Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Surging Populist Rage

In this morning's New York Times, the invaluable social critic Frank Rich writes about a familiar theme on this blog, namely the catastrophic policies set forth by both parties in the 1999 repeal of the depression era reform bill "The Glass Steagall Act" and the even more disastrous foundation for our current crisis, "The Commodities Futures and Modernization Act of 2000." From Rich:

Key players in the Obama economic team beyond Geithner are also tied to Rubin or Citigroup or both, from Larry Summers, the administration’s top economic adviser, to Gary Gensler, the newly named nominee to run the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and a Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Back then, Summers and Gensler joined hands with Phil Gramm to ward off regulation of the derivative markets that have since brought the banking system to ruin. We must take it on faith that they have subsequently had judgment transplants.
Truly any American should be concerned that the usual suspects of the 1990's whose policies caused so much international turmoil at the time, and whose policies (along with Chairman Alan Greenspan) set the stage for the gathering storm of the past eight years that culminated in this crisis of our own making we face today. Chillingly, Rich suggests that these players may not be fully rehabilitated.

A welcome outlier to this club is Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman chosen to direct Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. But Bloomberg reported last week that Summers is already freezing Volcker out of many of his deliberations on economic policy. This sounds like the arrogant Summers who was fired as president of Harvard, not the chastened new Summers advertised at the time of his appointment. A team of rivals is not his thing.

Americans have had enough of such arrogance, whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican.

My greatest concern is about "the arrogant" Larry Summers. And while I have to honor a confidentiality oath, I can say that Summers is one of the creepiest people I have ever met and listened to in person, when he was President of Harvard University. One gets the sense that this man's sense of self-supremacy is unlimited and untempered even by recent years' evidence of his past failures. He is brilliant, the youngest professor ever to be tenured at Harvard University, practically at the moment he received his PhD. But academic brilliance does not translate into policy brilliance, which is fraught with unintended consequences if implemented poorly. This man rose too far too fast and was handed policy reigns when he should have been relegated to an advisory position and nothing more.

In 1999, he succeeded Rubin as Secretary of the Treasury. A year later, he was, with Alan Greenspan and Rubin, a leading advocate of the derivatives deregulation. Also during his stint in the Clinton administration, Summers was successful in pushing for capital gains tax cuts.

Larry Summers also deserves credit for advocating Washington Consensus policies during the Asian Financial Crisis. He eschewed Keynesian policies in favor of fiscal austerity, forcing the Korean government to raise its interest rates and balance its budget in the midst of a recession, policies criticized by liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.[2] According to the book The Chastening, by Paul Blustein, during this crisis, Summers, along with Paul Wolfowitz, pushed for regime change in Indonesia. On May 4, 1998, when the Indonesian government began to raise fuel prices as part of an IMF program in exchange for hard currency, students started to protest, and in the ensuing riots, hundreds burned to death as blazes swept shopping centers in Jakarta.[2]

During the California energy crisis of 2000, then-Treasury Secretary Summers teamed with Alan Greenspan and Enron executive Kenneth Lay to lecture California Governor Gray Davis on the causes of the crisis, explaining that the problem was excessive government regulation.[4] Under the advice of Kenneth Lay, Summers urged Davis to relax California's environmental standards in order to reassure the markets. [5] It was later conclusively revealed that Enron traders were the cause of the California electricity crisis.

Here's a taste of the 1990's shenanigans by Summers and his ilk, and now ask yourself whether you want these "thinkers" in charge of turning around the American economic crisis we face.

Many critics of trade liberalization... see the Washington Consensus as a way to open the labor market of underdeveloped economies to exploitation by companies from more developed economies. The prescribed reductions in tariffs and other trade barriers allow the free movement of goods across borders according to market forces, but labor is not permitted to move freely due to the requirements of a visa or a work permit. This creates an economic climate where goods are manufactured using cheap labor in underdeveloped economies and then exported to rich First World economies for sale at what the critics argue are huge markups, with the balance of the markup said to accrue to large Multinational corporations. The criticism is that workers in the Third World economy nevertheless remain poor, as any pay raises they may have received over what they made before trade liberalization are said to be offset by inflation, whereas workers in the First World country become unemployed, while the wealthy owners of the multinational grow even more wealthy.

[C]ritics further claim that First World countries impose what the critics describe as the consensus's neoliberal policies on economically vulnerable countries through organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and by political pressure and bribery. They argue that the Washington Consensus has not, in fact, led to any great economic boom in Latin America, but rather to severe economic crises and the accumulation of crippling external debts that render the target country beholden to the First World.

Bear in mind that all the globalization of that decade still led to unending massive trade deficits that helped mushroom the national debt more in the last eight years than in all prior American history combined. Now our foreign debt is held by Japan and China, and our economy is subject to enormous economic and political threats by our adversaries. To me, that is not good policy, Professor Summers.

I had the good fortune to hear a small-room lecture by a past-president of a small Latin American nation, a man who experienced the ravages of the IMF first-hand and was ousted from his position because of his own country's crisis. This stuff is not theory.

Further alarming is Rich's claim that Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan's predecessor whose leadership of the Fed laid the policy groundwork to save America from its last economic crisis in the late 70's to early 80's, is being "shut out" by Larry Summers today. Here's Volcker's previous work:

Paul Volcker, a Democrat[4], was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve in August 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and reappointed in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.[5]

Volcker's Fed is widely credited with ending the United States' stagflation crisis of the 1970s. Inflation, which peaked at 13.5% in 1981, was successfully lowered to 3.2% by 1983.
While our current crisis is different in nature to be sure, it is no less urgent and its eventual solutions will be no less controversial than the policies Volcker implemented in the early 80's to arrest the inflationary spiral of that time.

The New "1/20" Rule
Here's where the new "populist rage" enters, as millions of Americans find themselves very recently out of work in the last three months alone. Again from Rich:
But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression.
Yes, it's hard to believe, harder to fathom, that only 1% of the American population received more than 20% of the entire national income. When candidate Barack Obama said inartfully that he wanted to "spread the wealth," he wasn't talking about socialism. He was talking about this issue, about the need to rebuild the middle class, which brought this country to the peak of its economic and global power in the 20th century, so that more people can earn a better share of the nation's "pie," and so we can make it as big as we possibly can, together. That's not welfare. It's not socialism. It's how to build a healthy, diversified, and strong national democratic capitalist economy.

The strongest punch and thematic statement from Mr. Rich comes in his opening paragraphs this morning. And if the president, the senate, and the congress do not come to terms with this warning soon, it won't just be "the president's best-laid plans" that get "maimed."
SOMEDAY historians may look back at Tom Daschle’s flameout as a minor one-car (and chauffeur) accident. But that will depend on whether or not it’s followed by a multi-vehicle pileup that still could come. Even as President Obama refreshingly took responsibility for having “screwed up,” it’s not clear that he fully understands the huge forces that hit his young administration last week.

The tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than Daschle’s overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain’s trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.’s bonus. It’s even bigger than the Obama phenomenon itself. It could maim the president’s best-laid plans and what remains of our economy if he doesn’t get in front of the mounting public anger.