Wassail, traveler, and welcome to The Gable Grey -- a place of retreat, of renewal, and of resistance: a tree-shaded refuge in Dark Times. Now pass the threshold, and rest from journeys! For a cold wind is blowing; and here, if you wish, you may hear tidings of the world without...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

And now, a word from Marcus

"...see that you keep a cheerful demeanour, and retain your independence of outside help and the peace which others can give.  Your duty is to stand straight -- not be held straight."

--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Introspective Look at the Future of America, by Craig Harris

As we close out 2009 and look forward into 2010 and beyond, this has been a year of near financial catastrophe and monumental change, none of which benefited America or ordinary Americans. Late in 2008 and throughout 2009, events have happened in the US which would have been labeled unfathomable just a few short years ago, and yet already these monumental changes are expected to be filed into the memory hole and Americans are expected to believe nothing has changed.
As we exit the year, we are told the US is a laissez-faire free market economy and yet the US government is now the largest owner of housing in the US as well as the owner of last resort for some of the largest and completely insolvent US corporations. The Federal Reserve, a privately and anonymously owned and controlled corporation chartered with issuing the nations currency, were given the green light by themselves to transfer to themselves and their shareholders the people's wealth in the form of their future labor. The FED balance sheet has ballooned to become a junk bond warehouse as they overtly and covertly buy their own debt, immune from any sort of oversight, regulation or auditing and operating above the law. Along with that, increasingly coercive brute force measures are now routinely necessary to manage and manipulate so called "free market" asset prices which are cheerled by so called "financial news media" whose board members and management are all the same people who transferred the people's wealth to themselves. The corporate media party line idea of a "free market US economy" now seems like a distant memory and it all feels like systemic fraud, corruption, malfeasance and organized crime at the very highest levels.
During 2009 we have seen the continued collapse of American industry amid wave after wave of layoffs. The corrupt corporate media cartel likes to trot out a group of FED sponsored shills who call themselves "professors" to call this a "jobless recovery" although it's difficult to imagine a recovery where American industry has collapsed and is now owned by the government. US cities both large and small have been decimated by the loss of the US manufacturing base. Detroit now resembles a third world country with a 50% unemployment rate. Ransacked, foreclosed houses go for a dollar apparently because no one who has a choice is willing to own property or live there. The US has an officially stated unemployment rate of ten percent and a real unemployment rate of over 20 percent. Wall Street may have recovered due to a direct injection of capital from the future labor of the people, but there has been no action taken whatsoever to improve the situation of the average citizen as the disconnect between the ruling Oligarchs and Wall Street, the real economy and the lives of ordinary Americans continues to widen. The people's bailout money, which represents the future labor of Americans, went directly into the pockets of the people who created the crisis in the first place because they are in the enviable position of being "too big to fail". Interestingly, or sadly, the same people and institutions responsible for and who profited from the catastrophe are still in charge and have handed even more power and control to themselves. Although there has been talk in Washington of "too big to fail" being undesirable, the result of the post collapse policies have resulted in ever fewer, ever larger players with more power and control and instead of being "too big to fail" now wield so much money and power that they demonstrate wholesale ownership of the entire US political body.
Due to the post collapse monetary and fiscal policies, the people have now been saddled up with an unpayable level of debt. The cause of the near total collapse of the financial system was too much debt and the "solution" has been even more debt piled on to the original debt. During the year, the Dallas FED estimated the financial obligations of the US government at 99 trillion dollars. The head of the TARP program estimated the bailout cost at 24 trillion dollars. Totaled together the US has in the neighborhood of 120 trillion dollars of current and future obligations on an annual revenue of around 2 trillion dollars which is falling due to high unemployment, higher state and local taxes and fees and lower wages. Cutting that down to size, imagine earning 200,000 a year and having a debt of 12 million dollars. In short, the US dollar has become a token of an unpayable debt and thus the anchor of the entire global financial system is a ponzi fraud. It becomes impossible to compute the value of anything as measured in a fraudulent currency that represents an unpayable debt.
The banking system is not lending money because it's still insolvent. The people, having lost over 5 trillion dollars in the real estate bust are also collectively insolvent. Many US states and cities are bankrupt or near bankrupt. One in nine Americans subsist on food stamps. Even as a college education has become unaffordable to most Americans, college graduates now find themselves jobless. One in seven households now have their adult children living back at home due to the inability to find a job. The homeless population is growing and tent cities sprouted up across America during 2009. The estimated homeless population in LA alone is 40,000 people a night. People in the US if they have a job are working longer and harder to make the same income. Wages have remained stagnant and the real cost of living continues to spiral ever higher for ordinary Americans. The new man in charge, elected on a platform of "change", has delivered his change in the form of change=no change, or how do you like your change now?
By any metric you choose, whether it's the median home costing half the median income even at artificially low interest rates, to the ballooning cost of insurance, healthcare, education or anything else people spend their money on, the US is experiencing a rapid decline in the standard of living for ordinary Americans and an emerging ultra rich ultra powerful shadow oligarch rule amid a generalized and widespread financial and social decay. The US population is becoming a nation of voiceless serfs with fewer and fewer remaining civil and property rights and a rapidly decaying standard of living, the antitheses of everything America is said to represent and strive for.
The hypocrisy and fraud of the oligarch rule corporate media story line is now nearly impossible for an educated, informed adult to digest. As Jim Grant pointed out recently, according to Section 19 of the Coinage Act of 1792, the penalty prescribed for any official who fraudulently debased the people's money is death, yet in 2009 debasing the people's money resulted in a "man of the year" award from the self serving corporate media who will be next in line for a bailout from the people for their good service to the new oligarch rule. This organized crime, this theft, occurring right out in the open, may explain why employees of the largest US financial institution are now not allowed to gather in groups larger than 12 outside and their executives are carrying firearms. In an affront to the intelligence and sensibility of any citizen of this planet, the new US president expanded a war he was elected to end and started a new frontier in Pakistan, for that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The people who were awarded hundreds of billions of dollars of the people's money because they lost all their money are skimming millions and billions off the top for themselves and their associates in what they call "bonuses". 2009 has been a year of egregious assault on the American public by the people in charge.
The "people's representatives" as they like to be called, no longer represent the people at all but instead solely represent and pledge allegiance to the special interests and corporate lobbyists who have bought and paid for their votes, along with the media oligarchs who control who sits in the seats. Regardless of whether they call themselves Democrats or Republicans, they are a group of self important, self serving, morally bankrupt, corrupt, clueless buffoons and criminals running unchecked by a complicit corporate media.
Every American should be ashamed, embarrassed and sad that their country has been bought and sold to an organized criminal enterprise which includes the entire political body and the media. The only thing the "people's representatives" have in common is contempt for the people they are ostensibly representing. It is revolting for any American to watch these cretins heaping praise on Ben Bernanke at the congressional theater of the absurd. His institution has already debased the dollar by 95% and failed miserably in every mandate they had since they took over in 1913. If any American has managed to retain or save any money, he can now put it on deposit in their banking system and earn a negative real return (a loss of his purchasing power) while at the same time the banks will take his deposit and loan it to his brother at 30% interest. So Mr Bernanke the money printer has control over the largest legal loan sharking operation ever concocted and it is funded by the America people, against the America people.
During 2009, the leadership has taken actions which benefit the corporations and special interests who own them, while showing nothing but wanton disregard for the millions of citizens whose lives their sponsors have destroyed. What we are headed towards in the US if we are not there already, is a Straussian society of ultra rich, ultra powerful oligarchs and a serfish powerless population with no middle class to speak of. The US president De Jour is, and from here on out will be a yes man, subservient to the ultra powerful too big to fail oligarchs who control the money and power and are responsible for putting him in the driver's seat. This is not compatible whatsoever with prosperity, democracy or anything else the US still holds itself out as. Here at the end of 2009, the United States has morphed into a bankrupt fascist oligarchy which owns the military machine as a policy enforcement tool, the entire political body and the media. It isn't going to fix itself because the fraud, corruption and malfeasance is systemic. It meets every definition of organized crime and it's all happening right out in the open.
In my way of thinking, this is not at all unlike the breakdown of the Soviet Union where for a period of time a sort of mafia of oligarchs wielded the wealth and power, carved up the remaining wealth of the country among themselves and had their way with the country amid a climate of manufactured fear, chaos and decay. The key point being that the people in control are out to make money and increase their power at the expense of the citizens. Mr Orwell said "the purpose of power is power" and that statement needs to be well understood. These megalomaniac, sociopathic aspirations of ever more power and control by an elitist group of criminals come at the expense of America and future Americans. It doesn't matter whatsoever to the oligarchs because they have property waiting in Croatia. When the remaining wealth has been extracted from America, they will all pull out and the citizens will be left with a rusted out bankrupt hull. I believe the circumstances for this eventuality have already been created, just not yet realized due to the enormous size of the economy and the momentum it has. In other words, I believe it's collapsing as fast as it can although living through it seems like slow motion. When viewed from the future in a historical context however, I think it will have seemed fairly rapid.
The financial markets have deteriorated into a Las Vegas casino atmosphere where the only consistent winners are the house and the too big to fail entities trading on foreknowledge and inside information shared freely between the treasury and the few remaining large trading houses. The entire system is bankrupt, fraudulent, corrupt and irretrievably broken. The anchor of the global financial system, the US dollar, has become the worlds largest ponzi scheme and the remaining 95% of the world's population would like a new, viable standard. At this point however, despite any action the FED may or may not take, the US debt is far too large to ever be repaid. It is questionable if the interest payments will even be serviceable if interest rates were to rise, and the only reason interest rates are low is because the FED is using brute force. At this time the only way out without a complete collapse is to inflate away the debt, thus turning a deflationary collapse into a long period of inflationary decay and declining standard of living.
I have been of the opinion that what we saw in October 2008 was a collapse of the global fiat financial system which was more or less expected due to the collapse of the real estate bubble. I have reminded my subscribers that when I was forecasting a drop in real estate prices of as much as 50% during the heyday of the mania, that sounded unfathomable. What I believe is in store for our future sounds nearly as unfathomable now as that idea did back then. I believe the reason it sounds unfathomable is due to the constant barrage of lies, misinformation and propaganda from the tight knit corporate media oligarchy which has essentially merged with the new power structure of the US in a corrupt, overt form of fascism that would make Mussolini blush or Goebbels the propagandist nod in approval.
Over a period of decades and with one FED induced serial bubble after another, the financial system finally reached an unsustainable level of debt and leverage in 2008. When the FED started raising interest rates, when the real estate bubble burst, it involved so much debt and leverage that the whole system failed, pricing models and risk models failed, and the banking system quickly became insolvent.
I believe we have already had a systemic collapse, and the only thing the FED can do now is alter the look and feel of the collapse and to manage the allocation of the remaining wealth. In the end, whether by deflationary collapse or inflationary decay, the result of the collapse will feel the same to the US general population regardless of the interim path taken.
If the FED had done nothing, the whole system would have quickly degenerated into a deflationary collapse and failure of the financial system due to insolvency. The course the FED chose however is the one myself and many others predicted beforehand... the FED chose to solve the problem of too much debt by creating even more debt by taking the unprecedented action of buying it's own debt under euphemisms like "quantitative easing" and "debt monetization" and also covert buying to artificially force negative real return rates of interest. Through this course of action, the FED so far has been able to turn what would have been a rapid deflationary collapse into a decaying inflationary depression which is euphemistically called "a recession that is now over" by the six people who control 96% of the global media and attempt to pass off propaganda as "news" to a woefully misinformed, dumbed down and apathetic general public.
Going forward, if the FED doesn't buy enough of their own debt, then interest rates on the long end would rise and the risk becomes a deflationary collapse into insolvency for the FED and it's banking system. If interest rates remain effectively at zero on the short end and artificially suppressed by quantitative easing on the long end, then the real estate market can recover and the banks can regain solvency. If interest rates rise as the free markets would argue for however, then the real estate market sinks even further, the US dollar rises, and greater insolvency of the banks follows. The higher interest rates go, the thinner the knife edge gets and the FED would quickly find itself staring into another October 2008 collapse kind of situation. On the other hand, if by buying enough of their own debt they can keep short and long term interest rates down, then the free money percolates through the banking system, puts pressure on the dollar, lifts commodity and real estate prices and pulls out of the collapse via inflating away the debt so long as they can avoid run away hyperinflation in the process. This is the path we have traveled throughout 2009.
The key point is that the FED has had the option of doing two things...creating even more debt in order to save itself and the banking system, or do nothing and watch themselves collapse into a mass of failure, loss of power and control, insolvency and domino style bankruptcy and default. They have chosen the expected course, which is to increase the debt and print money, which is the way they save themselves and their banking system. In short, given a choice between saving the people and saving themselves after a collapse, they have taken the expected course which is to attempt to save themselves. What else would you expect? If they had wanted to save the people they would have taken the peoples bailout money and handed it to them in the form of a check. Instead they handed it to the banks.
Although they have been somewhat successful in reducing the insolvency of the banking system, they have effectively created a giant wealth transfer mechanism whereby all the money that disappeared in the collapse was re created out of thin air and given to the banks and wall street. I think of it as a sort of shell game. The money disappeared from Mom and Pop's 401k and re appeared on the balance sheets of the banks via freshly created new money (debt). As a result, we have something still called "free market capitalism" which is not free market capitalism at all. We have emerged from this crisis with a sort of financial oligarchy where a few entities who control all the wealth and power also control politics and media. Understanding this will help to understand issues like "healthcare reform" which will involve you paying more and getting less, with the primary beneficiaries being the oligarchies who control health care and insurance.
The one major point I have to make at this time is throughout 2009, there was no action taken that put the average citizen in a better position, but instead during the course of the year there was a gigantic wealth transfer from the citizens to the banking system, effectively orchestrated by the so called "people's representatives" who are in fact, all owned by the banking system and Wall Street with half a dozen or so oligarchies and lobbyists in a public display of fraud, malfeasance and corruption that sets a new historical precedent.
I have been and remain of the opinion that the ultimate "solution" to this crisis will be for the entities who now control the wealth and power to accumulate even more wealth and power via a global central bank and global currency which now for the first time in public has been discussed on and off throughout 2009 and described as the New World Order by such luminaries as Henry Kissinger. So looking out beyond 2010, I see a new global reserve currency emerging and a global central bank which will effectively also be a global governing authority where the heads of state effectively report to the group of central bankers and their anonymous shareholders who effectively control the money, power and politicians on a global scale. When the global currency is introduced, only then do I expect a sort of collapse of the US dollar versus this global currency. In this way, the world can carry on while the former global reserve currency called the US dollar will be free to depreciate to a level where solvency is regained and the now unpayable US debt is inflated away to the point where it can be repaid in depreciated dollars. US citizens will experience a continued decay as the US becomes to resemble more and more, a third world country. Detroit is already there. The corporate media won't show it to you but if you do a youtube search on Detroit what you see will shock you.
My view of the world tends to be the long view. Throughout 2009 I have been positioned and trading in various hard assets including but not limited to gold silver, back month crude oil, Soybeans, raw land and Americana. I own and trade some Chinese shares but no US equities or bonds. I have lost confidence in the US leadership. I have lost confidence in the fairness of the "system" where some elite entities are free to keep the profits and nationalize their losses. I have opted to opt out by embarking on a long term effort to transfer more and more capital "off Wall Street" and their organized crime ring they call the banking system, and instead investing in things without fraudulent or impaired balance sheets. At some point in the future, I want to be short US 10 and 30 year bonds because it is nonsensical to me that anyone would be willing to loan a bankrupt country money for 30 years at an interest rate of 4% or so. The only reason this situation exists today is due to the FED monetizing debt and attempting to manipulate the long end using brute force.
So as we head off into 2010, I see a lot of uncertainty in the short term. If interest rates rise and the US dollar gets stronger, by mid year I would expect a repeat of October 2008. What I expect to happen over the longer term however is that the FED will ultimately print enough money to attempt to slowly inflate the debt away to a manageable amount amid a generalized and severe decay in terms of the standard of living for Average Americans. At some point along the line, I expect the world reserve currency role to be moved into a global currency and for the US dollar to be allowed to float against it without the benefits associated with the world currency role, and for the US standard of living to continue to decline and eventually decay into a societal collapse followed by something different. I expect China to emerge as the dominant economic power in the world and to purchase a large amount of US assets. Somewhere along the line I also expect the Nobel Peace Prize recipient to bomb Iran because he will be ordered to do so by the people who control the money.
Personally, based on what I see coming over the long term I have elected to forego city life and have embarked on a long term project in the picturesque Appalachian foothills in an effort to increase my degree of self sufficiency and insulate myself from the continued decay and declining standard of living sweeping the country. My long view for the US is high inflation which will not show up in the government's fraudulent statistics, along with a declining standard of living, increasing decay and ultimately leading to chaos, societal and government collapse in the US within a decade or two, maybe sooner.
I would like to end by quoting Marc Faber with one of the most compelling quotes of 2009. I find this quote compelling because the price of anything as measured by a fraudulent standard is meaningless. To me, it is a gift to be able to still exchange US dollars for anything with real value.
"I would buy every three months some gold and not worry so much about the price because the weight stays the same." -Marc Faber

Kunstler's Forecast 2010 (from Clusterfuck Nation)

The Center does Not Hold...
But Neither Does the Floor


     There are always disagreements in a society, differences of opinion, and contested ideas, but I don't remember any period in my own longish life, even the Vietnam uproar, when the collective sense of purpose, intent, and self-confidence was so muddled in this country, so detached from reality. Obviously, in saying this I'm assuming that I have some reliable notion of what's real.  I admit the possibility that I'm as mistaken as anyone else.  But for the purpose of this exercise I'll ask you to regard me as a reliable narrator. Forecasting is a nasty job, usually thankless, often disappointing - but somebody's got to do it. There are so many variables in motion, and so much of that motion is driven by randomness, and the best one can do in forecasting amounts to offering up some guesses for whatever they are worth.

     I begin by restating my central theme of recent months: that we're doing a poor job of constructing a coherent consensus about what is happening to us and what we are going to do about it. 

     There is a great clamor for "solutions" out there. I've noticed that what's being clamored for is a set of rescue remedies - miracles even - that will allow us to keep living exactly the way we're accustomed to in the USA, with all the trappings of comfort and convenience now taken as entitlements.  I don't believe that this will be remotely possible, so I avoid the term "solutions" entirely and suggest that we speak instead of "intelligent responses" to our changing circumstances. This implies that our well-being depends on our own behavior and the choices that we make, not on the lucky arrival of just-in-time miracles.  It is an active stance, not a passive one. What will we do?

     The great muddlement out there, this inability to form a coherent consensus about what's happening, is especially frightening when, as is the case today, even the intelligent elites appear clueless or patently dishonest, in any case unreliable, in their relations with reality. President Obama, for instance - a charming, articulate man, with a winning smile, pectorals like Kansas City strip steaks, and a mandate for "change" - who speaks incessantly and implausibly of "the recovery" when all the economic vital signs tell a different story except for some obviously manipulated stock market indexes. You hear this enough times and you can't help but regard it as lying, and even if it is lying ostensibly for the good of the nation, it is still lying about what is actually going on and does much harm to the project of building a coherent consensus. I submit that we would benefit more if we acknowledged what is really happening to us because only that will allow us to respond intelligently. What prior state does Mr. Obama suppose we're recovering to?  A Potemkin housing boom and an endless credit card spending orgy?  The lying spreads downward from the White House and broadly across the fruited plain and the corporate office landscape and through the campuses and the editorial floors and the suites of absolutely everyone in charge of everything until all leadership in every field of endeavor has been given permission to speak untruth and to reinforce each others lies and illusions.

     How dysfunctional is our nation? These days, we lie to ourselves perhaps as badly the Soviets did, and in a worse way, because where information is concerned we really are a freer people than they were, so our failure is far less excusable, far more disgraceful. That you are reading this blog is proof that we still enjoy free speech in this country, whatever state of captivity or foolishness the so-called "mainstream media" may be in.  By submitting to lies and illusions, therefore, we are discrediting the idea that freedom of speech and action has any value.  How dangerous is that?
Where We Are Now
     2009 was the Year of the Zombie. The system for capital formation and allocation basically died but there was no funeral. A great national voodoo spell has kept the banks and related entities like Fannie Mae and the dead insurance giant AIG lurching around the graveyard with arms outstretched and yellowed eyes bugged out, howling for fresh infusions of blood... er, bailout cash, which is delivered in truckloads by the Federal Reserve, which is itself a zombie in the sense that it is probably insolvent. The government and the banks (including the Fed) have been playing very complicated games with each other, and the public, trying to pretend that they can all still function, shifting and shuffling losses, cooking their books, hiding losses, and doing everything possible to detach the relation of "money" to the reality of productive activity.

     But nothing has been fixed, not even a little. Nothing has been enforced.  No one has been held responsible for massive fraud. The underlying reality is that we are a much less affluent society than we pretend to be, or, to put it bluntly, that we are functionally bankrupt at every level: household, corporate enterprise, and government (all levels of that, too).

     The difference between appearance and reality can be easily seen in the everyday facts of American economic life: soaring federal deficits, real unemployment above 15 percent, steeply falling tax revenues, massive state budget crises, continuing high rates of mortgage defaults and foreclosures, business and personal bankruptcies galore, cratering commercial real estate, dying retail, crumbling infrastructure, dwindling trade, runaway medical expense, soaring food stamp applications.  Meanwhile, the major stock indices rallied. What's not clear is whether money is actually going somewhere or only the idea of "money" is appearing to go somewhere.  After all, if a company like Goldman Sachs can borrow gigantic sums of "money" from the Federal Reserve at zero interest, why would it not shovel that money into the burning furnace of a fake stock market rally?  Of course, none of this behavior has anything to do with productive activity.

      The theme for 2009 - well put by Chris Martenson - was "extend and pretend," to use all the complex trickery that can be marshaled in the finance tool bag to keep up the appearance of a revolving debt economy that produces profits, interest, and dividends, in spite of the fact that debt is not being "serviced," i.e. repaid.  There is an awful lot in the machinations of Wall Street and Washington that is designed deliberately to be as incomprehensible as possible to even educated people, but this part is really simple: if money is created out of lending, then the failure to pay back loaned money with interest kills the system.  That is the situation we are in.

      The inertia displayed by our system - especially its manifest ability to keep stock markets levitating in the absence of value creation - is strictly a function of its size and complexity. It is running on fumes. I thought it would finally crash and burn in 2009. The Dow Jones industrial average certainly fell on its ass last March, bottoming in the mid-6000 range.  But then it picked its sorry ass off the ground and rallied back up again thanks to bail-outs and ZIRPs and really no other place to look for returns on the accumulated wealth of the past two hundred years, especially for large institutions like pension funds that need income to function.  I'd called for a Dow at 4000. A lot of readers ridiculed that call.  Was it really that far off?

     A feature of 2009 easily overlooked is what a generally placid year it was around the world. Apart from the election uproar in Iran, there were few events of any size or potency to shove all the various wobbly things - central banks, markets, governments, etc - into failure mode.  So things just kept wobbling.  I don't think that state of affairs is likely to continue.  With that, on to the particulars.
The Year Ahead     
     Just about everything which evaded fate via gamed numbers, budgets, and balance sheets in 2009 seems destined to hit a wall in 2010.  To pick an arbitrary starting point, it is hard to see how states like California and New York can keep staving off monumental changes in their scale of operations with further budget trickery.  Those cans they've been kicking down the street have fallen through the sewer grate.  What will they do?  They can massively raise taxes or massively lay off employees and default on obligations - or they can do all these things. The net result will be populations with less income, arguably impoverished, suffering, and perhaps very angry about it.  Welcome to reality.  Will Washington bail the states out, too?  I wouldn't be surprised to see them pretend to do so, but not without immense collateral damage in everybody's legitimacy and surely an increase in US treasury interest rates.

      But backing up a moment, I'm writing between Christmas and New Year's Eve. The frenzied distractions of the holidays ongoing for much of Q4-2009 are still in force.  In a week or so, when the Christmas trees are hauled out to the curbs (and it turns out that municipal garbage pickup has been curtailed for lack of funds) a picture will start to emerge of exactly how retail sales went leading up to the big climax. My guess is that sales were dismal. Reports of such will start a train of events that sends many retail companies careening into bankruptcy, including some national chains, leading to lost leases in malls and strip malls, leading to a final push off the cliff for commercial real estate, leading to the failure of many local and regional banks, leading to the bankrupt FDIC having to go to congress directly to get more money to bail out the depositors, leading again to rising interest rates for US treasuries, leading to higher mortgage interest rates for whoever out there is crazy enough to venture to buy a house with borrowed money, leading to the probability that there are few of the foregoing, leading to another hard leg down in house values because so few are now crazy enough to buy a house in the face of falling prices - all of this leading to the recognition that we have entered a serious depression, which is only a facet of the greater period of hardship we have also entered, which I call The Long Emergency.

      This depression will be a classic deleveraging, or resolution of debt. Debt will either be paid back or defaulted on.  Since a lot can't be paid back, a lot of it will have to be defaulted on, which will make a lot of money disappear, which will make many people a lot poorer. President Obama will be faced with a basic choice.  He can either make the situation worse by offering more bailouts and similar moves aimed at stopping the deleveraging process - that is, continue what he has been doing, only perhaps twice as much, which may crash the system more rapidly - or he can recognize the larger trends in The Long Emergency and begin marshalling our remaining collective resources to restructure the economy along less complex and more local lines. Don't count on that.

      Of course, this downscaling will happen whether we want it or not. It's really a matter of whether we go along with it consciously and intelligently - or just let things slide. Paradoxically and unfortunately in this situation, the federal government is apt to become ever more ineffectual in its ability to manage anything, no matter how many times Mr. Obama comes on television. Does this leave him as a kind of national camp counselor trying to offer consolation to the suffering American people, without being able to really affect the way the "workout" works out? Was Franklin Roosevelt really much more than an affable presence on the radio in a dark time that had to take its course and was only resolved by a global convulsion that left the USA standing in a smoldering field of prostrate losers?

     One wild card is how angry the American people might get.  Unlike the 1930s, we are no longer a nation who call each other "Mister" and "Ma'am," where even the down-and-out wear neckties and speak a discernible variant of regular English, where hoboes say "thank you," and where, in short, there is something like a common culture of shared values.  We're a nation of thugs and louts with flames tattooed on our necks, who call each other "motherfucker" and are skilled only in playing video games based on mass murder. The masses of Roosevelt's time were coming off decades of programmed, regimented work, where people showed up in well-run factories and schools and pretty much behaved themselves. In my view, that's one of the reasons that the US didn't explode in political violence during the Great Depression of the 1930s - the discipline and fortitude of the citizenry.  The sheer weight of demoralization now is so titanic that it is very hard to imagine the people of the USA pulling together for anything beyond the most superficial ceremonies - placing teddy bears on a crash site.  And forget about discipline and fortitude in a nation of ADD victims and self-esteem seekers.

     I believe we will see the outbreak of civil disturbance at many levels in 2010.  One will be plain old crime against property and persons, especially where the sense of community is flimsy-to-nonexistent, and that includes most of suburban America. The automobile is a fabulous aid to crime. People can commit crimes in Skokie and be back home in Racine before supper (if supper is anything besides a pepperoni stick and some Hostess Ho-Hos in the car). Fewer police will be on guard due to budget shortfalls.

      I think we'll see a variety-pack of political disturbance led first by people who are just plain pissed off at government and corporations and seek to damage property belonging to these entities. The ideologically-driven will offer up "revolutionary" action to redefine some lost national sense of purpose. Some of the most dangerous players such as the political racialists, the posse comitatus types, the totalitarian populists, have been out-of-sight for years. They'll come out of the woodwork and join the contest over dwindling resources. Both the Left and the Right are capable of violence. But since the Left is ostensibly already in power, the Right is in a better position to mount a real challenge to office-holders. Their ideas may be savage and ridiculous, but they could easily sweep the 2010 elections - unless we see the rise of a third party (or perhaps several parties). No sign of that yet. Personally, I'd like to see figures like Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank sent packing, though I'm a registered Democrat. In the year ahead, the sense of contraction will be palpable and huge. Losses will be obvious.  No amount of jive-talking will convince the public that they are experiencing "recovery."  Everything familiar and comforting will begin receding toward the horizon.
Markets and Money 
     I'll take another leap of faith and say that 6600 was not the bottom for the Dow. I've said Dow 4000 for three years in a row.  Okay, my timing has been off.  But I still believe this is its destination.  Given the currency situation, and the dilemma of no-growth Ponzi economies, I'll call it again for this year: Dow 4000. There, I said it. Laugh if you will....

    I'm with those who see the dollar strengthening for at least the first half of 2010, and other assets falling in value, especially the stock markets. The dollar could wither later on in the year and maybe take a turn into high inflation as US treasury interest rates shoot up in an environment of a global bond glut.  That doesn't mean the stock markets will bounce back because the US economy will only sink into greater disorder when interest rates rise.

        Right now there are ample signs of trouble with the Euro. It made a stunning downward move the past two weeks.  European banks took the biggest hit in the Dubai default.  Now they face the prospect of sovereign default in Greece, the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Balkan nations (Serbia, et al), Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Iceland and the former soviet bloc of Eastern Europe. England is a train wreck of its own (though not tied into the Euro), and even France may be in trouble.  That leaves very few European nations standing.  Namely Germany and Scandanavia (and I just plain don't know about Austria). What will Europe do?  Really, what will Germany do? Probably reconstruct something like the German Deutschmark only call it something else... the Alt.Euro?  As one wag said on the Net: sovereign debt is the new sub-prime! The Euro is in a deeper slog right now than the US dollar (even with our fantastic problems), so I see the dollar rising in relation to the Euro, at least for a while. I'd park cash in three month treasury bills - don't expect any return - for safety in the first half of 2010. I wouldn't touch long-term US debt paper with a carbon-fiber sixty foot pole.

       I'm still not among those who see China rising into a position of supremacy.  In fact, they have many reasons of their own to tank, including the loss of the major market for their manufactured goods, vast ecological problems, de-stabilizing demographic shifts within the nation, and probably a food crisis in 2010 (more about this later).

     Though a seemingly more stable nation than the US, with a disciplined population and a strong common culture with shared values, Japan's financial disarray runs so deep that it could crash its government even before ours.  It has no fossil fuels of its own whatsoever.  And in a de-industrializing world, how can an industrial economy sustain itself? Japan might become a showcase for The Long Emergency.  On the other hand, if it gets there first and makes the necessary adjustments, which is possible given their discipline and common culture, they may become THE society to emulate!

     I'm also not convinced that so-called "emerging markets" are places where money will dependably earn interest, profits, or dividends.  Contraction will be everywhere. I even think the price of gold will retrace somewhere between $750 and $1000 for a while, though precious metals will hold substantial value under any conditions short of Hobbesian chaos. People flock to gold out of uncertainty, not just a bet on inflation. My guess is that gold and silver will eventually head back up in value to heights previously never imagined, and it would be wise to own some. I do not believe that the federal government could confiscate personal gold again the way it did in 1933. There are too many pissed off people with too many guns out there - and I'm sure there is a correlation between owners of guns with owners of gold and levels of pissed-offness.  A botched attempt to take gold away from citizens would only emphasize the impotence of the federal government, leading to further erosion of legitimacy.

            Bottom line for markets and money in 2010: so many things will be out of whack that making money work via the traditional routes of compound interest or dividends will be nearly impossible. There's money to be made in shorting and arbitrage and speculation, but that requires nerves of steel and lots and lots of luck.  Those dependent on income from regular investment will be hurt badly.  For most of us, capital preservation will be as good as it gets - and there's always the chance the dollar will enter the hyper-inflationary twilight zone and wipe out everything and everyone connected with it.
Peak Oil
      It's still out there, very much out there, a huge unseen presence in the story, the true ghost-in-the-machine, eating away at economies every day.  It slipped offstage in 2009 after the oil spike of 2008 ($147/barrel) over-corrected in early 2009 to the low $30s/barrel.  Now it's retraced about halfway back to the mid-$70s.  One way of looking at the situation is as follows.  Oil priced above $75 begins to squeeze the US economy; oil priced over $85 tends to crush the US economy.  You can see where we are now with oil prices closing on Christmas Eve at $78/barrel.

     Among the many wishful delusions operating currently is the idea that the Bakken oil play in Dakota / Montana will save Happy Motoring for America, and that the Appalachian shale gas plays will kick in to make us energy independent for a century to come.  Americans are likely to be disappointed by these things.

       Both Bakken and the shale gas are based on techniques for using horizontal drilling through "tight" rock strata that is fractured with pressurized water. It works, but it's not at all cheap, creates plenty of environmental mischief, and may end up being only marginally productive. At best, Bakken is predicted to produce around 400,000 barrels of oil a day.  That's not much in a nation that uses close to 20 million barrels a day.  Shale gas works too, though the wells deplete shockingly fast and will require the massive deployment of new drilling rigs (do we even have the steel for this?). I doubt it can be produced for under $10 a unit (mm/BTUs) and currently the price of gas is in the $5 range. In any case, we're not going to run the US motor vehicle fleet on natural gas, despite wishful thinking.

     Several other story elements in the oil drama have remained on track to make our lives more difficult.  Oil export rates continue to decline more steeply than oil field depletion rates.  Exporters like Iran, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, are using evermore of the oil they produce (often as state-subsidized cheap gasoline), even as their production rates go down.  So, they have less oil to sell to importers like the USA - and we import more than 60 percent of the oil we use. Mexico's Pemex is in such a sorry state, with its principal Cantarell field production falling off a cliff, that the USA's number three source of imported oil may be able to sell us nothing whatsoever in just 24 months.  Is there any public discussion about this in the USA?  No. Do we have a plan?  No.

     A new wrinkle in the story developing especially since the financial crisis happened, is the shortage of capital for new oil exploration and production - meaning that we have even poorer prospects of offsetting world-wide oil depletion.  The capital shortage will also affect development in the Bakken play and the Marcellus shale gas range.

            Industrial economies are still at the mercy of peak oil.  This basic fact of life means that we can't expect the regular cyclical growth in productive activity that formed the baseline parameters for modern capital finance - meaning that we can't run on revolving credit anymore because growth simply isn't there to create real surplus wealth to pay down debt.  The past 20 years we've seen the institutions of capital finance pretend to create growth where there is no growth by expanding financial casino games of chance and extracting profits, commissions, and bonuses from the management of these games - mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and all the rest of the tricks dreamed up as America's industrial economy was shipped off to the Third World.  But that set of rackets had a limited life span and they ran into a wall in October 2008. Since then it's all come down to a shell game: hide the giant pea of defaulted debt under a giant walnut shell.

       Yet another part of the story is the wish that the failing fossil fuel industrial economy would segue seamlessly into an alt-energy industrial economy.  This just isn't happening, despite the warm, fuzzy TV commercials about electric cars and "green" technology.  The sad truth of the matter is that we face the need to fundamentally restructure the way we live and what we do in North America, and probably along the lines of much more modest expectations, and with very different practical arrangements in everything from the very nature of work to household configurations, transportation, farming, capital formation, and the shape-and-scale of our settlements.  This is not just a matter of re-tuning what we have now.  It means letting go of much of it, especially our investments in suburbia and motoring - something that the American public still isn't ready to face.  They may never be ready to face this and that is why we may never make a successful transition to whatever the next economy is.  Rather, we will undertake a campaign to sustain the unsustainable and sink into poverty and disorder as we fight over the table scraps of the old economy... and when the smoke clears nothing new will have been built.

       President Obama has spent his first year in office, and billions of dollars, trying to prop up the floundering car-makers and more generally the motoring system with "stimulus" for "shovel-ready" highway projects.  This is exactly the kind of campaign to sustain the unsustainable that I mean.  Motoring is in the process of failing and now for reasons that even we peak oilers didn't anticipate a year ago. It's no longer just about the price of gasoline.  The crisis of capital is making car loans much harder to get, and if Americans can't buy cars on installment loans, they are not going to buy cars, and eventually they will not be driving cars they can't buy. The same crisis of capital is now depriving the states, counties, and municipalities of the means to maintain the massive paved highway and street system in this country. Just a few years of not attending to that will leave the system unworkable.

     Meanwhile President Obama has given next-to-zero money or attention to public transit, to repairing the passenger railroad system in particular.  I maintain that if we don't repair this system, Americans will not be traveling very far from home in a decade or so. Therefore, Mr. Obama's actions vis-à-vis transportation are not an intelligent response to our situation.  And for very similar reasons, the proposal for a totally electric motor vehicle fleet, as a so-called "solution" to the liquid fuels problem, is equally unintelligent and tragic. Of course something else that Mr. Obama has barely paid lip-service to is the desperate need to retool our living places as walkable communities. The government now, at all levels, virtually mandates suburban arrangements of the most extremely car-dependent kind. Changing this has to move near the top of a national emergency priority list, if we have one.

     Even with somewhat lower oil prices in 2009, the airlines still hemorrhaged losses in the billions, and if the oil price remains in the current zone some of them will fall back into bankruptcy in 2010.  Oil prices may go down again in response to crippled economies, but then so will passengers looking to fly anywhere, especially the business fliers that the airlines have depended on to fill the higher-priced seats. I believe United will be the first one to go down in 2010, a hateful moron of a company that deserves to die.

     My forecast for oil prices this year is extreme volatility.  A strengthening dollar might send oil prices down (though that relationship has temporarily broken down this December as both oil prices and the dollar went up in tandem for the first time in memory). So could the cratering of the stock markets, or a general apprehension of a floundering economy.  But the oil export situation also means there is less and less wiggle room every month for supply to keep pace with demand, even in struggling economies if they are dependent on foreign imports. Another part of the story that we don't pay attention to is the potential for oil scarcities, shortages, and hoarding. We may see the reemergence of those trends in 2010 for the first times since 1979.
     The retracement of oil prices in 2009 took place against a background of relative quiet on the geopolitical scene.  With economies around the world sinking into even deeper extremis in 2010, friction and instability are more likely. The more likely locales for this are the places where most of the world's remaining oil is: the Middle East and Central Asia. The American army is already there, in Iraq and Afghanistan, with an overt pledge to up-the-ante in Afghanistan. It's hard to imagine a happy ending in all this. It's increasingly hard to even imagine a strategic justification for it.  My current (weakly-held) notion is that America wants to make a baloney sandwich out of Iran, with American armies in Iraq and Afghanistan as the Wonder Bread, to "keep the pressure on" Iran. Well, after quite a few years, it doesn't seem to be moderating or influencing Iran's behavior in any way. Meanwhile, Pakistan becomes more chaotic every week and our presence in the Islamic world stimulates more Islamic extremist hatred against the USA. Speaking of Pakistan, there is the matter of its neighbor and adversary, India. If there is another terror attack by Pakistan on the order of last year's against various targets in Mumbai, I believe the response by India is liable to be severe next time, leading to God-knows-what, considering both countries have plenty of atom bombs.

      Otherwise, the idea that we can control indigenous tribal populations in some of Asia's most forbidding terrain seems laughable. I don't have to rehearse the whole "graveyard of empires" routine here. But what possible geo-strategic advantage is in this for us?  What would it matter if we pacified all the Taliban or al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Most of the hardest core maniacs are next door in Pakistan.  Even if we turned Afghanistan into Idaho-East, with Kabul as the next Sun Valley, complete with Ralph Lauren shops and Mario Batali bistros, Pakistan would remain every bit as chaotic and dangerous in terms of supplying the world with terrorists. And how long would we expect to remain in Afghanistan pacifying the population?  Five years?  Ten Years? Forever? It's a ridiculous project. Loose talk on the web suggests our hidden agenda there was to protect a Conoco pipeline out of Tajikistan, but that seems equally absurd on several grounds.  I can't see Afghanistan as anything but a sucking chest wound for dollars, soldiers' lives, and American prestige.

     What's more, our presence there seems likely to stimulate more terror incidents here in the USA. We've been supernaturally lucky since 2001 that there hasn't been another incident of mass murder, even something as easy and straightforward as a shopping mall massacre or a bomb in a subway.  Our luck is bound to run out.  There are too many "soft" targets and our borders are too squishy. Small arms and explosives are easy to get in the USA.  I predict that 2010 may be the year our luck does run out.  Even before the start of the year we've seen the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest-KLM flight 253 (Amsterdam to Detroit). One consequence of this is that it will only make air travel more unpleasant for everybody in the USA as new rules are instated limiting bathroom trips and blankets in the final hour of flight.

      As far as the USA is concerned, I think we have more to worry about from Mexico than Afghanistan. In 2009, the Mexican government slipped ever deeper into impotence against the giant criminal cartels there. As the Cantarell oil field waters out, revenue from Pemex to the national government will wither away and so will the government's ability to control anything there. The next president of Mexico may be an ambitious gangster straight out of the drug cartels, Pancho Villa on steroids.

      Another potential world locale for conflict may be Europe as the European Union begins to implode under the strains of the monetary system. The weaker nations default on their obligations and Germany, especially, looks to insulate itself from the damage.  Except for the fiasco in Yugoslavia's breakup years ago, Europe has been strikingly peaceful for half a century.  For most of us now living who have visited there, it is almost impossible to imagine how violent and crazy the continent was in the early twentieth century. I wonder what might happen there now, with more than a few nations failing economically and the dogs of extreme politics perhaps loosed again.  History is ironical.  Perhaps this time the Germans will be the good guys, while England goes apeshit with its BNP.  Wouldn't that be something?

     One big new subplot in world politics this year may be the global food shortage that is shaping up as a result of spectacular crop failures in most of the major farming regions of the world.  The American grain belt was hit by cold and wet weather and the harvest was a disaster, especially for soybeans, of which the USA produces at least three-quarters of the world's supply.  Crops have also failed in Northern China's wheat-growing region, in Australia, Argentina, and India. The result may range from extremely high food prices in the developed world to starvation in other places, leading to grave political instability and desperate fights over resources. We'll have an idea where this is leading by springtime. It maybe the most potent sub-plot in the story for 2010.
     The Long Emergency is officially underway.  Reality is telling us very clearly to prepare for a new way of life in the USA. We're in desperate need of decomplexifying, re-localizing, downscaling, and re-humanizing American life.  It doesn't mean that we will be a lesser people or that we will not recognize our own culture.  In some respects, I think it means we must return to some traditional American life-ways that we abandoned for the cheap oil life of convenience, comfort, obesity, and social atomization.

     The successful people in America moving forward will be those who attach themselves to cohesive local communities, places with integral local economies and sturdy social networks, especially places that can produce a significant amount of their own food. I don't think that we'll be living in a world without money, some medium of exchange above barter, but it may not come in the form of dollars. My guess is that for a while it may be gold and silver, or possibly certificates issued by bank-like institutions representing gold-on-hand. In any case, I doubt we'll arrive there this year. This is more likely to be the year of grand monetary disorders and continued shocking economic contraction.

     Political upheaval can get underway pretty quickly, without a whole lot of warning.  I'm still waiting to hear the announced 2009 bonuses for the employees of the TBTF banks.  All they said before Christmas was that thirty top Goldman Sachs employees would be paid in stock instead of money this year, but no other big banks have made a peep yet.  I suppose they'll have to in the four days before New Years.  I still think that could be the moment that shoves some disgruntled Americans into the arena of protest and revolt.  Beyond that, though, there is plenty room for emotions to run wild and for behavior to get weird.

        President Obama will have to make some pretty drastic moves to salvage his credibility. I see no sign of any intention to seriously investigate or prosecute financial crimes. Yet the evidence of misdeeds piles higher and higher - just this week new comprehensive reports of Goldman Sachs's irregularities in shorting their own issues of mortgage-backed securities, and a report on the Treasury Department's issuance of treasuries to "back-door" dumpers of toxic mortgage backed securities. And on Christmas Eve, when nobody was looking, the Treasury lifted the ceiling on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's backstop money to infinity. Even people like me who try to pay close attention to what's going on have lost track of all the various TARPs, TALFs, bailouts, stimuli, ZIRP loans, and handovers to every bank and its uncle in the land.

     Good luck to readers in 2010. To paraphrase Tiny Tim: God help us, every one....

Saturday, December 26, 2009

And now, a word from Marcus

"Yes, life and death, fame and ignominy, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty -- all these come to good and bad alike, but they are not in themselves either right or wrong:  neither then are they inherent good or evil."  -- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Monday, December 21, 2009

(I'm beginning to really like this guy...)

Blue Christmas

     As the end-credits rolled for James Cameron's new movie, Avatar,  the audience burst into rowdy applause. It seemed to me that they were applauding the sheer computerized dazzlement of the show -- but in the story itself they had just watched the US suffer a humiliating defeat on a distant planet. In the final frames, American soldiers and the corporate executives they had failed to protect were shown lined up as prisoners-of-war about to embark on a death march.
     More to the point, the depiction of our national character through the whole course of the film was of a thuggish, cruel, cynical, stupid, detestable, and totally corrupt people bent on the complete destruction of nature.  Nice.  And the final irony was that Cameron had used theatrical technology of the latest and greatest kind to depict America's broader techno-grandiosity -- as the army's brute robotic warriors fell to the spears and arrows of the simple blue space aliens.  Altogether, it was a weird moment in entertainment history, and perhaps in the American experience per se. No doubt audiences overseas will go wild with delight, too, but perhaps with a clearer notion of what they are clapping for than the enthralled masses of zombie Americans.
     The infatuation with technology, and the disgusting cockiness that goes with it (so well-captured in Avatar), is but one facet of the psychosis gripping the nation -- and by that I mean the profound detachment from reality. We have no idea what is happening to us and, naturally, no idea of what we are going to do. I sat in a bar Friday evening with a financial reporter from a national newspaper, trying to explain the peak oil situation and what it implied for our economy.  He had never heard it before. The relationship between energy resources and massive debt was new to him. (It also came up in conversation that he could not tell me what the Monroe Doctrine was about, despite a history degree from Yale.) There you have a nice snapshot of the mainstream media in this land.
     This year, America can look for a nice lump of coal in its Christmas stocking. That lump will be called "the recovery." This recovery consists of a massive self-deception, made up of accounting tricks and falsified statistics, with a sugar-coating on top of sheer disbelief that the outcome could be anything but a particular happy ending -- namely, the continued levitation of the unsustainable. What is most amazing about Mr. Cameron's holiday blockbuster is the explicit message that America is a society that deserves to be punished (and humiliated!) by others who manage their own relations with reality better than we do. I wonder how much that will secretly account for its popularity. I wonder what the leaders of China will make of it.
     The other current embodiment of national character failure, Tiger Woods, golfer, has also dazzled the American public. Personally I find it much more interesting to learn that he was a really lousy tipper than that he got a lot of action on the side with opportunistic bar girls, porn stars, and other denizens of the sports-entertainment netherworld. Is it not also amusing that golf is even taken seriously as an athletic pursuit? I mean, why not pancake-flipping?  Or dice? Or shooting rats at the landfill? This is the kind of knucklehead culture we have become after six decades of the softest life imaginable. Anyway, I'm not shedding any tears for Tiger.  Even if all his endorsements dry up and his ex-wife takes him to the cleaners for a hundred million or so, he'll still be left with enough cash to pay for porn stars and lobster tails until the end of time, especially if he keeps his tipping policy at its current level.
     Next week I'll put out my forecast for the coming year, 2010. But for now I'd like to leave readers with this Christmas present: a preview scene from the sequel to my novel of the post-oil American future, World Made By Hand....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Obama's Big Sellout by Matt Taibbi

Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street as the global economy melted down in that fateful fall of 2008. He pushed a tax plan to soak the rich, ripped NAFTA for hurting the middle class and tore into John McCain for supporting a bankruptcy bill that sided with wealthy bankers "at the expense of hardworking Americans." Obama may not have run to the left of Samuel Gompers or Cesar Chavez, but it's not like you saw him on the campaign trail flanked by bankers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. What inspired supporters who pushed him to his historic win was the sense that a genuine outsider was finally breaking into an exclusive club, that walls were being torn down, that things were, for lack of a better or more specific term, changing.
Then he got elected.
What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.
How could Obama let this happen? Is he just a rookie in the political big leagues, hoodwinked by Beltway old-timers? Or is the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests we've been seeing on TV this fall who Obama really is?
Whatever the president's real motives are, the extensive series of loophole-rich financial "reforms" that the Democrats are currently pushing may ultimately do more harm than good. In fact, some parts of the new reforms border on insanity, threatening to vastly amplify Wall Street's political power by institutionalizing the taxpayer's role as a welfare provider for the financial-services industry. At one point in the debate, Obama's top economic advisers demanded the power to award future bailouts without even going to Congress for approval - and without providing taxpayers a single dime in equity on the deals.
How did we get here? It started just moments after the election - and almost nobody noticed.
'Just look at the timeline of the Citigroup deal," says one leading Democratic consultant. "Just look at it. It's fucking amazing. Amazing! And nobody said a thing about it."
Barack Obama was still just the president-elect when it happened, but the revolting and inexcusable $306 billion bailout that Citigroup received was the first major act of his presidency. In order to grasp the full horror of what took place, however, one needs to go back a few weeks before the actual bailout - to November 5th, 2008, the day after Obama's election.
That was the day the jubilant Obama campaign announced its transition team. Though many of the names were familiar - former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett - the list was most notable for who was not on it, especially on the economic side. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who had served as one of Obama's chief advisers during the campaign, didn't make the cut. Neither did Karen Kornbluh, who had served as Obama's policy director and was instrumental in crafting the Democratic Party's platform. Both had emphasized populist themes during the campaign: Kornbluh was known for pushing Democrats to focus on the plight of the poor and middle class, while Goolsbee was an aggressive critic of Wall Street, declaring that AIG executives should receive "a Nobel Prize - for evil."
But come November 5th, both were banished from Obama's inner circle - and replaced with a group of Wall Street bankers. Leading the search for the president's new economic team was his close friend and Harvard Law classmate Michael Froman, a high-ranking executive at Citigroup. During the campaign, Froman had emerged as one of Obama's biggest fundraisers, bundling $200,000 in contributions and introducing the candidate to a host of heavy hitters - chief among them his mentor Bob Rubin, the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. Froman had served as chief of staff to Rubin at Treasury, and had followed his boss when Rubin left the Clinton administration to serve as a senior counselor to Citigroup (a massive new financial conglomerate created by deregulatory moves pushed through by Rubin himself).
Incredibly, Froman did not resign from the bank when he went to work for Obama: He remained in the employ of Citigroup for two more months, even as he helped appoint the very people who would shape the future of his own firm. And to help him pick Obama's economic team, Froman brought in none other than Jamie Rubin, a former Clinton diplomat who happens to be Bob Rubin's son. At the time, Jamie's dad was still earning roughly $15 million a year working for Citigroup, which was in the midst of a collapse brought on in part because Rubin had pushed the bank to invest heavily in mortgage-backed CDOs and other risky instruments.
Now here's where it gets really interesting. It's three weeks after the election. You have a lame-duck president in George W. Bush - still nominally in charge, but in reality already halfway to the golf-and-O'Doul's portion of his career and more than happy to vacate the scene. Left to deal with the still-reeling economy are lame-duck Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former head of Goldman Sachs, and New York Fed chief Timothy Geithner, who served under Bob Rubin in the Clinton White House. Running Obama's economic team are a still-employed Citigroup executive and the son of another Citigroup executive, who himself joined Obama's transition team that same month.
So on November 23rd, 2008, a deal is announced in which the government will bail out Rubin's messes at Citigroup with a massive buffet of taxpayer-funded cash and guarantees. It is a terrible deal for the government, almost universally panned by all serious economists, an outrage to anyone who pays taxes. Under the deal, the bank gets $20 billion in cash, on top of the $25 billion it had already received just weeks before as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But that's just the appetizer. The government also agrees to charge taxpayers for up to $277 billion in losses on troubled Citi assets, many of them those toxic CDOs that Rubin had pushed Citi to invest in. No Citi executives are replaced, and few restrictions are placed on their compensation. It's the sweetheart deal of the century, putting generations of working-stiff taxpayers on the hook to pay off Bob Rubin's fuck-up-rich tenure at Citi. "If you had any doubts at all about the primacy of Wall Street over Main Street," former labor secretary Robert Reich declares when the bailout is announced, "your doubts should be laid to rest."
It is bad enough that one of Bob Rubin's former protégés from the Clinton years, the New York Fed chief Geithner, is intimately involved in the negotiations, which unsurprisingly leave the Federal Reserve massively exposed to future Citi losses. But the real stunner comes only hours after the bailout deal is struck, when the Obama transition team makes a cheerful announcement: Timothy Geithner is going to be Barack Obama's Treasury secretary!
Geithner, in other words, is hired to head the U.S. Treasury by an executive from Citigroup - Michael Froman - before the ink is even dry on a massive government giveaway to Citigroup that Geithner himself was instrumental in delivering. In the annals of brazen political swindles, this one has to go in the all-time Fuck-the-Optics Hall of Fame.
Wall Street loved the Citi bailout and the Geithner nomination so much that the Dow immediately posted its biggest two-day jump since 1987, rising 11.8 percent. Citi shares jumped 58 percent in a single day, and JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley soared more than 20 percent, as Wall Street embraced the news that the government's bailout generosity would not die with George W. Bush and Hank Paulson. "Geithner assures a smooth transition between the Bush administration and that of Obama, because he's already co-managing what's happening now," observed Stephen Leeb, president of Leeb Capital Management.
Left unnoticed, however, was the fact that Geithner had been hired by a sitting Citigroup executive who still had a big bonus coming despite his proximity to Obama. In January 2009, just over a month after the bailout, Citigroup paid Froman a year-end bonus of $2.25 million. But as outrageous as it was, that payoff would prove to be chump change for the banker crowd, who were about to get everything they wanted - and more - from the new president.
The irony of Bob Rubin: He's an unapologetic arch-capitalist demagogue whose very career is proof that a free-market meritocracy is a myth. Much like Alan Greenspan, a staggeringly incompetent economic forecaster who was worshipped by four decades of politicians because he once dated Barbara Walters, Rubin has been held in awe by the American political elite for nearly 20 years despite having fucked up virtually every project he ever got his hands on. He went from running Goldman Sachs (1990-1992) to the Clinton White House (1993-1999) to Citigroup (1999-2009), leaving behind a trail of historic gaffes that somehow boosted his stature every step of the way.
As Treasury secretary under Clinton, Rubin was the driving force behind two monstrous deregulatory actions that would be primary causes of last year's financial crisis: the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (passed specifically to legalize the Citigroup megamerger) and the deregulation of the derivatives market. Having set that time bomb, Rubin left government to join Citi, which promptly expressed its gratitude by giving him $126 million in compensation over the next eight years (they don't call it bribery in this country when they give you the money post factum). After urging management to amp up its risky investments in toxic vehicles, a strategy that very nearly destroyed the company, Rubin blamed Citi's board for his screw-ups and complained that he had been underpaid to boot. "I bet there's not a single year where I couldn't have gone somewhere else and made more," he said.
Despite being perhaps more responsible for last year's crash than any other single living person - his colossally stupid decisions at both the highest levels of government and the management of a private financial superpower make him unique - Rubin was the man Barack Obama chose to build his White House around.
There are four main ways to be connected to Bob Rubin: through Goldman Sachs, the Clinton administration, Citigroup and, finally, the Hamilton Project, a think tank Rubin spearheaded under the auspices of the Brookings Institute to promote his philosophy of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation. The team Obama put in place to run his economic policy after his inauguration was dominated by people who boasted connections to at least one of these four institutions - so much so that the White House now looks like a backstage party for an episode of Bob Rubin, This Is Your Life!
At Treasury, there is Geithner, who worked under Rubin in the Clinton years. Serving as Geithner's "counselor" - a made-up post not subject to Senate confirmation - is Lewis Alexander, the former chief economist of Citigroup, who advised Citi back in 2007 that the upcoming housing crash was nothing to worry about. Two other top Geithner "counselors" - Gene Sperling and Lael Brainard - worked under Rubin at the National Economic Council, the key group that coordinates all economic policymaking for the White House.
As director of the NEC, meanwhile, Obama installed economic czar Larry Summers, who had served as Rubin's protégé at Treasury. Just below Summers is Jason Furman, who worked for Rubin in the Clinton White House and was one of the first directors of Rubin's Hamilton Project. The appointment of Furman - a persistent advocate of free-trade agreements like NAFTA and the author of droolingly pro-globalization reports with titles like "Walmart: A Progressive Success Story" - provided one of the first clues that Obama had only been posturing when he promised crowds of struggling Midwesterners during the campaign that he would renegotiate NAFTA, which facilitated the flight of blue-collar jobs to other countries. "NAFTA's shortcomings were evident when signed, and we must now amend the agreement to fix them," Obama declared. A few months after hiring Furman to help shape its economic policy, however, the White House quietly quashed any talk of renegotiating the trade deal. "The president has said we will look at all of our options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement," U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk told reporters in a little-publicized conference call last April.
The announcement was not so surprising, given who Obama hired to serve alongside Furman at the NEC: management consultant Diana Farrell, who worked under Rubin at Goldman Sachs. In 2003, Farrell was the author of an infamous paper in which she argued that sending American jobs overseas might be "as beneficial to the U.S. as to the destination country, probably more so."
Joining Summers, Furman and Farrell at the NEC is Froman, who by then had been formally appointed to a unique position: He is not only Obama's international finance adviser at the National Economic Council, he simultaneously serves as deputy national security adviser at the National Security Council. The twin posts give Froman a direct line to the president, putting him in a position to coordinate Obama's international economic policy during a crisis. He'll have help from David Lipton, another joint appointee to the economics and security councils who worked with Rubin at Treasury and Citigroup, and from Jacob Lew, a former Citi colleague of Rubin's whom Obama named as deputy director at the State Department to focus on international finance.
Over at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is supposed to regulate derivatives trading, Obama appointed Gary Gensler, a former Goldman banker who worked under Rubin in the Clinton White House. Gensler had been instrumental in helping to pass the infamous Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which prevented deregulation of derivative instruments like CDOs and credit-default swaps that played such a big role in cratering the economy last year. And as head of the powerful Office of Management and Budget, Obama named Peter Orszag, who served as the first director of Rubin's Hamilton Project. Orszag once succinctly summed up the project's ideology as a sort of liberal spin on trickle-down Reaganomics: "Market competition and globalization generate significant economic benefits."
Taken together, the rash of appointments with ties to Bob Rubin may well represent the most sweeping influence by a single Wall Street insider in the history of government. "Rather than having a team of rivals, they've got a team of Rubins," says Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. "You see that in policy choices that have resuscitated - but not reformed - Wall Street."While Rubin's allies and acolytes got all the important jobs in the Obama administration, the academics and progressives got banished to semi-meaningless, even comical roles. Kornbluh was rewarded for being the chief policy architect of Obama's meteoric rise by being outfitted with a pith helmet and booted across the ocean to Paris, where she now serves as America's never-again-to-be-seen-on-TV ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Goolsbee, meanwhile, was appointed as staff director of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a kind of dumping ground for Wall Street critics who had assisted Obama during the campaign; one top Democrat calls the panel "Siberia."

Joining Goolsbee as chairman of the PERAB gulag is former Fed chief Paul Volcker, who back in March 2008 helped candidate Obama write a speech declaring that the deregulatory efforts of the Eighties and Nineties had "excused and even embraced an ethic of greed, corner-cutting, insider dealing, things that have always threatened the long-term stability of our economic system." That speech met with rapturous applause, but the commission Obama gave Volcker to manage is so toothless that it didn't even meet for the first time until last May. The lone progressive in the White House, economist Jared Bernstein, holds the impressive-sounding title of chief economist and national policy adviser - except that the man he is advising is Joe Biden, who seems more interested in foreign policy than financial reform.The significance of all of these appointments isn't that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It's that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants. "Bob Rubin, these guys, they're classic limousine liberals," says David Sirota, a former Democratic strategist. "These are basically people who have made shitloads of money in the speculative economy, but they want to call themselves good Democrats because they're willing to give a little more to the poor. That's the model for this Democratic Party: Let the rich do their thing, but give a fraction more to everyone else."Even the members of Obama's economic team who have spent most of their lives in public office have managed to make small fortunes on Wall Street. The president's economic czar, Larry Summers, was paid more than $5.2 million in 2008 alone as a managing director of the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, and pocketed an additional $2.7 million in speaking fees from a smorgasbord of future bailout recipients, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. At Treasury, Geithner's aide Gene Sperling earned a staggering $887,727 from Goldman Sachs last year for performing the punch-line-worthy service of "advice on charitable giving." Sperling's fellow Treasury appointee, Mark Patterson, received $637,492 as a full-time lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, and another top Geithner aide, Lee Sachs, made more than $3 million working for a New York hedge fund called Mariner Investment Group. The list goes on and on. Even Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who has been out of government for only 30 months of his adult life, managed to collect $18 million during his private-sector stint with a Wall Street firm called Wasserstein-Perella.
The point is that an economic team made up exclusively of callous millionaire-assholes has absolutely zero interest in reforming the gamed system that made them rich in the first place. "You can't expect these people to do anything other than protect Wall Street," says Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida. That thinking was clear from Obama's first address to Congress, when he stressed the importance of getting Americans to borrow like crazy again. "Credit is the lifeblood of the economy," he declared, pledging "the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money." A president elected on a platform of change was announcing, in so many words, that he planned to change nothing fundamental when it came to the economy. Rather than doing what FDR had done during the Great Depression and institute stringent new rules to curb financial abuses, Obama planned to institutionalize the policy, firmly established during the Bush years, of keeping a few megafirms rich at the expense of everyone else.
Obama hasn't always toed the Rubin line when it comes to economic policy. Despite being surrounded by a team that is powerfully opposed to deficit spending - balanced budgets and deficit reduction have always been central to the Rubin way of thinking - Obama came out of the gate with a huge stimulus plan designed to kick-start the economy and address the job losses brought on by the 2008 crisis. "You have to give him credit there," says Sen. Bernie Sanders, an advocate of using government resources to address unemployment. "It's a very significant piece of legislation, and $787 billion is a lot of money."
But whatever jobs the stimulus has created or preserved so far - 640,329, according to an absurdly precise and already debunked calculation by the White House - the aid that Obama has provided to real people has been dwarfed in size and scope by the taxpayer money that has been handed over to America's financial giants. "They spent $75 billion on mortgage relief, but come on - look at how much they gave Wall Street," says a leading Democratic strategist. Neil Barofsky, the inspector general charged with overseeing TARP, estimates that the total cost of the Wall Street bailouts could eventually reach $23.7 trillion. And while the government continues to dole out big money to big banks, Obama and his team of Rubinites have done almost nothing to reform the warped financial system responsible for imploding the global economy in the first place.
The push for reform seemed to get off to a promising start. In the House, the charge was led by Rep. Barney Frank, the outspoken chair of the House Financial Services Committee, who emerged during last year's Bush bailouts as a sharp-tongued critic of Wall Street. Back when Obama was still a senator, he and Frank even worked together to introduce a populist bill targeting executive compensation. Last spring, with the economy shattered, Frank began to hold hearings on a host of reforms, crafted with significant input from the White House, that initially contained some very good elements. There were measures to curb abusive credit-card lending, prevent banks from charging excessive fees, force publicly traded firms to conduct meaningful risk assessment and allow shareholders to vote on executive compensation. There were even measures to crack down on risky derivatives and to bar firms like AIG from picking their own regulators.
Then the committee went to work - and the loopholes started to appear.
The most notable of these came in the proposal to regulate derivatives like credit-default swaps. Even Gary Gensler, the former Goldmanite whom Obama put in charge of commodities regulation, was pushing to make these normally obscure investments more transparent, enabling regulators and investors to identify speculative bubbles sooner. But in August, a month after Gensler came out in favor of reform, Geithner slapped him down by issuing a 115-page paper called "Improvements to Regulation of Over-the-Counter Derivatives Markets" that called for a series of exemptions for "end users" - i.e., almost all of the clients who buy derivatives from banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Even more stunning, Frank's bill included a blanket exception to the rules for currency swaps traded on foreign exchanges - the very instruments that had triggered the Long-Term Capital Management meltdown in the late 1990s.
Given that derivatives were at the heart of the financial meltdown last year, the decision to gut derivatives reform sent some legislators howling with disgust. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who estimates that as much as 90 percent of all derivatives could remain unregulated under the new rules, went so far as to say the new laws would make things worse. "Current law with its loopholes might actually be better than these loopholes," she said.
An even bigger loophole could do far worse damage to the economy. Under the original bill, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission were granted the power to ban any credit swaps deemed to be "detrimental to the stability of a financial market or of participants in a financial market." By the time Frank's committee was done with the bill, however, the SEC and the CFTC were left with no authority to do anything about abusive derivatives other than to send a report to Congress. The move, in effect, would leave the kind of credit-default swaps that brought down AIG largely unregulated.
Why would leading congressional Democrats, working closely with the Obama administration, agree to leave one of the riskiest of all financial instruments unregulated, even before the issue could be debated by the House? "There was concern that a broad grant to ban abusive swaps would be unsettling," Frank explained.
Unsettling to whom? Certainly not to you and me - but then again, actual people are not really part of the calculus when it comes to finance reform. According to those close to the markup process, Frank's committee inserted loopholes under pressure from "constituents" - by which they mean anyone "who can afford a lobbyist," says Michael Greenberger, the former head of trading at the CFTC under Clinton.
This pattern would repeat itself over and over again throughout the fall. Take the centerpiece of Obama's reform proposal: the much-ballyhooed creation of a Consumer Finance Protection Agency to protect the little guy from abusive bank practices. Like the derivatives bill, the debate over the CFPA ended up being dominated by horse-trading for loopholes. In the end, Frank not only agreed to exempt some 8,000 of the nation's 8,200 banks from oversight by the castrated-in-advance agency, leaving most consumers unprotected, he allowed the committee to pass the exemption by voice vote, meaning that congressmen could side with the banks without actually attaching their name to their "Aye."
To win the support of conservative Democrats, Frank also backed down on another issue that seemed like a slam-dunk: a requirement that all banks offer so-called "plain vanilla" products, such as no-frills mortgages, to give consumers an alternative to deceptive, "fully loaded" deals like adjustable-rate loans. Frank's last-minute reversal - made in consultation with Geithner - was such a transparent giveaway to the banks that even an economics writer for Reuters, hardly a far-left source, called it "the beginning of the end of meaningful regulatory reform."
But the real kicker came when Frank's committee took up what is known as "resolution authority" - government-speak for "Who the hell is in charge the next time somebody at AIG or Lehman Brothers decides to vaporize the economy?" What the committee initially introduced bore a striking resemblance to a proposal written by Geithner earlier in the summer. A masterpiece of legislative chicanery, the measure would have given the White House permanent and unlimited authority to execute future bailouts of megaconglomerates like Citigroup and Bear Stearns.
Democrats pushed the move as politically uncontroversial, claiming that the bill will force Wall Street to pay for any future bailouts and "doesn't use taxpayer money." In reality, that was complete bullshit. The way the bill was written, the FDIC would basically borrow money from the Treasury - i.e., from ordinary taxpayers - to bail out any of the nation's two dozen or so largest financial companies that the president deems in need of government assistance. After the bailout is executed, the president would then levy a tax on financial firms with assets of more than $10 billion to repay the Treasury within 60 months - unless, that is, the president decides he doesn't want to! "They can wait indefinitely to repay," says Rep. Brad Sherman of California, who dubbed the early version of the bill "TARP on steroids."
The new bailout authority also mandated that future bailouts would not include an exchange of equity "in any form" - meaning that taxpayers would get nothing in return for underwriting Wall Street's mistakes. Even more outrageous, it specifically prohibited Congress from rejecting tax giveaways to Wall Street, as it did last year, by removing all congressional oversight of future bailouts. In fact, the resolution authority proposed by Frank was such a slurpingly obvious blow job of Wall Street that it provoked a revolt among his own committee members, with junior Democrats waging a spirited fight that restored congressional oversight to future bailouts, requires equity for taxpayer money and caps assistance to troubled firms at $150 billion. Another amendment to force companies with more than $50 billion in assets to pay into a rainy-day fund for bailouts passed by a resounding vote of 52 to 17 - with the "Nays" all coming from Frank and other senior Democrats loyal to the administration.
Even as amended, however, resolution authority still has the potential to be truly revolutionary legislation. The Senate version still grants the president unlimited power over equity-free bailouts, and the amended House bill still institutionalizes a system of taxpayer support for the 20 to 25 biggest banks in the country. It would essentially grant economic immortality to those top few megafirms, who will continually gobble up greater and greater slices of market share as money becomes cheaper and cheaper for them to borrow (after all, who wouldn't lend to a company permanently backstopped by the federal government?). It would also formalize the government's role in the global economy and turn the presidential-appointment process into an important part of every big firm's business strategy. "If this passes, the very first thing these companies are going to do in the future is ask themselves, 'How do we make sure that one of our executives becomes assistant Treasury secretary?'" says Sherman.

On the Senate side, finance reform has yet to make it through the markup process, but there's every reason to believe that its final bill will be as watered down as the House version by the time it comes to a vote. The original measure, drafted by chairman Christopher Dodd of the Senate Banking Committee, is surprisingly tough on Wall Street - a fact that almost everyone in town chalks up to Dodd's desperation to shake the bad publicity he incurred by accepting a sweetheart mortgage from the notorious lender Countrywide. "He's got to do the shake-his-fist-at-Wall Street thing because of his, you know, problems," says a Democratic Senate aide. "So that's why the bill is starting out kind of tough."
The aide pauses. "The question is, though, what will it end up looking like?"
He's right - that is the question. Because the way it works is that all of these great-sounding reforms get whittled down bit by bit as they move through the committee markup process, until finally there's nothing left but the exceptions. In one example, a measure that would have forced financial companies to be more accountable to shareholders by holding elections for their entire boards every year has already been watered down to preserve the current system of staggered votes. In other cases, this being the Senate, loopholes were inserted before the debate even began: The Dodd bill included the exemption for foreign-currency swaps - a gift to Wall Street that only appeared in the Frank bill during the course of hearings - from the very outset.
The White House's refusal to push for real reform stands in stark contrast to what it should be doing. It was left to Rep. Pete Kanjorski in the House and Bernie Sanders in the Senate to propose bills to break up the so-called "too big to fail" banks. Both measures would give Congress the power to dismantle those pseudomonopolies controlling almost the entire derivatives market (Goldman, Citi, Chase, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America control 95 percent of the $290 trillion over-the-counter market) and the consumer-lending market (Citi, Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo issue one of every two mortgages, and two of every three credit cards). On November 18th, in a move that demonstrates just how nervous Democrats are getting about the growing outrage over taxpayer giveaways, Barney Frank's committee actually passed Kanjorski's measure. "It's a beginning," Kanjorski says hopefully. "We're on our way." But even if the Senate follows suit, big banks could well survive - depending on whom the president appoints to sit on the new regulatory board mandated by the measure. An oversight body filled with executives of the type Obama has favored to date from Citi and Goldman Sachs hardly seems like a strong bet to start taking an ax to concentrated wealth. And given the new bailout provisions that provide these megafirms a market advantage over smaller banks (those Paul Volcker calls "too small to save"), the failure to break them up qualifies as a major policy decision with potentially disastrous consequences.
"They should be doing what Teddy Roosevelt did," says Sanders. "They should be busting the trusts."
That probably won't happen anytime soon. But at a minimum, Obama should start on the road back to sanity by making a long-overdue move: firing Geithner. Not only are the mop-headed weenie of a Treasury secretary's fingerprints on virtually all the gross giveaways in the new reform legislation, he's a living symbol of the Rubinite gangrene crawling up the leg of this administration. Putting Geithner against the wall and replacing him with an actual human being not recently employed by a Wall Street megabank would do a lot to prove that Obama was listening this past Election Day. And while there are some who think Geithner is about to go - "he almost has to," says one Democratic strategist - at the moment, the president is still letting Wall Street do his talking.
Morning, the National Mall, November 5th. A year to the day after Obama named Michael Froman to his transition team, his political "opposition" has descended upon the city. Republican teabaggers from all 50 states have showed up, a vast horde of frowning, pissed-off middle-aged white people with their idiot placards in hand, ready to do cultural battle. They are here to protest Obama's "socialist" health care bill - you know, the one that even a bloodsucking capitalist interest group like Big Pharma spent $150 million to get passed.
These teabaggers don't know that, however. All they know is that a big government program might end up using tax dollars to pay the medical bills of rapidly breeding Dominican immigrants. So they hate it. They're also in a groove, knowing that at the polls a few days earlier, people like themselves had a big hand in ousting several Obama-allied Democrats, including a governor of New Jersey who just happened to be the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. A sign held up by New Jersey protesters bears the warning, "If You Vote For Obamacare, We Will Corzine You."
I approach a woman named Pat Defillipis from Toms River, New Jersey, and ask her why she's here. "To protest health care," she answers. "And then amnesty. You know, immigration amnesty."
I ask her if she's aware that there's a big hearing going on in the House today, where Barney Frank's committee is marking up a bill to reform the financial regulatory system. She recognizes Frank's name, wincing, but the rest of my question leaves her staring at me like I'm an alien.
"Do you care at all about economic regulation?" I ask. "There was sort of a big economic collapse last year. Do you have any ideas about how that whole deal should be fixed?"
"We got to slow down on spending," she says. "We can't afford it."
"But what do we do about the rules governing Wall Street . . ."
She walks away. She doesn't give a fuck. People like Pat aren't aware of it, but they're the best friends Obama has. They hate him, sure, but they don't hate him for any reasons that make sense. When it comes down to it, most of them hate the president for all the usual reasons they hate "liberals" - because he uses big words, doesn't believe in hell and doesn't flip out at the sight of gay people holding hands. Additionally, of course, he's black, and wasn't born in America, and is married to a woman who secretly hates our country.
These are the kinds of voters whom Obama's gang of Wall Street advisers is counting on: idiots. People whose votes depend not on whether the party in power delivers them jobs or protects them from economic villains, but on what cultural markers the candidate flashes on TV. Finance reform has become to Obama what Iraq War coffins were to Bush: something to be tucked safely out of sight.
Around the same time that finance reform was being watered down in Congress at the behest of his Treasury secretary, Obama was making a pit stop to raise money from Wall Street. On October 20th, the president went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York and addressed some 200 financiers and business moguls, each of whom paid the maximum allowable contribution of $30,400 to the Democratic Party. But an organizer of the event, Daniel Fass, announced in advance that support for the president might be lighter than expected - bailed-out firms like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs were expected to contribute a meager $91,000 to the event - because bankers were tired of being lectured about their misdeeds.
"The investment community feels very put-upon," Fass explained. "They feel there is no reason why they shouldn't earn $1 million to $200 million a year, and they don't want to be held responsible for the global financial meltdown."
Which makes sense. Shit, who could blame the investment community for the meltdown? What kind of assholes are we to put any of this on them?
This is the kind of person who is working for the Obama administration, which makes it unsurprising that we're getting no real reform of the finance industry. There's no other way to say it: Barack Obama, a once-in-a-generation political talent whose graceful conquest of America's racial dragons en route to the White House inspired the entire world, has for some reason allowed his presidency to be hijacked by sniveling, low-rent shitheads. Instead of reining in Wall Street, Obama has allowed himself to be seduced by it, leaving even his erstwhile campaign adviser, ex-Fed chief Paul Volcker, concerned about a "moral hazard" creeping over his administration.
"The obvious danger is that with the passage of time, risk-taking will be encouraged and efforts at prudential restraint will be resisted," Volcker told Congress in September, expressing concerns about all the regulatory loopholes in Frank's bill. "Ultimately, the possibility of further crises - even greater crises - will increase."
What's most troubling is that we don't know if Obama has changed, or if the influence of Wall Street is simply a fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system. What we do know is that Barack Obama pulled a bait-and-switch on us. If it were any other politician, we wouldn't be surprised. Maybe it's our fault, for thinking he was different.
Watch Matt Taibbi discuss "The Big Sellout" in a video on his blog, Taibblog.
Whiles carried o'er the iron road,
We hurry by some fair abode;
The garden bright amidst the hay,
The yellow wain upon the way,
The dining men, the wind that sweeps
Light locks from off the sun-sweet heaps --
The gable grey, the hoary roof,
Here now -- and now so far aloof.
How sorely then we long to stay
And midst its sweetness wear the day,
And 'neath its changing shadows sit,
And feel ourselves a part of it.
Such rest, such stay, I strove to win
With these same leaves that lie herein.

-- William Morris, from
"The Roots of the Mountains"