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Robert Reich

In this September 1998 file photo, provided by Domino's Pizza, Thomas Monaghan, founder and chairman of Domino's Pizza, Inc., left, and Mitt Romney, then managing director of Bain Capital, Inc., sign an agreement for Monaghan to sell a "significant portion" of his stake in the company to Bain Capital, in New York. (Scott Gries/Domino's Pizza/AP File)

Mitt Romney, Bain Capital and the New Gilded Age

By Guest blogger / 07.02.12

The election of 2012 raises two perplexing questions. The first is how the GOP could put up someone for president who so brazenly epitomizes the excesses of casino capitalism that have nearly destroyed the economy and overwhelmed our democracy. The second is why the Democrats have failed to point this out.

The White House has criticized Mitt Romney for his years at the helm of Bain Capital, pointing to a deal that led to the bankruptcy of GS Technologies, a Bain investment in Kansas City that went belly up in 2001 at the cost of 750 jobs. But the White House hasn’t connected Romney’s Bain to the larger scourge of casino capitalism. Not surprisingly, its criticism has quickly degenerated into a “he said, she said” feud over what proportion of the companies that Bain bought and loaded up with debt subsequently went broke (it’s about 20 percent), and how many people lost their jobs relative to how many jobs were added because of Bain’s financial maneuvers (that depends on when you start and stop the clock). And it has invited a Republican countercharge that the administration gambled away taxpayer money on its own bad bet, the Solyndra solar panel company.

But the real issue here isn’t Bain’s betting record. It’s that Romney’s Bain is part of the same system as Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase, Jon Corzine’s MF Global and Lloyd Blankfein’s Goldman Sachs—a system that has turned much of the economy into a betting parlor that nearly imploded in 2008, destroying millions of jobs and devastating household incomes. The winners in this system are top Wall Street executives and traders, private-equity managers and hedge-fund moguls, 
and the losers are most of the rest of us. The system is largely responsible for the greatest concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top since the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, with the richest 400 Americans owning as much as the bottom 150 million put together. And these multimillionaires and billionaires are now actively buying the 2012 election—and with it, American democracy.

The biggest players in this system have, like Romney, made their profits placing big bets with other people’s money. If the bets go well, the players make out like bandits. If they go badly, the burden lands on average workers and taxpayers. The 750 people at GS Technologies who lost their jobs thanks to a bad deal engineered by Romney’s Bain were a small foreshadowing of the 15 million who lost jobs after the cumulative dealmaking 
of the entire financial sector pushed the whole economy off a cliff. And relative to the cost to taxpayers of bailing out Wall Street, Solyndra is a rounding error.

Connect the dots of casino capitalism, and you get Mitt Romney. The fortunes raked in by financial dealmakers depend on special goodies baked into the tax code such as “carried interest,” which allows Romney and other partners in private-equity firms (as well as in many venture-capital and hedge funds) to treat their incomes as capital gains taxed at a maximum of
15 percent. This is how Romney managed to pay an average of 14 percent on more than $42 million of combined income in 2010 and 2011. But the carried-interest loophole makes no economic sense. Conservatives try to justify the tax code’s generous preference for capital gains as a reward to risk-takers—but Romney and other private-equity partners risk little, if any, of their personal wealth. They mostly bet with other investors’ money, including the pension savings of average working people.

Another goodie allows private-equity partners to sock away almost any amount of their earnings into a tax-deferred IRA, while the rest of us are limited to a few thousand dollars a year. The partners can merely low-ball the value of whatever portion of their investment partnership they put away—even valuing it at zero—because the tax code considers a partnership interest to have value only in the future. This explains how Romney’s IRA is worth as much as $101 million. The tax code further subsidizes private equity and much of the rest of the financial sector by making interest on debt tax-deductible, while taxing profits and dividends. This creates huge incentives for financiers to find ways of substituting debt for equity and is a major reason America’s biggest banks have leveraged America to the hilt. It’s also why Romney’s Bain and other private-equity partnerships have done the same to the companies they buy.

These maneuvers shift all the economic risk to debtors, who sometimes can’t repay what they owe. That’s rarely a problem for the financiers who engineer the deals; they’re sufficiently diversified to withstand some losses, or they’ve already taken their profits and moved on. But piles of debt play havoc with the lives of real people in the real economy when the companies they work for can’t meet their payments, or the banks they rely on stop lending money, or the contractors they depend on go broke—often with the result that they can’t meet their own debt payments and lose their homes, cars and savings.

It took more than a decade for America to recover from the Great Crash of 1929 after the financial sector had gorged itself on debt, and it’s taking years to recover from the more limited but still terrible crash of 2008. The same kinds of convulsions have occurred on a smaller scale at a host of companies since the go-go years of the 1980s, when private-equity firms like Bain began doing leveraged buyouts—taking over a target company, loading it up with debt, using the tax deduction that comes with the debt to boost the target company’s profits, cutting payrolls and then reselling the company at a higher price.

Sometimes these maneuvers work, sometimes they end in disaster; but they always generate giant rewards for the dealmakers while shifting the risk to workers and taxpayers. In 1988 drugstore chain Revco went under when it couldn’t meet its debt payments on a $1.6 billion leveraged buyout engineered by Salomon Brothers. In 1989 the private-equity firm of Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts completed the notorious and ultimately disastrous buyout of RJR Nabisco for $31 billion, much of it in high-yield (“junk”) bonds. In 1993 Bain Capital became a majority shareholder in GS Technologies and loaded it with debt. In 2001 it went down when it couldn’t meet payments on that debt load. But even as these firms sank, Bain and the other dealmakers continued to collect lucrative fees—transaction fees, advisory fees, management fees—sucking the companies dry until the bitter end. According to a review by the New York Times of firms that went bankrupt on Romney’s watch, Bain structured the deals so that its executives would always win, even if employees, creditors and Bain’s own investors lost out. That’s been Big Finance’s MO.

By the time Romney co-founded Bain Capital in 1984, financial wheeling and dealing was the most lucrative part of the economy, sucking into its Gordon Gekko–like maw the brightest and most ambitious MBAs, who wanted nothing more than to make huge amounts of money as quickly as possible. Between the mid-1980s and 2007, financial-sector earnings made up two-thirds of all the growth in incomes. At the same time, wages for most Americans stagnated as employers, under mounting pressure from Wall Street and private-equity firms like Bain, slashed payrolls and shipped jobs overseas.

The 2008 crash only briefly interrupted the bonanza. Last year, according to a recent Bloomberg Markets analysis, America’s top fifty financial CEOs got a 20.4 percent pay hike, even as the wages of most Americans continued to drop. Topping the Bloomberg list were two of the same private-equity barons who did the RJR Nabisco deal a quarter-century ago—Henry Kravis and George Roberts, who took home $30 million each. According to the 2011 tax records he released, Romney was not far behind.

                                                                  II

We’ve entered a new Gilded Age, of which Mitt Romney is the perfect reflection. The original Gilded Age was a time of buoyant rich men with flashy white teeth, raging wealth and a measured disdain for anyone lacking those attributes, which was just about everyone else. Romney looks and acts the part perfectly, offhandedly challenging a GOP primary opponent to a $10,000 bet and referring to his wife’s several Cadillacs. Four years ago he paid $12 million for his fourth home, a 3,000-square-foot villa in La Jolla, California, with vaulted ceilings, five bathrooms, a pool, a Jacuzzi and unobstructed views of the Pacific. Romney has filed plans to tear it down and replace it with a home four times bigger.

We’ve had wealthy presidents before, but they have been traitors to their class—Teddy Roosevelt storming against the “malefactors of great wealth” and busting up the trusts, Franklin Roosevelt railing against the “economic royalists” and raising their taxes, John F. Kennedy appealing to the conscience of the nation to conquer poverty. Romney is the opposite: he wants to do everything he can to make the superwealthy even wealthier and the poor even poorer, and he justifies it all with a thinly veiled social Darwinism.

Not incidentally, social Darwinism was also the reigning philosophy of the original Gilded Age, propounded in America more than a century ago by William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, who twisted Charles Darwin’s insights into a theory to justify the brazen inequality of that era: survival of the fittest. Romney uses the same logic when he accuses President Obama of creating an “entitlement society” simply because millions of desperate Americans have been forced to accept food stamps and unemployment insurance, or when he opines that government should not help distressed homeowners but instead let the market “hit the bottom,” or enthuses over a House Republican budget that would cut $3.3 trillion from low-income programs over the next decade. It’s survival of the fittest all over again. Sumner, too, warned against handouts to people he termed “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.”

When Romney simultaneously proposes to cut the taxes of households earning over $1 million by an average of $295,874 a year (according to an analysis of his proposals by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center) because the rich are, allegedly, “job creators,” he mimics Sumner’s view that “millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done.” In truth, the whole of Republican trickle-down economics is nothing but repotted social Darwinism.

The Gilded Age was also the last time America came close to becoming a plutocracy—a system of government of, by and for the wealthy. It was an era when the lackeys of the very rich literally put sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, senators bore the nicknames of the giant companies whose interests they served (“the senator from Standard Oil”), and the kings of finance decided how the American economy would function.

The potential of great wealth in the hands of a relative few to undermine democratic institutions was a continuing concern in the nineteenth century as railroad, oil and financial magnates accumulated power. “Wealth, like suffrage, must be considerably distributed, to support a democratick republic,” wrote Virginia Congressman John Taylor as early as 1814, “and hence, whatever draws a considerable proportion of either into a few hands, will destroy it. As power follows wealth, the majority must have wealth or lose power.” Decades later, progressives like Louis Brandeis saw the choice starkly: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

The reforms of the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century saved American democracy from the robber barons, but the political power of great wealth has now resurfaced with a vengeance. And here again, Romney is the poster boy. Congress has so far failed to close the absurd carried-interest tax loophole, for example, because of generous donations by Bain Capital and other private-equity partners to both parties.

                                                               III

In the 2012 election, Romney wants everything Wall Street has to offer, and Wall Street seems quite happy to give it to him. Not only is he promising lower taxes in return for its money; he also vows that, if elected, he’ll repeal what’s left of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, Washington’s frail attempt to prevent the Street from repeating its 2008 pump-
and-dump. Unlike previous elections, in which the Street hedged its bets by donating to both parties, it’s now putting most of its money behind Romney. And courtesy of a Supreme Court majority that seems intent on magnifying the political power of today’s robber barons, that’s a lot of dough. As of May, thirty-one billionaires had contributed between $50,000 and
$2 million each to Romney’s super-PAC, and in June another—appropriately enough, a casino magnate—gave $10 million, with a promise of $90 million more. Among those who have contributed at least $1 million are former associates from Romney’s days at Bain Capital and prominent hedge-fund managers.

To be sure, Romney is no worse than any other casino capitalist of this new Gilded Age. All have been making big bets—collecting large sums when they pay off and imposing the risks and costs on the rest of us when they don’t. Many have justified their growing wealth, along with the growing impoverishment of much of the rest of the nation, with beliefs strikingly similar to social Darwinism. And a significant number have transformed their winnings into the clout needed to protect the unrestrained betting and tax preferences that have fueled their fortunes, and to lower their tax rates even further. Wall Street has already all but eviscerated the Dodd-Frank Act, and it has even turned the so-called Volcker Rule—a watered-down version of the old Glass-Steagall Act, which established a firewall between commercial and investment banking—into a Swiss cheese of 
loopholes and exemptions.

But Romney is the only casino capitalist who is running for president, at the very time in our nation’s history when these views and practices are a clear and present danger to the well-being of the rest of us—just as they were more than a century ago. Romney says he’s a job-creating businessman, but in truth he’s just another financial dealmaker in the age of the financial deal, a fat cat in an era of excessively corpulent felines, a plutocrat in this new epoch of plutocrats. That the GOP has made him its standard-bearer at this point in American history is astonishing.

So why don’t Democrats connect these dots? It’s not as if Americans harbor great admiration for financial dealmakers. According to the newly released twenty-fifth annual Pew Research Center poll on core values, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe “Wall Street only cares about making money for itself.” That’s not surprising, given that many are still bearing the scars of 2008. Nor are they pleased with the concentration of income and wealth at the top. Polls show a majority of Americans want taxes raised on the very rich, and a majority are opposed to the bailouts, subsidies and special tax breaks with which the wealthy have padded their nests.

Part of the answer, surely, is that elected Democrats are still almost as beholden to the wealthy for campaign funds as the Republicans, and don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. Wall Street can give most of its largesse to Romney this year and still have enough left over to tame many influential Democrats (look at the outcry from some of them when the White House took on Bain Capital).

But I suspect a deeper reason for their reticence is that if they connect the dots and reveal Romney for what he is—the epitome of what’s fundamentally wrong with our economy—they’ll be admitting how serious our economic problems really are. They would have to acknowledge that the economic catastrophe that continues to cause us so much suffering is, at its root, a product of the gross inequality of income, wealth and political power in America’s new Gilded Age, as well as the perverse incentives of casino capitalism.

Yet this admission would require that they propose ways of reversing these trends—proposals large and bold enough to do the job. Time will tell whether today’s Democratic Party and this White House have the courage and imagination to do it. If they do not, that in itself poses almost as great a challenge to the future of the nation as does Mitt Romney and all he represents.

In this Feb. 12, 2008, file photo, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., is seen in Providence, R.I. Chief Justice was the surprise deciding vote in the Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act on Thursday. (Stephan Savoia/AP/File)

Game changer: Justice Roberts switches teams

By Guest blogger / 06.29.12

Yesterday a majority of the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare in recognition of its importance as a key initiative of the Obama administration. The big surprise, for many, was the vote by the Chief Justice of the Court, John Roberts, to join with the Court’s four liberals.

Roberts’ decision is not without precedent. Seventy-five years ago, another Justice Roberts – no relation to the current Chief Justice – made a similar switch. Justice Owen Roberts had voted with the Court’s conservative majority in a host of 5-4 decisions invalidating New Deal legislation, but in March of 1937 he suddenly switched sides and began joining with the Court’s four liberals.  In popular lore, Roberts’ switch saved the Court – not only from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s threat to pack it with justices more amenable to the New Deal but, more importantly, from the public’s increasing perception of the Court as a partisan, political branch of government.

Chief Justice John Roberts isn’t related to his namesake but the current Roberts’ move today marks a close parallel. By joining with the Court’s four liberals who have been in the minority in many important cases – including the 2010 decision, Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission, which struck down constraints on corporate political spending as being in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech – the current Justice Roberts may have, like his earlier namesake, saved the Court from a growing reputation for political partisanship.

As Alexander Hamilton pointed out when the Constitution was being written, the Supreme Court is the “least dangerous branch” of government because it has neither the purse (it can’t enforce its rulings by threatening to withhold public money) nor the sword (it has no police or military to back up its decisions). It has only the trust and confidence of average citizens. If it is viewed as politically partisan, that trust is in jeopardy. As Chief Justice, Roberts has a particular responsibility to maintain and enhance that trust.

Nothing else explains John Roberts’ switch – certainly not the convoluted constitutional logic he used to arrive at his decision. On the most critical issue in the case – whether the so-called “individual mandate” requiring almost all Americans to purchase health insurance was a constitutionally-permissible extension of federal power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution – Roberts agreed with his conservative brethren that it was not.

Roberts nonetheless upheld the law because, he reasoned, the penalty to be collected by the government for non-compliance with the law is the equivalent of a tax – and the federal government has the power to tax. By this bizarre logic, the federal government can pass all sorts of unconstitutional laws – requiring people to sell themselves into slavery, for example – as long as the penalty for failing to do so is considered to be a tax.

Regardless of the fragility of Roberts’ logic, the Court’s majority has given a huge victory to the Obama administration and, arguably, the American people. The Affordable Care Act is still flawed – it doesn’t do nearly enough to control increases in healthcare costs that already constitute 18 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product, and will soar even further as the baby boomers age – but it is a milestone. And like many other pieces of important legislation before it – Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights and Voting Rights – it will be improved upon. Every Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has sought universal health care, to no avail.

But over the next four months the Act will be a political football. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, has vowed to repeal the law as soon as he is elected (an odd promise in that no president can change or repeal a law without a majority of the House of Representatives and sixty Senators). Romney reiterated that vow this morning, after the Supreme Court announced its decision. His campaign, and so-called independent groups that have been collecting tens of millions of dollars from Romney supporters (and Obama haters), have already launched advertising campaigns condemning the Act.

Unfortunately for President Obama – and for Chief Justice Roberts, to the extent his aim in joining with the Court’s four liberals was to reduce the public appearance of the Court’s political partisanship – the four conservatives on the Court, all appointed by Republican presidents, were fiercely united in their view that the entire Act is unconstitutional. Their view will surely become part of the Romney campaign.

A group of doctors protest against individual mandate in President Obama's health care reform in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington June 25, 2012. Reich argues that Obama's health care act will be upheld, lest the Supreme Court risk losing the public's trust even further. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The Supreme Court will uphold Obamacare. Here's why.

By Guest blogger / 06.28.12

Predictions are always hazardous when it comes to the economy, the weather, and the Supreme Court. I won’t get near the first two right now, but I’ll hazard a guess on what the Court is likely to decide today: It will uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by a vote of 6 to 3. 

Three reasons for my confidence:

First, Chief Justice John Roberts is — or should be — concerned about the steadily-declining standing of the Court in the public’s mind, along with the growing perception that the justices decide according to partisan politics rather than according to legal principle. The 5-4 decision in Citizen’s United, for example, looked to all the world like a political rather than a legal outcome, with all five Republican appointees finding that restrictions on independent corporate expenditures violate the First Amendment, and all four Democratic appointees finding that such restrictions are reasonably necessary to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption. Or consider the Court’s notorious decision in Bush v. Gore

The Supreme Court can’t afford to lose public trust. It has no ability to impose its will on the other two branches of government: As Alexander Hamilton once noted, the Court has neither the purse (it can’t threaten to withhold funding from the other branches) or the sword (it can’t threaten police or military action). It has only the public’s trust in the Court’s own integrity and the logic of its decisions — both of which the public is now doubting, according to polls. As Chief Justice, Roberts has a particular responsibility to regain the public’s trust. Another 5-4 decision overturning a piece of legislation as important as Obamacare would further erode that trust. 

It doesn’t matter that a significant portion of the public may not like Obamacare. The issue here is the role and institutional integrity of the Supreme Court, not the popularity of a particular piece of legislation. Indeed, what better way to show the Court’s impartiality than to affirm the constitutionality of legislation that may be unpopular but is within the authority of the other two branches to enact?

Second, Roberts can draw on a decision by a Republican-appointed and highly-respected conservative jurist, Judge Laurence Silberman, who found Obamacare to be constitutional when the issue came to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The judge’s logic was lucid and impeccable — so much so that Roberts will try to lure Justice Anthony Kennedy with it, to join Roberts and the four liberal justices, so that rather than another 5-4 split (this time on the side of the Democrats), the vote will be 6 to 3. 

Third and finally, Roberts (and Kennedy) can find adequate Supreme Court precedent for the view that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives Congress and the President the power to regulate health care — given that heath-care coverage (or lack of coverage) in one state so obviously affects other states; that the market for health insurance is already national in many respects; and that other national laws governing insurance (Social Security and Medicare, for example) require virtually everyone to pay (in these cases, through mandatory contributions to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds). 

Okay, so I’ve stuck my neck out. We’ll find out tomorrow how far.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer leaves a news conference responding to the United States Supreme Court decision regarding Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB1070, coming down at the Arizona Capitol Monday, June 25, 2012, in Phoenix. Reich argues that the same politicians intent on passing strict laws to keep out illegal immigrants are also intent on destroying our system of government. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

SB 1070 and the fight over patriotism

By Guest blogger / 06.26.12

Recently I publicly debated a regressive Republican who said Arizona and every other state should use whatever means necessary to keep out illegal immigrants. He also wants English to be spoken in every classroom in the nation, and the pledge of allegiance recited every morning. “We have to preserve and protect America,” he said. “That’s the meaning of patriotism.”

To my debating partner and other regressives, patriotism is about securing the nation from outsiders eager to overrun us. That’s why they also want to restore every dollar of the $500 billion in defense cuts scheduled to start in January. 

Yet many of these same regressives have no interest in preserving or protecting our system of government. To the contrary, they show every sign of wanting to be rid of it.

In fact, regressives in Congress have substituted partisanship for patriotism, placing party loyalty above loyalty to America.

The GOP’s highest-ranking member of Congress has said his “number one aim” is to unseat President Obama. For more than three years congressional Republicans have marched in lockstep, determined to do just that. They have brooked no compromise. 

They couldn’t care less if they mangle our government in pursuit of their partisan aims. Senate Republicans have used the filibuster more frequently in this Congress than in any congress in history.

House Republicans have been willing to shut down the government and even risk the full faith and credit of the United States in order to get their way.

Regressives on the Supreme Court have opened the floodgates to unlimited money from billionaires and corporations overwhelming our democracy, on the bizarre theory that money is speech under the First Amendment and corporations are people.

Regressive Republicans in Congress won’t even support legislation requiring the sources of this money-gusher be disclosed.

They’ve even signed a pledge – not of allegiance to the United States, but of allegiance to Grover Norquist, who has never been elected by anyone. Norquist’s “no-tax” pledge is interpreted only by Norquist, who says closing a tax loophole is tantamount to raising taxes and therefore violates the pledge.

True patriots don’t hate the government of the United States. They’re proud of it. Generations of Americans have risked their lives to preserve it. They may not like everything it does, and they justifiably worry when special interests gain too much power over it. But true patriots work to improve the U.S. government, not destroy it.

But regressive Republicans loathe the government – and are doing everything they can to paralyze it, starve it, and make the public so cynical about it that it’s no longer capable of doing much of anything. Tea Partiers are out to gut it entirely. Norquist says he wants to shrink it down to a size it can be “drowned in a bathtub.”

When arguing against paying their fair share of taxes, wealthy regressives claim “it’s my money.” But it’s their nation, too. And unless they pay their share America can’t meet the basic needs of our people. True patriotism means paying for America.

So when regressives talk about “preserving and protecting” the nation, be warned: They mean securing our borders, not securing our society. Within those borders, each of us is on our own. They don’t want a government that actively works for all our citizens.

Their patriotism is not about coming together for the common good. It is about excluding outsiders who they see as our common adversaries. 

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Dimon chose London as the place to make highly-risky derivatives trades that have lost the firm upwards of $2 billion so far. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Dimon in the rough: Keeping regulators off of Wall Street

By Guest blogger / 06.20.12

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the main regular of derivatives (bets on bets), wants to extend Dodd-Frank regulations to the foreign branches and subsidiaries of Wall Street banks.

Horror of horrors, say the banks.

“If JPMorgan overseas operates under different rules than our foreign competitors,” warned Jamie Dimon, chair and CEO of JP Morgan, Wall Street would lose financial business to the banks of nations with fewer regulations, allowing “Deutsche Bank to make the better deal.”

This is the same Jamie Dimon who chose London as the place to make highly-risky derivatives trades that have lost the firm upwards of $2 billion so far – and could leave American taxpayers holding the bag if JPMorgan’s exposure to tottering European banks gets much worse.

Dimon’s foreign affair is itself proof that unless the overseas operations of Wall Street banks are covered by U.S. regulations, giant banks like JPMorgan will just move more of their betting abroad – hiding their wildly-risky bets overseas so U.S. regulators can’t control them. Even now no one knows how badly JPMorgan or any other Wall Street bank will be shaken if major banks in Spain or elsewhere in Europe go down.

Call it the Dimon loophole.

This is the same Jamie Dimon, by the way, who at a financial conference a year ago told Fed chief Ben Bernanke there was no longer any reason to crack down on Wall Street. “Most of the bad actors are gone,” he said. “[O]ff-balance-sheet businesses are virtually obliterated, … money market funds are far more transparent” and “most very exotic derivatives are gone.”

One advantage of being a huge Wall Street bank is you get bailed out by the federal government when you make dumb bets. Another is you can choose where around the world to make the dumb bets, thereby dodging U.S. regulations. It’s a win-win.

Wall Street would like to keep it that way.

For two years now, squadrons of Wall Street lawyers and lobbyists have been pressing the Treasury, Comptroller of the Currency, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, SEC, and the Fed to go easier on the Street for fear that if regulations are too tight, the big banks will be less competitive internationally.

Translated: They’ll move more of their business to London and Frankfurt, where regulations are looser.

Meanwhile, the Street has been warning Europeans that if their financial regulations are too tight, the big banks will move more of their business to the US, where regulations will (they hope) be looser.

After the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (a global financial regulatory oversight body) came up with a new set of rules to toughen bank capital and liquidity requirements, European officials threatened to get even tougher. They approved a new system of European regulatory bodies with added powers to ban certain financial products or activities in times of market stress.

This prompted Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, to issue — in the words of the Financial Times — “a clear warning that the bank could shift its operations around the world if the regulatory crackdown becomes too tough.”

Blankfein told a European financial conference that while Europe remains of vital importance to Goldman, with less than half of the bank’s business now generated in the U.S., the introduction of “mismatched regulation” across different regions (that is, tougher regulations in Europe than in the U.S.) would tempt banks to search out the cheapest and least intrusive jurisdiction in which to operate.

“Operations can be moved globally and capital can be accessed globally,” he warned.

Someone should remind Dimon and Blankfein that a few years ago they and their colleagues on the Street almost eviscerated the American economy, and that of much of the rest of the world. The Street’s antics required a giant taxpayer-funded bailout. Most Americans are still living with the results, as are millions of Europeans.

Wall Street can’t have it both ways – too big to fail, and also able to make wild bets anywhere around the world.  

If Wall Street banks demand a free rein overseas, the least we should demand is they be broken up here.

US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) hold a news conference at the Capitol in Washington in this December 2010 file photo. In a recent speech, Senator McConnell defended the rights of private companies to keep their campaign spending habits hidden. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Just like us: Why Republicans worry about corporate feelings

By Guest blogger / 06.19.12

Perhaps you’d expect no more from the Republican leader of the Senate who proclaimed three years ago that the GOP’s first priority was to get Obama out of the White House. But Senator Mitch McConnell’s speech Friday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington is simply bonkers.

The only reason I bring it up is because it offers an inside look at how the  Republican goal of getting rid of Obama is inextricably linked to the Republican Supreme Court’s decision equating corporations with people under the First Amendment, and to the Republican’s current determination to keep Americans in the dark about which corporations contribute what. 

In the upside-down world of regressive Republicanism, McConnell thinks proposed legislation requiring companies to disclose their campaign spending would stifle their free speech.

He describes the current push to disclose the sources behind campaign contributions as a “political weapon,” used by the Democrats, “to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation.” 

Harassment and intimidation? It used to be called accountability to shareholders and consumers.

Five members of the Supreme Court think corporations are people. Mitt Romney agrees. And now the minority leader of the Senate – the highest-ranking Republican official in America – takes this logic to its absurd conclusion: If corporations are people, they must be capable of feeling harassed and intimidated if their shareholders or consumers don’t approve of their political expenditures.

Hell, they might even throw a tantrum. Or cry. Corporations have feelings. 

This isn’t just whacko. It also defies law and logic. What are corporations anyway, separate and apart from their shareholders and consumers? Legal fictions, pieces of paper.

And whom do corporations exist for if not the people who legally own them and those who purchase the products and services they sell? 

Clearly, McConnell doesn’t want corporations to be forced to disclose their political contributions because he and other Republicans worry that some shareholders and consumers would react badly if they knew – and thereby constrain such giving.

And the reason McConnell and other Republicans don’t want any constraint on corporate political giving is most CEOs are Republicans who want to use their firms – and the money their shareholders legally own – as secret slush funds for the Republican Party, funneled through front groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS.

Such nonprofits have spent significantly more than Super PACs on elections since 2010, according to the Center for Public Integrity and Center for Responsive Politics. Nonprofits have spent $95 million on elections since 2010, while Super PACs, which are required to disclose their donors, have spent $65 million, the Centers found.

Crossroads GPS has disclosed on its tax returns that 23 donors to it have each given $1 million or more to finance its campaign activities so far this year. But Crossroads claims status as a nonprofit under IRS rules – a “social welfare” organization” that doesn’t have to disclose its donors – even though anyone with half a brain knows its overriding purpose is to influence elections.

McConnell and other Republicans conveniently forget secret campaign money was at the heart of the Watergate scandals forty years ago. And that even the Supreme Court in its heinous “Citizens United” decision upheld the constitutionality of disclosure requirements on corporations and other outside groups. 

Mitch McConnell wants to give some cover to his Republican colleagues who will be voting later this month or early next month on the bill to force full disclosure of corporate political expenses. But his speech at the American Enterprise Institute doesn’t provide cover. It cloaks the whole Republican enterprise in hypocrisy.

In this March 2012 file photo, supporters of health care reform stand in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on the final day of arguments regarding the health care law signed by President Barack Obama. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Obamacare: a compromise on the individual mandate

By / 06.14.12

Any day now the Supreme Court will issue its opinion on the constitutionality of the Accountable Care Act, which even the White House now calls Obamacare.

Most high-court observers think it will strike down the individual mandate in the Act that requires almost everyone to buy health insurance, as violating the Commerce Clause of the Constitution — but will leave the rest of the new healthcare law intact.

But the individual mandate is so essential to spreading the risk and cost of health care over the whole population, including younger and healthier people, that some analysts believe a Court decision that nixes the mandate will effectively spell the end of the Act anyway.

Yet it could have exactly the opposite effect. If the Court strikes down the individual mandate, health insurance company lobbyists and executives will swarm Capitol Hill seeking to have the Act amended to remove the requirement that they insure people with pre-existing medical conditions.They’ll argue that without the mandate they can’t afford to cover pre-existing conditions.

But the requirement to cover pre-existing conditions has proven to be so popular with the public that Congress will be reluctant to scrap it.

This opens the way to a political bargain. Insurers might be let off the hook, for example, only if they support allowing every American, including those with pre-existing conditions, to choose Medicare, or something very much like Medicare. In effect, what was known during the debate over the bill as the “public option.”

So in striking down the least popular part of Obamacare - the individual mandate - the Court will inevitably bring into question one of its most popular parts - coverage of pre-existing conditions. And in so doing, open alternative ways to maintain that coverage - including ideas, like the public option, that were rejected in favor of the mandate.

The fact is, there’s enough the public likes about Obamacare that if the Court strikes down the individual mandate that won’t be the end. It will just be the end of the first round.

Two women wait for a bus after their grocery shopping in Los Angeles in this May 2012 file photo. According to Reich, the economic recovery's real problem is dialed back consumer spending. (Jae C. Hong/AP/File)

Economy's real problem? The spenders can't spend.

By Guest blogger / 06.13.12

Rarely in history has the cause of a major economic problem been so clear yet have so few been willing to see it.

The major reason this recovery has been so anemic is not Europe’s debt crisis. It’s not Japan’s tsumami. It’s not Wall Street’s continuing excesses. It’s not, as right-wing economists tell us, because taxes are too high on corporations and the rich, and safety nets are too generous to the needy. It’s not even, as some liberals contend, because the Obama administration hasn’t spent enough on a temporary Keynesian stimulus.

The answer is in front of our faces. It’s because American consumers, whose spending is 70 percent of economic activity, don’t have the dough to buy enough to boost the economy – and they can no longer borrow like they could before the crash of 2008.

If you have any doubt, just take a look at the Survey of Consumer Finances, released Monday by the Federal Reserve. Median family income was $49,600 in 2007. By 2010 it was $45,800 – a drop of 7.7%.

All of the gains from economic growth have been going to the richest 1 percent – who, because they’re so rich, spend no more than half what they take in.

Can I say this any more simply? The earnings of the great American middle class fueled the great American expansion for three decades after World War II. Their relative lack of earnings in more recent years set us up for the great American bust.

Starting around 1980, globalization and automation began exerting downward pressure on median wages. Employers began busting unions in order to make more profits. And increasingly deregulated financial markets began taking over the real economy.

The result was slower wage growth for most households. Women surged into paid work in order to prop up family incomes – which helped for a time. But the median wage kept flattening, and then, after 2001, began to decline.

Households tried to keep up by going deeply into debt, using the rising values of their homes as collateral. This also helped – for a time. But then the housing bubble popped.

The Fed’s latest report shows how loud that pop was. Between 2007 and 2010 (the latest data available) American families’ median net worth fell almost 40 percent – down to levels last seen in 1992. The typical family’s wealth is their home, not their stock portfolio – and housing values have dropped by a third since 2006.

Families have also become less confident about how much income they can expect in the future. In 2010, over 35% of American families said they did not “have a good idea of what their income would be for the next year.” That’s up from 31.4% in 2007.

But because their incomes and their net worth have both dropped, families are saving less. The proportion of families that said they had saved in the preceding year fell from 56.4% in 2007 to 52% in 2010, the lowest level since the Fed began collecting that information in 1992.

Bottom line: The American economy is still struggling because the vast American middle class can’t spend more to get it out of first gear.

What to do? There’s no simple answer in the short term except to hope we stay in first gear and don’t slide backwards.

Over the longer term the answer is to make sure the middle class gets far more of the gains from economic growth.

How? We might learn something from history. During the 1920s, income concentrated at the top. By 1928, the top 1 percent was raking in an astounding 23.94 percent of the total (close to the 23.5 percent the top 1 percent got in 2007) according to analyses of tax records by my colleague Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. At that point the bubble popped and we fell into the Great Depression.

But then came the Wagner Act, requiring employers to bargain in good faith with organized labor. Social Security and unemployment insurance. The Works Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. A national minimum wage. And to contain Wall Street: The Securities Act and Glass-Steagall Act.

In 1941 America went to war – a vast mobilization that employed every able-bodied adult American, and put money in their pockets. And after the war, the GI Bill, sending millions of returning veterans to college. A vast expansion of public higher education. And huge infrastructure investments, such as the National Defense Highway Act. Taxes on the rich remained at least 70 percent until 1981.

The result: By 1957, the top 1 percent of Americans raked in only 10.1 percent of total income. Most of the rest went to a growing middle class – whose members fueled the greatest economic boom in the history of the world.

Get it? We won’t get out of first gear until the middle class regains the bargaining power it had in the first three decades after World War II to claim a much larger share of the gains from productivity growth.

This March 2012 file photo shows the United States Supreme Court in Washington.The highest court in the land is facing low public approval ratings, which Reich thinks could sway the justices in to upholding Obamacare. (Haraz N. Ghabrani/AP/File)

The Supreme Court's unpopularity could help Obamacare

By / 06.09.12

The public’s growing disdain of the Supreme Court increases the odds that a majority will uphold the constitutionality of Obamacare.

The latest New York Times CBS Poll shows just 44 percent of Americans approve the job the Supreme Court is doing. Fully three-quarters say justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal political views.

The trend is clearly downward. Approval of the Court reached 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 had slipped to around 50 percent.

As the Times points out, the decline may stem in part from Americans’ growing distrust in recent years of major institutions in general and the government in particular.

But it’s just as likely to reflect a sense that the Court is more political, especially after it divided in such partisan ways in the 5-4 decisions Bush v. Gore (which decided the 2000 presidential race) and Citizen’s United (which in 2010 opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending).

Americans’ diminishing respect for the Court can be heard on the right and left of our increasingly polarized political spectrum.

A few months ago, while a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich stated that the political branches were “not bound” by the Supreme Court. Gingrich is known for making bizarre claims. The remarkable thing about this one was the silence with which it was greeted, not only by other Republican hopefuls but also by Democrats.

Last week I was on a left-leaning radio talk show whose host suddenly went on a riff about how the Constitution doesn’t really give the Supreme Court the power to overturn laws for being unconstitutional, and it shouldn’t have that power.

All this is deeply dangerous for the Court, and for our system of government.

Almost 225 years ago, Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist (Number 78, June 14, 1788) noted the fragility of our third branch of government, whose power rests completely on public respect for its judgement:

The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. [Yet lacking sword or purse, the judiciary] is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches; and that as nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence as permanency in office, this quality may therefore be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in its constitution, and, in a great measure, as the citadel of the public justice and the public security.

The immediate question is whether the Chief Justice, John Roberts, understands the tenuous position of the Court he now runs. If he does, he’ll do whatever he can to avoid another 5-4 split on the upcoming decision over the constitutionality of the Obama healthcare law.

My guess is he’ll try to get Anthony Kennedy to join with him and with the four Democratic appointees to uphold the law’s constitutionality, relying primarily on an opinion by Judge Laurence Silberman of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia – a Republican appointee with impeccable conservative credentials, who found the law to be constitutional.

Former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama wave to the crowd during a campaign event at the Waldorf Astoria, Monday, June 4, 2012, in New York. Reich argues that Obama and his fellow Democrats will eventually let the Bush tax cuts expire, which he feels is long overdue. (Carolyn Kaster/AP/File)

Why we have to end the Bush tax cuts and raise taxes on the rich

By Guest blogger / 06.07.12

I was on CNBC Tuesday when Bill Clinton gave an interview saying that, given the deadlock between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, it seemed likely the Bush tax cuts would be extended in 2013 along with all spending. When asked to comment, I said Clinton was probably correct.

But, of course, Republicans have twisted Clinton’s words into a pretzel. They say the former president came out in favor of extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy – in sharp contrast to President Obama’s position that they should not be.

It’s typical election-year politics, except for the fact that the Republican megaphone is larger this time around due to all the Super PAC and secret “social welfare” organization bribes, er, donations that are filling Republican coffers.

Here’s the truth. America has a huge budget deficit hanging over our heads. If the rich don’t pay their fair share, the rest of us have to pay higher taxes — or do without vital public services like Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, food stamps, child nutrition, federal aid to education, and more.

Republicans say we shouldn’t raise taxes on the rich when the economy is still in the dumps. This is a variation on their old discredited trickle-down economic theories. The fact is, the rich already spend as much as they’re going to spend. Raising their taxes a bit won’t deter them from buying, and therefore won’t hurt the economy.

In reality, Romney and the GOP are pushing an agenda that has nothing whatever to do with reducing the budget deficit. If they were serious about deficit reduction they wouldn’t demand tax cuts for the very wealthy.

We should have learned by now. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were supposed to be temporary. Even so, they blew a huge hole in the budget deficit.

Millionaires received a tax cut that’s averaged $123,000 a year, while the median-wage worker’s tax cut has amounted to no more than a few hundreds dollars a year.

Bush promised the tax cuts would more than pay for themselves in terms of their alleged positive impact on the economy. The record shows they didn’t. Job growth after the Bush tax cuts was a fraction of the growth under Bill Clinton – even before the economy crashed in late 2008. And the median wage dropped, adjusted for inflation.

Let’s be clear. Romney and the Republicans are pushing a reverse-Robin Hood plan that takes from the middle class and the poor while rewarding the rich.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Romney’s tax plan would boost the incomes of people earning more than $1 million a year by an average of $295,874 annually.

Meanwhile, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Romney’s plan would throw ten million low-income people off the benefits rolls for food stamps or cut benefits by thousands of dollars a year, or both. “These cuts would primarily affect very low-income families with children, seniors and people with disabilities,” the Center concludes.

The rich have to pay their fair share. Period.

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