March 11, 2013
Republicans now are rediscovering the “middle class”. Rubio made sure to make “middle class” the focus of his SOTU reply. It’s a welcome about face in a party that just a few months ago was celebrating business owners (as opposed to people who work for them) on Labor Day. It wasn’t surprising: the current Republican dogma coalesced around the idea that only business owners work hard; everyone else is either lazy or not entrepreneurial enough. In Republican mind, whoever didn’t become business owner or “made payroll” is implicitly a lesser member of society, a leech and a moocher.
Republicans love to keep their focus on inflation: there was no shortage of dire warnings coming from the right quarters about inflation that was just around the corner. The inflation that they had in mind never materialized, but in the meantime the other type of inflation – labor inflation has been devastating the communities for decades but received little attention of the doomsayers.
Back in the day, the time that many conservatives are nostalgic about, the 1950-60s, it was possible for a man with a high-school diploma to work at a factory and get paid enough to provide a middle-class lifestyle for his entire family. For a man with a college degree the career paths were wide-open and his chances of successful employment were even more robust. To achieve and maintain a middle-class lifestyle one didn’t need a double-income family and didn’t need to leave home and 6am and get home at 12am and be available on weekends. Since then “success” has been redefined. To be considered successful these days you have to negate your own self and turn into a machine.
Toiling away from paycheck to paycheck and working harder and longer hours is required nowadays just to keep one’s head above water. The world where business owners work 24/7/365 and everyone else works from 9 to 5 with an hour break for lunch is a fantasy. Let’s examine a minimum wage worker working shifts at Walmart. If he or she works 8 hours a day they would make roughly $15K a year. I would argue that if this person is presented with an opportunity to work longer hours or find another part-time job, say, at nearby Taco Bell, he would take it. Many do. We’ve all heard stories about people working 2-3 jobs. Or let’s even take an average Wall Street employee: no matter how entrepreneurial they might feel about themselves – they are still just glorified salary workers (with bonus). They are expected to be on-call 24/7 checking their blackberries at night and on weekends and they have acquiesced to this way of life as a default and some, in some masochistic way, even consider it a badge of honor. Working hard and especially reveling in your hard work is as American as apple pie. Our entire way of life now is treating the best-case scenario as a base-case scenario. In other words, there were times when working 8-hour days meant to be average and working 12-hour days and weekends meant to be successful. Now, for many, to work 12-hour days plus weekends is a given, a base-case scenario.
Humans have a great adaptive mechanism – we can get used to many things and we can accomplish remarkable feats especially if we’re in a survival mode. But we can only stretch our productivity so much, and after a certain point more workload becomes detrimental to an individual, counterproductive for companies, and eventually damaging to society. We physically can’t work more than 24 hours, we can’t be at 2 places at the same time, we can’t win on every trade. At some point there will be no room left to push harder. The benefits of longer hours and constant availability are becoming marginal. To take success onto the next level from what is considered successful career today is to become superhuman, develop magical powers or to rig the game. And if you have no way of doing it – you’re just an average, talentless, lazy schmuck. But don’t dare to complain about it – to complain is un-American.
There’s clearly an inflation of labor for those holding a wage job. Over the years the normalcy of 8-hour work days turned into 10-hour work days and then into 12-hour work days, but the benefits are failing to keep up with the contributing effort. The jobs for which a high-school diploma was sufficient, now require a college degree; and where before a college degree would provide job security for life, a graduate degree is required and yet it is no longer a guarantee of lifelong employment. It’s hard to say which came first: inflation of college degrees or inflation of labor. Surely, today this labor inflation can be attributed to high unemployment rate, but this phenomenon was prevalent even during the roaring years prior to the 2008 collapse.
The “moochers” that Republicans keep talking about are stretched too thin. They are one accident, one blown tire, one missed paycheck away from not being able to keep afloat. It is only in the imaginary world of self-declared “makers” everyone else lives off of the fruits of their labor. In the real world, “makers” expect everyone to be on call at all times for pennies and then have the chutzpah to accuse them of being lazy. Well, at least some in the GOP, who actually have to win elections rather than exercise their wits at the expense of an average Joe, are rediscovering that such attitude is damaging the brand. I’m following their transformation with great interest.
December 21, 2012
One can feel sorry for Boehner: he tried to strengthen, if only from the PR perspective, the Republican position pre-fiscal cliff, only to be humiliated by his own crazies.
Boehner introduced a Plan B to Congress that included tax cuts for those making under $1mln a year. The plan was simple – to pass it with the partisan vote of 218 Republicans, so that bill would act as a fallback position/some leverage to present to the public when the fiscal cliff happens on January 1st. Of course, everyone, including Boehner, knew that this bill has no chance of passing Senate and being signed by Obama; the whole purpose of this bill was to show the public: “See? We also have a plan! That cuts taxes for 99.8%! But Democrats refuse to cooperate!” The passage would at least somehow give the Republicans a piece of legislation to wave in front of critics and to give the public, who doesn’t have time for details, the impression that something is being done. Well, they failed even at that due to the crazy wing, for whom to raise taxes on millionaires is anathema and for whom having even slightly better PR position is worse than maintaining their ideological purity. Plan B failed to pass the House.
Which only clears the way for Obama to let the “cliff” proceed. Come January and accompanying spending cuts and increased taxes, both sides will be ready to do something about it for real. Obama will introduce a tax cutting bill, goes across the country to promote “tax cuts and recovery” theme, dares Republicans not to pass it, they grudgingly acquiesce, and Obama and the Democrats will become known as tax cutters and the promoters of economic growth.
Obama has already chipped away at the traditionally Republican domain of strong foreigh policy by killing Bin Laden. Now he’s trespassing into the holiest of the holy of the Conservatism - fiscal responsibility. He leaves them no ground to stand on. What do they have left? What do current conservatives stand for? Obama smartly touches everything that they hold dear and they begin to despise the very positions that they previously held simply because they view them as contaminated. But all Obama does is govern as a center-right politician and that drives them nuts, because Obama is not supposed to be that. He’s supposed to be a caricature that they have internalized.
I do feel sorry for conservatives. Traditional conservatives used to have very good ideas that I find compelling: fiscal responsibility; personal responsibility; foreign policy restraint; right to privacy; respect for social contract and social cohesion, patriotism. But now they seem to have been reduced to the absurd with their unyielding zeal: fiscal responsibility means holding the country they allegedly love hostage; personal responisbility means you’re on your own even if you did everything right; foreign policy means calling for sending troops to every conflict worldwide; right to privacy does not include the right to reproductive privacy; social contract means worshipping the rich as “job creators”, and patriotism took a form of jingoism.
Current political disagreements are not between left and right, not between liberal and conservative. It’s between practical and ideological, reasonable and absurd. If it is Obama who will save the conservatism from its impostors, so be it.
December 9, 2012
Here’s the kind of article that I would only expect to find on the pages of Wall Street Journal. A tired and refuted by numerous studies argument for lower taxes on the rich. You see, the author argues, the rich pay a larger share of all income taxes (even more than they paid in 1950s) and thus their taxes should be cut.
In 1958, approximately two million filers (4.4% of all taxpayers) earned the $12,000 or more for married couples needed to face marginal rates as high as 30%. These Americans paid about 35% of all income taxes. And now? In 2010, 3.9 million taxpayers (2.75% of all taxpayers) were subjected to rates that were 33% or higher. These Americans—many of whom would hardly call themselves wealthy—reported an adjusted gross income of $209,000 or higher, and they paid 49.7% of all income taxes.
This is what puzzles me most in such arguments – consistent and probably deliberate refusal to look at other factors of such disproportion, such as increasingly barbell-shaped nature of income distribution. Also, notice how artfully the author uses those making $209,000 to make a point about the rich paying too much taxes, and then turns around and points out that they are not rich at all. Lumping together those making $209,000 and the 0.01% is convenient for 2 reasons: You get to show how large a share of taxes paid by that group while still making an impression on the layman reader that it is the 1% that pay 50% share of all taxes. What share of that 50% is paid by the middle class (and I do consider those making $209,000 middle class) is not explored at all.
The following is a simplistic and extreme example just to illustrate my point. Suppose we have a town with 100 citizens. 98 citizens are making $10,000 and 2 citizens making $500,000: At the flat rate of 35% the 98 guys’ share of total income taxes would be $10,000*98*0.35=$343,000 and the 2 rich guys’ share of total income taxes would be $500,000*2*0.35=$350,000 – more than 50%!! Outrageous, if you dismiss the fact that the 2 guys are making 50 times more than those 98 moochers.
Now imagine that the income is more evenly distributed: 30 guys make $10,000; 60 guys make $20,000 and 5 guys make $100,000 (notice that the size of the total pie didn’t change). Now the share of the top bracket would contribute 5*$100,000*0.35=$175,000. And the share that all others would contribute – I’ll spare you the calculation – $525,000. Could it be that the rich paid less total share of taxes during the times when the income distribution was more even? As was the case in the 1950s?
These back of the envelope calculations would be even more compelling if I used the true rates. In reality, the bottom 30 guys pay no taxes at all (because they are too poor to pay any taxes); the top 5 guys pay 15% (as in capital gains), and the burden of taxation is being carried by those 60 guys in the middle. Since those 60 guys work for a living – they still would pay 35% rate and would generate $420,000 in taxes; but the top 5 guys would pay only $75,000 in taxes. Not only the burden is being carries entirely by middle class, we are not even generating the same amount of tax revenues as we would if everyone paid the same rate.
At this point 2 clashing camps emerge: those who insist that the bottom 30 guys pay their share and those who insist that the top pay the same share as everyone else. I’m in the latter camp. In fact I would be willing to entertain the idea of a flat tax for everybody, as long as 2 conditions are met: capital gains are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income and the bottom guys are paid decent wages, so that paying 35% tax would not break their backs. But because I find that raising minimum wages to a satisfying level is an impossible feat (politically and practically), I, being realistic, simply advocate for raising the taxes on capital gains. And that’s where cries of class warfare begin to emerge. And that’s where I move to my next argument: Why is it that making money on money is supposed to be more sacred and revered than working for wages? Why are “entrepreneurs” (I use quotes, because I do not find anything entrepreneurial about investors who don’t produce anything and more often than not risk someone else’s money) more valuable members of society, as evidenced by tax rates, than teachers and nurses? If top bracket insist that they are “job creators”, shouldn’t Walmart workers, office workers, accountants, IT and other clock punchers insist on being called “business facilitators” and demand equal respect?
If this still seems like a sure path to socialism (or a “road to serfdom”) you have missed some recent epiphanies on the right. Here’s the quote from a recent American Conservative magazine article:
A capital gains tax rate (making money off money) that is lower than the earned income rate (making money off work) is just not fair. Bestowing that rate on hedge-fund managers through a specially designed loophole is just not fair. Allowing the rich to take mortgage deductions for second and third homes, or for homes worth over $1 million, is just not fair. Allowing business owners like me to take myriad deductions that our employees cannot take is just not fair. But, most of all, allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair.”
At conservative National Review magazine Ramesh Ponnuru seems to be getting a grip on reality: Especially refreshing is this passage:
“The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say.”
Even William Kristol at the Weekly Standard is seeing the light:
“After all, surely Republican members of Congress understand there’s something crazy about appearing to fight to the death for a tax code in which Mitt Romney and others pay a 14 percent tax on millions of capital income—while silently allowing the payroll tax on labor to go up from 13.3 percent to 15.3 percent for all the working stiffs?”
November 30, 2012
A great long read here about what’s going on between Obama and Republicans in Congress during fiscal cliff negotiations. Here’s my summary:
Obama slammed his offer on the table and he wasn’t shy about it: $1.6trln of tax increases and $400bn of entitlement cuts. Considering that during debt ceiling talks in the summer of 2011 he almost had to beg Boehner for $800bn of tax increases and still didn’t get it, it’s a rather bold but totally justified move. The interesting part here, however, is the way Republicans approach that $400bn cuts in entitlements – which I have to remind you is what they badly wanted: they insist on Obama giving them details on specific programs to be cut. This is hilarious! The dialogue would go somewhat like this:
Republicans (badly wanting those cuts) to Obama: “So, show us what you would cut.”
Obama (incredulously): “Guys, you wanted it – you pick what to cut.”
Republicans: “No, you first”
Obama: “Wtf, you guys? Have you never bought a car before? Why should I negotiate with myself? You want it – you show me a bid.”
The reason that Republicans are unable to come up with specifics about what programs they want to cut is that those programs directly benefit middle class taxpayers: they include employer sponsored health insurance, 401(K) and pension plans, earned income tax credit and mortgage interest deduction. That’s why they want Obama to make the first move. And these are the guys who wanted to show us all how to run a country?!
Btw, here’s the CBO chart of the contributing factors for US national debt just to give you a perspective:
November 13, 2012
“The base and the donors went apocalyptic (on Obama) over the last few years and that was exploited by a lot of people from the conservative world. I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played over the head of one major conservative institution when he told me that our donors think the apocalypse has arrived.” David Frum.
The most repudiated idea this election cycle is that money can buy quality product.
Romney’s loss last week has opened a peek into the Republican mentality and offered a great study of how they think and operate. Republicans approach elections like a business transaction. Their party operatives and their billionaire donors outsourced the campaign to vendors (Super PACs, unscrupulous pollsters). Donors with money met smooth-talking consultants with promises and sealed their own fate.
November 9, 2012
Are you surprised that Republicans are surprised they lost? If you were following the polls guru Nate Silver’s blog fivethirtyeight.com you would be.
It’s not that I was certain Obama would win. But reading Nate Silver’s estimates before the elections gave me odds to be cautiosly optimistic. The day before the election I estimated the chance of Obama winning (based on Nate’s 91%) like being all in with pocket kings pre flop. You’re in good shape and this is the position you want to be against a single opponent, but that doesn’t mean Romney can’t flop an ace. So Romney’s entire electoral calcualtion was based on flopping that ace, but they acted as if they have already won. I find such baseless certitude stunning.
But it’s not like they didn’t have their own models. Because reality has a well-known liberal bias, Republicans have retreated into their own world where their polls showed that they were leading Obama by 6-7 point margins. They called it “unskewed polls”.
“Unskewed polls” is an entirely new phenomenon that didn’t exist during any of the previous elections. 4 years of Obama presidency really did something to the minds of the right-wing bubble occupants that they have severed any and all connections to reality that they still possessed in some form prior to 2008. Unskewed polls is a way one conservative blogger (www.unskewedpolls.com) dissected the “biased”, in his opinion, national and battleground polls conducted by professional polling firms. What he did in his “unskewing” is even out the proportion of Republicans and Democrats in the polls to bring it to more “fair” ratio. For instance, most of the polls had more registered Democrats than Republicans, simply due to the fact that there are more registered Ds than Rs, it’s a reflection of the population as a whole. He wasn’t satisfied with this weighing as he considered it biased against the Republicans. So in his unskewing he brought the ratio to about even. Of course, if Romney and Obama were tied in official national polls and the sample in question had 44% Ds and 37% Rs, then, after he brings it to 37/37 in his own recalibration, Romney would lead Obama by 6 or 7 points. These are the polls that had Republicans believing, nay, knowing, that they were going to win. How else would you explain the fact that the fireworks were on stand-by near Romney headquarters in Boston and that Romney didn’t even write a version of a concession speech? He knew he was winning! It’s stunning that no one, NO ONE in his campaign had raised any doubts about the overly positive numbers. Looks like the entire campaign was only pleased to be blissfully unaware about the true state of the race, and incapable of dealing with bad news or with reality. That pre-election certitude based on make belief numbers explains the state of shock both in conservative media world and Romney’s campaign headquarters when results rolled in.
By contrast, Obama campaign has always, even when they were ahead in the polls, assumed that they were 10 points behind. I heard it from many folks in the Obama headquarters.
But back to Nate Silver.
It is rare that in our lives, and especially in our politics, one side admits to being wrong. It just never happens, because when you’re not dealing with hard sciences like math and physics, there are always ways to spin the results. Not now. Nate Silver got the Electoral Vote count 100% correct! What’s more he got his detractors to apologize and to admit that they were wrong. They even apoligized for calling Nate Silver names. This is the ultimate revenge of the nerd!
Why I think this is important, and why I think Nate Silver has to receive even more recognition is because I’d like our public, that has gotten used to base their decisions on “gut feeling” and on emotions, to reassess the nature of their decision making. We really need them to come back to reality and reason, rather than immerse in baseless hysteria cultivated by talking heads. Nate showed them how to do it – with numbers. It’s a simple skill that, for some reason, has been discarded, especially on the right, in favor of wishful thinking. In their opinion Obama simply could not win due to a number of unquantifiable factors, like energised conservative base and impossibility of a reelection of a Muslim Socialist! That was a big part of their model. The other part was cooked numbers – an especially delicious part of their delusion as they were only happy to fool themselves.
All of this makes Nate’s win unique. His is a clean victory, and the one that is acknowledged by both sides. It also is a win for a common sense over heated rhetoric. It must be brought back into our national discourse.
July 26, 2012
“Herod: I’ll tell you what, I’ll be a Good Samaritan. What’s the cheapest gun you got? Not in a case. I mean the cheapest piece of worthless crap you have in the whole miserable store.
Kid: All right. (Brings out the cheapest gun and slams it on the counter). 5 bucks.
Kid: (starts putting bullets in the gun)
Herod: What are you doing? Preacher here’s got the Lord on his side. He only needs one bullet. Just one. Otherwise he might be tempted to shoot his way out of town.”
The Quick and The Dead.
The current dynamics of the regulatory overhaul is a depressing development. While I’m normally quick to criticize regulators, and for good reason, I also have to admit that monetary deprivation of such agencies by Republicans, as evidenced by budget cuts for CFTC, place some blame on anti-regulatory forces in Congress. Regulators that are currently entrusted with the task of policing Wall Street are facing a well-funded, well-connected and politically shrewd beast.
In essence, regulators are not writing the rules for Wall Street. Wall Street is writing the rules for regulators.
A few months ago, for example, the CFTC was given the power to oversee derivatives and the futures markets. At the same time the Congress plans to cut $25M (a 12% cut form a year before) from CFTC budget in a time when they desperately need more resources to effectively accomplish their new responsibilities. The regulators have resource allocation problem that will prevent them from properly enforcing their mandate.
It is remarkable although not surprising that the most restrictive language in the bill came from Wall Street lobbyists. What’s more amusing is to hear the authors of the bill vying for fair and effective regulation, offering suggestions on how that sort of regulation should be achieved and then cutting funding that would undermine the implementation of those very suggestions. This is schizophrenic!
The new appropriations bill carves out very specific amounts to be spent on very specific assignments. For instance, the Republican lawmakers are absolutely certain that to update the crumbling IT infrastructure at CFTC would cost $32mln. The authors of the bill also demand that before regulators implement anything they must conduct a comprehensive quantitative analysis of the impact of the rules. Shouldn’t the public, by the same logic, demand that before lawmakers make such definitive decisions about how much money the regulatory agencies will need, they, too, should conduct a thorough analysis of the needs of those agencies? I am very curious to know how they came up with the figure of $32 mln to revamp the CFTC antiquated computer systems. Do they expect regulators to hire new IT personnel, buy new equipment, write/purchase new software, not just any software, but the kind that would effectively monitor a number of important markets, including high-frequency trading (HFT), an obscure but powerful Wall Street niche that commands the brightest minds and the thickest purse? And do they also expect the CFTC to conduct a thorough analysis of the possible consequences that may harm the business, a grotesque request in itself, and report the results to Congress in 30 days? And the most curious question of all, is Wall street ready to open their books and submit their HFT trading codes to regulators in order to ensure the analysis they themselves insisted upon is truly “thorough”? Are you, like me, suspecting that no matter what kind of results the CFTC submits, the Wall Street (via Congress) will never be satisfied?
I think it’s a brilliant business model for Wall Street. First, it doesn’t get any headlines – do you expect an average person to read anything that has ‘regulatory’ and ‘appropriations bill’ in it? Second, you can pass as many as 100 tough Dodd Frank bills and placate the public, but then quietly get to work on carving loopholes, exceptions and if that isn’t enough, just starve the damn beast of the funds! Wall Street arms itself with heavy sophisticated weaponry (no amount of money and resources are spared when building a high-frequency trading desk, it’s a multi-billion dollar business; and no amount of money is spared on lobbyists), then, with the complicit help of Republicans in Congress, they deliberately put themselves into position of handing out weaponry to their watchdog, and, surprise, hand him an old 19-century pistol. And then, to add insult to the injury, they also demand the watchdog to conduct an analysis, a thorough analysis, not just and “administrative check”, of what kind of harm that 19-century pistol can wreak on fragile Wall Street “lemonade stand”.
Even during Wild West times, so revered in American mythology as the time of true rugged individualism and unfettered capitalism, not even a conniving villain had the chutzpah to demand the sensitive treatment. If you love allegories, like I do, there’s a fitting scene from The Quick and The Dead, where Gene Hackman (Herod) is buying a gun for his dueling opponent Russell Crowe (Cort). Except that Herod doesn’t demand Cort to be gentle.
Our regulators are no Cort. They have not been trained to shoot. Especially with one bullet.
June 17, 2012
After listening to Jamie Dimon’s testimony before Congress the other day I became less enthusiastic about Volcker Rule. No, I didn’t suddenly turn into a laissez faire supply-sider, I simply became more convinced that if such matter is entrusted into the hands of regulators we would have to be dependent on these regulators struggling with definitions, like what a hedge is. That would be too painful to watch.
I have to admit that, perhaps, capital requirements and other Basel III rules can be more effective than outright ban on certain kinds of trades.
My comrades on the left might disagree. But think about it: banning something outright will simply ban it on paper but in reality such ban will not prevent smart and resourceful Street guys from finding ways around it. Even potheads could for years find ways around the drug laws. Moreover, a sweeping ban will make a great excuse for the ever-complacent or complicit regulators to fall asleep again while giving the public the illusion of things being under control. Besides, show me any ban that has prevented people from obtaining/providing the illegal goods or services. What would prevent various exceptions and exemptions from being forced quietly into the legislation that renders the entire brick wall between deposits and trading desks useless?
Jamie Dimon and many others on Wall Street want regulations to be simple and effective. So do I. And so do regulators, I suspect, who are helpless in the face of complexity. Having capital requirements will be hard not to enforce simply because it’s quantifiable. All they have to do is build a spreadsheet where column B is needed capital and column C is actual capital, subtract one from the other and voila, there’s the list of those who meet the criteria and those who don’t. I’m being slightly facetious and simplistic, but you get the idea. Much easier than wrestle over definitions of what is a “directional trade” or a “macro hedge” with those who made a career out of twisting the terminology. Arguing over a definition of a “hedge” is a battle that the regulators, in their current state, can’t win.
It was almost comical to see senators asking Jamie Dimon his opinion on how to regulate the financial system. Here’s Jamie Dimon’s idea of sensible regulations: Proper capital requirements, proper liquidity, proper risk management and risk controls. It does not sound unreasonable at all. I could almost sense the slight disappointment among some (mostly Republican) Senators as they haven’t received anything less of “let the market take care of it”. The whole Senate testimony was worthy of a Monty Python’s skit in its absurdity, as the only voice of reason was coming from a Master of the Universe (Tom Wolfe accurately described this dynamic almost 25 years ago in his Bonfire of the Vanities). I wonder what was going on in Jamie Dimon’s mind at that point, but if I had to speculate I’d say disbelief, amusement mixed with a breathtaking realization that he’s the sole de-facto arbiter of a system that affects millions of people and trillions of dollars.
Meanwhile, capital requirements under current Basel III rules would have prevented Goldman from buying CDS contracts from AIG, for example. Or at least they would require Goldman to post higher capital in these kinds of trades to account for the risk of AIG becoming insolvent. While we can’t be sure such a trade would not have been done, we can be sure it would have been much smaller in size.
If OTC derivatives have been cleared through the exchange, there would be no high-stakes “who has what” poker game going on between the biggest financial institutions, trying to figure out who has what in ‘Assets available for Sale’ section of the balance sheet or other hard to decipher nicknames given to toxic assets. These holdings would have been more transparent. Thus, as Jamie Dimon rightly pointed out in his testimony, JP Morgan would not have been asked to take the bailout package, as everyone would see their minimal exposure to the crappy assets, compared to other firms. Thus, it is quite possible, that the bailout could have been smaller and more targeted (to Citi and BofA) and not sweeping and imposing.
Look, I’d love to have regulators who are smart and capable of doing their job, but the truth is, they will always be at least one step behind, because they don’t have the capacity and the wits to anticipate what is the next product to be invented on the Street. Regulators are a reactive force, not proactive. Lawmakers proved to be no better at understanding the complexities of the current financial system and dealing with the repercussions. Good intentions are a poor excuse. What we care for are the results.
We also would like to offer some advice to Jamie Dimon and other Wall Street alpha dogs – be a mensch, stop being offended at being called names. It’s not Obama’s job to become friends with Wall Street. He plays his game – you play yours. At this point of their careers neither Jamie Dimon, nor Lloyd Blankfein nor many of others on top of the Wall Street hierarchy care about money – they care about their legacy. Right now none of them look like socially conscious tycoons of the 1900s, no strangers to consolidation and market manipulation, sure, but who nonetheless understood the long-term dynamics of the society and came to rescue the system with their own money when the circumstances called for it. And yet, the bar has been set so low, and in part by our own public servants, that even Jamie Dimon, a fox guarding the hen house, looks as having more integrity than the subservient watchdogs. As evidenced by ingratiating senators who are on Wall Street’s payroll, asking Dimon for advice on how to run things, all Wall Street’s powerful men’s grievances about unfair treatment look nothing more than a simple disingenuous posturing. Guys, let me break it to you: You run the freaking game! You don’t have to have a TV show (like Ace Rothstein in the Casino), or bring attention to yourself by verbal sparring with various politicians; you have to have the whole thing to be quiet. Please, no more displays of victimhood and defensive language. And I’d like to conclude by posing a question to Mr. Dimon to ponder: imagine a less sharp and more reckless man inheriting your job one day. Wouldn’t it be a fitting legacy for a man in your position to help build a system that is less dependent on someone having both superhuman qualities and spotless integrity and more dependent on built-in levers of control that work regardless of someone’s pedigree and ambitions?
June 1, 2012
Damn, Joseph Stiglitz beat me to it. I have been working on the related topic of why the top 1% should also be worried about current income disparity.
It’s no secret to anybody that Republicans in Congress in general and the top 1% of earners in particular are no big fans of taxes and regulations. In this post I’d like to demonstrate that this is a rather short-sighted view and, out of their own sheer self-interest, they should be for higher taxes and government regulations.
Imagine, you are a billionaire and the economic reality around you has been rather, shall we say, anemic. But why should you give a fuck? You’re set for life, live in a gated community, have private security, household help – in other words with money you can theoretically shield yourself from daily struggles that the peons face every day. There are many reasons why you should (give a fuck), beginning from the fact that, if you’re a billionaire, your worries are of a different scale, namely, you want to close deals, sell products and make smart investments. None of it can be done in a vacuum. You need a solid consumer base, a partner on the other side of the deal, people who want to buy when you want to sell, the suckers at the poker table if you will! In order to be the king of the hill, you have to have the freaking hill! You have to have a vast and robust middle class whose wages are rising consistently year after year. Henry Ford was no fool when he paid his workers high salaries – so that they could buy his cars. The taxes have been falling for the last 30 years but that did not bring the promised prosperity and jobs to the middle class. Let’s admit that we tried it and it didn’t work.
I must also admit that the game that you played for the last 30 years is spectacular in its shrewd, take-no-prisoners ways: pushing for tax breaks and lobbying for favorable legislation, eliminating competition, skimming consumers. Congratulations, you won. Now you’re all dressed up and ready to play but there’s no one left to play with. Now you’re a lonely player at the poker table with mountains of chips in front of you, wondering why is it that no one wants to come and play with you. Maybe it’s because people have no more chips left. In real poker, as in most games, being the last guy standing is the most optimal and desirable outcome, because there are other tables and other games always readily available. But the point of a real life game is not to win the most chips, but to keep the game going, simply because we only have one table. Besides, taking chips and going home is anathema to any businessman worth his salt: chips are supposed to be working. Now that you have that picture of yourself with all the chips let me ask you: Will the dealer taking smaller rake from the pot (I’m drawing an analogy with smaller taxes here, for those who don’t play poker. The dealer takes part of every pot, a ‘rake’) offer real solution to the lack of players at your table?
Another, more mundane reason why you should support taxes is unpleasant visuals that can spoil your day, if you’re not a complete sociopath. Do you like seeing bums on the streets or on subway trains, or, especially heartbreaking, neatly dressed middle-aged, resumes in hand, standing in unemployment line? Neither do I. Conservatives’ standard solution to this kind of situations and other life’s misfortunes is personal responsibility and charity. I disagree. It’s hard to be personally responsible if you’ve been a victim of forces beyond your control: mental disability for example as is the case with many homeless, or mass layoffs. The problem with charity is that it’s selective and whimsy. While there’s no shortage of charity causes here in New York City, the problem is that they mostly target arts, children and breast cancer. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but you can see how many other areas worthy of charity get omitted because, let’s face it, some of them are not picture perfect. And in a bad bonus year even those “New Yorkers for Children” (my favorite moniker on emotionally manipulative scale, to be surpassed only by “New Yorkers for Puppies”) charities will take a back seat to personal priorities of an otherwise generous and vain Wall Street soul. As for the unemployed, I have yet to hear any conservative to explain what is exactly wrong with government hiring those people for useful projects? Because government is evil?
But we’re way past worrying about the homeless problem. At this stage we need a charity ball for the middle class. I’m afraid that such a task is insurmountable, even to Koch brothers and Warren Buffet combined. There’s only so many maids and drivers that they can hire.
Sometimes I think that I’m more conservative than conservatives because I prefer order to chaos, rules to anarchy, so that I don’t have to spend most of my waking hours solving logistical problems like dysfunctional or non-existent public transport, unsafe drinking water in the tap, malpracticing doctors. Which brings me to regulations.
“I can’t be bothered with that shit”. This is my favorite argument in support of regulations. Do you really want to spend valuable time experimenting in choosing the best vendor who sells the best meat, doctor who practices solid medicine, insurance provider that pays off? Especially if you work 12 hours a day? If we lived in the realm of neighborhood mom-and-pop shops (many conservatives still think that this is the world we live in), where you could just go to the other one down the street if the first one treated you unfairly then you could make that case. But unfortunately we live in towns where only 2 or 3 big vendors exist for any product. What is your recourse against, say, an insurance provider to whom you dutifully paid premiums for several years, and who refuses to pay off if an accident happens? Are you going to follow a classic conservative advice and go to another provider? No, you’re going to call your lawyer. Moreover, if you can do your own “testing” of the quality of meat, how are you going to know the promised quality of products that you have no expertise of measuring, like software, for example? Or how about products which questionable quality you can measure only after you’re no longer a consumer, like bad surgery or faulty car breaks? Or how can you be sure that the guy managing your 401(k) is not a crook? Do you want to spend months doing research, aside from your main job, making sure that the guy you’re entrusting your money to is not the next Madoff? And more importantly, who’s going to enforce business contracts that you enter into? Who is going to help you collect? Nicky Santoro?
Sports have strict rules. That doesn’t keep athletes and teams from succeeding. In fact that makes the game more exciting because it is the ultimate ‘let the best man win’ situation. The beauty of a fair competition is that no particular party has an advantage at the beginning of the game. There are stronger teams and weaker teams, of course, but they all play by the same rules. By the same token, I do not resent the fact that there are rich and there are poor, contrary to conservatives’ cries; I resent the fact that there are different rules for different classes, that the game is rigged.
Conservative insists on being left alone, but who is should provide that aloneness, that peace of mind, that mechanism that makes trains run on time, the streets lit up at night, the garbage picked up in the morning? Hire a guy to do that for you. Let that guy have enforcement powers if someone is out to screw you. Such guy is the government, whether you like or not, whether you admit it to yourself or not.
By the way, speaking of Nicky Santoro. What can be better to conclude my post than this insightful quote from the movie, where Nicky laments on how reckless the Mafia has handled the casino business:
“But in the end, we fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fuckin’ valuable again.”
May 9, 2012
Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I’m Russian, let’s just get that out of the way. May 9th is a special day for any Russian. It’s both a joyous celebration of our victory over fascist Germany in 1945 and also a day of reflection and remembrance. To many people it’s the most treasured and most profound, a knot-in-the-throat holiday, as sacred as 4th of July is for any American. Every family has a relative who died or fought in that war. With sadness I watch more and more veterans leave our ranks every year and I contemplate over these special men and women and wonder what I would do if I was born in 1924. Would I have the guts to do what they did, to be on the frontlines, to face an armada of German tanks pacing toward me when I had just a rifle and a grenade? There’s no place of cynicism and individuality on the battlefield. My generation grew up watching war movies and talking to live witnesses of those events, we played “war” and our heroes were young partisans. We grew up picturing ourselves in those situations and admiring real war heroes, just like young Americans grow up admiring comics superheroes. During those games and those daydreams what was always present is the collective spirit. “We’ll show them!” – our thinking went. There was no “I” on our imaginary playground battlefield. Contemplating the victory in World War II (or Great Patriotic War) for a Russian is to invoke the “us” narrative.