Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Once I built a railroad; now it's done

The most poignant political moment in a very very bad week for the economy and for civil liberties came when the 90ish NPR commentator Daniel Schor soloed a verse of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." Let's party like it's 1931.

This week's whiffs of the 1930s:
  • A bank run: failed IndyMac Bank was besieged by depositors unconvinced by federal guarantees
  • A crash in the stock price of what most people thought were the federal guarantees - Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. On Tuesday they lost 25% and 22% of their market value.
  • runs on bank shares - down 4% in one day yesterday
  • lunatic overextension: "At the end of the first quarter Freddie’s balance sheet showed assets of $803 billion and shareholder equity of just $16 billion," CNNMoney reported. "That means Freddie has just one dollar in equity for every $50 of mortgages and other assets it holds. The company’s mortgage portfolio is even more disconcerting, as it shows just 70 cents worth of equity for every $100 worth of business on its books."
  • political paralysis. As Steven R. Weisman put it in the NY Times, "the latest trouble in the financial markets, rising energy prices and spreading joblessness were also sowing new discord among lawmakers" about social programs vs. tax cuts. Which brings us to:
  • intellectual paralysis. Same liberalism attacked by the same conservatism. So far that's all she wrote.
  • steady betting against the US: the dollar is weak and always ready to get weaker. Nobody wants to buy our steaming piles of dubious, odoriferous investment vehicles. Why buy even T-bills when the dollar will sink? Why buy our crappy debt when you can just buy the Chrysler building instead?
  • fear: in one major way we are still where we were in August 2007: nobody knows what's in these instruments. Nobody really knows what they're worth. Nobody knows what they should pay for them. Nobody knows how risky you are. Everybody thus raises their rates.
Nothing got better in the 1930s until the paradigm changed. Nothing got better until the fear was contained.

If instead we carry on as we are, there will only be steady decline. Gretchen Morgenson summed it up on Sunday when she started her column like this:
It’s dispiriting indeed to watch the United States financial system, supposedly the envy of the world, being taken to its knees. But that’s the show we’re watching, brought to you by somnambulist regulators, greedy bank executives and incompetent corporate directors.

This kneeling has been going on for fifty years, as we have walked away from a series of lines in the sand.
  • we have the best manufacturing workforce in the world, we said through the early 1970s. Then we gave that up.
  • we have the best corporate managers on earth, we said through the 1980s and 1990s. Then we gave that up.
  • we have the best high technology, we said through the 1990s dot-com era. Are we giving that up?
  • we have the best capital markets in the world, we're still trying to say. We're giving that up. The basic math doesn't come out right. Can we still add and subtract? What numbers should we add and subtract with?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Anti-Tax Dumbness

Howard Jarvis gave California Proposition 13, the cap on property tax assessments that has created chaos out of state budgeting for 30 years. It is the source of the 2/3rds majority requirement for tax increases, in addition to capping property assessments at the time of sale plus a little more than 1% annual increases maximum. The results were predictable at the time - gross inequalities in assessments of identical neighboring houses, with the new buyer paying much more, a transfer of wealth from young to old, from newcomer to old-hand, and endless controversy around the support of basic public services. The current Assembly speaker wants to have a blue-ribbon commission to study the problem, but the one thing she'll keep off the table is the straitjacket known as Prop 13.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn writes me regularly, and their materials shows how the middle-class can be encouraged to fall on its sword. Their only figures are a "Homeowner's Property Tax Savings Chart" - if you bought a median house in 1993 ($188k), as I did, you have now "saved" $88k by having an assessment of 1% instead of 2.6%. What's missing of course is all the money we've paid out in other ways - for houses grotesquely overpriced in part due to suppressed assessments, for private services, e.g. private schools to get around crappy public ones and for big cars to avoid bad public transit. What's also missing are the costs for renters, for the state, for new businesses - for California society which is increasingly divided and still controlled by an entrenched landed class.

As a model for a "new economy" this is really really dumb.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Bell Tolls

Amazing headlines today for your old m-c pals Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the descendants of Bailey's Bank in It's a Wonderful Life that kept the speculative mogul wolf Potter outside the door and built the US middle-class. How about "Big Mortgage Death Watch - Freddie and Fannie in freefall." As we saw yesterday, even airline management has figured out that the US run by finance capital is a chain of Pottersvilles.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Did I Just Feel Sorry for United?

As a regular user of United Airlines I have no sympathy whatsoever for a management system that someday is going to make me bust a blood vessel at a customer service counter after my third flight has been canceled in the same day. They are manipulative and deceitful on a regular basis, and seem to think the yellow-brick road to solvency lies through fields of stranded, price-gouged, or just plain hungry customers. Ben Stein's classic piece about United's financial screw-job on its own employees is required reading for air travelers everywhere.

And yet today I got a mass mailing from United management complaining about how finance capital has done a screw-job on them! The industry's CEO's have come together to denounce speculators and start a social movement. Wow is it fun to see the shoe on the other foot, the foot getting shot by oneself, the dog lying down and getting up with fleas, etc etc. Sign up with the corporate running dogs if you must, but first read their poignant denunciation of international finance.
Our country is facing a possible sharp economic downturn because of skyrocketing oil and fuel prices, but by pulling together, we can all do something to help now.
For airlines, ultra-expensive fuel means thousands of lost jobs and severe reductions in air service to both large and small communities. To the broader economy, oil prices mean slower activity and widespread economic pain. This pain can be alleviated, and that is why we are taking the extraordinary step of writing this joint letter to our customers. Since high oil prices are partly a response to normal market forces, the nation needs to focus on increased energy supplies and conservation. However, there is another side to this story because normal market forces are being dangerously amplified by poorly regulated market speculation.

Twenty years ago, 21 percent of oil contracts were purchased by speculators who trade oil on paper with no intention of ever taking delivery. Today, oil speculators purchase 66 percent of all oil futures contracts, and that reflects just the transactions that are known. Speculators buy up large amounts of oil and then sell it to each other again and again. A barrel of oil may trade 20-plus times before it is delivered and used; the price goes up with each trade and consumers pick up the final tab. Some market experts estimate that current prices reflect as much as $30 to $60 per barrel in unnecessary speculative costs.

Over seventy years ago, Congress established regulations to control excessive, largely unchecked market speculation and manipulation. However, over the past two decades, these regulatory limits have been weakened or removed. We believe that restoring and enforcing these limits, along with several other modest measures, will provide more disclosure, transparency and sound market oversight. Together, these reforms will help cool the over-heated oil market and permit the economy to prosper.

The nation needs to pull together to reform the oil markets and solve this growing problem.

We need your help. Get more information and contact Congress.
Hell, for once United management is right. I'll try to remember this moment next time I give them $907.00 for a 350 miles x2 round trip from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Earth to Middle Class: Deal's Off

Father Frank had a good piece this Sunday wondering whether Obama has jumped the shark. Actually he jumped the shark in the first episode, economically speaking. The economic problems of the US and the world are so serious, so structural, that it's hard to see how our really very dumb political system can even start to deal with it.

I do mean dumb. David Runciman called his great article on US politics "The Cattle Prod Election." Lots of political blogs and general discourse are really astute, he writes. But they are trying to create a dramatic collision of ideas and forces by covering up the crucial fact: "demography trumps everything: people have been voting in fixed patterns set by age, race, gender, income and educational level, and the winner in the different contests has been determined by the way these different groups are divided up within and between state boundaries." Polls are bad, he continues, because their samples are so small. And they are small because "if you keep the polling sample sizes small enough, you can create the impression of a public willing to be moved by what other people are saying. . . . The hard truth this time round is that most people are voting with the predictability of prodded animals."

Our political system is completely unable to cope with our economic decline But there's more good daily newspaper coverage of the majority's long-term tailspin. Ben Stein got to the heart of it a week ago Sunday:
Get this, friends: from 1947 to about 1973 — from the days from the great Harry S. Truman to the great Richard M. Nixon — real hourly pay for nongovernment workers rose by about 40 percent. The peak year was the one before R.N. left for San Clemente in 1974. Since then, real wages both hourly and weekly for all nongovernment workers, on average, have fallen by about 5 percent, very roughly.

I get it. So does everyone I know. But none of us make economic policy.

Peter Gosselin does an overview in the LAT of the loss of basic support structures - pensions (only 10% of the workforce has a traditional defined-benefit pension, down from almost 2/3rds a generation ago); low-cost health care; higher education (1/3 of the cost is now covered by loans, up from 15% a while back).

These are epochal shifts that change hundreds of millions of lives for the worse and yet everyone acts like they're inevitable. And none of the commentators have any idea what to do. Stein says that big policy changes are a good idea, but they won't happen. "So the only thing for workers to do is to drive less, buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks and, above all, whip their children into a frenzy to get more education." What do you think we've been doing for 30 years, Mr. Stein?

The big middle-class safety-net become inflation in investment assets - dot-com era stocks, then housing, now commodities or something else. The gospel was buy and hold. John Authers announces in the Financial Times that "It’s official: US stocks have had a wasted decade. The real return on the S&P 500 since 1998, after subtracting consumer price inflation, is just below zero. The last time this was true, according to Merrill Lynch, was in 1983."

All those systems of mutual support- pensions, health care, insurance - need to be rebuilt. But first people need to figure out how much they've lost.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sometimes there IS progress

My momma was right after watching Wimbleton: progress happens. All sorts of things have gone bad, but it is just amazing to see two Black American women - Venus Williams (l) who won, and her sister Serena - duking it out on center court at Wimbledon. I should try again to give up the business pages for sports.