Sunday, April 26, 2009

You call this civic media? Yeah, I do . . . sort of.

In a one-man-talking-to-himself sort of way. So far at least. Where a true civic media is dialogic, this site, so far, is pretty monologic. Too bad. I talk, but people aren't talking back - not yet. And where civic media sites are non-partisan and non-ideological, this one, maintained by a political independent who is relieved and often glad that Obama is our president, is marked by a deepening concern that his financial team of Bernanke, Summers and Geithner are so beholden to Wall Street that Obama is being shielded from the information he needs in order to help the U.S. and the world emerge from the global financial crisis. In the April 29 Press Conference held to mark his first 100 days in office, the President unblushingly conceded his ignorance of the coming crisis:
You know, when I first started this race [in December, 2007], Iraq was a central issue. But the economy appeared on the surface to still be relatively strong. There were underlying problems that I was seeing with health care for families and our education system and college affordability and so forth, but obviously, I didn't anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
I find this admission galling. It's hard to accept from an editor of the Harvard Law Review and a U.S Senator, surrounded by brilliant people, who reads a lot and can actually think straight. It's as if the Ivy League, Wall Street and the D.C. beltway suddenly sealed themselves off what by December 2007 was obvious to a lot of people. In late 2007 I myself knew fellow Realtors and loan officers here in Glenview, north of Chicago - who knew something terrible was bound to hapen - we just couldn't tell when it would hit. We saw it coming in our business and in alarm signals that were being sounded loud and clear in the financial media: Yves Smith, Felix Salmon, goldbugs like Jim Willie and Martin Wolf and John Authers of the Financial Times, for Pete's sake!How on earth could Obama and advisors like Austin Goolsbie have missed what was staring us in the face?

Yves Smith is one of many finance bloggers who could have saved America and the world endless grief had the Obama team read her posts in 2007. So are Obama's people reading her today? They sure should - her website has 25,000 hits a day. Here she dissects the flaws of Obama's finance team in a painstaking analysis of the New York Times' surprisingly harsh April 26 story about Tim Geithner. Her analysis prompted one commenter to say
I cried when Obama made these appointments. Summers, Geithner and keeping Bernanke. I knew all was lost. And now I watch as the whole thing falls apart.
Larry Summers, the ringleader of the Obama economic team, strikes me as a brilliant careerist in the mold of Henry Kissinger: a first rate self-promoter and a second-rate "realpolitik" thinker. To me, he's in denial about what first-rate thinkers like Steve Waldman are saying about the need for economic models grounded in a new understanding of sustainable wealth and wealth creation - a topic I discuss here. Summers and Co. are all the kings men trying to put Humpty Dumpty (American hegemony) back together again. It just won't work. (The Times article suggests that Summers, a big man at the White House, may be lobbying to replace the unpopular Geithner with a loyal fresh face. In other words, nothing will change.)

In his recent "100 days" press conference, President Obama named the economists he follows (scroll to "Where the economists are coming from"). The central debate in his mind, he said, is between Wall Streeter Robert Rubin and realative main streeter Robert Reich, with attention to corporate globalism critic Joseph Stiglitz and inflation-breaking Paul Volcker. And he sums up his philosophy nicely: "The truth is," Obama says, "that what I’ve been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism when it comes to economic policy." And: "The touchstone for economic policy is, does it allow the average American to find good employment and see their incomes rise." Sounds OK, but can Obama's "ruthless pragmatism" put America's financial system on a sound and durable footing? Pragmatists lack vision. Their ideas work short term, not long. The President needs pragmatisim and vision. Is he listening to people like these:
  • Charles R. Morris, author of The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, argues in a brief but prescient column that "Merrill Makes the Case for Nationalization" (1/29).
  • Henry Kaufman, for decades a leading Wall Street insider, argues here that "We should, therefore, fundamentally re-examine the role of the Fed and the supervision of our financial institutions." He discusses the rise of a "social milieu [of policy makers that] encouraged financial decision makers to cherry-pick the theories that supported excessive risk taking. It discouraged whistle-blowing, not just by risk-management officers in large financial institutions, but also by the economists whose scholarship provided intellectual justification for the financial institutions’ decisions. The consequence was that scholarship that warned of potential disaster was ignored. And the result was global economic calamity on a scale not seen for four generations. (Financial Times 4/28)
  • Steve Waldman: "If you believe, as I do, that we need a root-and-branch reorganization of the financial system, which must necessarily involve the dismemberment and intrusive restraint of deeply entrenched institutions . . ." (4/27)
  • Barry Eichengren of the U.C. Berkeley Dept. of Economics argues that "The Great Credit Crisis has cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics". (National Interest 4/30)
  • Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway says banks will use their “enormous political power” to prevent changes to the industry that would benefit society. (Bloomberg, 5/2)Univ. of Chicago Economist Anna Schwartz, a Friedman/Volcker pure monetarist, says the Bernanke Fed has misjudged the financial crisis (City Journal, Spring '09)
  • Martin Wolf of the Financial Times says "The world economy cannot go back to where it was before the crisis, because that was demonstrably unsustainable. It is at the early stages of a long and painful deleveraging and restructuring. Fortunately, policymakers have eliminated the worst possible outcomes. But there is much more yet to be done before fragile shoots become healthy plants (4/21)
  • Martin Wolf says that "Those who hope for a swift return to what they thought normal two years ago are deluded" (FT 4/28).
  • Joseph Stiglitz (whom Obama follows) here calls for something Wall Street does NOT want: a new global reserve currency (3/26). The findings of the UN panel that Stiglitz chaired are described here (3/26). In this article in the South China Morning Post James Dorn (Cato Institute) challenges Stiglitz. Here the Wall Street Journal is defensively on China's call for a new global reserve currency. (American financial media largely overlooked or suppressed the Stiglitz story and are covering this issue poorly if at all. Shame on us.)
  • Matthew Richardson and Nouriel Roubini punch holes in the Obama administration's case for progress towards restoring banks to solvency (WSJ 5/5).
  • In her post on "The Banks and Orwell," finance blogger Yves Smith isolates some of the doublespeak that Wall Street chieftains are using to resist real regulation. She says that "M. Rodgin Cohen [managing partner of Sullivan & Cromwell] is already leading the fightback [against hostile public opinion]. Yesterday, he even had the gall to say that the system as currently constituted was fundamentally sound. Yes, for him and a handful of Goldman partners, I'm sure that's true, but on planet earth, it's a bit of a different picture." (5/9)

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