Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Deficit Tales: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Let's talk about the federal deficit. Everybody seems to agree that it is a bugaboo, but no one is willing to give up anything to make it go away. Barack Obama said we need to do something about it back in 2006 while George W. Bush was spending us into oblivion. Now that Obama is president the deficit has soared to unprecedented heights...at least if you believe this graphic that has been circulating the Net:

My niece, who ought to know better, shard this on Facebook. The innocent are being led astray by blatant disregard for the truth.

The anti-Obama forces love this because it paints a picture of our president as not only a profligate spender but one who is unnaturally and, as the picture seems to evidence, smugly happy about it. Those more amenable to the President are not that happy with it because, among other things, it's not very accurate. The math doesn't work, and it leaves a lot of useful information on the editing room floor.
The amount of federal public debt handed over to the new administration at the end of George W. Bush's term was $10.7 Trillion. Of that, $6.3 Trillion was owed to the public and $4.4 Trillion was owed to other U.S. government agencies. The total public debt increased under the Bush administration from $5.7 Trillion in 2001 to $10.7 Trillion in December of 2008. As of February of this year (2012) the total public debt stood at $15.5 Trillion, an increase, so far, of $4.8 Trillion.
The Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) estimates that by the end of fiscal 2012 the gross federal debt will stand at $16.3 Trillion. This represents an increase of $5.6 Trillion, not the $6.5 Trillion depicted in the graphic.
The other problem, of course, is that if you're going to hold Obama responsible for running up the deficit with extravagant spending, then he better have bought something truly ridiculous. Here's a nice graph of where all that new deficit came from since Obama took office:

Makes you wonder where all Obama's 'Robin Hood Socialism' shows up. Listen carefully to the Republicans and you would have to believe that the Democrats gave the whole increased spending nut to lazy welfare cheats and old people who ought to stop draining the nation's resources and just die already.

So except for Tarp, the bailouts, and the stimulus spending, which together total about $1.5 Trillion, none of the deficit spending was initiated by Barack Obama. It all came from programs, policies, and two wars in place before he took office.
Here's another telling chart, this one from the July 23, 2011 edition of the New York Times Sunday Review, and based on data from the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It is 'intellectual' as opposed to 'partisan.' That is, it does not spin blame, but rather pins spending to the origin of the policies that drive it.

Wow...looks like Obama has actually SLOWED non-defense discretionary spending and entitlement increases. No mean feat in an economy that the Republicans seem determined to hammer until the election is over. After that they'll make it even worse.

To me this shows the utter dishonesty of Republicans who cry about the deficits while refusing to acknowledge that the single most influential driver of deficit spending that has occurred during Obama's presidency is the Bush tax cuts. Not only do they refuse to acknowledge this indisputable fact, they want to add to the problem with even deeper tax cuts.
It doesn't make any sense to me that Mitt Romney and the Republicans hope to make their narrative stick, but stick it does in spite of the fact that it is a BALD-FACED-LIE. They are no longer accountable to the facts. Apparently they don't have to be.
They know hardly anyone will bother to check on the truthfulness of their assertions. There are too many facts to check, and it's too hard to separate the truth from the fiction. All a politician need do is keep repeating the story he wants to tell. When he's said it often enough it becomes true enough for the faithful who, after all, only believe what they want to believe.
Does anybody besides me long for the days when you could call a guy a liar, lay out the facts, and he'd be embarrassed by the dishonesty? Now the facts are just words streaming in the ether without effect or import.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Five Things to Consider before You Click 'Like' on a Political Post

Hold a lamp to the truth
drive slowly.

  1. If you get most of your political news and analysis from the Comedy Channel, you probably have a world view that is at least as skewed as it would be if you got most of your information from Fox News. Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher may be smart guys, but they are first and foremost comics with a higher vested interest in laughs and ratings than in the truth. This is not to say that they are not often correct...just that being correct is not their primary aim...not unlike Fox.
  2. If you agree with or, even worse, spout things like 'Republicans are waging war on women' or 'Democrats are waging war on religion' then you are guilty of exactly the same kind of fractious logic of which you are accusing the other side.
  3. If you believe that the deficit mess is the result of welfare entitlements and paying people not to work, you need to turn off Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and read a book about economics. I can recommend several that give a thoughtful and balanced account of what's really going on in the economy.
    1. 13 Bankers – Johnson and Kwak
    2. Freefall – Stiglitz
    3. End this Depression Now – Krugman
  4. If you sincerely believe that Mitt Romney is a misogynistic white wonk who is hell-bent on asserting control over the nation's vaginae, or that Barack Obama is a Nigerian, Muslim, communist traitor determined to destroy America, then you are a narrow-minded dolt, incapable of appreciating either nuance or irony. These fellows hold opinions that differ from yours. That is all. They came by their opinions honestly and with consideration (and in Romney's case several times) which is more than I can say about you if you believe all the crap you hear from their opposition.
  5. If you have more than 20 friends, and they all agree with you on everything you think is important, you are in danger of losing the kind of perspective that leads to compromise and progress. If you have more than 200 friends, you are already lost.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Entitlement Issues Redux: Thank You JP Morgan Chase

Gulfstream G550: a good place from which to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Since JP Morgan Chase Bank is looming large in the news again, I thought it might be useful to resurrect this post I did last year on the overdeveloped sense of entitlement that is forever exhibited by the best and brightest on Wall Street. While Morgan was accumulating its current $2 Billion loss in its proprietary trading accounts, CEO Jamie Dimon continued to lobby hard for repeal of the Dodd/Frank banking reforms and specifically the Volcker Rule, which would prohibit the very trades that have got him in trouble. One of the first things candidate Mitt Romney proposes to do if elected is to throw these regulations out. I wonder if he still thinks that's a good idea given this latest abuse of fiduciary responsibility by a big bank?

Anyway...here's what I had to say on the matter previously.

People who have too much money and people who have too little share one common trait. After a time they come to believe that they deserve their fate. They settle into the trappings of their lives, and wear their circumstances like a second skin. This settling works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. What started as purely fortune, whether good or ill, becomes the natural order of things.
This all became evident to me as I struggled to make sense of my own fall from grace. I knew that the economy had collapsed, not because of any real or fundamental change in productivity or capacity or supply or demand, but because of an artificial set of circumstances precipitated largely by global financial institutions. While everyone was pointing fingers at the bursting of the real estate bubble and the huge sludge pool of underwater sub-prime mortgages, I knew that the real culprit was the enormous and mostly unregulated market in over-the-counter derivatives, speculation in which had allowed, even forced, the underwriting of the toxic mortgage paper, which in turn had fueled the real estate bubble, which in turn brought us all low when it burst.
The great irony in all this is that the investment bankers and speculators who brought us this mess escaped with our money. They fleeced us. Treasury and the Fed helped them do it. The big audit firms blessed the ubiquitous bookkeeping legerdemain. And when their overvalued and under-performing assets became problematic, we bailed them out. I've written about all this before. So have a lot of other people. If you'd like to sort all this out for yourself, I recommend the following:
  • Too Big to Fail – Andrew Ross Sorkin
  • Freefall – Joseph E. Stiglitz
  • 13 Bankers – Simon Johnson
  • The Devil's Casino – Vicky Ward
  • Griftopia – Matt Taibbi
These are by no means exhaustive, but they do, together, convey the broad sense not only of what went wrong and why, but that nothing that was broken has been fixed in any real, meaningful way. You should not read the last three without taking your blood pressure medication.
The tragedy is that, even though the contributory problems still lie festering under the surface, nobody cares anymore. The economy is recovering. The markets are orderly. We've got other problems to occupy our collective consciousness. The Middle East is in flames. Japan is radioactive. Charlie Sheen is taking us all to school in a completely different kind of China Syndrome. Who has time to worry about something that happened three years ago, even if many of us are still trying to crawl out of the smoking ruins of our former lives. It's apparently time to move on. I'm trying, but moving on is about as easy as loving my enemies or turning the other cheek.
When I first lost my job, the Lehman Brothers collapse was all over the news. The Lehman debacle was the precipitating event, the end of the beginning, the thing that galvanized the movers and shakers in government and on Wall Street to come together and save themselves from the disaster they had created. These were historic events: rewriting Fed rules to allow the lending of funds to investment banks and insurance companies, death spiral deal making facilitated by government functionaries who came from and would return to the institutions they were regulating, the sale of the TARP program (a one-page legislative mandate) to a panicky Congress by a credible Chicken Little. I was enthralled, and, being unemployed, I had plenty of time to immerse myself in the heady details.
I'd like to say that I learned, among other things, how the other half lives, but it's not the other half. It's more like the other 0.00001%. I learned how the guys in the ethereal high plains of self-entitlement live. They are not like you and me. They may have been once, but no more. They no longer carry the burden of living and working at the sufferance of others. They are the ones who do the suffering, and they do it from high-rise glass office towers, multimillion dollar Manhattan apartments, the custom appointed cabins of their Gulfstream G-550's, and palatial estates where their wives enjoy closets that are bigger than my house.
The most disconcerting thing about all of this is that it became obvious to me that these folks honestly believe that they deserve everything they have and more. They actually think they got where they are because they are smarter, more industrious, better prepared, more enlightened, and ultimately more deserving than the rest of us. They have bought in, wholesale, to their own bullshit, and they are occupied, full-time, curating their singular circumstances.
The rest of us let them do it. We've bought into their bullshit as well. We think they deserve what they've accumulated, and mostly just because they managed to do it without going to jail. So when Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Trust says we don't need any more banking regulation, we don't think that maybe Jaime's not ready to put down the fleecing sheers just yet. Instead we think, he's smart and he's rich, he must know what he's talking about. And, when Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs says they didn't bilk their investors out of billions by selling them bundled mortgages that had been hand selected by the firm that stood to profit most if they defaulted, and that their investors were sophisticated speculators who should have been able to figure out what Goldman wasn't telling them, we don't think he's talking out of both sides of his mouth at once. This is Goldman Sachs, for crying out loud, not some fly-by-night investment chop shop like Bernie freaking Madoff.
People listen to people with money. It hardly matters what they say. This is why Donald Trump is able, with a straight face, to tell us that one of his most attractive qualities as a candidate for the Presidency is that he's rich. He apparently believes this is sufficient to convince us of his sincerity, intelligence, leadership, and good judgment in spite of the overwhelmingly contrary evidence of his hair, and the fact that he let his marital infidelity with Marla Maples in 1990 play out on prime time network TV.
If this were all there were to it, that we listen to and believe rich people because they are rich, it probably wouldn't bear remarking. The sad thing though is the other side of the coin—that we don't listen to or believe the impoverished, the more than half that is not in the 0.00001%, the half that does not suffer in executive jets or ride private helicopters to work. Us. You and me. Hell, we don't even believe each other.
I mentioned the other day that I have ascribed to myself 1/40th the relative value of Bill Gates. By this I mean that I think that my ideas, conviviality, cleverness, and good nature, are, on average, at least 1/40th as good as his. I don't think this is a vain assumption on my part. I think your ideas, etc., are probably that good as well, and I don't even know who you are.
That being the case, I also don't think it's unreasonable for me to demand from the nebulous creative energy of the limitless universe, the deliberately secularized power behind the so-called law of attraction, that I should receive something akin to 1/40th of Bill Gates' net worth—specifically $749,000,000. If I had $749,000,000 people might actually begin to listen to me. Some of them might even read my frigging book. (5 darkly humorous and highly entertaining short stories for a mere 99 cents from Amazon. No religion, no economics, no politics...just good fun.. Click the link. Live a little.)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tales of Woe on Multiple Fronts

Sounding the Alarm

  1. Craig's List ads chronicle the desperation of out-of-work construction workers:   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/business/economy/for-craftsmen-craigslist-is-a-slender-lifeline.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
  2. Romney embraces the Ryan budget proposals. First victims to be the aged who will see their out-of-pocket medical costs soar as a result.   http://baselinescenario.com/2012/05/03/mitt-romney-and-paul-ryans-budget/
  3. Koch Brothers donate $68million to Deerfield Academy (and tout their largesse as a good reason they shouldn't pay more taxes) to incubate more right-wing, freeloading despoiler creeps like themselves.   http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/30/stephen-king-tax-me-for-f-s-sake.html
  4. Unemployment numbers, while they appear to be improving, are increasingly skewed because they ignore people who have fallen off the rolls and are no longer looking for work. Actual unemployment is getting worse, way worse, not better.   http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/03/news/economy/unemployment-rate/index.htm?hpt=hp_t2
  5. Spirit Airlines CEO says dying ex-Marine should have  bought insurance. Industry observers say Spirit has a 'history of cruelty' to its passengers. Still, its the airline's right...right? This is why I cringe whenever some conservative dweeb like Romney announces that government should be run more like a business.   http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/05/03/spirit-airlines-outpaces-competitors-regarding-passenger-complaints-statistics/?test=latestnews
  6. Race is still a deciding issue for some voters. Come on. It's 2012 for crying out loud. There are plenty of real issues dividing the candidates. This shouldn't be one of them.  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47290132/ns/politics-the_new_york_times/#.T6Ps7Ot5GSo  
None of this is helping my depression very much. How about yours?