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Weekly Audit: Hostage-Taking Over the Debt Ceiling

8:34 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay
Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The latest contrived showdown
between Congressional Republicans and the White House is over what
concessions the GOP will demand in order to increase the federal debt
ceiling.

George Zornick of The Nation explains how the shakedown works:

Congress now needs to approve any borrowing past the $14.3
trillion debt ceiling, which the United States will reach “no later” than
May 16, according to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. If Congress
doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the government would have to stop
spending—including stopping interest payments on those Treasury bonds,
meaning that the United States would effectively default on its
debt.

The debt ceiling has to be raised and everyone
knows it. Surely the Republicans knew it when they voted for tax cuts for
the rich with borrowed money. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the
United States will default on some of its obligations. Just like what
happens after you miss a credit card payment, the country’s creditors will
demand higher interest in order to lend to us in the future.

Playing chicken with the debt ceiling is a recipe for increasing the
national debt. Paul Waldman argues in The American Prospect that
the Republicans hate government so much that they are willing to declare war on the economy in a quixotic
bid to smash the state:

The reason we’re now seeing an
unprecedented amount of attention paid to a vote that ordinarily passes
with little notice is that the Republican Party’s agenda is being set by
a group of ideological radicals who seem quite willing to cripple the
American economy if that’s what it takes to strike a blow against the
government they hate so much.

Peak
Crazy

At AlterNet, Joshua Holland explains why failure to
raise the debt ceiling would be an economic
catastrophe
that could jeopardize the economic recovery. “Peak Crazy,”
he calls it.

However, Holland notes that a showdown over the debt
ceiling does not risk an immediate government shutdown, like the one we
faced over the budget battle. Borrowing isn’t the only way that government
agencies are funded. The government could still spend the $150 billion or
so it takes in every month in tax revenue, for example.

Yet, Senate
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has announced that 47 GOP
senators oppose raising the debt ceiling unless “credible attempts” are
made to cut federal spending. Meanwhile the Tea Party is launching an
all-out lobbying effort to urge House Republicans not to raise the debt
ceiling without major spending cuts.

The Tea Party’s wish list
includes some total pipe dreams like a balanced budget amendment to the
constitution, and a law to require a two-thirds majority for all future
tax increases. Former senator and current U.S. presidential hopeful Rick
Santorum cheerfully announced that he would let the United States default
on its debt if health care reform is not repealed. Rep. Michele Bachmann
(R-Minn) helpfully suggests paying the interest on Treasury Bills using
money that would otherwise go to Social Security.

Shoot the
hostage

Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks argues that
Democrats are panicking needlessly and, once again, offering needless preemptive concessions to the
Republican fringe in the form of a proposed “hard cap” on government
spending, which would cap new government spending, and subtract any
overruns from social welfare programs like Medicare and Social
Security.

The truth, Uygur notes, is that Wall Street has already
told the Republicans in no uncertain terms that the debt ceiling will be
raised. The economic consequences of doing anything else would be
unthinkable. The Tea Party can yell and scream, but the adults have
already made the decision. Knowing this, Democrats should not be trying to
placate the Republicans so as to induce them to do something they will
ultimately end up doing.

Digby on Social
Security

Democrats are wavering in their decades-long
commitment to defend Social Security,
Heather Digby Parton (a.k.a., “Digby”) writes in In These
Times:

In a quixotic attempt to fix the problems
in the current economy without confronting the plutocrats, the Democrats
are using the illogical argument that since Social Security is projected
to have a shortfall in 35 years, we must cut benefits now. And they seek
to prove to “the market” that the government is fiscally responsible by
showing it’s willing to inflict pain on its citizens—in the
future.

Even if we do nothing, Social Security can pay
out full benefits for the next 35 years. There is no crisis. A small
increase on the payroll cap on Social Security could shore up the program
for generations to come. Republicans oppose Social Security because they
are ideologically opposed to social welfare programs, not because Social
Security is broken.

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

Weekly Audit: Republicans’ Budget Declares War on Medicare

8:49 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The Republicans are poised to unveil a model budget on Tuesday that would effectively end Medicare by privatizing it, Steve Benen reports in the Washington Monthly. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) is touting the budget as a strategy to reduce the national debt.

Ryan’s plan would turn Medicare from a single-payer system to a “premium support” system. “Premium support” is a euphemism for the government giving up to $15,000 per person, per year, to insurance companies to defray the cost of a health insurance policy.

As Benen points out, privatizing Medicare does nothing to contain health care costs. On the contrary, as insurance customers weary of double-digit premium increases can attest, private insurers have a miserable track record of containing costs. They excel at denying care and coverage, but that’s not the same thing.

The only way the government would save money under Ryan’s proposal is by paying a flat rate in vouchers. Medicare covers the full cost of medical treatments, but private insurers are typically much less generous. So, after paying into Medicare all their working lives, Americans currently 55 and younger would get vouchers for part of their health insurance and still have to pay out-of-pocket to approach the level of benefits that Medicare currently provides.

Taking aim at Medicaid

The poor are easy targets for Republican budget-slashing, Jamelle Bouie writes on TAPPED. Ryan’s proposal would also cut $1 trillion over the next 10 years from Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor, by eliminating federal matching and providing all state funding through block grants. Most of this money would come from repealing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which is slated to add 15 million people to Medicaid.

Block grants are cuts in disguise. Currently, Medicaid is an entitlement program, which means that states have to enroll everyone who is eligible, regardless of the state’s ability to pay. In return, the states get federal matching funds for each person in the program. Ryan and the Republicans want to change Medicaid into a block grant program where the federal government simply gives each state a lump sum to spend on Medicaid. The states want to use this new found “flexibility” to cut benefits, narrow eligibility criteria, and generally gut the program.

This is incredibly short-sighted. The current structure of Medicaid ensures extra federal funding for every new patient. So when unemployment rises and large numbers of new patients become eligible for Medicaid, the states get extra federal money for each of them. But with a block grant, the states would just have to stretch the existing block grants or find money from somewhere else in their budgets. Medicaid rolls surge during bad economic times, so a block grant system could make state budget crises even worse.

Ryan’s proposal has no chance of becoming law as long as Democrats control the Senate. The main purpose of the document is to lay out a platform for the 2012 elections.

Fake debt crisis

In The Nation, sociologist and activist Frances Fox Piven argues that the Republicans are hyping the debt threat to justify cuts to social programs:

Corporate America’s unprovoked assault on working people has been carried out by manufacturing a need for fiscal austerity. We are told that there is no more money for essential human services, for the care of children, or better public schools, or to help lower the cost of a college education. The fact is that big banks and large corporations are hoarding trillions in cash and using tax loopholes to bankrupt our communities.

She notes that Republican-backed tax cuts for the wealthy are a major contributor to the debt.

Jesus was a non-union carpenter?

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones reports on the religious right’s crusade against unions. He notes that James Dobson of the socially conservative Family Research Council tweeted: “Pro-family voters should celebrate WI victory b/c public & private sector union bosses have marched lock-step w/liberal social agenda.”

Harkinson reports that the Family Research Council is backing the Republican incumbent, David Prosser, in today’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election–a battle that has become a proxy fight over Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining bill:

The FRC’s new political action committee, the Faith, Family, Freedom Fund, is airing ads on 34 Wisconsin radio stations in an effort to influence the April 5 judicial election that could ultimately decide the fate of the law. The ads target Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who’s running against a conservative incumbent, David Prosser, for a seat on the state Supreme Court. If elected, Kloppenburg would alter the balance on the court in favor of Democrats, giving them the ability to invalidate the recently enacted ban on public-employee collective bargaining. “Liberals see her as their best hope to advance their political agenda and strike down laws passed by a legislature and governor elected by the people,” say the ads. “A vote for Prosser is a vote to keep politics out of the Supreme Court.”

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times argues that recalling Republican state senators in Wisconsin is not enough to defend workers’ rights from Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union onslaught.

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

Weekly Audit: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing–The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

8:56 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Fashionable pundits like to say that the Republican Party has shifted its focus from “social conservatism” (e.g., banning abortion, shoving gays back in the closet, teaching school children that humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth hand-in-claw) to fiscal conservatism (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, slashing social programs). But is that really true? Tim Murphy of Mother Jones argues that the old culture war issues never really went away. Rather, the Republicans have simply rephrased their social agenda in fiscal terms.

For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is quite upfront about the fact that he hates Planned Parenthood because the group is the nation’s leading abortion provider. Yet, he seeks to de-fund the Planned Parenthood and the entire Title X Family Planning Program in the name of balancing the budget. Never mind that the federal money only goes toward birth control, not abortion, and research shows that every dollar spent on
birth control saves $4 in Medicaid costs alone.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly surveys the current cr:p of GOP presidential hopefuls in Iowa and agrees that reports of the death of the culture war have been greatly
exaggerated.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

Budget cuts

Sarah Babbage writes in TAPPED that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress seem poised to grant an additional $20 billion in spending cuts for FY 2011, in addition to the $10 billion in cuts they’ve already pledged for this fiscal year. Babbage notes that, after weeks of negotiations, we’re right back to the $30 billion in cuts the GOP initially demanded. She warns that these cuts will have a trivial impact on the $1.6 trillion deficit, but they could have a devastating effect on the fragile economy.

Taxes for thee, but not GE

General Electric raked in $14.2 billion in profits last year, $5.1 billion of which came from the United States, yet the company paid $0 in U.S. income tax, Tara Lohan notes in AlterNet. Despite its healthy bottom line, and its sweet tax situation, GE is asking 15,000 unionized U.S. workers to make major concessions at the bargaining table. GE wants union members to give up defined benefit pension programs in exchange for defined contribution programs.

As we discussed last week in The Audit, defined benefit plans guarantee that a retiree will get a set percentage of her working salary for the rest of her life; defined contribution plans pay the worker a share of the revenue from a pool of investments. As the fine print always says, investments can
decrease in value. So, if the stock market crashes the day before you retire, you’re out of luck.

Generation Debt

Higher education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a better standard of living, but with unemployment hovering around 10%, many college graduates are struggling to find jobs to pay their student loans. Aliya Karim argues in Campus Progress that the government should compel colleges and universities to be more transparent about the realities of student loan debt:

The government should require colleges to provide information about graduation rates, college costs, and financial aid packages on college websites, enrollment forms, and guidebooks. This information should be easy to find and understand. Without such
information available to them, students may not be aware that their future college has a graduation rate lower than 20 percent or that its graduates face close to $30,000 in debt.

The government has a lot of leverage over public and private schools because so much student debt is guaranteed by taxpayers. Greater transparency will enable students to make more informed choices, and give colleges with low graduation rates a greater incentive to clean up their act.

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

Weekly Pulse: End-of-Life Counseling Returns, But Death Panels Still Nonsense

9:36 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

A proposed program to cover counseling sessions for seniors on end-of-life care has risen from the ashes of health care reform and found a new life in Medicare regulations, Jason Hancock of the American Independent reports.

In August, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin started a rumor via her Facebook page that the the Obama administration was backing “death panels” that would vote on whether the elderly and infirm had a right to live. In reality, the goal was to have Medicare reimburse doctors for teaching patients how to set up their own advance directives that reflect their wishes on end-of-life care.

Patients can use their advance directives to stipulate their wishes for treatment in the event that they are too sick to make decisions for themselves. They can also use those directives to demand the most aggressive lifesaving interventions.

Waste not, want not

Though end-of-life counseling was ultimately gutted from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the legislation will eventually ensure health coverage for 32 million more Americans. However, Joanne Kenen in The American Prospect argues it will do comparatively less to curb the high costs of health care. The architects of the ACA had an opportunity to include serious cost-containment measures like a robust public health insurance option to compete with private insurers, but they declined to do so.

Kenen argues that the government should more aggressively target waste within the health care delivery system, especially Medicare and Medicaid. Unchecked and rising health care costs through Medicare and Medicaid are a significantly greater driver of the deficit than Social Security or discretionary spending:

“The waste is enormous,” says Harvard health care economist David Cutler. “You can easily convince yourself that there is 40 to 50 percent to be saved.” Squeezing out every single bit of that inefficient or unnecessary care may not be realistic. But it also isn’t necessary; eliminating even a small fraction of the current waste each year over the next decade would make a huge difference, he added. Health care would finally start acting like “a normal industry.” Productivity would grow, in the one area of the economy where it has not, and with productivity gains, prices could be expected to fall.

The new end-of-life counseling program will help reduce waste in the system, not by pressuring people to forgo treatments they want, but by giving them the tools to refuse treatments they don’t want.

Teen births down, but why?

The teen birth rate has dropped again, according to the latest CDC statistics. Births to women under the age of 20 declined by 6% in 2009 compared to 2008. One hypothesis is that the reduction is an unexpected consequence of the recession, an argument we pointed to in last week’s edition of the Pulse. John Tomasic of the Colorado Independent is skeptical of the recession hypothesis. He writes:

Emily Bridges, director of public information services at Advocates for Youth, agrees with other observers in pointing out that teens aren’t likely to include national economics as a significant factor in pondering whether or not to have unprotected sex. Peer pressure, badly mixed booze, general awkwardness, for example, are much more likely than the jobless recovery to play on the minds of horny high schoolers.

Some states with weak economies actually saw a rise in teen birth rates, Tomasic notes. However, this year’s sharp downturn in teen births parallels a drop in fertility for U.S. women of all ages, which seems best explained by economic uncertainty.

It’s true that prospective teen moms are less likely to have jobs in the first place, and so a bad job market might be less likely to sway their decisions. However, young women who aren’t working are unlikely to have significant resources of their own to draw on, which means that they are heavily dependent upon others for support. If their families and partners are already struggling to make ends meet, then the prospect of another mouth to feed may seem even less appealing than usual.

Abortion is the elephant in the room in this discussion. The CDC numbers only count live births. Logically, fewer live births must be the result of fewer conceptions and/or more terminations. Some skeptics doubt that economic factors have much to do with teens’ decisions about contraception. However, it seems plausible that decisions about abortion would be heavily influenced by the economic health of the whole extended family.

Last year’s decrease was notably sharp, but teen birth rates have been declining steadily for the last 20 years. The Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based non-profit that specializes in research on reproductive choice and health, suggests that successive generations of teens are simply getting savvier about contraception. Births to mothers between the ages of 15 and 17 are down 48% from 1991 levels, and births to mothers ages 18 to 19 are down 30%.

Stupid drug dealer tricks

Martha Rosenberg of AlterNet describes 15 classic dirty tricks deployed by Big Pharma to push drugs. These include phony grassroots patient groups organized by the drug companies to lobby for approval of dubious remedies. Another favorite money-making strategy is to overcharge Medicare and Medicaid. Pharmaceutical companies have paid nearly $15 billion in wrongdoing settlements related to Medicare and Medicaid chicanery over the last five years.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, 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, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Curbing the Deficit, Cat Food, and You

9:21 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The deficit commission released its much anticipated list of helpful money-saving tips for the federal government last week. These tips include tax cuts for the rich, reducing unnecessary printing costs, and cutting the jobs of federal contractors.

The recommendations are more like a menu than a program. As Mark Schmitt of The American Prospect notes, there’s no coherent vision, just a list of possible tax increases and program cuts with projected savings attached.

The commission was dubbed the Cat Food Commission by critics who see the project as an attempt by the Obama administration to provide political cover to gut Social Security, thereby forcing the elderly to subsist on cat food.

Officially, the commission is charged with making suggestions to balance the budget by 2015. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones is surprised at the hype the presentation has attracted, considering that it’s not a piece of legislation, or even proposed legislation, or even the actual report by the deficit commission, but rather a draft presentation by “two guys in a room” (co-chairs former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Erskine Bowles).

Hope is not a plan

Drum has trouble taking the draft seriously because its main focus is cutting discretionary spending, which according to the Congressional Budget Office, only accounts for about 10% of our projected deficit. The secondary focus of the report is Social Security, which only accounts for a small share of the projected deficit, and moreover, is easily fixable with very small tax increases and tiny decreases in benefits phased in over a long period of time.

Rising health care costs account for the lion’s share of our projected deficit, but as Drum notes, the draft doesn’t get into detail about how to contain those costs, the authors simply stress that someone had better get on that. No kidding. The authors assert that that the government should never take in more than 21% of GDP in total taxes. Drum dismisses this suggestion as completely unrealistic seeing as the authors have no plan to slow the growth of health care costs.

Note to workers: “Drop dead”

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times takes aim at the presentation’s suggestion to cut taxes on the rich. The deficit chairmen urge legislators to cut the top tax rate from 35% to 23%, which as Bybee notes, would actually add to the deficit. The presentation also favors cutting corporate taxes and taxes on American expatriates. Hardly deficit-friendly stuff. Bybee argues that the real goal of this commission is to deflate public expectations about the role of government:

This draft report was thus not about slicing the deficit, but shrinking those portions of the government on which the poor and working class depend and shoveling new benefits to corporations and wealthy, at a time when the richest 1% already rakes in 23.5% of all U.S. income.

According to AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, whom Bybee quotes, the message to the American worker is: “Drop dead.”

Gawker vs. the Cat Food Commission

Astute commenters at the media gossip blog Gawker discovered, via a New York Times interactive feature, that the entire problem could be solved by rolling back the Bush tax cuts and ending foreign wars. John Tomasic of the Colorado Independent explains how they did it:

The Gawkers simply let the non-job-making Bush tax cuts expire (because they were never meant to be permanent and because most Americans don’t want them extended) and they ended Bush’s (now Obama’s) overseas military adventures, which cost more money every week ($2 billion!) than the Rolling Stones have made in the last forty years, our contemporary version of the Cold War space race taking place not in space but in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States is racing only against itself to borrow and spend as much money as possible every single day– almost none of that money spent on the troops who come home wounded and sad and totally screwed up.

Nine out of ten grandmas prefer the fiscal policies of the Clinton administration to Meow Mix.

Extending unemployment = Jobs

Ed Brayton of the Michigan Messenger argues that extending long term unemployment insurance benefits would benefit the economy to the tune of half a million jobs. The unemployed still have to eat. Their children still need shoes. If unemployment benefits are extended, the unemployed will spend their benefits quickly in order to live, which is exactly what an economic stimulus is designed to do. Grocery stores and shoe stores employ people. Checkers and shoe salesmen also spend their wages in their communities, thereby sustaining the jobs of still more people.

Pension plan bets green on green

Investing in green jobs is sound economic policy, but governments can’t do it alone. The private sector has to help finance the greening of our economy, too. One California pension plan is stepping up and betting big, investing $500 million on green projects, according to Mikhail Zinshteyn of Campus Progress. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) has a green portfolio worth $2.5 billion, which it has amassed since 2006. CalPERS is betting that low carbon energy programs and other clean energy initiatives will be a lucrative place to park their members’ money.

Hopefully, these investments will also benefit the economy in the short term by creating jobs, including jobs for some California public employees. However, some analysts are skeptical that these investments will yield the handsome dividends that CalPERS analysts are projecting.

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

Weekly Audit: Banks Get Big Bucks, Consumers Get Bupkis

9:09 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the Federal Reserve announced a plan to buy an additional $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds in an attempt to stimulate the economy. On Democracy Now!, economist Michael Hudson argues that the $600 billion T-bill buy will help Wall Street at the expense of ordinary Americans.

The Fed justifies the purchase as an infusion of cash into the U.S. economy. The buy-up will certainly be an infusion of cash into U.S. banks. In effect, the Fed will help the government pay back the banks that lent money to finance deficit spending. The hope is that these banks, suddenly flush with cash, will help the U.S. economy by lending money to finance projects that will create wealth and jobs (i.e. opening factories and hiring more workers).

However, as Hudson points out, there’s no guarantee that the banks are going to use the windfall to build wealth in the U.S. On the contrary, he argues, there’s every reason to suspect that they’ll invest the money overseas in currency speculation deals. Why? Because the Fed has also put massive pressure on Congress to push China into raising its currency by 20%. The banks know this because the House voted overwhelmingly to approve such a threat in September.

If the banks convert their extra billions to Chinese currency, and China raises the value of its currency in response to the threat of an across-the-board U.S. tariff on its imports, then banks that bought Chinese RMB when it was still artificially cheap will reap huge profits overnight.

Later in the Democracy Now! broadcast, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz describes how the U.S. employed a similar strategy of currency devaluation to insulate itself against the ravages of the Great Depression, with devastating global consequences:

So, the irony is that money that was intended to rekindle the American economy is causing havoc all over the world. Those elsewhere in the world say, what the United States is trying to do is the twenty-first century version of “beggar thy neighbor” policies that were part of the Great Depression: you strengthen yourself by hurting the others. You can’t do protectionism in the old version of raising tariffs, but what you can do is lower your exchange rate, and that’s what low interest rates are trying to do, weaken the dollar.

Trade war between the U.S. and China

The U.S. and China have a longstanding trade rivalry, but suddenly the two powers seem to be even more at odds than usual.

William Greider of The Nation argues that plummeting global demand has ratcheted up tensions as the two exporting nations fight over a dwindling pool of customers. The U.S. accuses China of artificially deflating its currency to make its exports cheaper. In retaliation, the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese tires and tubular steel. China, in turn, imposed a tariff on U.S. poultry. As I mentioned above, the House voted 348-79 in September to impose additional tariffs on nearly all Chinese imports if China doesn’t revalue its currency, though the Senate has yet to vote on this legislation.

The U.S. acts indignant about China manipulating its currency, but Grieder argues that this stance is hypocritical in light of the Federal Reserve’s decision to buy an additional $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds from the federal government to help finance the budget deficit. One effect will be to weaken the U.S. dollar, which will make our exports more competitive relative to those of China.

Voters reject free-for-all trade

In last week’s midterm elections, voters rewarded candidates who oppose unfettered free trade, according to Kari Lydersen of Working In These Times. According to a new report by Public Citizen, 60 congressional races were fought wholly or largely on trade issues in 2010. Only 37 candidates favored NAFTA-style free trade pacts and half of them lost. Not all the candidates who won on a protectionist trade platform were advocating a progressive agenda of fairly compensating trading partners, protecting American jobs, and upholding environmental regulations. Senator-Elect Rand Paul (R-KY) argued that the World Trade Organization is a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

Anti-union ballot initiatives win big

Mikhail Zinshteyn of Campus Progress brings us an update on the anti-union initiatives that appeared on the ballots in many states last week. Voters in Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah approved legislation to preemptively neutralize the already-stalled Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), should it ever become federal law. EFCA, also known as card check or majority sign-up, would allow workers to organize by signing up for a union, instead of going through a grueling National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election process, which makes workers sitting ducks for management threats and propaganda.

Bean there, done that

Move over, Elizabeth Warren. The White House may be poised to appoint one of Wall Street’s favorite Democrats to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Andy Kroll and David Corn report in Mother Jones that Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL) is a favored contender for the job if her still-undecided race for reelection doesn’t work out. That would be heartening news for Bean’s former chief of staff, John Michael Gonzalez, now a leading lobbyist for Big Finance.

Bean, who serves on the House finance and small business committees, has received over $2.5 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector over the course of her 5-year career. Bean was also a big beneficiary of the Chamber of Commerce, which vehemently opposed the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that created the CFPB in the first place. Bean ultimately voted for the bill, but not before she unsuccessfully attempted to water down the consumer financial protections therein, the very provisions Bean would be tasked with enforcing.

“The White House needs to beat back the Bean idea, otherwise they’ll look like fools,” one Democratic strategist told Corn and Kroll. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. She’s a tool of the financial industries.”

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

Weekly Audit: Why Do Deficit Hawks Hate Social Security?

8:27 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, Social Security advocates learned something they had long suspected. Arguments for cutting Social Security aren’t really about economics or the deficit. They’re all about waging war on social services.

In short, some very prominent policymakers are out to dismantle Social Security on ideological grounds. The most recent example of this view comes from Alan Simpson, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming who now serves as co-Chair of President Barack Obama’s Federal Debt Commission. Earlier this summer, Simpson was caught on video spreading absurd lies about Social Security, but his latest outburst explains why he’s been so willing to distort the facts. Simpson simply hates Social Security.

As Joshua Holland highlights for AlterNet, Simpson fired off a nasty email to Ashley Carson, who advocates for elderly women, in which he referred to the most successful social program in U.S. history as "a milk cow with 310 million tits."

Social Security is doing just fine

But Simpson has a lot of power on the Debt Commission, which is expected to recommend that Congress reduce the deficit by cutting social programs in a report this year. But as Holland notes, Social Security isn’t in trouble:

Social Security is in fine shape. It’s got a surplus that will run out in 2037, but even if nothing were to change by then, it could still continue to pay out 75 percent of scheduled benefits seventy-five years from now, long after the surplus disappears, and those benefits would still be higher than what retirees receive today.

What’s more, as William Greider notes for The Nation, Social Security has never added one cent to the federal budget deficit. According to the law that created the program, Social Security never can. Targeting Social Security in order to fix the deficit is like invading Iraq to fight Al-Qaeda. The issues are not related.

Raising the retirement age robs workers

The Debt Commission is likely to recommend raising the retirement age—the age at which Social Security benefits begin to be paid out. But as Martha C. White notes for The Washington Independent, it’s a "solution" that simply robs low-income workers of their tax money. Everybody pay Social Security taxes when they work, and when they retire, they receive federal support. If you don’t live long enough to actually retire, you don’t get any benefit from Social Security.

"The hardship of raising the retirement age falls disproportionately on low-income workers who work in physically demanding professions, jobs they may not be able to continue through their seventh decade. … Moreover, though the average lifespan has increased since Social Security’s creation, those extra years aren’t enjoyed equally by all Americans. Overall, Americans are living about 7 years longer. But the poorest 20 percent of Americans are living just two years longer."

Raising the retirement age, in other words, disproportionately hurts the poor—the very people Social Security is supposed to help most.

Subprime scandal 2.0

So who would pick up the slack if Social Security were to be cut? The same crooked Wall Street scoundrels who brought us the financial crisis. If the government cuts back on retirement benefits, the financial establishment can step in and manage a bigger piece of the retirement pie. The more we learn about the financial mess, the less we should want to see our retirement money controlled by bigwig financiers. Truthout carries a blockbuster new investigative report by ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger that reveals a new, multi-billion-dollar subprime scam engineered by the financial elite.

We’ve known about Wall Street’s subprime shenanigans for some time, but the report reveals that banks were essentially selling their own products to themselves in order to create the illusion that people really wanted lousy mortgages. It’s called "self-dealing," and it’s supposed to be illegal.

Subprime Disaster, meet Mortgage Nightmare

Here’s how the scam worked: Wall Street crammed thousands of mortgages into securities, then sliced and diced those securities into new products called CDOs. Those CDOs, in turn, were divided into different "buckets" and sold to investors. The riskiest buckets paid out the most money to investors, but were the most likely to take losses if the underlying mortgages ever went bad. As the housing bubble grew more and more out-of-control, investors became wary of these risky buckets, and stopped buying them.

Wall Street banks were still making a killing from the packaging and sale of everything else, though, so they devised a plan to get rid of some risky bits: they’d buy them up themselves, without telling anybody. A bank would create a CDO called, say, Mortgage Nightmare CDO. Then it would create a separate CDO, called, say, Subprime Disaster CDO. Subprime Disaster would buy up a risky bucket from Mortgage Nightmare, creating the illusion to the market that banks were still able to sell off risky mortgage assets without any trouble, even though the bank was basically just selling garbage to itself.

That illusion propped up the prices of these risky assets and created more revenue for the tricky bankers who sold them, and plump, short-term profits for the banks. It also strongly encouraged other bankers to issue lousy mortgages to the public, since those loans could be packaged into lousy CDOs and score short-term profits for Wall Street’s schemers.

Ultimately, this scheming resulted in a multi-billion-dollar disaster for Wall Street, which taxpayers ended up footing the bill for. Anybody want to see that happen with Social Security?

Social programs did not cause the deficit

As Seth Freed Wessler notes for ColorLines, deficit hawks’ emphasis on social programs is at odds with the factors that actually created the deficit. The Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bank bailouts are the big-ticket items when it comes to government revenues and expenses. Yet deficit hawks in Congress have been refusing to extend paltry unemployment benefits or food stamps to the people hit hardest by the recession. And pretty soon they’re going to go after Social Security too.

In reality, the deficit is only a problem if investors are afraid that the government will default on its debt. Markets measure this worry with interest rates—high rates mean investors are worried, low rates mean they are not. Right now, interest rates on government bonds are at their lowest in decades. With the recession dragging on and the recovery weakening, now would be a great time for the government to spend more money to create jobs and help those knocked out of work.

Instead, the policy debate features cranky old men whining about 310-million-titted cows.

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

Weekly Audit: Are Handouts For Billionaires More Important Than Feeding Children?

7:23 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

The crazy conservative assault on government spending has become one of the most irrational economic policy debates in recent years.

The Republican Party is trying to maintain the fiction that direct economic relief for millions of working Americans is a fiscally irresponsible splurge, while simultaneously backing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of economically useless tax cuts for the wealthy. The demands are staggering: cut food stamps for the poor, but preserve perks for billionaires.

As Tim Fernholz notes for The American Prospect, serious economists do not believe that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich are an effective way to stimulate the economy. Rich people don’t spend money, they save it. We need lots of consumer spending to reinvigorate economic growth and put people back to work.

If we want to create jobs, we need to put money in the hands of people who will spend it. At minimum, that means directing aid to the unemployed and providing federal assistance to states, so that local governments don’t lay off hundreds of thousands of teachers and cops. This is not only the decent, humane thing to do when the economy is struggling, it actually helps. Money the government spends to save a teacher’s job goes out into the economy to pay bills and buy products. For states, this also means that basic public infrastructure is preserved—kids learn and the streets stay safe.

Stonewalling aid

But as the editors of The Nation highlight, Republican politicians have made it nearly impossible to get that critical aid out to American families. They’ve demanded strict measures for these benefits, forcing Democrats to cut food stamps—that’s right, food stamps—in order to keep teachers in school and cops on the street.

Millions of families all over the country depend on food stamps. In the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Republican politicians took a stand to take food from the mouths of children—and they did it while supporting a $300 billion a year in handouts for the rich.

There is no immediate budget crisis. The government can borrow money at record low interest rates, meaning that investors don’t believe the federal budget deficit is too big. But if conservatives were really serious about shrinking the deficit, they’d be encouraging economic growth, not backing billionaire giveaways.

Banking on predation

Our perverse economic policy preferences aren’t limited to budget priorities. As Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez emphasize in a segment for Democracy Now!, inadequate rules governing bank lending practices were a fundamental cause of the recession, and are actively hampering the economy’s recovery today.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) required banks to make good loans to credit-worthy borrowers in the bank’s community. The idea was simple: If a bank wants to benefit from a community’s resources, it has to give something back and help strengthen the local economy.

Conservatives have lashed out at CRA, blaming it for the mortgage crisis, but the truth is that CRA loans had almost nothing to do with the subprime disaster. CRA loans are affordable loans to creditworthy borrowers—the whole point of subprime lending was to charge outrageously high rates to borrowers with poor credit.

In reality, policymakers’ refusal to expand CRA exacerbated the crisis. Only traditional banks are subject to CRA guidelines, and during the past two decades a host of independent mortgage companies have taken over large swaths of the mortgage market. These unregulated firms issued a lot of lousy loans, often working under direct, explicit instructions from bigger banks, who outsourced their lending in order to get around CRA rules and rip off whole neighborhoods.

Lending is critical to moving the economy out of the recession, and CRA provides reliable, proven rules to get banks back in the business of helping our communities and our economy.

Overdrafting the banks

But a host of other banking policies are also making the recession worse. One of the most egregious is the overdraft fee, which, as Annie Lowrey notes for The Washington Independent, scored banks over $38 billion in 2009 alone. To put that in perspective, the entire banking industry earned a combined profit of $12.5 billion last year, which means that the banks are making their money from gotcha fees, not from productive lending.

Banks have spent years charging overdraft fees without telling their customers that they’re subject to such gouging. Lowrey notes that the average fee is $35 on an average charge of $17. But they also have engaged in a backdating scam, rearranging the order of their customers’ purchases in order to charge more overdraft fees. As I explain for AlterNet:

"Say you’ve got $80 in your checking account, and you decide to pay some bills and run some errands. You spend $30 on gas and another $20 on your water bill. Later, you head to the grocery store and spend $81—oops!—on groceries. To reasonable people, it looks like you’re going to get hit with an overdraft fee. That last purchase put you over the line. But instead, the banks reorder your transactions, processing the groceries first. Now you’re below zero, and they can charge additional fees for your gas and water bills. Wells Fargo charged up to $39 per overdraft. This one mistake cost you $117, and nobody even bothered to tell you it was going to happen."

Fortunately, a federal judge in California just ruled that this backdating scam was grossly illegal, and ordered megabank Wells Fargo to pay back every penny that it swindled from its California customers with the practice since 2004. But Wells Fargo was not alone—every large bank in the United States does the exact same thing, and it’s allowed them to score billions in deceptive profits. A similar ruling in a larger case against all of the big banks could end a transparent outrage, and restore an enormous amount of unfairly seized wealth to citizens all over the country.

We don’t need to be pushing policies that benefit billionaires at the expense of everyone else. The Bush tax cuts are an unnecessary economic waste. Financial policy that puts the interests of a few giant predatory banks above those of the entire citizenry makes no economic sense.

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

Weekly Audit: Silencing Conservative Deficit Hawks

8:36 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

The same conservatives who spent the past year senselessly screaming about the U.S. budget deficit are now demanding an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. The extension simply doesn’t make sense, and the policies implied are a recipe for massive job loss in the middle of the worst employment crisis in 75 years.

Deflation nation

As William Greider explains for The Nation, the major problem facing the U.S. economy is not the budget deficit, but the prospect of deflation. Deflation was one of the driving forces behind the Great Depression. Under deflation, the value of money increases, which drives prices down. When millions of Americans are deep in debt, deflation makes those debts much larger. It also creates total economic paralysis, as Greider explains:

Deflation essentially tells everyone to hunker down and wait. Instead of buying big-ticket items, consumers wait for prices to fall further. Instead of investing in new production, companies wait for cheaper opportunities, cheaper labor.

In other words, nothing happens. And when nothing happens, the economy falls apart. Instead of spending money now while it’s still valuable, everybody just waits for it to accumulate value. Businesses lay off workers and workers don’t spend money, creating a vicious cycle in which prices fall further because nobody has any money to buy anything with.

Deflation over deficit

There are time-tested ways to fend off deflation. The Fed can cut interest rates, and the federal government can spend money—lots of money—putting people to work. But instead, conservative politicians are emphasizing the budget deficit, claiming that without immediate action to cut the deficit, the U.S. economy will collapse.

As I note for AlterNet, the deficit is only a problem if it creates very high interest rates (our current rates are at record lows) or if it leads to severe inflation, as governments print loads of money to pay off their debts. But we aren’t seeing inflation—instead, we’re getting dangerously close to deflation.

Spending cuts kill jobs

As David Moberg observes for In These Times, massive spending cuts in the middle of a recession don’t reduce the deficit. Those cuts create layoffs and reduce economic growth, which results in lower tax returns for the federal government. They make the deficit worse. We’ve just watched several nations attempt to counter their budget deficit woes with "austerity"—cutting back on jobs and social services—and the result has been disastrous. Here’s Moberg:

Government austerity and cuts in workers’ wages will simply reduce demand, slowing recovery from the Great Recession or even creating a second downturn. And weak recovery will bring lower tax revenues, continued pressure for austerity and difficulty repaying debts. In short, the medicine the financial markets and their political allies prescribe will make the global economy sicker.

Spending money to make jobs

In a pair of posts for The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen notes that conservative politicians can’t even make sense when they talk about the deficit. They’re demanding action on the deficit, while also demanding an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Tax cuts make the deficit bigger, something Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) acknowledged in a recent interview. Cantor’s justification? We need jobs right now, and it’s okay to inflate the deficit in the pursuit of jobs.

That justification is right—but Cantor’s policies are wrong. Tax cuts for the rich don’t create jobs, because rich people just hold onto the money. The fact is, government spending is a much more effective way of creating jobs than cutting taxes. If jobs are the priority in a deep recession, Benen argues, then, we should be spending to create jobs, not funneling economically useless money to the wealthy.

The corporate agenda after Citizens United

Much of the deficit and tax-cut hysteria is being pushed by corporate executives that are looking to score tax breaks for themselves and their shareholders. So it’s profoundly disconcerting to see corporations begin pouring money into elections in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling.

As Suzy Khimm emphasizes for Mother Jones, corporations have started spending like crazy on advertising in support of conservative causes. Prior to Citizens United, corporations were banned from conducting such direct electoral advocacy, but as Khimm notes, now major retailers like Target and Best Buy are jumping into the fray.

Spending big bucks to derail the economy for profit is not okay. The best way for policymakers to fight this corporate assault is to make a strong push to actually repair the economy. Self-interested executives and corrupted politicians will make all kinds of convoluted economic arguments to enrich themselves and their backers. They’ll use the recession as an excuse. But if lawmakers actually fight the recession successfully, they can’t listen to deep-pocketed corporate miscreants.

President Barack Obama and Congress should ignore the phony deficit hysteria and push for a strong jobs agenda, filled with lots and lots of government spending to put people back to work. Creating jobs is not just an economic priority, it’s a key tool to defanging disingenuous political attacks.

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

Weekly Audit: Why Are Unemployment Benefits A Major Political Fight?

8:16 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Congress finally authorized an extension of unemployment benefits on Wednesday, providing a critical lifeline to families across the country and an absolutely essential boost to the economy.

But with the jobless rate hovering near 10 percent, minimum measures like unemployment benefits shouldn’t be a source of controversy. Lawmakers should be debating big-picture jobs packages to get people back to work, not drips and drabs that keep a worst-case-scenario from getting unbearable.

As Annie Lowrey notes for the Iowa Independent, Senate Republicans blocked the unemployment benefits bill for two months, causing benefits to lapse for 2.6 million Americans. That’s a humanitarian outrage. When people don’t have access to this minimal support, they can’t pay bills or feed their kids. There is no excuse for anyone in a position of power to cut off access to such basic social necessities. So what’s the hold up?

It’s a mix of talking points and public misconception. Conservatives have been demonizing the unemplyed and using erroneous claims about the federal budget deficit as an excuse to block unemployment benefits, and that narrative has been reinforced by President Barack Obama’s handling of the public debate over the economic stimulus package approved in February 2009.

Unemployment Benefits = Economic Stimulus

In addition to the humanitarian imperative, there’s a broader economic case for extending unemployment benefits. When people are out of work, they can’t spend money. If people don’t spend money, businesses can’t sell anything. And if businesses can’t sell anything, they have to lay off more workers. Putting money in the pockets of the unemployed isn’t just a humanitarian necessity—it also prevents layoffs and creates jobs.

But you wouldn’t know it from the economically illiterate nonsense that conservatives have been spewing during the unemployment benefits debate. Writing for The Nation, Robert Scheer quotes prominent conservative intellectual Niall Ferguson. Here’s Ferguson’s vile diatribe blaming lazy, unemployed people for the recession:

"If you pay people to do nothing, they’ll find themselves doing nothing for very long periods of time. Long-term unemployment is at an all-time high in the United States, and it is a direct consequence of a misconceived public policy."

$293 a week

Ferguson actually said that. He really believes that a major reason why unemployment is so high is because the United States pays out unemployment benefits, and that jobs would just miraculously be created if we stopped supporting the people hit hardest by the recession. And as Seth Freed Wessler emphasizes for ColorLines, Republican politicians repeatedly parroted this nonsense argument again as they attempted to block the unemployment benefits legislation.

Wessler notes that the average unemployment benefits package comes to just $293 per week. People like to feel like they have contributed meaningfully to society and be rewarded with an honest day’s pay. They do not choose to live in squalor out of laziness, as much as Ferguson might wish that were the case.

Preventing more public-sector layoffs

The economy has shed 8 million jobs since the Wall Street crash. Our job woes are a direct result of recklessness in the upper echelons of the financial sector—lazy workers did not create the recession, and they are not prolonging it.

Given the enormity of lost jobs, you’d think politicians would be considering robust programs to put people back to work—hundreds of billions of dollars in jobs programs, rather than a $30 billion extension of unemployment checks.

As Danny Schechter details for GRITtv, the economy is facing a host of major hurdles that hit families hardest. In addition to epic joblessness, we’re also facing record foreclosure numbers and state budgets that are stretched beyond the breaking point. The state situation is dire. Without federal aid, states will be forced to lay off 900,000 public employees in the coming months

That’s what makes the jobs debate so crazy. There are easy ways to prevent layoffs and create jobs right now. A quick injection of cash into state governments would have an immediate stabilizing effect. The government can’t bring the unemployment rate down to 5 percent overnight, but it can keep things from getting worse and start bringing the rate down.

Don’t blame the deficit

But, as Lowrey notes, some conservatives are not blaming the unemployed, but harping on the deficit, claiming that they’re all for benefits, they just want them to be paid for. This is a disingenuous excuse for inaction.

The conservative deficit-talk is totally misleading, and it’s the wrong way to deal with deficits. Since Republicans have been universally opposed to all tax increases, demanding that unemployment benefits be paid for means pulling spending out of other programs, which means cutting jobs in other areas (slashing the defense budget probably wouldn’t hurt the jobs picture, but good luck getting a Republican to vote for it).

The U.S. doesn’t have a deficit problem. If it did, investors would be demanding a very high interest rate on U.S. Treasury bonds. But in fact, the interest rate on those bonds is at record lows. If the U.S. did have a deficit problem, however, sabotaging jobs and growth would be a lousy way to fix it. Consider Ireland. The country had a vastly larger deficit than that faced by the U.S., and implemented draconian austerity programs. Those spending cuts hit economic growth so hard that the nation’s deficit problem actually got worse, so much worse that the rating agency Moody’s just downgraded Ireland’s debt.

If the U.S. wants to deal with deficit issues, it should address big long-term structural issues, like the enormous defense budget, extremely generous tax rates for the wealthy and the rising cost of health care. It makes zero economic sense to be attacking jobs in the name of the deficit, when doing so only makes the deficit larger.

What about that economic stimulus package?

So why can’t we get a decent jobs package? As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, much of the public uneasiness stems from misunderstandings about how the economic stimulus package passed in February 2009 worked.

The stimulus was very much a success—it kept the unemployment rate from reaching 12 percent or higher. But it was also much too small, in part because the Obama administration underestimated the severity of the recession, but mostly because Republicans created ludicrous political hurdles for the package, forcing it to shrink. Unfortunately, with unemployment still out of control, many in the public believe the stimulus didn’t actually stimulate. That’s the wrong lesson to learn. As Benen puts it:

"Imagine there’s a massive, dangerous fire. Those responsible for the blaze insist that some lighter fluid should take care of the problem, while the fire department recommends water. Forced to compromise, the fire department uses less water than is needed, and the blaze is only partially contained."

It’s about time Congress got around to extending unemployment benefits. But in the face of the longest and most severe jobs crisis since the Great Depression, much stronger action on jobs is needed, and soon.

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