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January 28, 2011

The basis for joint action

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

There is much in common between what the tea partiers and progressives seek, as can be seen in this informative joint interview on Fox News with Ralph Nader, a lifelong progressive, and Ron Paul, a tea party favorite.

Look at the list of things they agree on: Opposing corporate control of government, bloated military budgets, undeclared wars, corporate bailouts, invasion of civil liberties and civil rights, opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, trade deals like NAFTA and WTO, stronger whistleblower protections, support for WikiLeaks, opposition to runaway deficits, and bringing transparency to the actions of the Federal Reserve and putting it under democratic control.

When it comes to health care, they both support the repeal of the legislation passed last year because it adds to corporate control of the system but each would like to replace it with different things. Nader wants a single payer system while Paul wants what he calls a free market system. I think Nader's comment right at the end addresses a misunderstanding that people like Paul have in that a single-payer system (like in France) does not mean that government 'takes over' and delivers health care. Doctors and hospitals will still be private but what would be eliminated is the multiplicity of for-profit health insurance firms that do not add anything of value but simply introduce a vast and expensive bureaucratic layer between doctor and patient.

To form alliances with elements of the Tea Party and other groups that progressives have opposed will require a much better understanding of coalition politics than currently exists in the US. Coalition political strategy is nothing like the 'bipartisanship' that is so much beloved by the Villagers. Coalition politics means two things: identifying those items that we can agree upon and can garner mass support; and being willing to work with others on the basis of whether they agree with you on those specific issues, irrespective of whether we like those groups in general. The label affixed to people or their views on other issues should be immaterial. In coalition politics, there are always shifting alliances, and the people who work with you on one issue may oppose you on the next. But that is part of the deal.

The reason that political movements splinter and cease to be effective is because we get so angry with people and groups because they disagree with us on things we care strongly about that we refuse to work with them on other things that we also care strongly about, and so nothing gets done. But this does not make sense. After all, when we work on (say) getting single payer health care, some of the people who join us may well have views on other issues that we would find uncongenial or even hateful but we don't know it because the topic may never come up. So why does knowing about it make any difference?

Is it distasteful to work on (say) opposing government suppression of First Amendment rights alongside people who may be racists and homophobes? Of course it is. But politics is not about feeling good or pure. It is about getting the results we think are important. We should be willing to work with the devil if the devil agrees with us on what to do about a specific agenda item. For example, readers of this blog know that I think that we would much better off without religion. But when it comes to fighting oppressive governments in Central and South America, some religious groups are doing wonderful work and I support them.

To make this happen we have to realize that the focus has to be on the things that we agree on. Note that the list of things that Paul and Nader agree on are all related to important economic and civil liberties issues. It should not matter that progressives and tea partiers and paleo-conservatives and libertarians differ on many social issues. Coming together on the above common agenda alone will bring about a vastly different and better country.

We also have to realize that the tea partiers are themselves victims of the oligarchy. Their politics and analyses of the situation are what they are because the oligarchic alliance of business, government, and media have misled them about the causes of their discontent. The Palin-Beck-Limbaugh axis of misinformation is, whether consciously or not, a tool of the oligarchy because they are the means by which popular anger is being deliberately directed towards those issues that oligarchy does not care two cents about (guns, abortion, gays, race, Muslims, immigration, terrorism, welfare, etc.) but which serve to divide us and prevent us from joining forces to fight the oligarchy on the things that do affect them.

I have referred in this series to the transglobal oligarchy as if it were a monolith. And they are when it comes to protecting oligarchic interests, even though they may well differ strongly on issues relating to national interests. The point is that they can put aside those differences and unite on the things that benefit the oligarchy and this is what gives them their strength. Those who oppose the oligarchy have to learn to do the same.

Our best hope is to engage with those disaffected elements in the tea party and try and shift their focus from their current obsessions so that they see who their true enemies are. If we make a concerted effort do so, there is a possibility that at some point these people will see the root causes of their problem. In order to achieve that, progressives, rather than issuing blanket condemnations of the movement and spending a lot of effort decrying the undoubtedly xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and outright nutty elements in their ranks, will have to instead appeal to those in the tea party movement for whom economic and civil liberties issues are their main concern and are willing to overlook differences on social issues. Rather than falling into the trap of dwelling on these divisive issues, progressives and tea partiers should agree to disagree on them and pool their energies on the things they agree upon. The efforts of Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to build a coalition platform for joint action is a good start.

Building this coalition will not be easy because there is a steady and concerted effort by the oligarchy and its media allies to focus attention on those things that divide this coalition because the last thing they want to see is people getting together to take aim squarely at oligarchic interests.

January 27, 2011

Another path for the future

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

If an economic calamity is to be averted in the US, it will require a popular revolt against the power of the oligarchy because the political leadership is not going to do take action against it.

The Democratic Party is unlikely to be the leader of a mass movement for change because its base is far too quick to capitulate to its party leadership. The party's base seems to be always bewildered as to why their party does not follow through on its promises but as Glenn Greenwald points out, it is absurd for progressives to be puzzled by Obama's willingness, even eagerness, to capitulate to his seeming political opponents, because it they who are enabling this very behavior. It is worth quoting him at length.

Why, angry progressives seem to be asking, would Obama ignore the views of his so-called "progressive base" while seeking to please those who are his political adversaries?

But it's perfectly rational for Obama to do exactly that. There's a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do. The groups which Obama cares about pleasing -- Wall Street, corporate interests, conservative Democrats, the establishment media, independent voters -- all have one thing in common: they will support only those politicians who advance their agenda, but will vigorously oppose those who do not. Similarly, the GOP began caring about the Tea Party only once that movement proved it will bring down GOP incumbents even if it means losing a few elections to Democrats.

That is exactly what progressives will never do. They do the opposite; they proudly announce: we'll probably be angry a lot, and we'll be over here doing a lot complaining, but don't worry: no matter what, when you need us to stay in power (or to acquire it), we're going to be there to give you our full and cheering support. That is the message conveyed over and over again by progressives, no more so than when much of the House Progressive Caucus vowed that they would never, ever support a health care bill that had no robust public option, only to turn around at the end and abandon that vow by dutifully voting for Obama's public-option-free health care bill. That's just a microcosm of what happens in the more general sense: progressives constantly object when their values and priorities are trampled upon, only to make clear that they will not only vote for, but work hard on behalf of and give their money to, the Democratic Party when election time comes around.

I'm not arguing here with that decision. Progressives who do this will tell you that this unconditional Party support is necessary and justifiable because no matter how bad Democrats are, the GOP is worse. That's a different debate. The point here is that -- whether justified or not -- telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any self-interested, rational politician -- meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle -- will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional. And they're well-advised to do exactly that.

It is probably the case that a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base contributed to the Democrats' defeat in the 2010 midterm election. But what Obama cares about is getting re-elected in 2012, and he knows full well that come March or April of that year -- if not earlier -- most of the progressives who are now continuously complaining about him will be at the front of the line waving their Obama banners, pulling out their checkbooks and whipping into line anyone who is not similarly supportive. By contrast, corporate institutions and Wall Street tycoons will pour their money into Obama's defeat if he does not show them the proper level of deference and accommodate their policy demands, but will support him (as they did in 2008) if he pleases them. Resource disparities between those factions are significant, but it's also due in part to their own choices that Wall Street is empowered, and progressives are irrelevant.

This is why the oligarchy is most successful in its attempts at squeezing the poor and the working and middle classes when Democrats are in power.

It is for this reason that I see the Republican Party's base in the tea party, for all its manifest faults, as more likely to create the conditions for change than the Democratic Party's base. The latter is still stuck in a passive mode that puts their faith in a leader. Some of them still see Obama as that savior while others are getting disillusioned and are seeking a new hero. Their desperate need for a noble standard bearer who will fight their battles for them is something that saps their energies. In the words of Galileo (put into his mouth by playwright Bertolt Brecht in his Life of Galileo), "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."

At least the Republican base is wary and suspicious of their leadership. At least they realize that political leaders should fear them and that it is up to them to be vocal and active in putting pressure on them. Their growing suspicion that they are being manipulated by their political leadership at least provides some hope for a re-awakening and organizing.

What progressives need to do is develop a common agenda with those who are also disaffected with the power of the oligarchy. This will require a different attitude towards the Tea Party, paleo-conservatives, and libertarians. Rather than wholesale rejection of those groups, we should seek to form alliances on those issues that we can agree upon, and there are surprisingly many.

Next: A possible common agenda

January 26, 2011

The US as a destabilizing threat to the transglobal oligarchy

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

The main threat to the transglobal oligarchy does not come from those countries that we normally think of as being unstable but from the US, because of the rapacity of the financial sector of the US economy that, like a swarm of locusts, is consuming everything in sight in satiating its greed, leaving the rest of the economy and the country bare. And their enablers are both the Republican and Democratic parties.

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Simon Johnson, the former chief economist with the IMF, in an article (that I referred to before in my 2009 series of posts on the American oligarchy) says that the financial sector has captured the US government and that the US shows a disturbing similarity to those countries that used to be derisively called banana republics. He says the recent financial crisis made visible to everyone the oligarchic control of government.

But there's a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a "buck stops somewhere else" sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for "safety and soundness" were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector's profits—such as Brooksley Born's now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

The financial industry has not always enjoyed such favored treatment. But for the past 25 years or so, finance has boomed, becoming ever more powerful. The boom began with the Reagan years, and it only gained strength with the deregulatory policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Several other factors helped fuel the financial industry's ascent. Paul Volcker's monetary policy in the 1980s, and the increased volatility in interest rates that accompanied it, made bond trading much more lucrative. The invention of securitization, interest-rate swaps, and credit-default swaps greatly increased the volume of transactions that bankers could make money on. And an aging and increasingly wealthy population invested more and more money in securities, helped by the invention of the IRA and the 401(k) plan. Together, these developments vastly increased the profit opportunities in financial services.

Johnson argues that given this diagnosis of the problem, the prescription is straightforward: we need to get rid of the oligarchy, starting with breaking up all the 'too big to fail' banks and financial institutions that now dominate the US economy. But who will bell this particular cat? The government has, at least in theory, the power to do so. But the two major political parties are so beholden to the oligarchy and embedded with them that they are not going to take the initiative. Johnson seems to think that the necessary pressures to change will have to come from outside the system.

The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we'll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe's banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration's current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy "stress scenario" that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks' balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.

Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated… If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

Columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall says that the situation is already too far gone for any hope of orderly change within the current system and sees a collapse coming unless there is a political revolution.

The prospect of a global economic meltdown or an actual revolution is obviously not a cheery one. If the US economy nosedives, not only will it cause a lot of misery here, it will undoubtedly drag a lot of other nations down with it, at least in the short run, because of the deep interconnections in the world's economies.

Next: An alternative way forward?

January 25, 2011

How Monica Lewinsky saved Social Security

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

I have repeatedly said that progressives have to be most on the alert when Democrats are in power. It is under Democratic administrations that the oligarchy tries to achieve major goals because the party's base, ever-vigilant to guard against encroachments when Republicans hold power, falls asleep when their own party is at the helm. We see Obama doing things in the name of national security that would have evoked howls of protest if Bush had done them. We see Obama treating Wall Street with a generosity that would be loudly protested if a Republican did it.

The big prize for the oligarchy is, of course, Social Security. The privatization of Social Security has been a long-cherished dream of Wall Street anxious to get their hands on that trillion-dollar account. In general, Republicans have been thwarted when they tried to do it. George W. Bush tried to privatize it in his second term but was beaten back and gave up on it. The Democratic Party has long been seen as the defenders of Social Security, which is why the oligarchy sees it as a better agent for achieving its goals.

It is not well known that Bill Clinton also secretly set in motion attempts to privatize (they use the euphemism 'reform' or 'save') Social Security, following his successful move to gut welfare programs for the poor. These secret plans were well advanced and getting down to the level of fine-tuning details in preparation for a public announcement. But as Robin Blackburn explains in this 2004 article, he was thwarted, not by the party's base, but by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which forced him to appease his base in order to save his political skin.

We have this on the authority of high-ranking members of the Clinton Treasury who gathered in Harvard in the summer of 2001 to mull over the lessons of the 1990s. At that conclave it was revealed that on Clinton's orders a top secret White House working party had been established to study in detail the basis for a bipartisan policy on Social Security that would splice individual accounts into the program. Such was the delicacy of this exercise that meetings of the group were flagged under the innocent rubric "Special Issues" on the White House agenda.

In the mid-1990s pessimism about the future of Social Security was rife in seminars, conferences, op-eds and learned papers by which elite consensus is fashioned. The media lent an eager ear to charlatanry from outfits like the Third Millennium, which ventriloquized a supposed consensus amongst youth that the program would not be there for them when they came to retire - and that consequently their best bet was to take their FICA payments and put them in a private share account in soar-away Wall Street.

Third Millennium was, of course, a front for the privatization lobby. But it did tap into a vein of public anxiety and skepticism concerning Social Security finances and, with the stock market soaring upward, its Wall Street connections were an asset not a liability.

But in 1998 the Lewinsky scandal burst upon the President, and as the months sped by and impeachment swelled from a remote specter to a looming reality, Clinton's polls told him that his only hope was to nourish the widespread popular dislike for the hoity-toity elites intoning Clinton's death warrant.

In an instant Clinton spun on the dime and became Social Security's mighty champion, coining the slogan "Save Social Security First".

In his 1999 State of the Union address Clinton seized the initiative from the privatizers with a bold new plan that gave substance to the "Save Social Security First" slogan. He proposed that 62 per cent of the budget surplus should be used to build up the Social Security trust fund. He promised to veto any attempt to divert Social Security funds to other uses, and he urged that 15 per cent of the trust fund should be invested in the stock market, not by individuals but by the Social Security Administration.

The first part of the plan to privatize Social Security, which has long been in evidence, is to soften up the public by persuading all people that the system is in dire crisis, and especially the young, that they are being ripped off because Social Security will not be there for them when they retire. This is a lie. There is no long-term problem with Social Security that cannot be fixed with minor tinkering within the system. This graph of the Social Security trustees projections of future financial status (as a percentage of GDP) shows that there are no runaway costs in Social Security in the foreseeable future and the gap between revenue and outlays can be easily closed. Furthermore, the current surplus in the trust fund (well over three trillion dollars) that has been built up over the years can be used to fund the deficit in the current account at least over the next two or three decades without any changes at all in the system.

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The economic minds behind Clinton's moves were Larry Summers and Gene Sperling, both of whom are now close Obama advisors. There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama also wants to raid Social Security in some way to benefit the oligarchy, to do what Clinton and Bush could not. His reduction of the payroll tax contribution and his adoption of the alarmist rhetoric about the need to 'fix' Social Security has laid the groundwork for meddling with it. You can be sure that his economic team is already working on it. The real question is when he will reveal the details of what he has in mind, whether he will keep his plans secret for longer or whether he will reveal at least part of it in this year's State of the Union speech to be given this evening.

The cautious thing to do would be for Obama to wait until his second term, like Clinton and Bush, so that he does not have to worry about any negative impact on his re-election chances. But Obama seems to have an arrogant confidence about his ability to get his followers to rally behind him whatever he does, and he may well think that he can tackle Social Security now and escape unscathed.

And he will unless people protest loud and long. Monica Lewinsky played her part. Now it is up to the rest of us to save Social Security.

January 24, 2011

Recent cracks in the oligarchy

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

I wrote earlier about how cracks appeared in the oligarchy during the late stages of the Vietnam war. In that case, the oligarchy split between those businesses for whom the war remained a good thing because their businesses directly benefited from the war effort, and those for whom it was a bad thing because the people and resources that might have benefited them were being drained away to service a war that seemed to have no end. In the current situation, while the pressures due to an over-extended military are still there, the split in the oligarchy is more likely to occur between the financial sector and the manufacturing/agricultural sector because the financial sector is increasingly being seen as a parasite that produces little of value but instead becomes bloated by sucking the blood out of the productive sectors of the economy, all with the active collusion of the government. These cracks in the oligarchy are being widened by its out-of-control rapacity, as sectors within it seek to advance at the expense of others. This intraoligarchic competition to see who can enrich themselves the most will likely less to its own downfall.

Even some establishment journalists like Frank Rich of the New York Times have noticed how things have gone way too far in favoring the financial sector:

The obscene income inequality bequeathed by the three-decade rise of the financial industry has societal consequences graver than even the fundamental economic unfairness. When we reward financial engineers infinitely more than actual engineers, we "lure our most talented graduates to the largely unproductive chase" for Wall Street riches, as the economist Robert H. Frank wrote in The Times last weekend. Worse, Frank added, the continued squeeze on the middle class leads to a wholesale decline in the quality of American life — from more bankruptcy filings and divorces to a collapse in public services, whether road repair or education, that taxpayers will no longer support.

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene. It's shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance… Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash's con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he's fronting for the industry even if he's not.

We can expect to see this 'wholesale decline in the quality of American life' continue because the oligarchy is demanding it. As Chrystia Freeland writes in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite:

The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world's largest hedge funds told me that his firm's investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today's economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn't really matter. "His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that's not such a bad trade," the CEO recalled.

I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he's nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. "We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world," he told me. "So if you're going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut."

Whether one agrees with the sentiments expressed or not (the case that there should not be such a great disparity between the average person in America and the rest of the world is perfectly defensible), what is interesting to notice is how these private individuals are casually planning the future of the world and how to distribute its resources, with the expectation that governments will go along with their decisions. Governments are followers of the oligarchy, not leaders.

But how much can the oligarchy push their agenda on the world without pushback? Freeland suggests that they may be overplaying their hand.

But if the plutocrats' opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn't modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle-class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn't working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts.

The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren't already too isolated to recognize this.

The transglobal divide between the very rich and the rest of us will lead to popular unrest. This is more likely to happen in the US because while inequalities in other major emerging economies like China, India, Russia, and Brazil are also increasing, there is still an improvement in the average standard of living of the people in those countries. China, as just one example, is investing heavily in new infrastructure, creating a vast network of roads and high-speed rail to name one big item. Similar movement is visible in the other emerging markets. It is in the US where inequalities are increasing while average standards of living are either stagnating or declining and infrastructure is decaying as the anti-tax zealots demand cuts in government spending at federal, state, and local levels.

The popular perception (right or wrong) is that these other emerging countries are modernizing while the US is decaying, which is why the US is so unstable.

Next: The US as a destabilizing threat to the transglobal oligarchy.

January 21, 2011

The nature of oligarchic power

One of the famous sayings of Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book was that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

That saying still holds true. The US oligarchy has disproportionate influence within the transglobal oligarchy because it has the military strength of the US behind it. This is why we can expect to see China develop its military strength over time, as it must if it is to have ambitions of becoming either the world's premier power or at least on a par with the US, as all indications suggest that they want to be, despite their denials. But military power can only be sustained over an extended period if there is a sound economic base. Otherwise, one can have a collapse from within, as was the case with the former Soviet Union.

The recent announcement by the US Defense Secretary that he would recommend extremely modest cuts in Pentagon spending suggested to me that there was a growing realization that the over-extended US military was sapping the economic strength of the US. But the subsequent revelation by the Chinese government of test flights of their own new stealth fighters will undoubtedly give ammunition to the US military-industrial lobby with which to pressure its Congressional supporters to not only reverse the cutbacks but to even increase military spending, even though weapons analysts say that the Chinese fighters are quite inferior to current US counterparts and the Chinese are nowhere near matching the US militarily.

Although I am by no means a military strategist, the timing of the Chinese announcement made me wonder if they are playing a deep game, trying to nudge the US into wasting more money on unproductive weapons systems and military adventures at the expense of broader economic development, all as a means of weakening the US economy. In other words, their military strategy is really an economic one. This is, after all, not an original idea. The US used the arms race and lured the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in order to force them into military expenditures that they could not sustain. That too was economic warfare, disguised as a military strategy. Mikhail Gorbachev extricated them from that morass and although some Russian nationalists blame him for the break up of the Soviet Union and its fall from superpower status, future generations may well hail him as the person who saved Russia from the total economic disaster that might have ensued from trying to hold on to an over-extended empire.

So while the visible source of power is military and is overt, the real source of power is economic and the way that the oligarchy wields that power is subtle. And because the modern oligarchy is transglobal in nature and not particularly beholden to the welfare of any particular nation state, their interests need not be in synchrony with the needs of the people in any given country. All of us are cogs in a machine, replaceable and expendable.

Membership in the oligarchy is not formal but arrived at after one gives the appropriate cues that one is suitable, similar to the way it is decided to whom to extend an invitation to join the membership of exclusive country clubs. How they work is also similar to the way that a lot of business decisions are made privately on golf courses, in country clubs, and at cocktail parties.

In a must read article published last year, Simon Johnson, the former chief economist with the IMF and thus someone with impeccable establishment credentials, refers to what has happened in the US as a 'quiet coup' in which the oligarchy, especially the financial sector, has captured the government. He details how an advanced oligarchy operates and how it wields power.

Of course, the U.S. is unique. And just as we have the world's most advanced economy, military, and technology, we also have its most advanced oligarchy.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America's position in the world. (My italics)

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. Robert Rubin, once the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, served in Washington as Treasury secretary under Clinton, and later became chairman of Citigroup's executive committee. Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs during the long boom, became Treasury secretary under George W. Bush. John Snow, Paulson's predecessor, left to become chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, a large private-equity firm that also counts Dan Quayle among its executives. Alan Greenspan, after leaving the Federal Reserve, became a consultant to Pimco, perhaps the biggest player in international bond markets.

These personal connections were multiplied many times over at the lower levels of the past three presidential administrations, strengthening the ties between Washington and Wall Street. It has become something of a tradition for Goldman Sachs employees to go into public service after they leave the firm. The flow of Goldman alumni—including Jon Corzine, now the governor of New Jersey, along with Rubin and Paulson—not only placed people with Wall Street's worldview in the halls of power; it also helped create an image of Goldman (inside the Beltway, at least) as an institution that was itself almost a form of public service.

Is it any wonder that when it comes to advancing the interests of Goldman Sachs and the related financial sector, the government and media do so reflexively? When you have such a system in place, you don't need a formal hierarchy or structure or agenda to achieve your ends. It happens 'naturally'.

Next: Recent cracks in the oligarchic structure.

January 20, 2011

Who makes up the oligarchy?

Commenter Jeff, in response to an earlier post, posed the question: Who or what constitutes the oligarchy and when did they come into being? Another commenter to that same post, named simply G, asked: What needs to be done to change things? I'll address the first question here and keep the next for a subsequent post.

There are occasional attempts to portray the oligarchy as some secretive group of unidentified individuals such as the Masons or the Illuminati (or the Inebriati), meeting in secret with passwords and the like. They are not because that is not how things work. The modern transglobal oligarchy consists of figures in the government and private sector working largely in the open. They meet regularly at big public functions where a substantial time is spent in open meetings. But these gatherings also allow for private meetings such as dinners and parties and other social events where the spotlight is off and where a lot of the consensus is built up.

If you look closely, you will see such non-secret informal decision making systems all around you. Whether in your school or religious institutions or community or professional organizations or social circles, there will usually be some smaller grouping of like-minded influential individuals that talk privately to one another often and come to an informal consensus on what to do, and the open meetings are where those informal decisions are formalized, codified, and implemented. The influential people in those groups would be offended to be told that they are acting as a cabal, usurping the rights of the larger group to freely deliberate and make decisions. They see themselves as a positive force, making the organization run more smoothly.

The oligarchy works just like that. Some of the names of these influential groups which meet regularly are familiar: the Trilateral Commission, the Carlyle Group, the Bilderberg Group, the Bohemian Grove, etc. But there are many more. Chrystia Freeland in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite describes the process by which people become part of it.

To grasp the difference between today's plutocrats and the hereditary elite, who (to use John Stuart Mill's memorable phrase) "grow rich in their sleep," one need merely glance at the events that now fill high-end social calendars. The debutante balls and hunts and regattas of yesteryear may not be quite obsolete, but they are headed in that direction. The real community life of the 21st-century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit.

The best known of these events is the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, invitation to which marks an aspiring plutocrat's arrival on the international scene. The Bilderberg Group, which meets annually at locations in Europe and North America, is more exclusive still—and more secretive—though it is more focused on geopolitics and less on global business and philanthropy. The Boao Forum for Asia, convened on China's Hainan Island each spring, offers evidence of that nation's growing economic importance and its understanding of the plutocratic culture. Bill Clinton is pushing hard to win his Clinton Global Initiative a regular place on the circuit. The TED conferences (the acronym stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design") are an important stop for the digerati; Paul Allen's Sun Valley gathering, for the media moguls; and the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival (co-sponsored by this magazine), for the more policy-minded.

The people who attend these gatherings are well connected to key figures in the business world and have the ear of key policy makers in governments and in fact move freely between the two worlds. In the US, Goldman Sachs, the US Treasury Department, and the Federal Reserve Bank can almost be considered to be a single entity because of all the people who smoothly move between them. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2009:

[Michael] Paese went from Chairman [Barney] Frank's office to be the top lobbyist at Goldman, and shortly before that, Goldman dispatched Paese's predecessor, close Tom Daschle associate Mark Patterson, to be Chief of Staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, himself a protege of former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin and a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of the banking industry. That's all part of what Desmond Lachman -- American Enterprise Institute fellow, former chief emerging market strategist at Salomon Smith Barney and top IMF official (no socialist he) -- recently described as "Goldman Sachs's seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs."

Meanwhile, the above-linked Huffington Post article which reported on [Senator Dick] Durbin's comments [that "The banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."] also notes Sen. Evan Bayh's previously-reported central role on behalf of the bankers in blocking legislation, hated by the banking industry, to allow bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of mortgages so that families can stay in their homes.

Matt Taibbi piles on the evidence on how this fairly close-knit but informal network of especially well-connected insiders share and use information that is not even available to the general business community, let alone us members of the hoi polloi.

Another extremely interesting detail, which I and others have reported on, involves the fact that all the big banks on Wall Street (including Goldman) and many of hedge funds (including Citadel) had a meeting at the Fed with Ben Bernanke just three days before the Fed announced its plan to subsidize the sale of Bear to JP Morgan Chase. This was on March 11, 2008; the only big bank that was not invited to this meeting was Bear, Stearns. It strains all credulity to imagine that the rescue of Bear was not discussed at that meeting and that none of the players at that meeting made moves based on those conversations.

However there is a mounting pile of evidence suggesting a sort of widespread culture of insider trading in which a few players (specifically the major banks and a few of the biggest and best-connected hedge funds) have milked a seemingly endless stream of exclusive information, not occasionally or opportunistically but as an ongoing commercial strategy. I get about two or three letters a week from people in the finance business complaining that this or that company is openly advance-trading on a) information from the Federal Reserve about things like interest rate changes, or b) info about big client orders in things like commodities, or c) mergers and the like. Certainly there is a great deal to be suspicious of with regard to the behavior of certain companies in advance of major events like the rescue of Bear Stearns, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the AIG bailout, the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, the emergency conversions to bank holding company status of Goldman and Morgan Stanley, and the announcement of major bailout programs like the TALF and the P-PIP.

Anyone who knew in advance how or when these deals were going down could make billions almost without trying, and we know that the heads of many of the major banks were in contact with key federal officials during this entire period.

That's how the oligarchy works.

Next: The nature of oligarchic power

January 19, 2011

When cracks appear in the oligarchic system

Knowledge seeks to be free.

While oligarchic suppression of unauthorized messages can be very thorough, it can never be complete. There will always be people who have a strong urge to know the truth and disseminate it and they will find ways to do so. We have seen in the past that even under tightly-controlled state media systems, an underground press and radio and other low-cost news systems such as pamphlets and wall posters emerge to provide an outlet for those who challenge the system.

In relatively open societies in the US, the challenge for non-oligarchic alternative voices is both harder and easier. It is easier because there is (usually) no overt suppression of other voices by direct censorship. Instead the focus is on marginalizing them, by making them seem extreme so that these voices do not reach a mass audience.

It is harder because the seeming openness of the system makes it harder for ordinary people to see the control of the oligarchy and thus less likely to see the need for alternative views. I am sure that many people in the US think that we are exposed to the full range of news and opinions on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines because we have Fox News and MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the National Review and The Nation.

People tend to be not aware of what they are missing. It takes a great deal of media and political sophistication to be aware of what you are not hearing. A good example is Noam Chomsky. He is well known worldwide as an important political analyst and public intellectual and yet you will never see him anymore in the US mainstream media. To read his work or hear him, you will have to actively seek him out or read alternative media on a regular basis. The same is true for a whole host of people. If you do not appear in the major media venues, you and your views may as well not exist. The non-stop cacophony of voices that surround us in the media serves the purpose of creating that non-awareness. In fact, a good way to become better informed is to not watch TV or read the mainstream press but read only the headlines and the bare bones facts of a story and start just thinking for yourself about what it means.

This is why the internet has been so unsettling for the oligarchy. It lowered the cost of admission to the media club to almost zero and so one has had an explosion of voices, most of whom are free to say what they want. The government does not have to worry about the New York Times or CNN 'going rogue' because their dependence on advertisers and stockholders is sufficient to keep them in check and to even support government efforts to suppress dissenting voices.

The internet's openness was tolerable as long as those new voices were scattered and diffuse and uncoordinated, each commanding just a small audience. But the emergence of outfits like WikiLeaks that are able to command widespread attention has really thrown a wrench into the media propaganda model which is why we should expect to see attempts to 'regulate' the internet to prevent 'irresponsible' (translation: anti-oligarchic) voices form gaining a foothold or by making the cost of business higher by governments using their vast resources to take legal action against smaller entities, thus driving up their costs and putting them out of business.

The WikiLeaks episode has opened a window on the oligarchic structure in the US. The US media likes to portray itself as independent of, and even adversarial to, the government. But when a true challenge to the government emerged, they quickly reverted to their true role of government ally. For example, see how the US media has disowned WikiLeaks and refused to fight or even speak out on their free speech rights, leaving it up to international media to call upon them to protect the First Amendment. It is the US media that fights the idea that WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise just like them and thus deserving of all First Amendment protections.

It is important to understand that this abandonment of WikiLeaks is not due to normal business competition. They are not doing this because of business reasons, because they fear that their subscribers and advertisers will shift away from them to WIkiLeaks because the latter is not that kind of operation and does not present that kind of danger. After all, they are giving away their information free to the mainstream media. Those mainstream media organizations that are distancing themselves from WikiLeaks are clearly doing this for ideological reasons, because they are opposed to what WikiLeaks represents which is a source of information that is outside oligarchic control. They act this way because the US media is part of the oligarchy and thus unconsciously picks up the cues that tell it what to do. The US government does not need to do anything. What better propaganda system is there?

WikiLeaks poses a challenge to the oligarchy because even those journalists that have passed through the filters and risen within the system realize that at some basic level, attempts to shut down WikiLeaks is wrong and this is creating cracks in the system. We need to widen those cracks by driving home the message that this is an important First Amendment issue and that what WikiLeaks does is no different from what Bob Woodward does except that he serves the interests of the oligarchy and WikiLeaks does not.

Next: Who makes up the oligarchy and what can we do about it?

January 17, 2011

The media as a model of how a modern oligarchy operates

A well-functioning oligarchic system usually operates smoothly and largely openly and without a hierarchical structure. It achieves its goals by setting up filters that weed out those who do not support its agenda and rarely requires overt intervention to achieve its goals.

I discussed earlier how the major filter was the high cost of entry in the modern media world that meant only rich people or organizations could create a big megaphone for their views. Only someone like Rupert Murdoch, for example, could create a new major network like Fox News. The high cost of entry came into being over a century ago and was a result of market forces and technological advances and the adoption of a business plan that depended largely on advertising for revenues.

Governments were happy to let that process proceed though in the early days some had concerns. It is not well known now until the mid-19th century the US government subsidized the printing and mailing of newspapers in order to enable a wide diversity of voices to be heard. While there are obvious dangers to be faced with government funding, it is possible to construct buffers to insulate the government from having too much influence over editorial content. The BBC and CBC are models that, while flawed, show what can be done. The abandonment of government subsidies to newspapers set in motion a propaganda system that works without any further outside intervention.

A case study of how the media filters work to weed out undesirable elements is the process of embedding mainstream journalists with US troops that was introduced by the US government. Once the news executives agreed to this practice, it further consolidated the links between government and the media. Those journalists who felt that embedding was wrong and undermined their impartiality left the mainstream media and went elsewhere. Only those who did not find it objectionable stayed and they are the ones who report the news and will rise up and become heads of news divisions.

When people like John Burns of the New York Times and Lara Logan of CBS News criticized Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine for publishing the piece that got General Stanley McChrystal fired as head of the Afghanistan war effort, they perfectly symbolized the process at work. What they did by criticizing Hastings was a good career move for them. Whether they were speaking what they really thought or were more cynical and calculating does not matter. If the latter, they will rationalize their actions, create justifications, and internalize the reasons that caused them to act this way and thus become even more dutiful servants of the oligarchy. Meanwhile Hastings, who used to work for Newsweek, left and became an independent journalist because he couldn't stand the role that establishment reporters played within that system.

This example shows how the oligarchy operates in the media. It is not that reporters write stories that are then censored by their bosses who are acting on the orders of politicians, as a crude propaganda model would suggest. It is that the system weeds out the reporters who would write such stories in the first place and only keeps those who would not even consider filing such a story, making overt censorship unnecessary.

It is only under extreme conditions that the commonality of interests between the government and the media breaks down and this is usually due to a split in oligarchic interests. One example in the US was during the later stages in the Vietnam war when the costs of the war became seen as a serious threat to some sections of the US economy and the draft was resulting in the conscription of even people from the ruling classes. This division in the oligarchy allowed much more vocal criticism of the war even in the mainstream media and resulted in the government trying to directly influence them in the form of trying to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers and exerting direct pressure on major newspapers and network news division executives to limit negative coverage of the war. When the hand of the oligarchy becomes visible this way, you know the system has developed cracks.

But the near unanimous support by the US media for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that those earlier cracks have been now sealed because the government did not even need to tell the news organizations to act as cheerleaders. The news executives and reporters by and large agreed with the government's goals because those who might have disagreed had long ago left and gone elsewhere because they just did not 'fit'.

January 13, 2011

A model for how the oligarchy works

To understand who constitutes the new national and transglobal oligarchies and how they work, it is helpful to examine a subsystem of the oligarchy that has been studied extensively and provides a good model or template for understanding it. One fact that quickly emerges is that the best propaganda systems are those that operate seemingly transparently.

Those countries that have tightly controlled state media have a much less effective propaganda system than countries like the US. Not only are people in those countries aware that the media is a propaganda organ, which makes them skeptical of what it says, there is always the danger that somebody in the media is going to blurt out things that contradict the party line.

It is much more effective to have a structure in which the people in the media share common values with the ruling classes so that they sincerely spout the desired message. This is far more effective than forcing them to toe the party line against their will because the people in the media are truly saying what they think and thus the public thinks that they are being told the truth. And they would be correct in a narrow sense. You will almost never find outright lying by mainstream US journalists. What the media does is three things: they will not cover certain kinds of stories, the stories they do cover will be viewed through a particular prism that is advantageous to establishment interests, and the range of analyses will be restricted to a narrow spectrum. Everything that falls within these limits will be called 'moderate', 'centrist', 'reasonable', 'mainstream', and other favorable labels and gain easy access to media outlets to repeatedly propound their message while anything outside will be labeled 'radical', 'extreme' and be rarely heard.

How is this remarkable consensus achieved? By creating a media structure that has filters built into it that, as you rise in the ranks, steadily weed out those whose values and ideology do not conform. In the US this is achieved by raising the cost of admission to the media world. In the beginning days of newspapers and radio, there was a wide diversity of voices because it did not cost that much to start up a new operation. Reporters were often from working class backgrounds with no college degree who started at the very bottom and worked their way up as they learned the their craft.

Nowadays no one who is not a wealthy person can start a newspaper or radio or TV station. Furthermore, they depend on advertising for a large chunk of their revenues. As a result of the ownership and revenue filters, they need to target businesses and the maximum number of individuals who will buy those goods, which means skewing coverage that is favorable to business and towards the more affluent. Furthermore, journalism has become a profession that requires a college degree (though there are exceptions), which means that a narrower spectrum of people (mostly from the middle and professional classes) with more establishment views enter the profession.

As a result of these structural constraints, a whole set of unseen filters get put into place and only certain types of reporters will pass through them. Those who are the best at internalizing those values are the ones who 'fit' the media and will pass through the filters and rise up the ranks to become editors and opinion makers. And the views they express will almost always be sincere ones. They would be shocked to be told that they are part of a propaganda system. They will insist, quite rightly, that no one orders them to say or write anything.

The system at Rupert Murdoch's Fox News where top executives send daily memos to their news reporters telling them what to cover and how to cover it (as revealed in Robert Greenwald's documentary Outfoxed) is quite unusual in its crudeness. This series of Doonesbury cartoon strips about the documentary is amusing. But holding up Fox News as an example of shoddy journalism (which is absolutely true) implies that the non-Murdoch media are not part of the propaganda system when in fact they are but do not need to be so crude.

The members of the mainstream media do not meet in secret and plot. They have no need to. They meet in public, at professional and social gatherings and conferences and the like, to share ideas and strategies. And since they all pretty much share the same values and goals, they arrive at conclusions that advance the interests of the US oligarchy without having to be explicitly told to do so by their oligarchic bosses.

What I have described is just a sketch of the US media system. For a much more comprehensive treatment of how the media in the US works as an effective propaganda system because of the various filters incorporated within it, read Manufacturing Consent, the classic analysis of the US media by Noam Chomsky and Edward R. Herman, and The Problem of the Media by Robert W. McChesney.

The oligarchy is created and functions pretty much the same way, as will be discussed later.

January 12, 2011

The warning signs of trouble ahead

If we look at the situation globally, we see two trends, one good and one bad. The good one is that the gap in average incomes between people in the developed world and the developing world is closing. But while inequalities between nations (as measured by statistics on averages) is decreasing, inequalities within nations are worsening, as income and wealth disparities get larger. As a result, we now have two worlds emerging that, unlike the old divisions of rich and poor nations, now consist of rich and poor groupings that transcend nations. As Chrystia Freeland says in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite of the new oligarchy:

Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

No good can come from this trend of a rapidly widening gap between a tiny rich coterie and the ever-increasing numbers of the poor. It is too uncomfortably reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary France and is destined to self-destruct.

Within the US, the collapse of the US empire will not be because of any external threat. Its military is too powerful to be overcome. It will collapse from within for economic reasons, as it becomes bloated, bankrupt, arrogant, over-extended, and hubristic, thinking that its military might alone is sufficient to ensure its continued dominance over other countries. As with past empires, people will not realize until the very moment of collapse how bad things are, and then look back and marvel as to how they could have missed all the screaming warning signs.

The structural warning signs are already there: rapidly rising inequalities in income and wealth, declining services and quality of life, lower standards of living for the many, endemic large budget deficits, a national debt that is approaching the size of the GDP, and a political class that has become so subservient to the oligarchy that it will not address the problems head on but blusters over trivialities.

A serious warning sign is when other nations become wary of the US dollar serving as the reserve currency. That feature has enabled the US Federal Reserve to print money (euphemistically called 'quantitative easing') to paper over its chronic deficits and try and boost the US economy by putting more money in circulation, even though this has a negative impact on the economies of the rest of the world because it essentially devalues the dollar and thus cheapens the value of their dollar reserves. This practice has allowed the US to live well beyond its means for many years now.

But there are limits to how long this can go on. Other countries are starting to seek alternatives to the dollar. Paul Craig Roberts says that here have been rumblings already on this front and that "Russia and China have concluded an agreement to abandon the use of the US dollar in their bilateral trade and to use their own currencies in its place". Troubles with the euro have kept the threat of that currency becoming the reserve temporarily at bay. Meanwhile, China, India, and France are calling for a new international monetary system in which the dollar is no longer the sole reserve currency.

A symbolic warning sign that things are bad is the increasing frequency of grandiose rhetoric making claims to national greatness. Witness this recent effusion from Rich Lowry in the National Review: "Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion." It is a truism that the truly great in any field never have to boast about it because they simply take it for granted. It is only those who are insecure who do so.

Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of hope and promises of change and a new direction that we now know he had no intention of fulfilling. He used hope as a lure to delude people the same way that religions use hope of a wonderful afterlife to get them to accept terrible conditions here and now. We need to kill that sense of hope. This sounds terrible but it is only when we lose our illusions about the current state of affairs in the US that we can begin to create a better society. It is only when we see the reality, that the US does not have two parties with different visions but is a one party oligarchic state that is pursuing policies that benefit a few but are causing the nation as a whole to tumble into disaster, that we can set about creating the kind of movement that will unite the base of both parties, including even the tea partiers, and can see clearly what the real problems are and what needs to be done.

Next: Who makes up the oligarchy and what needs to be done?

January 11, 2011

The modern transnational oligarchy

When it comes to politics, my preference is to think long-term and to use short-term trends simply as indicators of what the long-term future is going to be like. So I have little patience with much of news 'analysis' that is primarily tactical, following the fortunes of individual elections and individual candidates, unless I think those races signify some major trend.

Given my gloom about the current direction that the US is taking, it may surprise some readers that I am by nature an optimist and I can often find silver linings in the darkest clouds. But in the case of the US, the only silver linings that I see are in the long term. In the short term, I fear that things are going to become very bad.

The reasons for my gloomy outlook are because of the systemic causes of the problems that currently beset the US. As long as there is no mass recognition of the deep causes of problems, we are doomed to pursue ineffective policies. The US is at present mired in two publicly acknowledged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two secret wars in Pakistan and Yemen, and two potential wars in Iran and Somalia. These are all part of a futile 'war on terror' that it can never win by force of arms but which is a huge drain on the treasury. Couple this with an oligarchy that seems to have lost all sense of restraint and seems hell-bent on looting the public treasury for its own short-term benefit with little or no concern for the long-term consequences for the nation as a whole, and you have a prescription for major trouble ahead.

Even conservative Francis Fukuyama writes that we now have a plutocracy in the US.

We mean not just rule by the rich, but rule by and for the rich. We mean, in other words, a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others. As the introductory essay to this issue shows, this influence may be exercised in four basic ways: lobbying to shift regulatory costs and other burdens away from corporations and onto the public at large; lobbying to affect the tax code so that the wealthy pay less; lobbying to allow the fullest possible use of corporate money in political campaigns; and, above all, lobbying to enable lobbying to go on with the fewest restrictions. Of these, the second has perhaps the deepest historical legacy.

Countries are almost always run by a ruling class largely for the benefit of that ruling class, so what Fukuyama is saying is not new. What is new is that larger segments of even the conservative intelligentsia are coming around to that realization that even within such a system, what creates some semblance of national unity and prevents deep social unrest is the idea of noblesse oblige, the sense among the ruling class that they have at least some obligation to serve the needs of society as a whole in addition to enriching themselves. At the very least this was a form of self-interest, to create a positive image of themselves to avoid things becoming so bad as to create a revolutionary situation. As a result of this sensibility, one saw investment in public works and amenities (roads, rail, parks, libraries, schools, etc.) and the rise of the welfare state within capitalism. In days gone by one even saw members of the ruling class actually volunteer to fight in their country's wars, an idea that would seem quaint to the members of the current oligarchy.

Those days are gone. The concept of noblesse oblige is completely foreign to the present oligarchy in the US. They would find laughable the idea of any personal sacrifice for the common good or that the well being of the nation requires at least some checks on their own wealth accumulation. We are now past the stage of the ordinary capitalism that unleashed enormous productive capacities and growth and have entered an era of rapacious and predatory capitalism, where unchecked greed reigns supreme, and where the wealthy are beginning to compete amongst each other to see how much and how quickly they can enrich themselves at the expense of the public good.

Felix Salmon points to an article by Chrystia Freeland in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite on how the present oligarchy is quite different from the oligarchies of the past and views the middle classes with contempt. They see themselves as having succeeded purely on their merit and entirely deserving of their huge wealth and see no obligation to society as a whole.

What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.

The idea that the poor are poor through their own fault and are thus 'undeserving' of any consideration and quite expendable is a very old idea. What is changing is that the line of demarcation has shifted upwards quite suddenly so that the group that constitutes the lower middle class and even the middle class, once considered the bedrock workers on which the economy was built, now find themselves also being considered expendable because their jobs can easily be outsourced to other countries or replaced by machines or by squeezing other workers to do more. This is why we can now have a 'jobless recovery', whereby the stock market and profits are soaring while unemployment remains high.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story The Rich Boy (1926), "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me", a theme he had elaborated on in his novel The Great Gatsby that was published in the same year. What we see is that the very rich now are not just different from you and me, they are even different from the rich of the past. And not in a good way.

Next: Warning signs of trouble ahead.

January 10, 2011

The Republican Party's con game

Last Friday, I said that the problem with the Democratic Party's base is that they are too willing to accept at face value the statements of their party leaders and too quick to be satisfied with crumbs thrown their way in the form of victories on social or symbolic issues.

What is going on with the Republicans is more interesting than what is going on with the Democrats because the Republican base has become more feisty and less trusting of their own leadership and are showing signs of developing a healthy cynicism. The tea party rebellion was the result of the Republican Party faithful waking up to the fact that their own leadership was also manipulating them to advance an agenda that was not in their own interests. For a long time, the Republican Party leadership has managed to fool their followers in the same way that the Democrats do but their followers seem to have wised up earlier.

The slow but steady decline of the white middle class, the mass base of the Republican Party, who are losing jobs and seeing their lifestyle lowered, has been causing simmering discontent for some time. There seems to be an almost palpable feeling that the country is in a state of decline and when that happens people tend to want to assign blame. The tea party members have a vague sense that the outsourcing of jobs and the financial shenanigans of Wall Street are the cause of their plight, as can be seen from their hostility to the bailouts and their 'buy American' form of patriotism. But because of their ignorance and naivete about politics and how things actually work, they have been suckered into thinking that the reason that things are this way is due to 'big government' and that cutting taxes for everyone will shrink the government and thus somehow miraculously get them out of their plight.

The tea partiers that demand less government do not realize that their anger is being used to target those agencies of government that keep rampant corporate greed in check and that the more those agencies are constrained and eliminated, the more we will be at the mercy of big business interests. The goal of big business is to eliminate or undermine all those government agencies whose purpose serve as watchdogs for the public but which put a crimp on their unfettered search for ever-increasing for profits. Those agencies like the IRS, SEC, OSHA, FDA, BLM, and EPA are meant to balance the needs of the corporate sector with the welfare of individual citizens who lack the money and other resources to fight on their own.

While the base of the Democratic Party tends to make excuses for their leadership's fecklessness, the base of the Republican Party at least has the gumption to take to the streets and make their leadership sit up and take notice. It is true that the tea party is largely white, well-to-do, older, and has in its ranks racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and outright nutcases. Its ranks contain people who are so out of touch with reality that they seriously think that Obama is a Kenyan and/or Muslim and/or Communist who has a secret agenda to destroy the country by imposing a socialist dictatorship mixed in with Sharia law or that the health care reform package that the Democrats passed is a government takeover of the system.

The tea party is also shackled by anti-intellectual pride and complacent ignorance that has enabled obvious grifters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to turn their anger away from the true causes of their decline (which is the oligarchy seeking an ever-increasing share of wealth) into resentment against minorities and the poor and foreigners, coupled with hot-button social issues like abortion and gays, all wrapped into a single anti-government and anti-tax package.

The Republican leadership clearly is aware of this unrest and is nervous. So far, the they have managed to ride that tiger but its position is precarious. While they were able to win significant legislative victories in 2010 by pandering to their base and making unrealistic promises, we see them now warily wondering how to appease their followers to distract them from the fact that those promises cannot and will not be kept. They made a big issue out of the budget deficit and the national debt and promised to bring both down, when in reality their obligations to the oligarchy will increase both. They are walking a knife-edge and they know it. In order to disguise their inevitable sell-out, we can expect to see another major effort to gin up major controversies on social issues in order to distract their followers.

Whether the Republican Party base will wise up as to what is really going on and realize that the groups they are currently being made to hate and attack as the cause of the nation's problems (minorities, unions, the unemployed, the poor) are in the same boat as them and shift their focus to attacking the oligarchy or whether they will continue to be sidetracked by false issues and thus eventually wither away into sputtering incoherence remains to be seen.

January 07, 2011

The Democratic Party's con game

My social circle tends to be people who call themselves liberal and vote Democratic. Whenever we discuss politics, I am always struck by how their sources of information are restricted to the mainstream media and how much they reflect the thinking of the commentators in them. Their idea of a 'liberal' is someone like Thomas Friedman and someone on the 'far left' is Keith Olberman. They will proudly say that they subscribe to the New York Times and will express contempt for Fox News and its stable of propagandists. These are taken as signs of their impeccable liberal credentials,

Their view of the world is drearily predictable. According to them, Obama and the Democrats would really, really like to advance a progressive agenda but are constantly being thwarted by the mean old Republicans. It never seems to strike them to ask why it is that when Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress with hefty majorities (as was the case from 2008-2010), they seem incapable of advancing their ostensibly progressive agenda but the Republicans with slim or no majorities (as was the case from 2000-2008) seem to so easily get their way to advance the interests of the oligarchy. They do not seem to wonder why it is the Democrats who are constantly looking for compromises with Republicans in their desire for 'bipartisanship' and, if asked, will say that this is because the Democrats are not doctrinaire like the Republicans.

These people simply cannot wrap their minds around the idea that we have a one party oligarchic state, and that the Democrats and Republicans are two factions of that party that differ on mostly social issues over which they can 'fight' heatedly in order to provide political theater and thus distract us from the fact that the two parties are one when it comes to substantive financial issues. Thus they cannot see that the reason that Democrats are more eager to compromise with the Republicans is because the Republicans more openly support policies that benefit the oligarchy while the Democrats only secretly support them. Compromising allows the Democrats to reward their oligarchic overlords while claiming to their base that they were forced to do so. Over time, the Democrats have become very good at playing this role.

When I suggest to such people that the reality is different and that the Democratic Party serves the same oligarchic interests as the Republicans, they get disconcerted and are incredulous. While they have no difficulty believing that the Republican Party is in the pockets of big business, when you suggest that the Democratic Party is also beholden to the same interests, they accuse you of spouting conspiracy theories. It does not seem to strike them that it would be madness for big business to take the risk of having the public vote into power a party that is hostile to their interests, when they have the money to buy both party's leaderships so that whoever wins elections, their interests are protected. If I were the head of Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase or some similar institution, I most certainly would make sure that both parties were bought off so that my interests were protected whoever wins. As Russell Mokhiber says, if you want to see genuine competition between two sides, you shouldn't follow party politics, you should follow sports.

The word 'oligarchy' is not used in such genteel circles because it suggests a single ruling class and that undermines the world they live in. These people are always living in hope that someday the Democratic Party will elect a president who is a true progressive and a fighter for those values that the Congress will enact policies that will benefit ordinary people other than the wealthy. The fact that they believed this of Obama and that they elected big majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008 and that the oligarchy still got whatever they wanted (such as making sure that the health care 'reform' package served their own needs, continuing the expensive but profitable (for them) 'war on terror', getting massive tax breaks for the rich, and laying the groundwork for gutting social security) disappoints them but they find excuses for the Democrats, saying that they were forced into making these concessions. It is astonishing to me how many of them still think that Obama represents the interests of ordinary people despite the evidence to the contrary that he himself has provided in his first two years of office.

Obama's new chief of staff will be William Daley who, for the last seven years has been a senior executive at JP Morgan Chase. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following Obama's political trajectory and his close association with Wall Street firms (especially Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase) that began immediately after he became a US senator, as was carefully documented by Ken Silverstein in Harper's in 2006. (The article is not online, unfortunately, but I have discussed it here.)

It is becoming clear that Obama has no intention of raising taxes on the wealthy as a means of reducing the deficit and the debt. Instead he will use the deficit as an excuse to further assault the middle class and poor by cutting social security and other social welfare programs. I predict that his tax reform proposals will make the tax code even more regressive. His defense will be that it has to be done and if he doesn't do it, the Republicans will be worse.

The problem with the Democratic Party's base is that they are too willing to accept at face value the statements of their party leaders and too quick to be satisfied with small victories on relatively minor issues. See how much they are trumpeting the 'success' of the lame-duck session with its repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the passage of the Zadroga health care legislation as major victories, and overlooking the massive sell-out to the wealthy by the Democrats on the tax deal. While those victories were undoubtedly good and worthwhile, they were essentially bribes paid by the Democratic Party leadership to their base to appease them over the tax giveaway.

I wonder how far Obama and the Democrats can stick a knife into the backs of their supporters before the latter realize that the party leadership is not actually representing their interests. If the members of my social circle are any indication, they have still some way to go because support for Obama is still strong. But this may be because the small population of generally well-to-do people is one for which the trickle-down theory of economics actually works, because the well-to-do actually do benefit from things like tax cuts for the rich because their tax rates also go down as a consequence. The long-term bad effects of these policies for society or the generally poor current economic conditions haven't really affected this group yet, in the way it has those further down the socio-economic ladder.

Next: The Republican Party's con game.

May 07, 2009

American oligarchy-8: An update

I wrote a long series recently on the oligarchy in America, and since then came across some good articles that I thought others might enjoy.

Matt Taibbi reflects on the flip side of a society that tolerates an oligarchy, which is the peasant mentality that prevents people from seeing who their real enemies are and whose anger can be easily misdirected.

Actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields.

Meanwhile Glenn Greenwald further elaborates on how the oligarchy operates.

[Michael] Paese went from Chairman [Barney] Frank's office to be the top lobbyist at Goldman, and shortly before that, Goldman dispatched Paese's predecessor, close Tom Daschle associate Mark Patterson, to be Chief of Staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, himself a protege of former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin and a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of the banking industry. That's all part of what Desmond Lachman -- American Enterprise Institute fellow, former chief emerging market strategist at Salomon Smith Barney and top IMF official (no socialist he) -- recently described as "Goldman Sachs's seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs."

Meanwhile, the above-linked Huffington Post article which reported on [Senator Dick] Durbin's comments [that "The banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."] also notes Sen. Evan Bayh's previously-reported central role on behalf of the bankers in blocking legislation, hated by the banking industry, to allow bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of mortgages so that families can stay in their homes.

And that's not all. As the Wall Street Journal reports (via Washington Monthly):

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York shaped Washington's response to the financial crisis late last year, which buoyed Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other Wall Street firms. Goldman received speedy approval to become a bank holding company in September and a $10 billion capital injection soon after.

During that time, the New York Fed's chairman, Stephen Friedman, sat on Goldman's board and had a large holding in Goldman stock, which because of Goldman's new status as a bank holding company was a violation of Federal Reserve policy.

The New York Fed asked for a waiver, which, after about 2 1/2 months, the Fed granted. While it was weighing the request, Mr. Friedman bought 37,300 more Goldman shares in December. They've since risen $1.7 million in value. (...)

Mr. Friedman, who once ran Goldman, says none of these events involved any conflicts. He says his job as chairman of the New York Fed isn't a policy-making one, that he didn't consider his purchases of more Goldman shares to conflict with Fed policy, and bought shares because they were very cheap.

Conflict of interest means nothing to the members of the oligarchy because they really think they own the country and the rules that apply to you and me are irrelevant to them. You know you are living in an oligarchy when the very rich get into fits of aggrieved rage when even the tiniest of their privileges are taken away. Here are some reactions from Wall Street executives, as reported in a fascinating article in New York magazine.

"No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?" e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

"I'm not giving to charity this year!" one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama's planned tax increases. "When people ask me for money, I tell them, 'If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.' I feel so much less generous right now."

You should read the whole article. The petulant sense of entitlement, their immense sense of self-importance, and their contempt for everyone else, is astounding. They really do live in a different world from you and me.

POST SCRIPT: The Onion on Trekkies reaction to new Star Trek film


Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

April 24, 2009

American oligarchy-7: What needs to be done

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

So where does Barack Obama fit into this picture? We saw him strike various populist themes during the campaign. But it should be clear from the people he has surrounded himself with on economic policy that he too is completely subservient to Wall Street interests. In fact, populist and supposedly liberal Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are far more useful to Wall Street in many ways, because they hide their subservience to Wall Street better. Liberal watchdogs tend to let down their guard and thus allow these politicians to give away the store in ways that Republicans, with their naked greed, would find hard to get away with.

For example, we saw how Bush's dangerous plans to privatize Social Security (which was highly desired by Wall Street because it would have directed a huge gusher of money their way to gamble with) were stymied by strong popular opposition. We need to be equally vigilant when Obama talks of 'reforming' Social Security to make sure that he is not trying to achieve the same results using different language. It seems already clear that Obama's health care reform plans are aimed at further enriching the parasitic health insurance industry, by pushing for universal coverage while not allowing the single-payer option to be considered.

Glenn Greenwald points out that while Obama has talked a good populist game against Wall Street, he has at the same time steadily subverted any real attempts to curtail its power and perks.

It was Obama, in the wake of various scandals over profligate spending by TARP firms, who pretended to ride the wave of populist anger and to lead the way in demanding limits on compensation. And ever since his flamboyant announcement, Obama -- adopting the same approach that seems to drive him in most other areas -- has taken one step after the next to gut and render irrelevant the very compensation limits he publicly pretended to champion (thereafter dishonestly blaming Chris Dodd for doing so and virtually destroying Dodd's political career). And the winners -- as always -- are the same Wall St. firms that caused the crisis in the first place while enriching and otherwise co-opting the very individuals Obama chose to be his top financial officials.

Worse still, what is happening here is an exact analog to what is happening in the realm of Bush war crimes -- the Obama administration's first priority is to protect the wrongdoers and criminals by ensuring that the criminality remains secret.

As much as he campaigned against anything, Obama railed against precisely this sort of incestuous, profoundly corrupt control by narrow private interests of the Government, yet he has chosen to empower the very individuals who most embody that corruption.

This may be disillusioning for those who saw Obama as the knight in shining armor riding in to Washington to usher in a new era of clean government. But the signs were there long ago that Obama was hopelessly enmeshed in the same networks of influence peddlers as the previous administrations, and I warned back in February 2008 that we should not expect too much from him except on a few social issues.

Ken Silverstein wrote a prophetic article titled Barack Obama Inc.: The birth of a Washington machine way back in the November 2006 issue of Harper's magazine about Obama's rapidly growing links to Wall Street.

Yet it is also startling to see how quickly Obama's senatorship has been woven into the web of institutionalized influence-trading that afflicts official Washington. He quickly established a political machine funded and run by a standard Beltway group of lobbyists, P.R. consultants, and hangers-on. For the staff post of policy director he hired Karen Kornbluh, a senior aide to Robert Rubin when the latter, as head of the Treasury Department under Bill Clinton, was a chief advocate for NAFTA and other free-trade policies that decimated the nation's manufacturing sector (and the organized labor wing of the Democratic Party). Obama's top contributors are corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, where four attorneys are fund-raisers for Obama as well as donors), Wall Street financial houses (Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase), and big Chicago interests (Henry Crown and Company, an investment firm that has stakes in industries ranging from telecommunications to defense).

[Mike] Williams [vice president for legislative affairs at The Bond Market Association that represents Wall Street firms] subsequently set up a conference call between Obama and a group of financial-industry lobbyists. That, too, went well, and in June of 2004, Williams helped organize "a little fund-raiser" for Obama at The Bond Market Association. "It wasn't just the financial community. There was a broad cross-section," he said of the 200 or so people who turned out. "There was overwhelming support, not just people from associations giving $2,000 but from individuals who just wanted to meet him, giving smaller contributions."

It's not always clear what Obama's financial backers want, but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform. And although Obama is by no means a mouthpiece for his funders, it appears that he's not entirely indifferent to their desires either.

Consider the case of Illinois-based Exelon Corporation, the nation's leading nuclear-power-plant operator. The firm is Obama's fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on the 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects. The loan guarantees were called "one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation" by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste; the public will not only pay millions of dollars in loan costs but will risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default.

In one of his earliest votes, Obama joined a bloc of mostly conservative and moderate Senate Democrats who helped pass a G.O.P.-driven class-action "reform" bill. The bill had been long sought by a coalition of business groups and was lobbied for aggressively by financial firms, which constitute Obama's second biggest single bloc of donors.

All of this has forged a political culture that is intrinsically hostile to reform. On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a "player." The lobbyist added: "What's the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?""

So what can we, the people, do? We must not abandon the electoral process because of disgust at the way the rules have been rigged against us. People matter, candidates matter, and elections matter. On balance, it is better to have an elected official sympathetic to your position than one who is hostile. But we have to stop putting our trust in people, thinking that what matters is getting the "right" people, "our" people, in power, and that then they will do the right thing, at least from our point of view. We have to stop thinking that the labels 'liberal' and 'conservative', Democrat and Republican, signify anything other than where a candidate stands on a few social issues. We should stop spending so much time trying to figure out who the 'good' people are and who the 'bad' people are and instead focus on what they actually do.

Strong moneyed forces will constantly try to get elected officials to act against the interests of the public. Hence it is more important to look at the actions of elected officials, to support and praise those that are good and not hesitate to criticize, even strongly, actions that are wrong, irrespective of party or ideological labels, whether they are done by "our" people or "their" people. It means paying attention to and supporting those watchdog groups that keep track of important issues.

This means not getting distracted by the sideshows put on for our benefit by the media and political leaders, usually around social issues. Those are all smoke and mirrors. Right now there is genuine and widespread anger about what people see as the looting of the public by powerful interests. This is dangerous for the oligarchy and there will be attempts to deflect this anger away from the real culprits. The silly tea parties promoted by Fox News (a reliable water carrier for the oligarchy) are one such attempt at distraction, trying to make people think that raising the marginal tax rate from 36% to 39.6% and thus raising the taxes of those earning above $250,000 is the problem. As a result we had the bizarre spectacle of people being persuaded to protest that their taxes were being lowered, unless the people attending the tea parties constituted the top 2-3% of income earners.

In the case of financial issues, there is only one weapon that the public has to stop the relentless looting of the public treasury, and that is to be loud and vocal and demand that elected officials, even if (and especially if) we see them as "our" people, act in the public interest.

POST SCRIPT: Still waiting for Mr. Smith

In the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart plays an idealistic person who goes to Washington as a US Senator and confronts the corruption he finds there. Sadly, Barack Obama is no Mr. Smith.

April 23, 2009

American oligarchy-6: The victories of the oligarchy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his article in the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic magazine titled The Quiet Coup, Former chief economist of the IMF Simon Johnson lists the fruits of the collusion between both political parties and Wall Street interests.

From this confluence of campaign finance, personal connections, and ideology there flowed, in just the past decade, a river of deregulatory policies that is, in hindsight, astonishing:

  • insistence on free movement of capital across borders;
  • the repeal of Depression-era regulations separating commercial and investment banking;
  • a congressional ban on the regulation of credit-default swaps;
  • major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks;
  • a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement;
  • an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness;
  • and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation.

Just examine that list for a moment. Did you hear about any of those important actions while they were being carried out? Were there front page news reports and commentary on them? Loud arguments? Highly publicized congressional hearings? Fierce partisan debates? When all that was going on, was there any attempt at informing the public of the potential consequences of these wide-ranging decisions? Of course not. The chances are that during those times our attention was focused on Monica Lewinsky, Terri Schiavo, gay marriage, Chandra Levy, Valerie Plame, and the like. This is why observing politics has to be like watching a magician. If you look at what your attention is being drawn to, you are missing what is actually happening. The real action takes place in obscure committee hearings, at the regulatory bodies, in private meetings between members of government and the heads of the financial firms, over lunch and dinner and on golf courses.

Did you notice how in the fall of 2008, as we lurched daily from crisis to crisis as one big firm after another like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers fell, we were presented by the Treasury and Federal Reserve officials with 'solutions' to the problems that had been worked out seemingly overnight involving the taxpayer-subsidized purchase of one major institution by another that involved hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars? The only way that consensus could be reached so quickly and smoothly on such major actions was if there had always been collusion between the government and the financial firms involved and they saw their interests as one and the same.

Simon Johnson continues:

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand.

This latest plan—which is likely to provide cheap loans to hedge funds and others so that they can buy distressed bank assets at relatively high prices—has been heavily influenced by the financial sector, and Treasury has made no secret of that.

Johnson says that the same remedies that the IMF routinely gives to developing countries in similar financial crisis should also apply to the US. But they are not, because the American oligarchy is immune to the pressure that the IMF can put on oligarchies in other countries. The American oligarchy is not responsible to anyone.

As the IMF understands (and as the U.S. government itself has insisted to multiple emerging-market countries in the past), the most direct way to do this is nationalization… Nationalization would not imply permanent state ownership. The IMF’s advice would be, essentially: scale up the standard Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation process.

This may seem like strong medicine. But in fact, while necessary, it is insufficient.

Then Johnson gets to the crux of the problem and what must be done. When reading it, remember that Johnson is a centrist technocrat, not some ideologue, and his understanding comes from dealing with many countries that have gone through financial crises.

The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy—is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy. (my italics)

But the IMF is not going to give this advice to the US because the US oligarchy, through the US government, pretty much dictates IMF policies.

The only way that the oligarchy will be broken is if the public demands it.

Next: Barack Obama's role

POST SCRIPT: God as CEO

When you look at god's actions as revealed in the Bible, you realize that he is not very good at strategic long-range planning, preferring to go for cheap and popular gimmicks. But not to worry! His apologists know how to explain away all the absurdities and contradictions.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

April 22, 2009

American oligarchy-5: How Wall Street builds its power

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous posts, we saw how people with connections to big Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs are everywhere in government, especially in key economic policy-making positions, so that whichever party wins, their interests are protected and advanced.

In his article in the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic magazine titled The Quiet Coup, Simon Johnson explains how firms like Goldman Sachs have carefully cultivated their power structure.

[T]he American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. Robert Rubin, once the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, served in Washington as Treasury secretary under Clinton, and later became chairman of Citigroup’s executive committee. Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs during the long boom, became Treasury secretary under George W.Bush. John Snow, Paulson’s predecessor, left to become chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, a large private-equity firm that also counts Dan Quayle among its executives. Alan Greenspan, after leaving the Federal Reserve, became a consultant to Pimco, perhaps the biggest player in international bond markets.

These personal connections were multiplied many times over at the lower levels of the past three presidential administrations, strengthening the ties between Washington and Wall Street. It has become something of a tradition for Goldman Sachs employees to go into public service after they leave the firm. The flow of Goldman alumni—including Jon Corzine, now the governor of New Jersey, along with Rubin and Paulson—not only placed people with Wall Street’s worldview in the halls of power; it also helped create an image of Goldman (inside the Beltway, at least) as an institution that was itself almost a form of public service.

Recall that once in a while, a maverick like Brooksley Born gets into a position such as head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, where she could be a thorn in the side of the oligarchy. I described how the oligarchy was able to marginalize her and neutralize her efforts and force her to leave. To make sure that that does not happen again, they then put their own people in that slot. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

More amazingly still, the CFTC, headed back then by Born, is now headed by Obama appointee Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive (naturally) who was as instrumental as anyone in blocking any regulations of those derivative markets (and then enriched himself by feeding on those unregulated markets).

Just think about how this works. People like Rubin, Summers and Gensler shuffle back and forth from the public to the private sector and back again, repeatedly switching places with their GOP counterparts in this endless public/private sector looting. When in government, they ensure that the laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall St. firms, literally abolishing all safeguards and allowing them to pillage and steal. Then, when out of government, they return to those very firms and collect millions upon millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented when in government. Then, when their party returns to power, they return back to government, where they continue to use their influence to ensure that the oligarchical circle that rewards them so massively is protected and advanced. This corruption is so tawdry and transparent -- and it has fueled and continues to fuel a fraud so enormous and destructive as to be unprecedented in both size and audacity -- that it is mystifying that it is not provoking more mass public rage.

And of course Obama nominee Gensler was confirmed in his post without a single dissenting vote in the Senate Agriculture Committee, a perfect example of bipartisan subservience to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert's anti-gay marriage ad

A group called the National Organization for Marriage has put out an ad opposing gay marriage. Stephen Colbert thinks that ad doesn't go far enough and ups the ante.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Colbert Coalition's Anti-Gay Marriage Ad
colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest

April 21, 2009

American oligarchy-4: How oligarchies work

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He used to be the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and in that role had to deal with many countries in financial crisis and had plenty of experience with oligarchies. He is hardly an ideologue. In fact, he calls himself a 'centrist technocrat', which is the kind of person that these international financial institutions usually have in their technical divisions. But yet he has no hesitation in identifying the current financial crisis in the US as caused by the same kind of oligarchies that he encountered in his dealings with developing countries in crisis. In a must-read article titled The Quiet Coup that appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic magazine, he describes how oligarchies work and how they end up ruining the economies of countries.

The problem is that because these oligarchies exert such enormous influence and power over their governments, they feel that normal market forces and business constraints that restrain lesser players do not apply to them. Hence they take much greater risks and when disaster strikes, as it inevitably will, they then turn to their friends and clients in the government to bail them out. This is exactly what has happened in the US.

Johnson says that when a crisis hits, countries come to the IMF for assistance. While the proximate causes of each country's crisis differs, the ultimate causes all have a depressingly similar pattern that could be traced to the existence of an oligarchy. He says that while the economic solutions to each crisis are not hard to figure out, the biggest obstacle to recovery is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis.

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders.

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms.

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets)… But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive.

He says that while people can identify various proximate causes for the collapse, "these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside."

Ultimately, it comes down to power. Who controls the government? The financial oligarchy in the US started running the country during the Reagan years and have continued to do so throughout all the administrations since. They prefer to do their work quietly behind the scenes while public attention is focused elsewhere such as on abortion or gay marriage or immigration or other hot-button social issues.

What the current crisis has done is threaten to rip the veil and expose how the government is really run and for whose benefit. When that is exposed, the people can rise up in angry protest so it becomes imperative to close the curtain again, to say that the problem is over, things are back to normal, nothing to see here, move along now. This is why they are rushing through major policies involving trillions of dollars practically overnight, so that they can claim that everything is back to normal. What they want to avoid is a close examination of what caused the crisis and what steps should be taken to prevent future ones.

Part of this strategy is to distract people with other issues. So you will see a concerted effort to exaggerate foreign policy issues or even create absurd events like the recent silly tea parties to protest the rise in the marginal tax rates for the highest income to 39.6%, although the new tax polices affects only raises the taxes of people earning over $250,000. Fortunately, the religious right or Christianist element in society seems to be in decline so the usual reliable standbys for distraction such as homosexuality, abortion, stem cells, and the like do not seem to be effective. People seem to be too worried about retaining their own job and homes to care about these other things. Even the frenetic cheerleading by Fox News (a faithful servant of the oligarchy) was unable to whip up more than lukewarm interest in the tea parties.

What Simon Johnson says is that there is a quiet power struggle going on behind the scenes between the government and the financial oligarchy to see who runs the show. In an interview on Fresh Air, Johnson says that the big financial firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are already chafing at the restrictions placed on them by virtue of having received funds under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), and have publicly announced that they want to prematurely pay it back, though they are not going to pay back the billions that were secretly channeled to them via AIG.

(Incidentally, it has just been revealed that Edward Liddy, the head of AIG when it did the secret channeling of billions to Goldman Sachs, has $3 million stock in Goldman Sachs stock, received as compensation for serving on Goldman's board before he moved to AIG in September 2008. We see that it is all a nice and cozy quid-pro-quo relationship. The phrase "conflict of interest" means nothing to these people. They see the role of the government as being to serve their personal interests and that of their companies.)

Johnson says that this is a test of power. If the government caves in and lets them get out from under TARP, it will mean that the oligarchy definitely is calling the shots. If the government can resist, then it means that people have a chance of regaining control.

I think Johnson is too sanguine to think that there is still a struggle for control between Wall Street and the government. I think that Wall Street won a long time ago and the real 'struggle', such as it is, is to find ways to once again hide their domination of the people elected to allegedly represent us.

POST SCRIPT: Trailer for 10 things I hate about commandments


April 20, 2009

American oligarchy-3: Welcome to the club

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is not just Geithner who is a slave to Wall Street interests. Key economic advisor in the Obama administration Lawrence Summers, although he comes from academia, is also enmeshed in that world. In just 2008 alone, Summers received $5.2 million from the hedge fund firm D. E. Shaw. Mind you, he was still a full-time professor at Harvard at that time, so this was for just part-time work. (Jonathan Schwarz breaks down the links to all his financial dealings.)

Summers also received $135,000 as a speaking fee for two speeches given at Goldman Sachs, the company that has been, and continues to be, a huge beneficiary of the bailout. (Recall that the previous Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and before that Robert Rubin also used to head that same firm). At that time, Summers was already heavily involved in the Democratic campaign and it was clear that he would be a major player in either the Obama or Clinton administration. So Goldman Sach was likely buying "insurance" or, as Glenn Greenwald says, paying an "advanced bribe", making sure that a friendly face would be in a major decision making position in the new Democratic administration, since they could not pay him once he joined the administration.

Here's another examination by David Sirota of the close-knit and like-minded people from both parties who control economic policy.

At the top is Lawrence Summers, the director of Obama's National Economic Council. As Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary in the late 1990s, Summers worked with his deputy, Tim Geithner (now Obama's Treasury secretary), and Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel (now Obama's chief of staff) to champion job-killing trade deals and deregulation that Obama Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg helped shepherd through Congress as a Republican senator. Now, this pinstriped band of brothers is proposing a "cash for trash" scheme that would force the public to guarantee the financial industry's bad loans. It's another ploy "to hand taxpayer dollars to the banks through a variety of complex mechanisms," says economist Dean Baker—and noticeably absent is anything even resembling a "rival" voice inside the White House.

This financial oligarchy makes sure that those who are not with the program of letting the big financial firms have unfettered control over the economy get shut out of power. The story of Brooksley Born, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is illustrative. She describes how her efforts in the 1990s to bring the wild derivative markets that caused the current crisis under regulation was vigorously opposed and defeated by a coalition of Alan Greenspan (then head of the Federal Reserve), then Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration Robert Rubin (who used to head Goldman Sachs), and Lawrence Summers. Her story shows the bi-partisan nature of the protection given to Wall Street's interests.

As chairperson of the CFTC, Born advocated reining in the huge and growing market for financial derivatives. Derivatives get their name because the value is derived from fluctuations in, for example, interest rates or foreign exchange. They started out as ways for big corporations and banks to manage their risk across a range of investments. One type of derivative—known as a credit-default swap—has been a key contributor to the economy's recent unraveling.

Back in the 1990s, however, Born's proposal stirred an almost visceral response from other regulators in the Clinton administration, as well as members of Congress and lobbyists. The economy was sailing along, and the growth of derivatives was considered a sign of American innovation and a symbol of the virtues of deregulation. The instruments were also a growing cash cow for the Wall Street firms that peddled them to eager takers.

Ultimately, Greenspan and the other regulators foiled Born's efforts, and Congress took the extraordinary step of enacting legislation that prohibited her agency from taking any action. Born left government and returned to her private law practice in Washington. (my italics)

Speaking out for the first time, Born says she takes no pleasure from the turn of events. She says she was just doing her job based on the evidence in front of her. Looking back, she laments what she says was the outsized influence of Wall Street lobbyists on the process, and the refusal of her fellow regulators, especially Greenspan, to discuss even modest reforms. "Recognizing the dangers . . . was not rocket science, but it was contrary to the conventional wisdom and certainly contrary to the economic interests of Wall Street at the moment," she says.

All this occurred during Bill Clinton's administration during which Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for most of the time. So the concept of 'divided government' applies only as long as Wall Street interests are not involved. We see that all these people from across the political spectrum, so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, Democrats and Republicans, united to give Wall Street a free hand by removing restrictions from the financial institutions and thus sowed the seeds of the current crisis, showing how the financial oligarchy maintains continuity even though political parties come and go.

Alan Greenspan was such a die-hard Ayn Rand devotee that he even told Bonds that he did not think there should be any laws against fraud because the market would take care of things. We saw how well that turned out. The problem is that in an oligarchic system as currently exists, market forces only apply to powerless people. When the markets turn against the big financial interests, they have the power and influence to get the government to use taxpayer money to bail them out. Oligarchies never lose unless there is a popular revolt.

POST SCRIPT: The need for strong oversight

Jon Stewart has an excellent two-part interview with Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), who has been charged with overseeing the current bailout.

Part 1 explains what is going on now and part 2 explains clearly how we got into this mess and what we need to do in the future.

Part 1:

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Elizabeth Warren Pt. 1
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Part 2:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
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My concern is that because Warren seems to be honest and smart, she may be seen as a thorn in the side of the oligarchy which will try to make her serve as the usual window dressing to make it look as if there is accountability when in reality there is none. It seems clear that she is already being slowly frozen out of the information loop by the Obama administration. I wonder how long it will be before she quits in frustration, like Brooksley Born.

April 17, 2009

American oligarchy-2: The fraud on the American people

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Obama's nominee to be chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, had to withdraw her nomination following the revelation that she had a mere $946.69 lien on her property in 2005 for failure to pay taxes ($298 in unemployment compensation for household help, $48.69 in interest, and $600.00 in penalties.) This was a fairly trivial issue.

Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle had to also withdraw over the failure to pay a much larger amount of $140,000 in taxes but there was a faintly plausible case of ambiguity there. I was glad Daschle withdrew for a different reason, because he is completely enmeshed with all kinds of lobbying interests.

So why was Timothy Geithner able to beat his far more serious problems and become confirmed for the position of Treasury Secretary? Because Obama and the Democratic leadership wanted him badly enough, and so did the Republicans. Why? Because he will continue the practice of subordinating the interests of the US to the financial oligarchy. It is not hard to see why he was favored by Wall Street and thus secured his nomination fairly easily despite his tax problems.

This New York Times article relates how Geithner fought to protect the interests of the big banks during internal debates on how to handle the financial crisis. Economist Michael Hudson explains why the big Wall Street players wanted Geithner to succeed Paulson as Treasury Secretary. "[T]he Obama-Geithner recovery plan is basically an extension of the Bush-Paulson plan – yet more giveaways to financial insiders, with a view to concentrating the U.S. banking system into a cartel of just a few large banks."

The recent plan adopted by Geithner has the government putting up at least 85% of the money to buy these mortgage-backed assets of dubious value, with private investors putting up just 15%. If the assets rise in value, the profits are split 50-50. If the assets lose value, however, the government bears the brunt of the losses. So Wall Street gets the upside and the taxpayer gets the downside. Economist Michael Hudson calls it a scam and explains why this plan was greeted with such enthusiasm by the banking sector.

Suppose a bank is sitting on a $10 million package of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that was put together by, say, Countrywide out of junk mortgages. Given the high proportion of fraud (and a recent Fitch study found that every package it examined was rife with financial fraud), this package may be worth at most only $2 million as defaults loom on Alt-A "liars' loan" mortgages and subprime mortgages where the mortgage brokers also have lied in filling out the forms for hapless borrowers or witting operators taking out mortgages at far more than properties were worth and pocketing the excess.

The bank now offers $3 million to buy back this mortgage. What the hell, the more they bid, the more they get from the government. So why not bid $5 million. (In practice, friendly banks may bid for each other's junk CDOs.) The government – that is, the hapless FDIC – puts up 85 per cent of $5 million to buy this – namely, $4,250,000. The bank only needs to put up 15 per cent – namely, $750,000.

Here's the rip-off as I see it. For an outlay of $750,000, the bank rids its books of a mortgage worth $2 million, for which it receives $4,250,000. It gets twice as much as the junk is worth.

The more the banks holding junk mortgages pay for this toxic waste, the more the government will pay as part of its 85 per cent. So the strategy is to overpay, overpay, and overpay. Paying 15 per cent is a small price to pay for getting the government to put in 85 per cent to take the most toxic waste off your books.

Another economist Dean Baker explains the real purpose of these plans. "Mr. Geithner wants to use taxpayer dollars to keep bankrupt banks in business. In effect, he wants to tax teachers, fire fighters, and Joe the Plumber to protect the wealth of the banks' shareholders and to pay high salaries to their top executives."

Others economists have voiced their concerns. In an interview with Bill Moyers, William K. Black, a professor of economics and law with the University of Missouri, alleges that a massive fraud is being perpetrated on the American taxpayer. As Raw Story summarizes:

In an explosive interview on PBS' Bill Moyers Journal, William K. Black, a professor of economics and law with the University of Missouri, alleged that American banks and credit agencies conspired to create a system in which so-called "liars loans" could receive AAA ratings and zero oversight, amounting to a massive "fraud" at the epicenter of US finance.

But worse still, said Black, Timothy Geithner, President Barack Obama's Secretary of the Treasury, is currently engaged in a cover-up to keep the truth of America's financial insolvency from its citizens.

Black goes on to also describe other shenanigans.

Under Secretary Geithner and under Secretary Paulson before him... we took $5 billion dollars, for example, in U.S. taxpayer money. And sent it to a huge Swiss Bank called UBS. At the same time that that bank was defrauding the taxpayers of America. And we were bringing a criminal case against them. We eventually get them to pay a $780 million fine, but wait, we gave them $5 billion. So, the taxpayers of America paid the fine of a Swiss Bank. And why are we bailing out somebody who that is defrauding us?

The Bush administration and now the Obama administration kept secret from us what was being done with AIG. AIG was being used secretly to bail out favored banks like UBS and like Goldman Sachs. Secretary Paulson's firm, that he had come from being CEO. It got the largest amount of money. $12.9 billion. And they didn't want us to know that. And it was only Congressional pressure, and not Congressional pressure, by the way, on Geithner, but Congressional pressure on AIG.

Geithner is just the symbol of the oligarchy. Bill Moyers concludes, and Black agrees, "that people in power, political power, and financial power, act in concert when their own behinds are in the ringer."

More on that in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Our Goldman Sachs dominated oligarchy

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Clusterfu#@k to the Poor House - Goldman Sachs' Connections
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April 16, 2009

American oligarchy

If there is one thing that the current financial crisis has revealed, it is the stranglehold that the big financial interests have on the American government. From the beginning it has been clear that the same interests that caused the financial crisis are the ones that control both the Bush and Obama administrations and that they are making sure that they are the ones who benefit most from the various high-cost "rescue" and "stimulus" packages that have been floated. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed that the way in which the Obama administration is slavishly adhering to satisfy the needs of the major financial interests on Wall Street.

This will be unwelcome news for those Obama fans who thought their candidate would be different. So far Barack Obama's administration seems to be acting consistently with the model that states that the US is run by a pro-war/pro-business one party oligarchy with two factions that differ only on some social issues.

Exhibit #1 is Timothy Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury. He was one of the many Obama nominees who had problems with their past tax payments. But Geither's case was the most serious because it was clear that he was not paying taxes in a manner that suggested willful deception. There is no way that he could not have known that he was doing something wrong by not paying his Social Security or Medicare taxes while he was at the International Monetary Fund, unless he is such a financial idiot that he should not be Treasury Secretary. The Wall Street Journal describes the problem:

As an international body, the IMF doesn't withhold taxes for U.S. citizens, and employees are responsible for paying their taxes. The IMF pays employees additional tax allowances to cover federal and state income taxes, and the employer's portion of payroll taxes.

Mr. Geithner prepared his own federal-tax returns during the first two years he worked at the IMF, 2001 and 2002, according to the Senate Finance Committee report.

"The IMF informs U.S. employees about their tax allowance and what it covers and doesn't cover -- and that includes paying your payroll taxes," said Michael Mussa, a former IMF chief economist, who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "The IMF doesn't leave this out."

An IMF booklet on taxes, which Mr. Geithner told the Senate panel he received, instructed employees that "you pay the employee's share of U.S. Social Security taxes."

Mr. Geithner's quarterly tax-allowance payments also included a statement of what the money was to be used for, and had an entry for "SE tax" -- meaning "self-employment" taxes. In a wrinkle in U.S. tax law, U.S. citizens at the IMF pay Social Security and Medicare taxes as if they were self-employed. Current and former IMF officials said that U.S. officials widely understood "SE tax" to mean payroll taxes."

I, like Geithner, do my own taxes and there is no way that you can do that without knowing what 'SE tax' means. I have been paying self-employment taxes (to cover Social Security and Medicare) every year on the small extra income I get from book royalties and consulting and speaking fees. It is quite simple and straightforward.

Current and former IMF officials said the fund provided numerous warnings to U.S. employees about payroll taxes. According to IMF documents released by the Senate Finance panel, Mr. Geithner regularly received information about his tax obligations.

Mr. Geithner didn't make any Social Security or Medicare tax payments on his income during the years he worked for the IMF, though he did pay income taxes. After the Internal Revenue Service audited him in 2006 and discovered the payroll-tax errors, Mr. Geithner corrected them for 2003 and 2004. Only after Mr. Obama picked him for Treasury secretary last fall did Mr. Geithner pay the Social Security and Medicare tax he owed for 2001 and 2002.

So even after being audited and having paid back taxes for two years, he did not pay for the other years even though he must have known that the same problem existed there. To me, this was such an egregious act that Geithner's nomination should have been rejected. But he was confirmed quite easily, which immediately indicated to me then that he was a faithful servant of the oligarchy and that he would faithfully serve Wall Street interests.

As veteran investigative reporters Don Bartlett and Jim Steele said :

The reason we said that Geithner’s was far more egregious is this. He signed a piece of paper acknowledging that he owed both taxes while he was employed by the IMF. He then collected the money from IMF to pay the taxes. Now, most of us, you know, the payroll taxes are withheld. We don’t get reimbursed for those taxes. It comes out of our own pocket. But Mr. Geithner not only signed a paper acknowledging he owed taxes, he collected money to pay the taxes and then didn’t pay them and pocketed the money. This is why it was far more egregious for him and why—you know, the New York Times demanded that Tom Daschle withdraw, and he did. But the same demand was not put on Mr. Geithner.

If this was a real two-party system, you would think that the Republicans would jump at this chance at embarrassing the incoming president by highlighting the faults of his important cabinet pick. But in a one-party oligarchy, it is the interests of the oligarchy that must be served first and Republicans know that.

A number of senators, including Republicans, continued to express their support for Mr. Geithner. "These are not the times to think in small political terms," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "He has a great résumé."

Yes, he certainly does. A resume that screams that he will do Wall Street's bidding, and what's not to like about that?

POST SCRIPT: The other side of piracy

Johann Hari of the London Independent says there is another side to the pirate story that we are not being told.

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it."

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving.

This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".

No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas." William Scott would understand.

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?

The whole article is worth reading for its history of how pirates arose in the 17th century as a reaction to the extreme hardship and cruelties suffered by sailors in the merchant and regular navies of that time. Rather than being thought of as evildoers, they were initially seen by the general public as romantic heroes, rebels against oppression. Their transformation in the public mind into senseless and savage bandits was the result of a concerted propaganda campaign by the British government.