Rigged

James Fallows writes that while former budget director Peter Orszag may be the epitome of an honest man, personally, the impression cast by his move from the President's cabinet to the Citigroup advisory group is both damaging and shocking:

The idea that someone would help plan, advocate, and carry out an economic policy that played such a crucial role in the survival of a financial institution -- and then, less than two years after his Administration took office, would take a job that (a) exemplifies the growing disparities the Administration says it's trying to correct and (b) unavoidably will call on knowledge and contacts Orszag developed while in recent public service -- this says something bad about what is taken for granted in American public life.

When we notice similar patterns in other countries -- for instance, how many offspring and in-laws of senior Chinese Communist officials have become very, very rich -- we are quick to draw conclusions about structural injustices. Americans may not "notice" Orszag-like migrations, in the sense of devoting big news coverage to them. But these stories pile up in the background to create a broad American sense that politics is rigged, and opportunity too. Why do we wince a little bit when we now hear "Change you can believe in?" This is an illustration.

Certain protections are in place in these situations.  Ethics rules prevent Orszag from having direct contact with federal officials, for example.  Still, the impression cast is damaging, not only to Obama's image -- you can imagine how many Republican 2012 hopefuls are bookmarking Orszag as budget director YouTube clips right now -- but to the faith of the electorate in their political institutions at large.  If you want to understand the increasing fickleness of independent voters shifting from one party to the other, the incestuous relationship between the stateroom and the boardroom might be a good place to start. Orszag's move may not be technically unethical, is by no means unusual, but is another step in a pattern that is dissolving confidence in the justice in or integrity of our institutions.

Solutions?  Via The Economist, there may be no better option but to just muddle through:

The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation. But public self-protection through market-state divorce can work only if libertarians are right that unfettered markets are not by nature unstable, that they do not lead to opressive concentrations of power, that we would do better without a central bank, and so on. Most of us don't believe that. Until more of us do, we're not going far in that direction. And maybe that's just as well. Maybe it's true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it's also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism's injustices.

 

 

Campaign Cash: How Citizens United Will Change Elections Forever

Ed. Note: This blog is available for any organization or outlet to republish or excerpt. Please feel free to share it widely!

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Undue corporate influence over U.S. elections has been a serious problem in American politics for decades, but this year’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission made things worse. Worst of all, we may never know the extent of the damage.

Citizens United freed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money backing specific political candidates, and without congressional action, those expenditures can be completely anonymous. Major corporations are already capitalizing on the new legal landscape by the millions, and the public doesn’t really know who is buying what influence or why.

That’s why The Media Consortium will be carefully watching the effects of this ruling in the run up to this year’s midterm elections. Every day through Nov. 4, we’ll bring you some of the best independent reporting on the effects of corporate spending in an attempt to measure just how widespread the effect of Citizens United will be on this—and the next—election.  Keep your eye on “Campaign Cash” as we follow this issue in the coming weeks. If you want to tweet about it, use the hashtag #campaigncash.

The impact of Citizens United

As Harvard University Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig explains in an interview with The Nation’s Christopher Hayes, the Citizens United v. FEC decision represents one of many ways that corporations buy political favors.

Prior to the ruling, companies couldn’t spend money to directly advocate the election of a particular political candidate during election season. They could form Political Action Committees (PACs) to support or attack specific candidates, but those PACs had to be funded by individuals who worked for the company and couldn’t be funded from the corporation’s treasury directly. The executives of Goldman Sachs, for instance, could band together to form GoldmanPAC and spend their money on whatever candidates they wished—and many corporate employees exercised that right and spent freely on elections through their corporate PACs.

Now corporations can spend as much as they want and actual corporate funds—not just organized individuals—can also be deployed, making massive amounts of corporate cash eligible for political purchasing.

But the scariest part of Citizens United, as Lessig emphasizes, is the money that isn’t spent. That is, if a firm makes it known that they are willing spend millions of dollars to fight any politician who opposes them on a particular policy issue, representatives and senators might begin changing their voting behavior in Congress before the company actually has to put up the cash.

And ultimately, Citizens United didn’t just legalize unlimited corporate expenses on elections. It also allows those expenses to be anonymous. If companies launder their political cash through a front group, that third-party spender doesn’t have to disclose who its donors are.

This isn’t your local Chamber of Commerce

As Harry Hanbury details for GRITtv, this laundering scheme is essentially the business model for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce– a  lobbying powerhouse in the nation’s capital. Don’t be fooled by its name—the U.S. Chamber has almost nothing to do with the local small business coalitions who help strengthen local economies.

As Hanbury notes, 40 percent of the U.S. Chamber’s 2008 funding came from just 26 corporations. The group represents many of the nation’s largest and most irresponsible corporations, from those responsible for the financial meltdown on Wall Street to BP, the company that spilled millions of barrels worth of oil in the Gulf this summer. The Chamber’s branding allows them to disguise their political as a coalition of local businesses while it does dirty work for corporate titans.

When BP was publicly promising to do everything in its power to fix the massive oil disaster it created in the Gulf of Mexico, it was also funneling money to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And what was the Chamber up to? It was lobbying furiously to protect BP from new rules that would force the company to pay for oil disaster clean-up. The Wall Street banks did the same thing as financial reform legislation moved through Congress, and companies never have to disclose these expenditures to the public.

So it’s no surprise that the Chamber responded to Citizens United by immediately announcing a 40 percent boost in its political spending operations. So much corporate money then flowed into the Chamber that the group chose to boost this budget again by 50 percent, allocating $75 million for its 2010 war chest. So far, the Chamber’s ads have favored Republican’s 93 percent of the time. No entity spends more on politics than the Chamber—not even the political parties themselves.

Corporations top the list of big election spenders

But while the future of corporate spending in campaigns looks bleak after Citizens United, corporations are still barred from contributing directly to political campaigns. A company might take out a television ad attacking Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), but it can’t make unlimited contributions directly to Grayson’s challenger, Republican Dan Webster.

Nevertheless, corporate employees and company PACs have already been spending lavishly on elections for decades. In a feature for Mother Jones, Dave Gilson compiles the 75 biggest political spenders, both companies and trade groups, from 1989 through 2010, and breaks them down by industry. Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley are all among the top 20 most extravagant political spenders—but the American Bankers Association, a trade group that all four belong to, is also in the top 10. If you’re wondering how Wall Street was able to secure its massive taxpayer bailout in the face of widespread voter outrage, this is your answer.

To soften the Citizens United blow, Congress has been debating the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, which would require companies to disclose all of their political expenditures as well as requiring front-groups like the Chamber to list the identities and amounts of its donors. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), cleared the House this summer but was stymied by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Undoing the damage dealt by Citizens United through something like the DISCLOSE Act will help, but it won’t make our democracy totally safe from corporate abuse. As Lessig notes, the day before the decision was handed down, U.S. election financing was already encouraging rampant corruption and in need of serious reform.

Lessig suggests banning political expenditures by corporations altogether, and placing a hard cap on the amount that individuals can contribute. By limiting individual donations to $100, the ability of corporate PACs to funnel cash into the political process would be thwarted.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the mid-term elections and campaign financing by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit The Media Consortium for more articles on these issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Depression-Era Inequality, Only Worse

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire blogger

A new study by Economist Emmanuel Saez revealed this week that income inequality in the U.S. is more severe today than at any time since World War I, and the current recession is taking its heaviest toll on the worst-off members of our society. As our government rebuilds the financial sector using taxpayers' money, it's important to remember that both financiers and the government are responsible to our communities, not just bank shareholders. If we want to strengthen our country's economic foundation, we need to demand better wages for workers and an end to all kinds of predatory lending.

Saez's new data on income inequality is, as Paul Krugman put it, "truly amazing." Saez, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, found that the top 0.01% of U.S. earners had 6% of total U.S. wages, more than double the level in 2000. Earners in the top 10%, meanwhile, took home an astonishing 49.7% of all wages. That gap is larger now than during the Great Depression or the Gilded Age of the Roaring '20s.

"We're seeing Depression-era inequality again--only now it's slightly worse," writes Steve Benen for The Washington Monthly. Benen also notes that this level of inequality is not an inevitable consequence of a market economy: It's an extreme historical aberration. In the U.S., prosperity for much of the 20th Century was shared. But in 2007, at the economic bubble's peak, the wealthy simply got wealthier.

In that context, it is beyond absurd that the government is allowing 8-figure bonuses to be doled out by bailed out banks. Writing for Salon, Robert Reich dissects the policy implications of Citigroup's plans to pay its top executives an average of $10 million this year and award over $100 million to its top trader, a man who literally owns a castle in Germany. Citigroup was one of the most reckless U.S. banks during the housing bubble, a major subprime offender that received $45 billion in direct bailout money, as well as hundreds of billions in federal guarantees. How much is $45 billion? With the median U.S. home price at $174,100, that's the full market price of over 258,000 foreclosed homes. The company says that $10 million a head is necessary to attract and maintain top "talent," which Reich notes is a somewhat misleading term, given recent history. The problem is not just that Citigroup and other Wall Street firms are paying tons of money to a few people, it's that these people are being rewarded for the same kind of activities that got us into this mess to begin with: Risky, highly leveraged securities trading.

"Over the last several years Wall Street has exhibited a truly astonishing lack of talent," Reich says, noting that, "The Street is back to the same, relentlessly untalented tactics that made it lots of money before the meltdown--which also forced taxpayers to bail it out, caused the world economy to melt down, and tens of millions of people to lose big chunks of their life savings."

In truth, Reich argues, most large financial firms in the U.S. are much more like public utility companies than private-sector businesses. Even in good times, they depend on government guarantees and other support systems to function. In bad times, we bail them out. Instead of paying financiers tens of millions of dollars to reinforce a flawed system, Reich argues that we should impose rules that result in salaries similar to the public utilities sector, where top earners are generally restricted to 6-figure incomes.

The American Prospect features two pieces emphasizing problems in the current financial sector. Under a law known as the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), enacted in 1977 we require banks to make loans in communities where they collect deposits. The loans have to be to dependable borrowers and they have to be relatively inexpensive. The law works very well--institutions covered by it made only a tiny fraction of the high-interest subprime loans that brought down the financial sector, as National Community Reinvestment Coalition President John Taylor notes for the Prospect. But CRA only applies to actual banks. You know, the places where you deposit your paychecks. CRA does not apply to subcompanies owned by the same corporation, and it does not apply to giant Wall Street securities firms like Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs. Taylor says we need to expand CRA to cover these other big players in the financial world.

Why? As Alyssa Katz details in a piece for the Prospect funded by The Nation Institute, many Wall Street firms are bidding on foreclosed properties and selling them at rip-off rates to low-income borrowers.

But as Mary Kane notes for The Washington Independent, banks have also devised several methods of making money without making a loan. By charging tremendous fees on borrowers for minor infractions, banks generate billions of dollars without producing anything of social value. One of the worst forms of abuse, Kane writes, comes in the form of overdraft fees. When you withdraw too much money from your bank account, the bank fronts you the money, and then charges you a fee for this "protection." The trick is, banks almost never tell you that this has occurred, and often play around with the timing of your charges and deposits to maximize the fees they collect. Banks are on track to collect $38.5 billion in such fees this year alone. The worst part is, the fees come from the poorest customers--rich people don't overdraw their bank accounts, because they have tons of money.

In the case of credit cards, banks routinely slap borrowers with outrageous fees and interest rate hikes when the borrowers are making payments on time. Over the years, banks have targeted younger and younger credit card customers, as Adam Waxman notes for WireTap. After years of declining wages for all but the wealthiest citizens, consumers have been turning to pricey plastic to finance basic necessities.

Sadly, corporate America does not seem very focused on helping workers establish their financial independence. The Real News talks with Richard Wolff, an economist with the New School who emphasizes that, while worker productivity has jumped in recent months, wages have not made the corresponding increases. Quarterly productivity numbers tend to jump around a lot, but the trend of not compensating workers for improved efficiency has been around for years.

In a consumer-driven economy, major problems can't be fixed by giving lots of money to a few people, especially if those few people are already rich. To support broad, meaningful economic growth, we need to tailor our policies that empower those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. And when we bail out giant corporations with taxpayer money, we need to make sure those companies arrange their business to improve the lot of taxpayers.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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Weekly Audit: Obama's Regulation Overhaul Comes Up Short

by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger 

President Barack Obama rolled out his plan to overhaul financial regulation last week. While much of the Obama plan relies on the same regulators and structures that led to the current meltdown, there is one key exception. The establishment of an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency would give ordinary citizens a seat at the financial policy table for the first time and prevent the abuses in credit card and mortgage lending that have wreaked havoc on households all over the country.  

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Union Leaders Hitting Back for Working America

Crossposted from Hillbilly Report.

From the "Things that refresh your day" category we have this story. It is no secret that corporate America has been lining up against working Americans on such essential initiatives as the Employee Free Choice Act, Universal Healthcare, Wages, outsourcing and other priorities. Well, now that Americans actually own most of these entities our friends in the labor movement are fighting back hard.

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