“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the cage: Obama's Team of Losers

Like any other liberal, I’m appalled by the rightwing tilt of Obama’s economics team. Any team that is hailed by libertarians and Bushites like Greg Mankiew is obviously not a team I want to play with.

And yet, in some ways, I’m indifferent.

When I use the term rightwing, some explanation needs to be put in place. The terms rightwing and leftwing are often used as markers of rhetoric. It is as if we should bracket the social context of these comments, and discuss them as “ideas”. Myself, I think that the rhetoric only makes sense when embedded in a robust sense of the sociology of a situation. Rhetoric is part of the way a society dreams itself, and like all dreams, should be subject to psychoanalysis – but psychoanalysis is no substitute for history. The history of the last thirty years was about the growing power of the parasitic Dixie model, in which heavy public investment elsewhere – in the Northeast U.S., say, or in Japan – produced an economic activity that could be successfully transported to the South by way of a government intervention – a tax break, say, along with laws preventing labor organization – which would be followed by the continued refusal to make public investments. Thus, in the Sunbelt, you have considerable industrial activity, little of it generated within the Sunbelt, plus an indigenous asset based sector – real estate – and the two together allowed for a regime that took on the accoutrements of the highly developed economy without making the necessary sacrifices to sustain one. This, and this only, is what is meant by small government. This economic form joined with a neo-liberal mindset that had three pillars – as I’ve said over and over. (Pause for breath)

What they are, these pillars, ahem, ahem, I outlined in this huffy reply to a post on Matt Yglesias’ blog. MY is very enthused about the murder of the American auto industry, which he shares with the libertarian young turks he knows, admires, and goes to whenever he has questions about the deeper passages in Atlas Shrugged. In this particular post, MY is psyched that a master such as Bruce Bartlett is giving the thumbs up to Obama’s economics team – Bruce Bartlett! Admittedly, this reply goes over things that I repeat like an organ grinder on this blog. But what can I do? Indignation does have a tendency to degenerate into Tourette’s, and that is what I have, political Tourette’s syndrome.

But here’s the latest version of my rant:

“I’m not sure of the point of this post. The point, I guess, should be that the neo-liberal establishment thinks that basically, nothing is happening here, and we are gonna move back to our open and free markets uber alles position that binds administration policies from Reagan to W in one big happy family. Minus the pesky automakers, which have to be thrown right out of the club, those scum! It is all creative destruction and how we like it.

Meanwhile, this is the week neo-liberalism died. All economies are political economies - they depend on a political pact that underlies any macro policy. The political pact underlying neo-liberalism was pretty simple: a. expanded credit for the masses; b. a robust shadow financial sector; and c., a continuing influx of money from household savings, in the form of 401(k)s, mutual funds, money markets, etc. These all worked together. The middle class did not bond with the investor class because they are “aspirational”, but because they saw their retirement accounts swelling and their assets becoming pricier. While their everyday economic life, which depends on labor income, became in one sense harder, as the rate of earnings increases decreased and then vanished, the increased credit patched over the spots in the lifestyle. And of course, b., allowed the creditor to take increased risks.

Well, a, b, and c are dead. It would not at all be surprising that the equities markets either stabilize at a low level and stay there for a decade, or keep sinking. That means, in essence, that the accumulated savings of those who went through the boom years from the eighties until now are seeing their future systematically destroyed. That was the future they were willing to trade slower income growth for. And meanwhile, good bye to the expanded credit sphere. You might patch your lifestyle gaps with 9 percent, but 19 percent, 29 percent - that is when we are talking about the pre-modern economy. That is interest that, in effect, retracts the elbow room given by credit. In the final month in which Obama pulled ahead, it was clearly the 401(k) effect. It wasn’t youth, it wasn’t change, it wasn’t hope - it was a vast fear. Which will be speaking out a lot more as it turns out that the fear was understated - things are a lot worse than they seem.
So the “brilliant” Larry Summers, missionary of neo-liberalism when the U.S. was the indispensible nation and architect, with Phil Gramm, of the deregulated marketplace that made the perverse Bush boom possible, is going to find that he simply can’t use the old nostrums. Because the old system is gone. Bartlett celebrating this is like one of Louis XVI’s courtiers assuring everybody that the Bishop of Autan, Tallyrand, being so powerful in the Assembly, everybody’s head is safe. It is a joke.

Of course, the last joke of the expiring neo-liberal imperium was the very funny one, which MY laughed at heartily, of course, along with other important young public intellectuals, of shooting GM in the head. Funny funny funny. Those people had the gall to ask for a loan of 25 billion - and sharpeyed Matt saw that could reach to 75 billion! Over the weekend, we decide that Citi needs 300 billion and - well, that’s all right then. It might not be a great deal, but shucks, they needed it and all.

Yes, neoliberalism is a corpse, but it will keep kicking for a while among the pundits.”

My hope, in this election, was that Obama saw the obvious. My disappointment with the appointment of that team of A level neo-libs is that he doesn’t. Yet the difference here is that the neo-libs have lost their tools. They have become State financed humpty dumpties, trying to glue together one cracked egg after another. It is funny, a ha ha joke, that the only industry bailout that ever worked was – surprise! – with the auto industry, namely the Chrysler loan of 1979. My working definition of worked is that Chrysler is still around, paid off the loan with interest, generated tons of profits for investors and paid wages that made life pleasant for thousands of employees, and even led the car design field – admittedly, in the disastrous direction of the SUV – in the early nineties. Manufacturing is one area in which government can actively intervene to good purpose, because the metrics are pretty clear.

Finance, on the other hand, has to be a market driven sector, and the government has to be a guardian of the institutions, even to the extent of coercing those institutions into being. When, in 1927, Coolidge unilaterally seized the radio airwaves for the government and then rented out space on them, he was creating an institution. On this model, the Fed should long ago have seized the peer-to-peer, OTC system by which derivatives are traded and forced it to become an open derivatives market, much like any other equities market, in which all products are transparent and all traders are known. Anything else is bullshit. That they still haven’t done that, and that the crewe brought together by Obama has a historic interest in continuing the sector in its dysfunctional ways is a bad, bad thing. But I think they will be forced to do what they don’t want to do, anyway. The question is, will they be forced to do it before the Treasure blows such a hole in the U.S. Government’s ability to respond that we have a crippled, Brazil like government. We’ll see.

Oh, and Yves Smith, my darling - she is definitely up in the pantheon as far as I am concerned - wrote an excellent little post about our collective cognitive capture by the financial hegemony model:

"There is a remarkable failure to acknowledge a key element of the task before us, that is, that the financial system HAS to shrink. Its current size is based on an unsustainable level of debt, a big chunk of which will go bust or be renegotiated. Yet rather than trying to figure out what a new, slimmed down version of banking ought to look like, to ascertain which pieces should be preserved and which jettisoned, the authorities are instead reacting in a completely ad hoc fashion, rushing to put out the latest fire. And in the process, they keep trying to validate overly inflated asset values (a measure straight out of the failed Japan playbook) rather than try to ascertain what their real value might be so as to determine how much recapitalization might ultimately be needed (if you doubt me, Exhibit One is the pending Citi bailout, in which lousy assets will be guaranteed at phony values). Is this denial? Do the authorities fear that if they work up this analysis, it will leak out and the markets will panic? This seems to be the first, most important order of business, yet here we are more than a year into the crisis, still tip-toeing around one of the very biggest issues.

And why is that? Back to the cult issue. Willem Buiter has chastised the Fed for what he calls "cognitive regulatory capture," that is, that they identify far too strongly with the values and world view of their charges. But it isn't just the Fed. The media. and to a lesser degree, society at large has bought into the construct of the importance, value, and virtue of the financial sector, even as it is coming violently apart before our eyes. Why, for instance, the vituperative reaction against a GM bailout, while we assume Citi has to be rescued? A GM bankruptcy would be at least as catastrophic as a Citi failure. but GM elicits attacks for the incompetence of its management and the supposedly unreasonable posture of the UAW (the same free market advocates recoil at a deal struck by consenting adults). The particular target for ire is the autoworker pensions and health plans, as well as their work rules. But the pension plans being underwater is the fault of GM management for not providing for them in the fat years; I personally have trouble with the idea that health care should vary by class; and for the work rules, German and Swedish automakers have strong unions and yet can compete. I see the UAW as having correctly seen GM management feeding at the trough and doing a good job at extracting their share.

And yet the specter of incompetent, and worse, DISHONEST management elicits far less anger. GM may not make the best cars, but Citi and other banks sold products that were terrible, destructive, that resulted in huge losses and are wrecking economies, damage crappy cars could never inflict (environmentalists might quibble, but never has so much seeming wealth evaporated in so little time, and with the main culprits readily identified). They paid huge bonuses, yet their 2004-mid 2007 earnings have been wiped out by subsequent losses. But while UAW workers will have to give up on deals cut earlier, in terms of health care and pension promises (entered into, by the way, to bridge difference over wage levels), I guarantee no Wall Street denizen of the peak years will have to cough up one penny of his bonus from those days."


Vermin Direct, LLC said...

You might consider that huffy, LI, or a symptom of political Tourette's but it is nothing next to the wrath I felt when I saw Matt and Bruce sharing a dish of Kentucky-fried parrot. I trusted them and now I'm stuck trying to put on a show with a galvanic wonder bobbing away in a jar of formaldehyde.

Do you think they laughed when they left the poor thing's head rolling on the floor of his cage? I'll bet they did...

Still, I can't be blamed for choosing to trust them. In can hold my head up (until they come for me too).

Brian said...

Why are you not more famous, roger? You seem to sum things up in ways our millionaire consultants just ignore. Bravo!

roger said...

Hey, you know me, brian! So I've achieved fame of a sort.

And, when I die, I'll be judged naked and shivering by the Almighty, who will bring out a big scroll with all my misdeeds on it - for instance, inappropriate wanking, 4 p.m. July 2, 2005. We are all famous in the eyes of God!

Anonymous said...

"I see the UAW as having correctly seen GM management feeding at the trough and doing a good job at extracting their share."

Okay, so UAW may (potentially; I don't really care one way or the other, as it's a bit of internal company politics) have made a good move. I fail to see why this supports any kind of an argument for a bailout. What's wrong with GM going under? Our demand for cars is certainly going to shrink, GM has certainly been beaten in the marketplace by Toyota and friends. What's the rationale for keeping people at GM producing product that nobody wants when the labor, capital, and other resources could be redistributed to new or existing companies?

I just don't understand why unions are an interesting question at all with GM; it seems that many people seem to view GM going under as a vindication of their condemnation of unions. Aside from an "I told you so", why would anyone care as regards the worth of a bailout? It wouldn't make a difference in whether or not a bailout is a good idea if GM happened to be a co-op, a union shop, a non-union shop, or whatever.

"Manufacturing is one area in which government can actively intervene to good purpose, because the metrics are pretty clear."

If that's the case, why do you suppose that the USSR didn't clobber the United States in manufacturing? And why keep GM around? Why not allow new auto companies to spring up (ones that, one expects, will be rather more cautious).