Monthly Archives: September 2010

While Labor Unions celebrate Anti-Austerity Day in Europe, European Neoliberals raise the ante: Governments must Lower Wages or Suffer Financial Blackmail

By Michael Hudson

Most of the press has described Europe’s labor demonstrations and strikes on Wednesday in terms of the familiar exercise by transport employees irritating travelers with work slowdowns, and large throngs letting off steam by setting fires. But the story goes much deeper than merely a reaction against unemployment and economic recession. At issue are proposals to drastically change the laws and structure of how European society will function for the next generation. If the anti-labor forces succeed, they will break up Europe, destroy the internal market, and render that continent a backwater. This is how serious the financial coup d’etat has become. And it is going to get much worse – quickly. As John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, put it: “This is the start of the fight, not the end.”
Spain has received most of the attention, thanks to its ten-million strong turnout – reportedly half the entire labor force. Holding its first general strike since 2002, Spanish labor protested against its socialist government using the bank crisis (stemming from bad real estate loans and negative mortgage equity, not high labor costs) as an opportunity to change the laws to enable companies and government bodies to fire workers at will, and to scale back their pensions and public social spending in order to pay the banks more. Portugal is doing the same, and it looks like Ireland will follow suit – all this in the countries whose banks have been the most irresponsible lenders. The bankers are demanding that they rebuild their loan reserves at labor’s expense, just as in President Obama’s program here in the United States but without the sanctimonious pretenses.
The problem is Europe-wide and indeed centered in the European Union capital in Brussels, where fifty to a hundred thousand workers gathered to protest the proposed transformation of social rules. Yet on the same day, the European Commission (EC) outlined a full-fledged war against labor. It is the most anti-labor campaign since the 1930s – even more extreme than the Third World austerity plans imposed by the IMF and World Bank in times past.

The EC is using the mortgage banking crisis – and the needless prohibition against central banks monetizing public budget deficits – as an opportunity to fine governments and even drive them bankrupt if they do not agree roll back salaries. Governments are told to borrow at interest from the banks, rather than raising revenue by taxing them as they did for half a century following the end of World War II. Governments unable to raise the money to pay the interest must close down their social programs. And if this shrinks the economy – and hence, government tax revenues – even more, the government must reduce social spending yet further.
From Brussels to Latvia, neoliberal planners have expressed the hope that lower public-sector salaries will spread to the private sector. The aim is to roll back wage levels by 30 percent or more, to depression levels, on the pretense that this will “leave more surplus” available to pay in debt service. It will do no such thing, of course. It is a purely vicious attempt to reverse Europe’s Progressive Era social democratic reforms achieved over the past century. Europe is to be turned into a banana republic by taxing labor – not finance, insurance or real estate (FIRE). Governments are to impose heavier employment and sales taxes while cutting back pensions and other public spending.
“Join the fight against labor, or we will destroy you,” the EC is telling governments. This requires dictatorship, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has taken over this power from elected government. Its “independence” from political control is celebrated as the “hallmark of democracy” by today’s new financial oligarchy. This deceptive newspeak evokes Plato’s view that oligarchy is simply the political stage following democracy. The new power elite’s next step in this eternal political triangle is to make itself hereditary – by abolishing estate taxes, for starters – so as to turn itself into an aristocracy.
It is a very old game indeed. So it is time to put aside the economics of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the Progressive Era, to forget Marx and even Keynes. Europe is ushering in an era of totalitarian neoliberal rule. This is what Wednesday’s strikes and demonstrations were about. Europe’s class war is back in business – with a vengeance!
This is economic suicide, but the EU is demanding that Euro-zone governments keep their budget deficits below 3% of GDP, and their total debt below 60%. On Wednesday the EU passed a law to fine governments up to 0.2% of GDP for not “fixing” their budget deficits by imposing such fiscal austerity. Nations that borrow to engage in countercyclical “Keynesian-style” spending that raises their public debt beyond 60% of GDP will have to reduce the excess by 5% each year, or suffer harsh punishment.[1] The European Commission (EC) will fine euro-area states that do not obey its neoliberal recommendations – ostensibly to “correct” budget imbalances.
The reality is that every neoliberal “cure” only makes matters worse. But rather than seeing rising wage levels and living standards as being a precondition for higher labor productivity, the EU commission will “monitor” labor costs on the assumption that rising wages impair competitiveness rather than raise it. If euro members cannot depreciate their currencies, then they must fight labor – but not tax real estate, finance or other rentier sectors, not regulate monopolies, and not provide public services that can be privatized at much higher costs. Privatization is not deemed to impair competitiveness – only rising wages, regardless of productivity considerations.
The financial privatization and credit-creation monopoly that governments have relinquished to banks is now to really pay off – at the price of breaking up Europe. Unlike central banks elsewhere in the world, the charter of the European Central Bank (ECB, independent from democratic politics, not from control by its commercial bank members) forbids it to monetize government debt. Governments must borrow from banks, which are create interest-bearing debt on their own keyboards rather than having their national bank do it without cost.
The unelected members of the European Central Bank have taken over planning power from elected governments. Beholden to its financial constituency, the ECB has convinced the EU commission to back the new oligarchic power grab. This destructive policy has been tested above all in the Baltics, using them as guinea pigs to see how far labor can be depressed before it fights back. Latvia gave free reign to neoliberal policies by imposing flat taxes of 51% and higher on labor, while real estate is virtually untaxed. Public-sector wages have been reduced by 30%, prompting labor of working age (20 to 35 year-olds) to emigrate in droves. This of course is contributing to the plunge in real estate prices and tax revenue. Lifespans for men are shortening, disease rates are rising, and the internal market is shrinking, and so is Europe’s population – as it did in the 1930s, when the “population problem” was a plunge in fertility and birth rates (above all in France). That is what happens in a depression.
Iceland’s looting by its bankers came first, but the big news was Greece. When that nation entered its current fiscal crisis as a result of not collecting taxes on the wealthy, European Union officials recommended that it emulate Latvia, which remains the poster child for neoliberal devastation. The basic theory is that inasmuch as members of the euro cannot devalue their currency, they must resort to “internal devaluation”: slashing wages, pensions and social spending. So as Europe enters recession it is following precisely the opposite of Keynesian policy. It is reducing wages, ostensibly to “free” more income available to pay the enormous debts that Europeans have taken on to buy their homes and pay for schooling (hitherto provided freely in many countries such as Latvia’s Stockholm School of Economics), transportation and other public services. Manly such services have been privatized and subsequently raised their rates drastically. The privatizers justify this by pointing to the enormously bloated financial fees they had to pay their bankers and underwriters in order to get the credit to buy the infrastructure that was being sold off by governments.
So Europe is committing economic, demographic and fiscal suicide. Trying to “solve” the problem neoliberal style only makes things worse. Latvia’s public-sector workers, for example, have seen their wages cut by 30 percent over the past year, and its central bankers have told me that they are seeking further cuts, in the hope that this will lower wages in the private sector as well, just as neoliberals in other European countries hope, as noted above.
About 10,000 Latvians attended protest meetings in the small town of Daugavilpils alone as part of the “Journey into the Crisis.” In Latvia’s capital city, Riga, yesterday’s Action Day saw the usual stoppage of transportation and an accompanying honk concert for 10 minutes at 1 PM to let the public know that something was happening. Six independent trade unions and the Harmony Center organized a protest meeting in Riga’s Esplanade Park that drew 700 to 800 demonstrators, relatively large for so small a city. Another union protest saw about half that number gather at the Cabinet of Ministers where Latvia’s austerity program has been planned and carried out.
What is happening most importantly is the national parliamentary elections this Saturday (October 2). The leading coalition, Harmony Center, is pledged to enact an alternative tax and economic policy to the neoliberal policies that have reduced labor’s wages and workplace standards so sharply over the past decade. A few days earlier a bus tour drove journalists to the most visible victims – schools and hospitals that had been closed down, government buildings whose employees had seen their salaries slashed and the workforce downsized.
These demonstrations seem to have gained voter sympathy for the more militant unions, headed by the hundred individual unions belonging to the Independent Trade Union Association. The other union group – the Free Trade Unions (LBAS) lost face by acquiescing in June 2009 to the government’s proposed 10% pension cuts (and indeed, 70% for working pensioners). Latvia’s constitutional court was sufficiently independent to overrule these drastic cuts last December. And if the government does indeed change this Saturday, the conflict between the Neoliberal Revolution and the past few centuries of classical progressive reform will be made clear.
In sum, the Neoliberal Revolution seeks to achieve in Europe what the United States has achieved since real wages stopped rising in 1979: doubling the share of wealth enjoyed by the richest 1%. This involves reducing the middle class to poverty, breaking union power, and destroying the internal market as a precondition.
All this is being blamed on “Mr. Market” – presumably inexorable forces beyond politics, purely “objective,” a political power grab. But is not really “the market” that is promoting this destructive economic austerity. Latvia’s Harmony Center program shows that there is a much easier way to cut the cost of labor in half than by reducing its wages: Simply shift the tax burden off labor onto real estate and monopolies (especially privatized infrastructure). This will leave less of the economic surplus to be capitalized into bank loans, lowering the price of housing accordingly (the major factor in labor’s cost of living), as well as the price of public services. (Owners of monopoly utility services would be prevented from factoring interest charges into their cost of doing business. The idea is to encourage them to take returns on equity. Whether or not they borrow is a business decision of theirs, not one that governments should subsidize.) The tax deductibility of interest will be repealed – there is nothing intrinsically “market dictated” by this fiscal subsidy for debt leveraging. This program may be reviewed at rtfl.lv, the Renew Task Force Latvia website.
No doubt many post-Soviet economies will find themselves obliged to withdraw from the euro area rather than see a flight of labor and capital. They remain the most extreme example of the Neoliberal Experiment to see how far a population can have its living standards slashed before it rebels.
But so far the neoliberals are fully in control of the bureaucracy, and they are reviving Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, TINA: There Is No Alternative. But there is an alternative, of course. In the small Baltic economies, pro-labor parties are pressing for the government to shift the tax burden off employees and consumers back onto property and financial wealth. Bad debts beyond the reasonable ability to pay must be scaled back. It may be necessary to let the banks go under (they are mainly Swedish), even if this means withdrawing from the Euro. The choice is between who will be destroyed: the banks, or labor?
European politicians now view this as being truly a fight to the death. This is the ideology that has replaced social democracy.

[1] Matthew Dalton, “EU Proposes Fines for Budget Breaches,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2010.

An Interview with Warren Mosler: Modern Money Theory and the Exonomy

Antonio Foglia and Andrea Terzi interview *Warren Mosler*, Distinguished Research Associate of the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability, University of Missouri, Kansas City (participating via videoconferencing)
April 20, 2010
*Antonio Foglia* (AF): I have known Warren from his previous life as an investor, where he definitely proved his skills. Now, he is an economist and, as all economists, he thinks he has a recipe to fix the world. He is also becoming a politician, so he now has another reason for having a recipe to fix the world, and we are definitely most interested in learning what his recipes are today, at a very special conjuncture in the world.
Warren, thanks for being connected with us this evening. I know you are in Connecticut now. We are in Switzerland, so I think a more general point of view of the world is probably more of interest to all of us although I understand that you might be more current on how to fix the U.S., as that is where you hope to have an impact soon.
*Andrea Terzi* (AT): Hello from the Franklin Auditorium, Warren. The floor is yours.
*Warren Mosler* (WM): Thank you. Well, the most obvious observation is that unemployment is evidence of a lack of aggregate demand, so what the world is lacking is sufficient aggregate demand.
*In the United States, my prescription includes 1) what we call a payroll tax holiday, i.e., a tax reduction, 2) a revenue distribution to the states by the federal government and 3) a federally funded $8.00-per-hour job for anyone willing and able to work. *
*For the euro zone, I propose a distribution from the European Central Bank to the national governments of perhaps as much as 20 percent of GDP to be done on a per capita basis so it will be fair to all the member nations*.

The interesting thing is that it would not increase spending, or demand, or inflation, because spending is already constrained by the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), and so nations would still be required to keep spending down to whatever the EU requires, but what it does do is to eliminate the debt and financing issues, and it takes away the credit risk from the euro zone. The other thing it does is it gives the EU a far more powerful tool for enforcing its requirements. What happens is that anyone who does not comply with the EU’s requirements would risk losing this annual payment.

Right now, anyone who does not comply gets fined, but, as we know, fines are not easy to enforce.

*AF*: I think that after three hours of Keynesian presentations today I didn’t expect anything else than an extra vote for more aggregate demand stimulation, on one side, and the irrelevance of printing more money, on the other side. Somehow, though, I do personally remain concerned, and don’t fully understand how, in the long run, this will not have side effects as people begin to actually expect the fact that more money is going to be printed, more demand is going to be stimulated in less and less productive ways (because it is basically government spending rather than private spending). If I look at history there is little evidence of how you get out from the sort of Keynesian policy that you are proposing, that is certainly very effective in stopping a depression from developing (and we are grateful that policy makers did that), but I don’t understand how you then stop those policies, and how the exit from those policies can happen in the medium and long term.

*WM*: Okay, so you put up a lot of things there. So I’ll start from the beginning. First of all, for the U.S., I’m talking about restoring income for people working for a living which will raise the sales in the private sector right now, so it’s not a question of government. You talk about stimulus, but I’m not talking about adding stimulus. I’m talking about removing drag. You can’t get something for nothing. If you have somebody running and a plastic bag falls over his head that slows him down you can remove that plastic bag. We are still limited by our productive potential, and what we have now are restrictive policies that are keeping us from achieving it. Restrictive policies are demand leakages. In the U.S., there is a powerful incentive not to spend your income as this goes into a pension fund, and in Europe you have the same types of things that reduce aggregate demand. The only way any sector can successfully “net save” is if another sector goes into deficit, so what the government is doing when it lowers taxes or increases spending, depending on what the case may be, is filling the hole in demand created by the demand leakages.

My proposal for the EU doesn’t increase anyone’s spending. All it does is this: As long as countries are in compliance with spending limits set by the EU, they receive the allocation. As soon as they are not in compliance, they risk losing this payment, in which case the market will severely punish them and cut them off. So, to address your questions, I am not advocating any excess spending stimulus beyond just making up for the drags created by what I call “saving desires” and “demand leakages” which are largely a function of the institutional structure.

Let me just say it in one more way. A government like the U.S. has to determine what the right size of government is. For example: what is the right size for the legal system? You don’t want to have to wait two years to get a court date, but you don’t want to have people calling you up asking you come to court because there are a lot of vacancies, so maybe the right waiting period is, say, 60 days. So you then size your legal system and your legal employees for that kind of public service.

Equally, you have to size the military for what the mission is. You have to size the whole government. *Once you’ve sized your government properly, you then have to determine the correct level of taxes that is needed to sustain the level of private-sector activity that you want, and invariably those taxes are going to be less than the size of the government.* So, even if you want a smaller government, which is fine, you then have to have taxes that are even lower. Why? Because that’s the only way you are going to accommodate your private sector on its savings desires.

*AT*: I know where you are coming from, Warren, and I’m sure you realize that your proposal that the ECB distribute money to European governments makes many people here in Europe jump on their seats for two reasons. One: the ECB is prevented by statute from financing national governments; and two: people fear that this is further additional printing money, creating inflation. Would you mind going back to your proposal and explaining to me and the audience, step by step, what this distribution really means, where this money comes from, and where it is going, in this score-keeping exercise that is the true character of a monetary economy?

*WM*: Right, exactly. So, yes, it would require unanimous approval of EU governments. What I’m saying is that European governments have accounts at the ECB. Under my proposal, the ECB would put a credit balance into government accounts. So what will happen is that the balance in their accounts will go up. *Just because a balance on a national bank account goes up, it does not mean there is any additional spending. It is spending that causes inflation, not just the existence of a credit balance on a central bank computer.* But what would then happen is that in the normal course of spending, borrowing and debt management, this balance would be worked down. Not by an increased volume of spending and not by a change in anything else, but it would just be worked down because, for example, when the Greek bonds would mature, the government would be able to continue its normal spending (this would be limited by compliance with the SGP and other international agencies) without having to refinance its bonds. But once the credit balance is used up, then Greece would continue its normal refinancing, but with a level of debt reduced by about 20 percent GDP the first year.

So again this has no effect on the real economy, no effect on real spending. The only effect is that there would be fewer Greek securities outstanding, and that Greek debt levels would be lower and coming down, which would facilitate their continued funding once the credit balance is used up. So it’s purely, as you stated, an operational consideration and not a real economic consideration, and yes, *people would be afraid of things that they don’t understand*. But anyone who understood central banking from the inside at the operational level would realize that this would have absolutely no effect on inflation, employment, and income in a real economy, other than to facilitate the normal funding of national governments.

*AT*: Are you saying that the effect of such annual distribution would be like the effect of the discovery of a new gold mine every year in a country under the gold standard?

*WM*: Well, no, it’s different, because on a gold standard what we call the money supply is constrained in any case, whereas when you get to a currency it’s the opposite: the currency itself is never constrained. So you have a whole different dynamic.

Let me just expose my point from a slightly different point of view. The reason the EU can’t simply guarantee all the nations, and the ECB can’t simply guarantee all the national governments is because if they did, whoever “deficit spends” the most, wins. You would get a race to the bottom of extreme moral hazard that quickly winds up in impossible inflation. So *therehas to be some kind of mechanism to control government deficit spending for the member nations*. They did it through the SGP, that sets the 3 percent limit, and there’s no way around that dilemma. It can’t be done through market forces. It has to be done through the SGP. What they did is to leave the national government on a stand-alone basis, so there would be market discipline, but we’ve seen that that does not work either. They’ve got to get back to a situation where they are not subject to the mercy of market forces but at the same time they don’t want the moral hazard of some unlimited fiscal expansion where anybody can run a 5, 10, 20 percent deficit with inflationary effects.

*My proposal eliminates the credit risk at the national government level, so they are no longer restrained by the markets in their ability to borrow, but it makes them dependent on annual distributions from the ECB in order to maintain this freedom to fund themselves*.

And because they are dependent on the ECB’s annual check, the ECB has a policy to then be able to remove that check to impose discipline on these countries. *By having this policy tool to withhold payments, rather than implement fines, the EU would be in a much stronger position to enforce the deficit limits they need to prevent the race to the bottom of nations*.

*AT*: Your proposed ECB distribution would have the immediate effect of reducing the interest rate spread between German and Greek bonds. However, if the 3-percent deficit constraint remains in place, there is not much hope of prosperity in Europe. Do you agree?

*WM*: Right. The demand management would be based on the SGP: if they decide a 3-percent deficit is not adequate for the level of aggregate demand they may go up to 4, 5, or 6 percent or whatever level they choose. It’s always a political decision for them, and it’s always going to be a political decision. If they choose something too low, then they’re going to have higher unemployment. If they choose something too high, they’re going to have inflation. And so it’s going to be a political choice, no matter how you look at. But the thing is, how do you enforce the political choice? Right now they can’t enforce it. Right now, they’ve been enforcing it through the fining of member nations. But it doesn’t work. So they’ve lost their enforcement tool.

The other problem they have is this: because of the credit sensitivity of the national governments, when countercyclical deficits go up like now, which are needed to restore aggregate demand, output and employment, what happens is that the deficits challenge the creditworthiness of the national governments. *This is an impossible situation with national governments risking default because of the insolvency risk. They are in a completely impossible position to accomplish any of their goals. *

Whereas, reversing the situation, i.e., going from “fines as discipline” to “withholding payments as discipline” puts them in a position that is manageable. It still then requires wise management for the correct level of deficits, for the correct level of aggregate demand, but at least it’s possible. Right now, it’s unstable equilibrium, and what I am proposing switches it to a stable equilibrium, as they used to say in engineering class.

*AF*: If I understand correctly, the essence of the policies that you are suggesting, both in the U.S. and in Europe, involve a certain level of deficit spending and debt accumulation. Then one could expect the dollar/euro exchange rate not to move much because people would probably tend to dislike both currencies the same way. How would you see the interaction of these two areas with emerging markets that are in a totally different economic environment and cycle, and whose currencies are actually currently on the rise?

*WM*: Right, if you look at nations like India and even Brazil, they all have high interest rates and high deficits that help them get through. China, as well, maintains an extremely high deficit offsetting its internal savings desires. China may have overdone it, and it has to face an inflation problem, but this is a different story. *I think that the U.S. is in a far better situation than the euro zone right now, because our budget deficits do not represent the sustainability issues or credit issues*.

The EU has put its member nations in the same position as the U.S. states, as if Germany, or Greece, were like Connecticut, or California. They put all their member nations in the same position as state governments but without the federal government spending that the U.S. uses to help them out. This puts the whole burden of sustaining aggregate demand on European member nations. To get an analogy in the U.S., *if the U.S. had to run a trillion and a half million dollar deficit last year at the federal level, and if the only way that could have happened was at the state level, the U.S. would have been in much the same position as the EU, with all our states right on the edge of default.* So because we have our deficit at the federal level, instead of state level, we are in a much stronger position than the EU right now.

You may have already reviewed the mechanics of how nations like the U.S. or the U.K. do their public spending in the conference, but let me do it very quickly. When the United States spends money that it doesn’t tax, it credits the reserve account of whoever gets that money. Now, a reserve account at the central bank is nothing more than a checking account.

Let me now use the example of China so I can combine the problem of external debt with deficit spending at the same time. China gets its dollars by selling goods and services in the United States. When China gets paid, the dollars go into its checking account at the Federal Reserve Bank, and when China buys Treasury securities, all that happens is that the Federal Reserve transfers the funds from their checking account at the Federal Reserve to their securities accounts at the Federal Reserve. U.S. Treasury securities are accounted much like savings accounts at a normal commercial bank. When they do that, it’s called “increasing the national debt”, although when it’s in their checking account it doesn’t count as national debt. The whole point is that the spending of dollars by the federal government is nothing more than the Federal Reserve Bank changing numbers off in someone’s reserve account. The person doing this at the Treasury doesn’t care if funds are in the reserve account at the central bank; it makes no difference at all, operationally. *There is no operational connection between spending, taxing, and debt management.* Operationally, they are completely distinct. And the way any government like the United States or the U.K. or Japan pays off its debt is the same: just transfer funds from someone’s security accounts back to the reserve accounts at your own central bank, that’s it. And this happens every week with hundreds of billions of dollars. None of this acts as an operational constraint on government spending. There is no solvency issue. There is no default condition in the central banks’ computer.

Now, when you get to the EU, it all changes because all this has been moved down to the national government level, and it’s not at some kind of federal level the way it is in the United States. There is no default risk for the U.S., for the U.K., or for Japan where the debt is triple that of the U.S. and double that of Greece. It is all just a matter of transferring funds from one account to another in your own central bank.

*AT*: I’m glad you touched upon the question of China accumulating credits with the U.S., because this is poorly understood. Money that Chinese earn by sending merchandise to the United States are credits in the U.S., and these credit units are nonredeemable, so Chinese owners can do nothing with these things unless they use them to buy American products, and if they do, those units become profits for American firms. But there is also another possibility, which sometimes raises concerns in the larger public, and this is what happens if China should choose to get rid of these dollars by selling the U.S. securities they own. While the amount of dollars owned by foreigners doesn’t change, the price of the dollar would in fact decline. If China sells off American debt, dollar depreciation may be substantial.

*WM*: Operationally, it’s not a problem because if they bought Euros from the Deutsche Bank, we would move their dollars from their account at the Fed to the Deutsche Bank account at the Fed. The problem might be that the value of the dollar would go down. Well, one thing you’ve got to take note of is that the U.S. administration is trying to get China to revaluate currency upward, and this is no different from selling off dollars, right? So, what you are talking about (selling off dollars) is something the U.S. is trying to force to happen, would you agree with that?

*AT*: Yes!

*WM*: Okay, so we’re saying that we’re trying to force this disastrous scenario—that we must avoid at all costs—to happen. This is a very confused policy. *What would actually happen if China were to sell off dollars? Well, first of all, the real wealth of the U.S. would not change: the real wealth of any country is everything you can produce domestically at full employment plus whatever the rest of the world sends you minus what you have to send them, which we call real terms of trade.* This is something that used to be important in economics and has really gone by the wayside. And the other thing is what happens to distribution. While it doesn’t directly impact the wealth of the U.S., *the falling dollar affects distribution within U.S., distribution between those who profits from exports and those who benefit from imports.* And that can only be adjusted with domestic policy. So, number one, we are trying to make this thing happen that we are afraid of, and number two, if it does happen, it is a demand-distribution problem, and there are domestic policies to just make sure this happens the way we want it to be.

*AT*: Would you like to elaborate on another theme of today’s symposium? How do you see the income distribution effects of the U.S. fiscal package? Is it going in the right direction in your opinion?

*WM*: Well, we had 5 percent growth on the average maybe for the last 2 quarters while unemployment has continued to go up. If GDP is rising and people in the world are getting hurt, and real wages are continuing to fall, then who is getting the real growth? Well, everybody else. And so what we’ve seen from a Democratic administration is perhaps the largest transfer of real wealth from low income to high income groups in the history of the world. Now, I don’t think that was the intention of their policies but it has certainly been a result, and it comes from a government that does not understand monetary operations and a monetary system and how it works.

*AT*: Warren, what would be your first priority, the one action that you would enforce immediately to improve the current situation?

*WM*: The United States has a punishing regressive tax which we call payroll taxes. These take out a fixed percent of our income, 15.2 percent (7.6 percent paid by employees and 7.6 percent by employers), so it starts from the very first dollar you earn, and the cap is $108,000 a year. *I would immediately declare a payroll tax holiday, suspend the collection of these taxes. This would fix the economy immediately from the bottom up. A person making $50,000 a year would see an extra $325 a month in his pay check, simply by having the government stop subtracting these funds from his or her pay.*

Our economy has always worked best if people working for a living have enough take-home pay to be able to buy the goods and services that they produce. Right now, in the United States, people working for a living are so squeezed they can pay for gasoline and for food and that’s about it, maybe a little bit of their insurance payments, and so we’ve had an economic and social disaster. *The cause of the financial crisis has been people unable to make their payments.* The only difference between a Triple-A loan and “toxic assets” is whether people are making their payments or not. And you can fund the banks and restore their capital and do everything else, but it doesn’t help anyone making their payments. We’re two years into this and we’re still seeing delinquencies moving up, although they leveled off a little bit, at unthinkably high levels. Hundreds of thousands of people getting thrown out of their homes—that’s the wrong way for a Democratic administration to address a financial crisis. To fund a bank, simply stop taking the money away from people working for a living so they can make their payments and fix the financial crisis from the bottom up. *All that businesses and banks need and want at the end of the day is a market for their products; they want people who can afford to make their payments and buy their products.* So my first policy would deliver exactly that, which is what I think we need to take the first big step to reverse what’s going on.

*AT*: The action you proposed, the payroll tax holiday, entails some form of discretionary fiscal policy and this raises two questions. First, discretionary fiscal policy has been discredited. Economists like to model politicians’ behavior in a way that we cannot trust their decisions as they just aim at winning the next elections. So how do we make sure that discretionary fiscal policy would be used correctly to achieve full employment and avoid inflation?

*WM*: My proposal is not talking about discretionary spending. It’s about cutting taxes and restoring incomes for people who are actually working for a living, who are the people that at the end of the day we all depend on for our lifestyle, so it is not an increase in government spending, it is a tax cut on people working for a living. The only reason this hasn’t happened is because of what I call “the innocent fraud” (from my book, *The seven deadly innocent frauds*, available on my website), that the government has run out of money, the government is broke, the federal government has to get funding, has to get revenues from those who pay tax, or it has to borrow from China and leave it to our children to pay back. This is complete myth, and it is the only barrier between us and prosperity. Now, in terms of using excess capacity and create inflation, the theory says yes, it can happen, though I’ve never seen it in my forty years in the financial markets.

As they say, in order to get out of a hole, first you have to stop digging, right? Right now, we’ve got an enormous amount of excess capacity in the United States. Unemployment is at 10% only because they changed the way they define it. Using the old method, we have up to 22% unemployment.

The payroll tax holiday will both increase spending power and lower costs, so we get a little bit of deflationary effect as spending starts. Should there be a time when we see demand starts threatening the price level, then it can come a point where it makes sense to raise taxes, but not to pay for China, not to pay for social security, not to pay for Afghanistan (we just need to change the numbers up in bank accounts) but to cool down demand. We have to understand that taxes function to regulate aggregate demand and not to fund expenditures.

*AT*: Discretionary fiscal policy also includes discretionary changes in taxes, not only discretionary changes in spending, so how do we make sure that the political ruling class will raise taxes when needed?

*WM*: Well, right now they’re raising taxes, so they don’t seem to have much of a reluctance to do that, and they also understand that voters have an intense dislike for inflation. It’s not justified by the economic analysis, it’s just an emotional dislike for inflation. They believe it’s the government robbing people of their savings and they believe it’s morally wrong. And so they are always under intense pressure to make sure that inflation does not get out of control or they are going to lose their jobs.

But that’s the checks and balances in a democracy. It’s what the population votes for. And the American population has shown itself to vote against inflation time and time again. The population decides they want more or less inflation, it boils down to whether you believe in democracy or you don’t.

And I’m on the side to believe in democracy.

*AT*: In terms of democracy, this choice is not available to Europeans right now. The ECB has been given an institutional mandate of price stability, and the decision of what’s more evil, inflation or unemployment, has been removed from voters’ preferences on the ground that price stability is the premise to growth and full employment!

But I’m afraid our time is over. Warren, thank you very much. Although the volcano in Iceland prevented you from attending today, at least we had this opportunity to discuss via teleconference.

*WM*: Was the volcano a result of the financial crisis over there?

*AF*: It was a way for Iceland to take revenge on the Brits!

Warren, we thank you very much for making this conference possible and thank you for your time. I encourage anybody who is interested to go to your website to get a view of your most recent ideas, and all the best from this side of the Atlantic on your campaign.

*WM*: Thank you. If anyone has more questions just write to my email address w[email protected] and I’ll be happy to correspond with anyone looking for more information.

*AT*: Thank you Warren.

*WM*: Okay, thank you all!

$50 Billion in Infrastructure Spending: A drop in the Bucket

The White House released the following statement regarding its new recovery plan: “The President today laid out a bold vision for renewing and expanding our transportation infrastructure – in a plan that combines a long-term vision for the future with new investments. A significant portion of the new investments would be front-loaded in the first year.”
This front load is worth $50 billion…a lot of money…but an insignificant amount compared to the size of what is needed. It is not a bold vision it is a very timid vision. Don’t believe me? Ask the American Society of Civil Engineers. In its 2009 Infrastructure Report Card, it gave a D average to US infrastructures and recommended $2.2 trillion of dollars of spending over the next 5 years. And that is just to bring current infrastructures back to good condition; trillions more are needed to respond to growing needs.

Money is not a problem for the federal government, all this could be started tomorrow like we have done to finance wars, bail outs the financial sector and other wasteful items. We did it before, when the country had a truly bold vision and was much less wealthy, and we could do it again. Besides current infrastructures, we need to start to use our underused resources (especially labor) to address the future needs of our aging population and our environmental problems: education, infrastructure, social networks, technology, energy, food production, and many others sectors need help.

“Control Fraud” Crushes Kabul: And the New York Times needs to Correct its Correction

By William K. Black**
The New York Times, in a story
entitled “Afghanistan Tries to Help Nation’s Biggest Bank” issued the following correction:

Correction: September 4, 2010
An earlier version of this article, citing American and Afghan officials, erroneously stated that the United States would contribute money to help the Kabul Bank. American officials say the United States is providing technical assistance but no funds for the bank.

The problem is that the “earlier version” was correct – the correction is incorrect. Kabul Bank has been revealed to be a “control fraud.” Control frauds occur when those that control a seemingly legitimate entity use it as a “weapon” to defraud. Control frauds cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime – combined. Control frauds can also cause immense damage to a nation because they are run by financial elites that curry favor from political elites. The result is that they are often able to loot “their” banks for years with impunity. They also degrade the integrity of the entire system.

Kabul Bank is a typical example of a crude variant of control fraud at a major bank. Systems of crony capitalism, such as Afghanistan, inherently create an intensely “criminogenic” environment that produces epidemics of control fraud in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Kabul Bank, like the (originally Pakistani) Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) – better known to regulators as the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals International” is reported to have helped everyone – corrupt Afghani government officials, corrupt business leaders, and the Taliban laundering its drug profits to, in part, buy weapons. Like BCCI, Kabul Bank’s managers’ reported frauds and self-dealing blew up the bank by causing massive losses. (If you believe that Kabul Bank is the only bank like this in Afghanistan you are consuming too much of Afghanistan’s leading export.)

The CIA tells us that Afghanistan raised roughly $1 billion in revenues last year and expended $3.3 billion. The shortfall, of course, was funded by us (the West, principally the U.S.). Indeed, that understates the case because Afghanistan raised the $1 billion in revenues primarily through customs duties and the U.S. and other Western nations indirectly or directly funded most of those customs duties. We know certain facts. Afghanistan has no deposit insurance system. Its government has no financial responsibility for bailing out Kabul Bank’s depositors. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s government has announced it will bail out the depositors. The funds to bail out the depositors will come – indirectly, but surely – largely from the United States Treasury. The New York Times’ initial article correctly stated that the U.S. will bail out Kabul Bank’s depositors. Someone obviously demanded a “correction.” Whoever that person was lied to the New York Times with the goal of getting the newspaper to lie to its readers. That lie succeeded. It is time for the New York Times to correct its correction and defeat this effort to mislead the public. The U.S. taxpayers are about to bail out the depositors of a fraudulent Afghan bank.

**Bill Black is also a white-collar criminologist and former financial regulator. He is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.

Is the Economy as Broke as Lehman Was? The Angelides Committee Sidesteps the Mortgage Fraud Issue


By Michael Hudson (via Counterpunch, where it appeared first)

What is the difference between today’s economy and Lehman Brothers just before it collapsed in September 2008? Should Lehman, the economy, Wall Street – or none of the above – be bailed out of bad mortgage debt? How did the Fed and Treasury decide which Wall Street firms to save – and how do they decide whether or not to save U.S. companies, personal mortgage debtors, states and cities from bankruptcy and insolvency today? Why did it start by saving the richest financial institutions, leaving the “real” economy locked in debt deflation?

Stated another way, why was Lehman the only Wall Street firm permitted to go under? How does the logic that Washington used in its case compare to how it is treating the economy at large? Why bail out Wall Street – whose managers are rich enough not to need to spend their gains – and not the quarter of U.S. homeowners unfortunate enough also to suffer “negative equity” but not qualify for the help that the officials they elect gave to Wall Street’s winners by enabling Bear Stearns, A.I.G., Countrywide Financial and other gamblers to pay their bad debts?

There was disagreement last Wednesday at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings now plodding along through its post mortem on the causes of Wall Street’s autumn 2008 collapse and ensuing bailout. Federal Reserve economists argue that the economy – and Wall Street firms apart from Lehman – merely had a liquidity problem, a temporary failure to find buyers for its junk mortgages. By contrast, Lehman had a more deep-seated “balance sheet” problem: negative equity. A taxpayer bailout would have been an utter waste, not recoverable.

Only a “liquidity problem,” or a balance sheet problem of negative equity?

Lehman CEO Dick Fuld is bitter. He claims that Lehman was unfairly singled out. After all, the Fed lent $29 billion to help JPMorgan Chase buy out Bear Stearns the preceding spring. In the wake of Lehman’s failure it seemed to gain the courage to say, “Never again,” and avoided new collapses by bailing out A.I.G. – saving all its counterparties from having to take a loss.

Was this not a giveaway? Mr. Fuld implied. Why couldn’t the Fed and Treasury do for Lehman what they did with other Wall Street investment firms and stock brokers: let it reclassify itself as a bank so it could pawn off its junk mortgages at the Fed’s discount window for 100 cents on the dollar, sticking taxpayers with the loss? (And by the way, will these firms ever be asked to buy back these mortgages at the price they borrowed against from the government? Or will they be allowed to walk away from their debts in a Wall Street version of “jingle mail”?)

This is the soap opera that Americans should be watching, if only it weren’t conducted in the foreign language of jargon and euphemism. At issue is whether Lehman’s crisis was merely a temporary “liquidity problem,” that time would have cleaned up much like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf; or, did the firm suffer a more deep-seated “balance sheet problem” (negative equity), as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke claims – a junk balance sheet, composed of assets that not only had no buyers at the time, but had no visible likelihood of recovering their market price even after the $13 trillion the Treasury and Federal Reserve have spent to bail out Wall Street.

Insisting that Lehman should have shared in Washington’s $13 trillion giveaway, Mr. Fuld testified that his firm was just as savable as Countrywide or A.I.G. – or Fannie Mae for that matter. Lehman was perversely singled out, he claims. Was it not indeed as savable as the Fed and Treasury claim the U.S. real estate sector is? Like over-mortgaged homeowners, all it needed was enough time to finish selling off its portfolio, given enough loan support to tide it over.

The problem, of course, is that the securities that Lehman hoped to pawn off were fraudulent junk. American homeowners are victims, not crooks. Wall Street bailed out crooks at Countrywide and its cohorts. The credit-rating agency Fitch has found financial fraud in every mortgage package it has examined. And these are the packages that have made Wall Street rich and powerful enough to gain Washington bailouts to establish them as a new ruling class, bailouts to use for buying up Washington politicians and lawmakers, and for buying out the popular press to tell people how necessary Wall Street financial practice is to “support” the economy and “create wealth.”

Could any other daytime telecast have a more typecast villain than Mr. Fuld? A novelist would be hard-put to better personify greed, arrogantly playing bridge with his boss while Lehman burned. Yet his testimony has a certain logic. If the negative equity suffered by a quarter of U.S. homeowners can be saved, as the Fed claims it can, where should the line be drawn?

Or to put this question the other way around, why are ten million American homeowners being treated like Lehman, if the Fed believes that they are as savable as Countrywide and A.I.G.?

Huge sums are at stake, because the bailout has left little for Social Security, and nothing to bail out the insolvent states and cities, or for more stimuli to pull the national economy out of depression.

Most relevant in Mr. Fuld’s self-pitying defense before the Angelides Committee is not what he said about his own firm, but his accusation that the Fed and Treasury rescued the rest of Wall Street. Weren’t other firms just as bad? Why was Lehman singled out?

The Fed’s witnesses gave a devastating reply. They drew a clear distinction between a temporary “liquidity problem” and outright negative net worth – the “balance-sheet problem” of insufficient assets to cover one’s debts. Lehman was so badly managed, the Fed claimed – so reckless and arrogant in its belief that it could cheat its customers by selling junk at a huge markup – that it could not have been rescued except by an outright taxpayer giveaway. As the Fed’s Chief Counsel, Scott Alvarez, put matters: “I think that if the Federal Reserve had lent to Lehman … in the way that some people think without adequate collateral … this hearing and all other hearings would have only been about how we had wasted the taxpayers’ money – and I don’t expect we would have been repaid.” Like downtown Los Angeles, there was
no “there” there.

Included in the hearings’ evidence is an exasperated e-mail sent by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s chief of staff, Jim Wilkinson, on Sept. 9, 2008: “I just can’t stomach us bailing out lehman. Will be horrible in the press.” Five days later, on Sept. 14, he added that unless a private buyer could be found (e.g., as JPMorgan Chase stepped forward to buy Bear Stearns), “No way govt money is coming in … also just did a call with the WH [White House] and usg [U.S. Government] is united behind no money … I think we are headed for winddown.”

Lehman’s problem was not just temporary illiquidity. It had a fatal balance-sheet problem: Its assets were not worth anywhere near what it owed. So with poetic justice, it was in the same position as the subprime borrowers whose junk mortgages it had underwritten and sold to investors gullible enough to believe Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s AAA ratings. This fraudulent junk was supposed to be as safe as a U.S. Treasury bond. But it turned out to be only as safe as Social Security and state pension promises are in today’s “Big fish eat little fish” world.

Yet Mr. Fuld is correct in pointing out that not only Bear Stearns and A.I.G., but also Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs would have failed without state support. So the question remains: Why bail out these firms (and their counterparties!) but not Lehman?

This is too narrow a scope to pose the proper question. What needs to be discussed is the result of Washington arranging for Wall Street to repay its TARP, A.I.G. and other bailout money – including that of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – by “earning its way out of debt” at the “real” economy’s expense. Why has Washington refused to write down the bad debts of homeowners, states and cities, and companies facing bankruptcy unless they annul their pension promises to their employees? Why is Washington is treating the American economy like it treated Lehman and telling it to “Drop dead”?

The explanation is that a double standard exists. The wealthy get bailed out – the creditors, not the debtors. And even the fraudsters, not their victims.

Sidestepping the Fraud Issue:
Bailing out fraudsters instead of saving America’s economic base

Recent federal bankruptcy proceedings have exposed Lehman’s deceptive off-balance-sheet accounting gimmicks such as Repo 105 to conceal its true position. No fraud charges have yet been levied, but this is the invisible elephant in the Washington committee rooms. “Everyone was doing it,” so that makes it legal – or what is the same thing these days, non-prosecutable in practice. To prosecute would be to disrupt the financial system – and it is Fed doctrine that the economy cannot survive without a financial system enabled to “earn its way out of debt” by raking off the needed wealth from the rest of the economy?

So the Fed, the Treasury and the Justice Department have merely taken the timid baby step of pointing out that Lehman suffered from such bad management that no firm was willing to buy it out. Barclay’s was interested, but Mr. Fuld was so greedy that he found its offer not rich enough for his taste. So he ended up with nothing. It is a classic morality tale. But evidently not fraud.

The fraud issue lies as far outside the scope of the financial committee meetings as does the question of how the economy should cope with its unpayably high mortgage, state and local debts in the face of its inadequately funded pension obligations. Fed Chairman Bernanke testified on Thursday, Sept. 2, that “the market” itself breeds what most people would call fraud. Widening the market for home ownership necessarily involves lowering loan standards, he explained. But as the Lehman failure illustrates, where should we draw the line between “illiquidity” and insolvency on the one hand, and higher risk and outright fraud?

The Fed argues that the economy cannot recover without a solvent financial system. But what about that large part of the financial system based on fraud? Would the economy fall apart without it – without mortgage fraud, without deceptive packaging of junk mortgages, and for that matter without computerized gambling on derivatives? What of the credit-ratings agencies whose AAA writings were as much up for sale as the conscience and honesty of politicians on the Senate and House Banking Committees? Do we really need them?

And does the economy need more credit (that is, debt)? Or does it need jobs? Does it need to un-tax the banks and give tax-favoritism to Wall Street (“capital gains” tax rates) to enable it to earn its way out of debt at the expense of the production-and-consumption economy?

The question that Washington financial committees should be asking (and economics textbooks should be posing) is whether wider home ownership is really dependent on easier and looser lending standards. After all, the effect of easy credit is to enable borrowers to bid up housing prices. Is this really how to make the U.S. economy more competitive – given the fact that industrial labor now typically pays 40% of its wage income for housing?

Or, does the Fed’s easy-money policy deregulation of oversight open the way for asset-price inflation that puts home ownership even further out of reach – except at the price of running up a lifetime of debt to the banks that write the loans on their keyboard at steep markups over their cost of funding from the compliant Fed?

Qui bono?

 Who is to benefit from the Fed’s easy money policy – consumers and homeowners, or Wall Street? This is the broad issue that should be discussed. What would have happened without the bailout? (Remember, Republican Congressmen opposed it – before that fatal Friday when Maverick John McCain rushed back to Washington and said he would not debate Mr. Obama that evening unless Congress approved the bailout of is Wall Street backers.) What if debtors had been bailed out by a write-down of bad debts, instead of the lenders who had made bad loans and the large institutions that bought them?

The bailout has saddled taxpayers not only with $13 trillion that now must be sacrificed by the economy at large (but not by Wall Street), but with the cost of a decade-long depression resulting from keeping the bad debt on the books. This is what rightly should be deemed criminal.

Defenders of Wall Street insist that there was no alternative. And the committee hearings are carefully only listening to such people, because these are very respectable hearings. They are writing mythology, almost as if they are crafting a new religion. In this new ethic, Wall Street financial institutions – “credit creators,” that is, debt creators – are supposed to fund industry, not strip assets or make bad loans. Without rich people, who would “create jobs”? Such is the self-serving logic of Wall Street. For them, Wall Street is the economy. The wealth of a nation is worth whatever banks will lend, by collateralizing the economic surplus for debt service.

What the Angelides Commission really should focus on is whether this is true or false. That would make it a soap opera worth watching. The Fed so far has stonewalled attempts to discover just who was bailed out in autumn 2008? But most important of all is, what dynamic was bailed out? What class of people?

The answer would seem to be, financial firms employing and serving the nation’s wealthiest 1%? Any and all fraudsters among their ranks? (There has not been a single prosecution, as Bill Black reminds us.) Or the remaining 99% of the population – their bank deposits and indeed, their jobs themselves?

Academic textbooks pretend that the economy is all about production and consumption – factories producing the things their workers buy. The distribution of wealth does not appear, nor is it regularly tracked in statistics. But in Washington and at the hearings, the economy seems to be all about lending and debt, all about balance sheets.

I believe that the beneficiaries were fraudsters, and that the system cannot be saved. Trying to save it by keeping the debts in place – and letting Wall Street banks “work their way out of debt” at the U.S. economy’s expense – threatens to lock the economy in a chronic debt deflation and depression.

At issue is the concept of capital. Does money that is made by short-term, computer-driven financial trades qualify as “capital formation” and hence deserving of tax breaks? Are the billions of dollars of “earnings” reported by Wall Street speculators to be taxed at the low 15% “capital gains” rate? That is only a fraction of the income-tax rate that most workers pay – on top of which is piled the 11% FICA wage withholding for Social Security and Medicare that all workers have to pay on their salaries up to the cut-off point of about $102,000. (This cut-off frees from this tax the tens of millions of dollars that hedge fund traders pay themselves.) Or should these trading gains – a zero-sum activity where one party’s gain is, by definition, another’s loss (usually one’s customers) – be taxed more highly than poverty-level income of workers?

A short while ago the Blackstone hedge fund’s co-founder, Stephen Schwarzman, characterized the attempt to tax short-term arbitrage trading gains at the same rate that wage-earners pay as analogous to Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. It is a class war against fraudsters and criminals – an unfair war as serious as World War II. In Mr. Schwarzman’s inspired vision the Democrats are re-enacting the role of Adolph Hitler by mounting a fiscal blitzkrieg to force billionaires to pay as high a tax rate as workers. Are not Wall Street firms doing “God’s work,” after all, as Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein, put it last fall? And if they are, then are not those who would tax or criticize Wall Street “God-killers”?

If religion can be turned on its head like this – where the Invisible Hand of Wall Street (invisible to the Justice Department, at least) is elevated to a faux-Deist moral philosophy – is it any surprise that economic orthodoxy and formerly progressive tax policy is succumbing? The rentiers are fighting back – against the Enlightenment, against Progressive Era tax policy, and against hopes for U.S. economic recovery. Given today’s florid emotionalism when it comes to discussing Wall Street finances, it hardly is surprising that the Angelides hearings do not dare venture into such territory as to ask whether the bottom 90% of the U.S. economy might need to be bailed out with debt relief just as Wall Street’s elites were.

Yesterday (Thursday), Fed Chairman Bernanke tried to put the financial flow of funds that led up to the crisis in perspective. In his testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission he described a self-feeding process that actually started with the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit that made foreigners so flush with dollars. They understandably wanted yields higher than the Treasury was paying, as the Fed was flooding the economy with credit to keep asset prices afloat to save the banks from having to take loan write-downs and admit that debt creation was not really the same thing as Alan Greenspan euphemized in calling it “wealth creation.” So foreign financial institutions became a large but overly trusting market for packaged junk mortgages.

“The market made us do it.”

When asked just who was pushing the great explosion of mortgage lending, Mr. Bernanke pointed to the mortgage packagers – Wall Street profiting from the commissions and rake-offs it was making by pretending that the loans were not bad. However, he reminded his audience, there also had to be popular demand for housing. People were panicked. They worried that if they did not buy a home back in 2005, they could not afford to buy in the future. And they were cajoled with financial televangelists assuring them that they would always enjoy the option of selling at a profit. But Mr. Bernanke said nothing about fraud in all this. To widen the market for home ownership, banks had to write more mortgages, and this required lowering their standards.

So they did it all for us, for “the people” – and the backers of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac who egged them on.

Where does “lowering loan standards” turn into outright fraud? Has that simply become part of “the market”? This is what the commission seems to fear to address. But it is getting late – already we are in September, and the report is scheduled for December. So is this really going to be “it”? This would be like a soap opera ending in the middle of the desert, with the main protagonists stranded. This seems to be where the Commission is leaving the U.S. economy as it waits for the recommendations of the Joint Commission to Roll Back Social Security, or whatever the name of Mr. Obama’s Republicanized Democratic commission is more formally called. The result is more like the cliffhanger of a serial, leaving the viewer to try and imagine how the protagonist – in this case, the economy – will ever manage to be saved.