it once did, and companies aren’t held accountable to market forces like competition. Many of our monopolies are hidden, as Lynn and Longman note. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s seem like competitors, but they’re owned by the same holding company. The same dynamic holds true in auto manufacturing, banking, pet food, health care and IT. Consumers think they’re choosing between competing goods and services, when in fact they’re shopping in different divisions of the same corporate Goliath.

All hope is not lost. As Laura Flanders emphasizes for GRITtv, the passage of health care reform proves that the Obama administration and Congress can make substantive progressive changes when they put their minds to it. The question is whether Obama is willing to limit his economic accomplishments to lower-level issues, or go big and take on the deep-pocketed corporate campaign contributors.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: More Jobs Please

Posted Feb 16, 2010 @ 9:28 am by
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By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr user jronaldlee under Creative Commons LicenseOne year after President Barack Obama secured passage of his critical economic stimulus package, the U.S. Senate is finally taking anther look at how to create jobs and repair the economy. These issues are more important than ever, but absurd Republican obstructionism and timid Democratic negotiation are once again threatening good public policy.

Not really bipartisan, is it?

As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the Senate Finance Committee reached a “bipartisan” agreement to supposedly spur job creation last week. Republicans demanded billions in tax cuts for wealthy people, but kept on caterwauling about the federal budget deficit. In exchange for $80 billion to dedicate to jobs—an extremely modest figure given the state of the labor market—Republicans asked for hundreds of billions in giveaways for the rich. And that’s just to get the bill through the Finance Committee, much less the full Senate. (more…)

Weekly Mulch: ‘Global Weirding’ and Climate Skeptics’ Slushy Logic

Posted Feb 12, 2010 @ 11:38 am by
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By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Image courtest of Flickr user DeeJayTee23, used under Creative Commons LicenseClimate skeptics found plenty of reasons to dig out their dreary critiques this week, between the continuing controversy over erroneous reports from the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the record-breaking snowfall on the East Coast. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and his family built an igloo which Inhofe then dubbed “Al Gore’s house” in the streets of Washington, D.C. The Virginia GOP ran ads attacking the state’s Democratic representatives for their support of cap-and-trade and urged voters to “tell them how much global warming you get this weekend.” And skeptics across the world claimed that the smaller mistakes in IPCC reports undermined the organization’s broad conclusions on climate change science.

Let’s plow through this slushy thinking before it piles up too high. (more…)