Thursday, April 29, 2010

Drill Baby Drill! - Spill Baby Spill!

The unexplained explosion that destroyed the British Petroleum off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico is much worse that was reported even yesterday. The new leaks that have been learned of make this spill even worse the the Exxon Valdez - already. How much worse is not known yet. Remember, the Exxon Valdez was limited to the amount of oil in one super tanker. This spill comes directly from the geological oil pool underground, so no one can predict how much worse that the Exxon Valdez this is going to get.

Why is this oil spill so bad? Why this spill is it so massive, and more important, so hard to stop? We're told so often that private industry is "always more effective than government is" you'd think this spill was caused by inefficient and ineffective government. But it's not. It's that "inefficient" government organization, the US Coast Guard, that is taking the lead in first saving as many of the crew as possible and later trying to protect the Gulf and the coastal areas.

But back to what caused this to get so bad. Here is some new information from DaveJ at OpenLeft. Dave points out that much of the fault lies in the hands of the private oil drillers.
How many times have you heard, "The private sector does everything more efficiently and effectively than government?" Right. Not this time. Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device,

The oil well spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico didn't have a remote-control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.

So once again the private sector screwed up and created a disaster that is way, way beyond private capabilities to fix things... and again it is government to the rescue: US military joins Gulf of Mexico oil spill effort. But government coming in after the fact to clean things up after the private sector created a major disaster is a very expensive way to do things. Maybe we ought to revisit that "government is bad" ideology that let's this kind of thing happen over and over again.

Anti-government ideology? Deregulation ideology? I wonder where it comes from? Well, all that Koch money you may have been hearing about, funding the Tea Party movement, funding the climate deniers, funding all that anti-government, anti-regulation crap -- that's oil money. Exxon, Schell and BP are in that mix as well.

This stuff follows a model developed by the tobacco companies to keep their franchise going after it became clear they were profiting from a product that was killing people. The model is to fund a political movement to throw as much smoke as possible in the air -- "doubt is our product" -- get people arguing about "personal responsibility" instead of our community responsibilities to each other, and turn people against government so it can't regulate. It works: tobacco still kills over 400,000 Americans a year and it's still legal -- and still very, very profitable. Revise and extend the model and you have today's conservative movement - a pay for play operation serving the biggest companies.

Let's not forget that of the 129 member crew on board when the (still unexplained) explosion occurred, 11 are missing and presumed dead, while seven others are critically injured. Add this to the cost our hunger for more and more cheap energy on top of the recent deaths of 29 coal miners as a result of Don Massey refusing to act to dig coal safely.

I can't find a song about oil roughnecks, but this was one of my favorites 50 years ago. ("Though I remember the superb Peter, Paul and Mary version.) The key line that has always remained with me is the refrain: "Bone and blood is the price of coal. Bone and blood is the price of coal."

Perhaps we should remember why these working people die in greater numbers than necessary. It's cheaper for them to die than for the companies to spend the money to make their jobs safer! The companies make bigger profits and they sell more energy because it it costs less!
Meanwhile, here is one more reason the big corporations are opposing things like wind energy: Wind's latest problem: it ... makes power too cheap.

The key thing here is that we are beginning to unveil what I've labelled the dirty secret of wind: utilities don't like wind not because it's not competitive, but because it brings prices down for their existing assets, thus lowering their revenues and their profits.
Perhaps this is beginning to sound a bit like class warfare. Well isn't it? This is the wealthy investors in older energy sources like coal and oil spending the lives of workers to build their profits. And are they willing to share their profits? Of course not. Consider the attitude of Pete Peterson and Bob Rubin as they work to reduce the American deficit. The deficit is scary and dangerous, so someone is going to have to sacrifice to reduce the deficit. Think the extremely wealth Peterson and Rubin are offering to sacrifice some of their wealth to the effort? Here is a sample of their attitude:
"Peter Peterson and Robert Rubin are both enormously wealthy men. (They joked about dividing their lunch tab based on their net worth.) They are lecturing the country on the need to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for retirees who have a tiny fraction of their wealth. Many of the victims of the cuts that they would push are people who are already struggling."
[H/t to Digby at Hullabaloo.]
Of course the aristocrats are not going to sacrifice any of the wealth they control. Think Don Massey is going to spend "His" money to make digging coal safer for coal miners. Peterson and Rubin (among others) are working hard to take money from those on Social Security and government operated health care. What they can't get in taxes (such as those that backed the Wall Street bailouts) they will fight to get through the banks by predatory lending. Consider the usury of Pay Day lending, or the sub prime loans required by working people to buy a car from someplace that does not check credit. Since the wealthy prevent building public transportation, the workers have to buy the overpriced crap used cars with overpriced sub prime loans. And the wealthy get richer. See Massey, Rubin and Peterson as examples.

British Petroleum has a similar hesitation to spend money on blow-out protective devices that are only needed if things go badly wrong when drilling. Safety is for the plebeians and cuts into profits. Make them pay for it if they want it.

That's the core reason why the health care public option never had a chance to be adopted, either. The aristocratic wealthy members of the Senate don't want to pay for the working classes. It cuts into profits and makes it harder for them to gather wealth and maintain their exalted social positions.

This is class warfare conducted by the Movement Conservatives on the rest of us. That's the lesson of the growing inequality of wealth and reduced economic class mobility in America. It's also the lesson of the Massey Coal Mine disaster and the current Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

The refrain keeps ringing for me. "Bone and blood is the price of coal. Bone and blood is the price of coal." That's cheap, high-profit coal with the benefits going to the rich and (rarely) a little bit trickling down to the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is coffee good for you?

Well? Is it? Good for you I mean.

Apparently it is a mixed bag (Quelle surprise!) but according to this article from CNN, on net coffee is probably good for you. So go read it.

Coffee: Is it healthier than you think?

By Sarah Klein,

Republicans fighting Wall Street regulation tooth and nail.

What's up with the Republicans? As long as they say "No!" to Wall Street reform, the Wall Street banks will continue to fill their coffers for what they expect will be a critical election in November.

Robert Borasage explains what's behind the Republican obstreperousness.

The moral decline of Wall Street.

Do Wall Street banks have an obligation to society? Not according to the Wall Street banks. Their only functions are to create and sell financial products and to make as large a profit as possible for their shareholders and executives.

That's the lesson that Michael Hirsh has taken away from the Senate hearings on Wall Street yesterday. In hindsight is seems obviously true.

Here's the problem. If a deal is profitable but is destructive to society, then under those rules Wall Street is required to conduct the deal - and to profit by it. It doesn't matter to them who else gets hurt, that's their lookout. Do the series of deals lead to a collapse of the world-wide financial markets? Not their problem. They are responsible only for recognizing the problems they are creating in advance, then shorting the markets they themselves have created so that they can make profits out of the collapse.

OK. If that's the way Wall Street want things then society is going to have to step in and protect itself from Wall Street (and London's City) by regulating it. The size and nature of the collapse we recently observed clearly demonstrates that half-hearted regulation is not safe.

If vampires exist and are needed to keep the economy functioning at high efficiency, then it would behoove society to keep the vampires carefully strapped down and closely watched, allowing them very little freedom to go off the reservation and practice their blood-sucking ways without close supervision. They will never need as much blood as they will want.

It's hard to watch the evasion and hubris of the Goldman Sachs bankers yesterday and not comprehend that they are financial vampires with some limited utility in the financial system. That's the core lesson of the Goldman Sachs hearings yesterday.

For a description of the boring nature of the hearing, here is Time's Swampland
The Goldman hearing has conformed to a familiar pattern. Senators begin with pointed questions and descend into demagoguery; the bankers force stoic stares, and then, when they're forced to speak, essentially try to eat up clock until it's time to repeat the excercise.

Three of the four witnesses on this first panel -- Daniel Sparks, Michael Swenson and Josh Birnbaum -- supplied aggressively bland opening statements. The notable exception was Fabrice Tourre, a.k.a. the Fabulous Fab, the lone Goldman employee accused of fraud. In a strident denial, Tourre confronted the charges head on, relying heavily on the Big Boy Defense—that is, the firms who got soaked in the Abacus deal were among the world's most sophisticated investors, making bets that scores of other smart people made, and it's not our job to coddle or second-guess them. “I deny – categorically – the SEC allegation,” he said. The specificity of Tourre's opening remarks – compared to his colleagues, at least – seemed to demonstrate confidence in his case.

From there, though, the hearing has been reduced to basic theatrics.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How did America get into the mess it's in now?

TPM Cafe's M. J. Rosenberg provides a letter written by his nephew (Jeremy Gruenbaum) to explain it. The kid says "Blame it all on the baby boomers!" I think he gets a lot of the history right, and I lived through most of it myself.

The key point he makes is that the middle class in America suffered through the Depression, then fought through the most massive war the world has ever seen, and came out on the other side of all that into the 1950's. They felt they deserved the America of the 50's in which they quickly became the richest nation on earth. They knew things could get worse and didn't want to lose what they felt they had earned and go back to the massive struggles they had passed through to get there. Instead they wanted to preserve and pass the rewards they felt they had worked so hard for on to their children. The result was a growing conservative movement that objected to the changing American society and who wanted to return to the halcyon days of the 1950's. The result was the conservative movement that effectively took over the Baby Boom generation and won elections.

Gruenbaum makes a number of very good points. I strongly recommend that you go read the entire post. It is food for a great deal of thought. It also delights me that this is an explanation for the political disaster which has over taken America that does NOT blame the DFHs of the 60's and early 70's.

[Gruenbaum wrote his piece in partial response to an excellent piece by Noah Millman in The American Scene. It, too, is worth reading.]

Monday, April 26, 2010

The financial rating agencies: bad actors currently being overlooked.

Paul Krugman writes about the strange story of the financial rating agencies who were key actors in creating the financial collapse we are still suffering from. Yet they are effectively being ignored both by the media and by the congress which is considering financial regulation reform. This is what Krugman wrote:
of AAA-rated subprime-mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006, 93 percent — 93 percent! — have now been downgraded to junk status.

What those e-mails reveal is a deeply corrupt system. And it’s a system that financial reform, as currently proposed, wouldn’t fix.

The rating agencies began as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt. Eventually, however, they morphed into something quite different: companies that were hired by the people selling debt to give that debt a seal of approval.

Those seals of approval came to play a central role in our whole financial system, especially for institutional investors like pension funds, which would buy your bonds if and only if they received that coveted AAA rating.

It was a system that looked dignified and respectable on the surface. Yet it produced huge conflicts of interest. Issuers of debt — which increasingly meant Wall Street firms selling securities they created by slicing and dicing claims on things like subprime mortgages — could choose among several rating agencies. So they could direct their business to whichever agency was most likely to give a favorable verdict, and threaten to pull business from an agency that tried too hard to do its job. It’s all too obvious, in retrospect, how this could have corrupted the process.

And it did. The Senate subcommittee has focused its investigations on the two biggest credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s; what it has found confirms our worst suspicions. In one e-mail message, an S.& P. employee explains that a meeting is necessary to “discuss adjusting criteria” for assessing housing-backed securities “because of the ongoing threat of losing deals.” Another message complains of having to use resources “to massage the sub-prime and alt-A numbers to preserve market share.” Clearly, the rating agencies skewed their assessments to please their clients.

These skewed assessments, in turn, helped the financial system take on far more risk than it could safely handle.
If the rating agencies are not controlled in some way, then they will be leading the way into the next financial collapse.

The prognosis for the Great Recession is not good.

What's wrong with the current government approach to holding off the Great Depression II? Digby quotes Krugman at length, then goes on to add further information provided by a financially knowledgeable friend of hers.

Here is a really important point made by Digby's friend. The Obama administration is aiming the rescue actions of government wrong. Instead of spending to create new jobs, they are spending to prop up already inflated asset prices.
Her friend discusses the article by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells:

They make an important point -- as just stated -- that its key to get jobs back and that deficits don't matter if they are producing jobs. But, Krugman/Wells simply gloss over this in their larger commentary about govt deficits.... they fail to note that 80 to 90% or more of govt commitments in this crisis have been to prop up assets, not produce jobs. The Fed has basically engaged in the same high leverage act as the financial sector --- and the price tag for that is that we're a hair trigger away from collapse while simultaneously have so over committed the govt -- all to prop up asset prices because we said "no" to the Swedish model (which was short, not long) -- that, in effect, we've shot our wad at asset prices and when folks say, jobs, jobs, jobs, the oligarchs cry: too much govt debt.

Krugman/Wells simply do not explain this -- and the article would have been far superior if they had.
My short take on these articles is that Krugman/Wells explain that financial collapses occur because of excessive borrowing - bank and government leverage to build financial assets.

Borrowing is not inherently wrong. Borrowing to create jobs builds the economy. It's borrowing to prop up asset prices, especially financial assets which do almost nothing for the real economy of goods and services that is dangerous. But the oligarchs who currently run American society depend on financial prices for the wealth that guarantees their position in society. This is because Wall Street has expanded in recent years to create over 40% of the profits in the American economy at the expense of outsourcing real jobs to third world countries.

The different point of view that Digby adds also makes many very important points. Read both the Digby article and the Krugman/Wells article.

The Krugman/Wells article can be read in the New York Review of Books.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The SEC vs Goldman Sachs: an instructive court case

The SEC lawsuit against Goldman Sachs is not all that complicated. The SEC is alleging that G/S worked with an investor, John Paulson, to design Collateral Debt Obligations (CDO's) that were designed to fail. Paulson then bought derivitaves on those CDOs that paid large sums if the CDOs failed. Goldman Sachs then went out and sold investors the CDOs telling them that the CDOs were solid, safe investments. The allegation made by the SEC is that Goldman Sachs committed fraud by failing to inform the investors that the individual who was betting the CDO's would fail had also selected many of the mortgages that were included in the CDO.

Here is a very readable explanation from Business Week.
The SEC chose this case because it is comparatively stark. In early 2007, at the request of Paulson & Co., the hedge fund run by billionaire John Paulson, Goldman structured a deal called Abacus 2007-AC1, designed to let Paulson wager that the subprime-mortgage industry would collapse. Goldman lined up two counterparties for a fee of $15 million: ACA, a bond-insurance company, lost about $950 million (with the banks backstopping it), and a German bank called IKB lost $150 million. Goldman's offense, according to the SEC, was telling IKB that the portfolio of mortgage bonds used for the deal was "selected by ACA," when in fact Paulson was deeply involved in the process, cherry-picking the worst bonds it could find. Goldman didn't tell IKB who was on the other side of the trade, or the extent to which Paulson influenced selections. As a result, the SEC claims, Goldman's statement to IKB was false, misleading, and fraudulent.

The issue in the case hides the complexity. Paulson and Co is not being charged by the SEC. Nor is the investor, IKB. Business Week goes on, however, to describe everyone involved as being a great deal less than angels. And what about the rating agencies which gave the CDO's very good ratings?
The Abacus case is of course far more complex and nuanced than the SEC complaint lets on. This is a cast of characters without a single hero. Not even the supposed victims are sympathetic. IKB sold commercial-paper IOUs to investors in mid-2007 that were worthless by year's end. Its former CEO, Stefan Ortseifen, went on trial last month in Germany for allegedly lying about IKB's financial condition before its near-collapse.

The credit-rating merchants, whose incompetence cannot be overstated, make their usual cameo, as well. And while Paulson didn't get sued, because the SEC said he made no misrepresentations, he did make $1 billion on the deal. Having his name associated with this alleged fleecing carries its own unknowable reputational risk.
The other major player in this case is the SEC. The SEC has also been reported to have known of the ponzi scheme by the Texan, Allen Stanford, since at least 1997 but failed to act because it was a large, messy and complex case and their statistics would look better if they took on many smaller, simpler cases.

The final villain in this case has to be the Bush Administration and Congress, both of whom strongly believed the conservative myth that regulation of financial firms should not be done because it would hurt business.

This case seems quite clear. Goldman Sachs told those who they sold the CDOs to that one of the investors (ACA) had selected the mortgages included in the CDO but failed to inform anyone that John Paulson, who was betting the investments would fail, was instrumental in getting many of the mortgages in the CDO included. Did Goldman Sachs know the CDO's were likely to fail? That's the allegation. They were selling bad product to investors and misrepresenting it. The market was totally unregulated, so there was no transparency in the transaction. The brokers and Paulson (who was betting the mortgages would fail and made billions when they did) were fully aware that the product Goldman Sachs was selling was a bad investment.

For anyone puzzled why the intentionally unregulated US and World economies came so close to collapsing into Great Depression II in the fall of 2008, this case is a microcosm of the reasons.

Good anti-Wall Street Bank ad.

Go to Open left (or click on the title above) to see the discussion behind this ad.

From OpenLeft.

Off balance sheet transactions and the need for financial reform

This is an excellent speech - clear, precise and short.

Frank Partnoy on Off-Balance Sheet Transactions (MMBM) from Roosevelt Institute on Vimeo.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lakoff explains framing of issues!

What does it mean "to frame an issue?"

This article by George Lakoff provides clear examples of how framing an issue can cause people to either support or oppose it. The article then explains the neurolinguistic basis of the different decisions. First an example of how framing changes voting decisions.

This is the first item:
[But]the NY Times reported last month on a NYT/CBS Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell poll on whether "homosexuals" or "gay men and lesbians" should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly. That's a 36 percent framing shift on the same literal issue, but not surprising since the words evoked very different frames, one about sex and the other about rights. Newsworthy for the NY Times, but hardly earthshaking.
This is the second item:
But a recent poll by David Binder, perhaps the premier California pollster, showed a framing shift of deep import for Democrats -- a shift of 69 percent on the same issue, depending on the framing. It was noteworthy not just because of the size of the framing shift on the main question, but because the shift was systematic. Roughly, around 18 percent of voters showed that their values are not fixed. They think BOTH like liberals and conservatives -- depending on how they understand the issue. With a liberal value-framing, they give liberal answers; with a conservative value-framing, they give conservative answers. What is most striking is that conservatively framed poll questions are all too often written by Democrats thinking they are neutral. The result is a Democratic move to the right for what are thought to be "pragmatic" reasons, but which are actually self-defeating.

Here is the background.

California is the only state with a legislature run by minority rule. Because it takes a 2/3 vote of both houses to either pass a budget or raise revenue via taxation, 33.4 percent of either house can block the entire legislative process until it gets what it wants. At present 63 percent of both houses are Democrats and 37 percent are far-right Republicans who have taken the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise revenue and to shrink government till it can be drowned in a bathtub. They run the legislature by saying no. This has led to gridlock, huge deficits from lack of revenue, and cuts so massive as to threaten the viability of the state.

Unfortunately, most Californians are unaware of the cause of the crisis, blaming "the legislature," when the cause is only 37 percent of "the legislature," the 37 percent that runs the legislature under minority rule.
The extended discussion in the article provides some of the subtle political implications of this situation.

Then the author goes on to explain the neurological basis for this kind of frame-shift.
There are two political value-systems that voters have, call them Pro and Con. (You might think them as Progressive and Conservative, though no overall views are tested in the poll.) About 40-to-45 percent have a consistently Pro-worldview. About 35-to-40 percent have a consistently Con worldview. About 18 percent have BOTH worldviews, and the understanding provided by language can trigger one or the other, resulting in a shift.

Now things get really interesting. The DBR poll found a way to test this explanation. The respondents to the poll were asked if they found the pro- and con-arguments convincing or unconvincing. On the battery of pro-arguments, an average of 57 percent found the pro-arguments convincing and 38 percent found them unconvincing.

On the battery of con-arguments, 57 percent found the con-arguments convincing and 41 percent found them unconvincing. The same high percentage -- 57% on average -- who were convinced by the pro-arguments were also convinced by the con arguments! As in the shift found in the support for the initiatives, the wording resulted in a shift of about the same magnitude.
The author of this article, George Lakoff, is discussing one poll in depth in order to explain what liberals are doing wrong politically. I strongly suggest reading the entire article as well as looking at the detail of his examples which I have not included here. His final conclusion is an important takeaway for all of us who want to keep the America that lives up to the aspirations of the Constitution.
I have been arguing over the past decade and a half that progressives need to build a communication system of their own to (1) express the values they really believe in, to (2) to communicate the truth, (3) to use their own values-based language to show the moral significance of those truths, and (4) avoid communicating conservative beliefs they do not hold, especially by avoiding the language of conservatism. The poll results just discussed reflect the failure of progressives to do so.