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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: Wall Street Destroyed $8 for Every $1 Earned

8:29 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Flickr user Pichette Photo, via Creative Commons License

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address. A major theme of the speech will be jobs and the economy. Let’s hope the president spares a few minutes for Wall Street reforms that might prevent a repeat of the economic collapse that we’re slowly starting to recover from.

As Kai Wright points out in ColorLines, the State of the Union is the unofficial kickoff of the 2012 election season:

The still churning foreclosures and mounding debt in black and brown neighborhoods don’t suggest a stabilized economy anywhere except Wall Street, but let’s set that familiar fight to the side for now. The point is that whether we’re talking about creating jobs or seating district court judges, the time for making policy is gone. Starting tomorrow night, it’s all talk until we vote next.

Amy Dean of Working In These Times shares Wright’s skepticism. With the Republicans in control of the House and the Democrats hanging on to the Senate, we’re looking at a legislative stalemate until the next election. Dean argues that activists should use this lull in the action to refocus their organizing at the grassroots level.

Wall Street destroyed $8 for every $1 it earned

In AlterNet, Les Leopold asks why bankers are earning such huge bonuses while the financial system is in disarray. According to standard economic theory, your compensation reflects the value of your work. Yet, according to Leopold’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, the financial sector has destroyed $8 worth of wealth for every dollar it earned over the last 5 years. His estimate includes the wealth-destroying impact of the subprime mortgage crisis and other epic Wall Street blunders.

The free market might not be as generous with bankers as the current system of government bailouts. If financial firms were allowed to fail, Leopold notes, bankers who drove their own firms out of business wouldn’t get paid. However, under the current “too big to fail” rules bad decisions lead to taxpayer rescues, not unemployment. So, the bonus checks keep rolling in.

Social Security switcheroo

James Ridgeway of Mother Jones predicts that Obama is gearing up to cut Social Security:

Having “retooled’’ his Presidency for a more open accommodation of the center right, Obama will soon be overseeing the battle to launch a dismantling of the Social Security system. [...] Without entirely destroying the popular program, he will support cuts that go beyond anything that should rightly happen during a Democratic administration.

Ironically, Ridgeway notes, our current Democratic president is to the right of many of yesterdays conservative Republicans. The legendary arch conservative Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-OH) was a staunch defender of Social Security. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower spearheaded the largest expansion of Social Security in the largest expansion of benefits in the history of the program.

Michelle Obama and Wal-Mart

Michelle Obama has enlisted the world’s largest corporation (and largest grocer) in her Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity. George Warner of Campus Progress takes a closer look at the skewed economics behind the “Nutrition Charter” signed by Wal-Mart last week. Amongst other things, Wal-Mart pledged to cut added sugar in its products by 10% by 2015; make healthy food more affordable; and develop a “nutrition seal” to alert shoppers to ostensibly healthier foods.

Yet, Warner notes that Wal-Mart is contributing to ill-health by employing a massive workforce at less than a living wage. Even if Wal-Mart follows through on its relatively modest pledges to promote healthy eating, it continues to put its own workforce at risk of ill health simply by paying them poverty-level wages. Studies show that for every job a new Wal-Mart store creates, it destroys three existing jobs, which paid an average of 18% more.

Poverty is one of the strongest predictors of obesity and poor diet.

Beck vs. Piven, Round 2

Last week, the Audit covered a bizarre right wing trend of demonizing 78-year-old CUNY political science prof Frances Fox Piven for an article she wrote in 1966. Glenn Beck and other leading lights of the right claim that Piven’s 45-year-old article is being used right now by liberal elites in their sinister plot to violently overthrow capitalism.

Piven is receiving death threats by email; and death threats are popping up on Glenn Beck’s website, including: “Snap her little chicken neck. This pinko filth needs a long dirt nap.”; “Somebody tell Frances I have 5,000 rounds ready.”, and “We should blow up Piven’s office and home.”

In actuality, Piven’s article argued that everyone who was eligible for welfare should sign up for benefits in order to expose the structural flaws in the system. Say what you will about the plan, it was non-violent. It involved a lot of paperwork. Far from overthrowing the federal government, Piven sought to usher in a federal guaranteed federal income as an alternative to the patchwork of state and local welfare agencies doling out benefits.

Matthew Rothschild reports in the Progressive that the Center for Constitutional Rights has sent a letter to Roger Ailes of Fox News asking him to reign in the anti-Piven demagoguery.

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: Tax Cuts for the Rich Extended

10:11 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein,  Media Consortium Blogger

Congressional Republicans and the White House  struck an agreement in principle on Monday night to extend all the Bush tax cuts for 2 more years in exchange for extending unemployment benefits. The GOP agreed to the so-called “Lincoln-Kyl compromise” a partial 2-year extension of the Bush estate tax cuts on estates worth over $5 million. If the deal had not been struck, estate taxes on estates over $5 million would have gone back up from 0% to the pre-cut rate of 55%. Instead, the rate will be 35% for the next 2 years.

The GOP also agreed to a short-term “stimulative” 2 percentage-point cut off the 6.2% payroll tax we all pay on income up to $106,800. The good news is that a payroll tax holiday will provide the most noticeable tax relief to low- and middle-income Americans. The bad news is that payroll taxes fund Social Security, so cutting the tax means starving a program that most directly benefits average people. Social Security is not in crisis yet, but steps like these could push the program into worse financial straights where significant benefit cuts become inevitable. It’s almost as if the GOP, having failed to spark panic about an as-yet non-existent Social Security crisis, is determined to engineer one.

All these gimmes for the rich were the price of a partial extension of unemployment benefits. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. If Congress had failed to act, 2 million people stood to lose their benefits this month and another 7 million would have run out before the end of next year, reports Andy Kroll of Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, unemployment continues to rise. The economy only added 39,000 jobs in November when analysts were expecting about 150,000. “At the beginning, some people just thought it was a printing error,” said reporter Motoko Rich on the New York Times‘ weekly business podcast. The overall unemployment rate climbed to 9.8%.

At ColorLines, Kai Wright argues that the time has come for President Obama to seize the opportunity to debunk conservatives’ bad faith arguments for tax cuts above all else:

At the same time, the anti-government crowd’s political hand—if forced—has never been weaker. A depressingly large number of middle-class and working-class Americans now know all too well what economists have long understood: You get a great deal more economic bang out of keeping lots of people from becoming destitute than you do by helping a few people horde wealth. People remain enraged about the no-strings-attached bank bailout, for instance, because they intuitively understand its ramifications. Wall Street is now enjoying a narrow, taxpayer-financed recovery while unemployment, hunger and poverty all continue climbing through the former middle class.

Extending UI makes sense

Tim Fernholtz of TAPPED tackles some of the bad arguments against extending unemployment insurance. Economist Greg Mankiw claims that extending unemployment insurance is just a surreptitious ploy to redistribute income to the poor from the wealthy. Actually, as Fernholtz points out, the point of a UI safety net is to prevent people, 3 million of them in 2009, from becoming poor in the first place. Poverty is very expensive for society at large. If we can keep the unemployed in their homes, spending their benefits in their communities, we can keep the socially corrosive effects of poverty at bay until the economy improves. The social costs of child poverty alone have been estimated at $500 billion a year, Fernholtz notes. The deeper we allow people to sink into poverty, the more difficult it will be for the economy to rebound. On this view, UI is a shared investment in a well-ordered society, not just a lifeline for jobless families.

Why corporate tax cuts won’t create jobs

Jack Rasmus of Working In These Times explains why tax cuts will not create jobs. Simply put, banks and big companies are sitting on over a trillion dollars. Among the nation’s biggest banks, lending to small and medium size businesses, the engines of job creation, has dwindled over 2009 and 2010. America’s biggest companies are sitting on a hoard of $1.84 trillion dollars, which they are not investing in job-creating projects. The Deficit Commission recommended slashing corporate taxes, ostensibly to spur investment and job creation, which would ultimately generate taxable income to help balance the budget. As Rasmus points out, this wishful thinking is predicated upon the assumption that if only corporations had more money, they would invest it to create jobs. The fact that companies are already sitting on huge piles of cash suggests that shoveling more moolah on the pile won’t change the basic dynamic. Perhaps companies are waiting to invest because they know that consumers aren’t keen to buy goods and services when they are unemployed or fearing job loss.

Economic disobedience

At In These Times, Andrew Oxford interviews sociologist Lisa Dodson about her new book on getting by in the low-wage economy. Her research shows that as economic instability mounts, many Americans are quietly taking matters into their own hands:

To understand how fair-minded people survive in an unfair economy, Dodson interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers and their employers across the country, examining what she terms the “economic disobedience” now pervasive in the low-wage sector. From a supervisor padding paychecks to a grocer sending food home with his employees, these acts of disobedience form the subject of her latest book, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.

Winner-take all economy

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Yale political science profesor and  Jacob Hacker explains why the Deficit Commission has it all wrong when it comes to tax cuts vs. unemployment benefits.

Hacker studies inequality. He has written a book on how the richest Americans cornered an unprecedented share of the country’s wealth for themselves over the past three decades. The richest Americans have never been in a better position to help the country grapple with the deficit. Yet, as Hacker points out, the Deficit Commission wants to balance the budget on the backs of middle- and lower-income Americans by cutting spending on programs that disproportionately benefit working people and readjusting the tax code to make it even more favorable to the rich.

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: A Progressive Deficit Fix?

8:36 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The co-chairs of the 18-member deficit commission issued a preliminary presentation two weeks ago that favored tax breaks for the wealthy and left open the possibility of deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other social programs. But there’s still time for the commission to radically reshape its message before it issues its final report.

Jan’s plan

That’s exactly what progressive Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) is trying to bring about. Schakowsky is a member of the commission and she has an alternative, progressive plan to rein in the deficit, as David Moberg reports for Working in These Times:

It would not go into effect until 2015 or after unemployment subsides, and it provides for $200 billion of job-creating investments during the next two years, in addition to reducing the deficit by $441 billion in 2015, nearly double Obama’s target. Slightly more than a third of Schakowsky’s proposed deficit reduction would come from new revenue (mostly tax changes hitting the wealthy and corporations but also from cap-and-trade carbon emission controls), 30 percent from ending or reforming tax expenditures (again, mainly benefiting rich taxpayers), a quarter from defense cuts, and 9 percent from mandatory programs (like offering a public option for health insurance and requiring Medicare to bargain over drug prices). Though Social Security does not contribute to the deficit, Schakowsky plans to secure future payouts without benefit cuts by increasing how much the wealthy pay into the retirement program.

A public option for health insurance would keep rising health care costs in check because insurers would have to compete with non-profit, government-administered insurance. Instead of cutting Social Security benefits for the needy, Schakowsky would simply eliminate the arbitrary payroll tax ceiling on high earners. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

A coalition of progressive groups calling itself Our Fiscal Security unveiled its own alternative proposal for cutting the deficit on Monday, Luke Johnson reports for the Colorado Independent. Key planks of the platform include repealing the Bush tax cuts, reinstating the estate tax for married couples with assets greater than $4 million, and capping itemized deductions at 15%. Coalition members include Demos, the Century Foundation, and the Economic Policy Foundation.

Generation Recession

Young adults have the highest unemployment rate of any demographic. At the National Radio Project, Rina Palta examines the impact of joblessness on the nation’s 80 million “Millennials.” (Audio) Palta talks to young people who are weathering their first layoffs mere weeks or months after landing their first professional jobs.

Mark Kirk: Tax Cuts for the Rich “No Matter What”

The day before 2.5 million Americans stand to lose their unemployment benefits, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) went on TV to insist that unemployment insurance is misguided and that the government must cut taxes for the rich “no matter what,” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd reports in AlterNet.

Oddly enough, Kirk fancies himself a moderate by Republican standards, according to Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly. Kirk believes that extending unemployment insurance would “just add to the deficit.” In fact, as Benen notes, extending unemployment benefits would be a very efficient way to infuse billions of dollars into the economy. Unemployed people will spend their extended benefits on food, gas, rent, and other necessities. That money doesn’t just disappear into the ether, it feeds local businesses, who in turn keep other Americans working.

The Republican Party line is that the rich need tax cuts because they create jobs. If tax cuts for the rich created jobs, we should already have a full employment economy. As the Bush tax cuts are set to expire, taxes for the rich are at all time lows and unemployment is at historic highs. It is crazy to assume that allowing these tax cuts to continue will magically produce jobs that have yet to materialize, or even bring back the jobs that have disappeared since the Bush tax cuts went into effect.

Ireland’s Billion Dollar Bailout

Over the weekend, the world’s financial institutions agreed to spend $90 billion to bail out Ireland. Tim Fernholz of TAPPED worries that this sum is too small to bring Ireland back from the brink of its sovereign debt crisis. He argues that the world financial community is making the same mistake it made in the 1990s when it forced debtor nations into fiscal austerity without forcing creditor nations to restructure their loans on more sustainable terms.

Once again, bondholders are being spared while Irish taxpayers are being expected to shoulder the heaviest burdens. The economic argument for saving the bondholders is that a bond is an ironclad promise, and that if you start expecting bondholders to accept less than 100% of what was promised to them (no matter how ill-advised they were to take that promise), the entire system will fall apart. It’s ironic that the promises that governments make to their citizens are endlessly renegotiable while bond deals are ironclad. Worldwide, citizens outnumber bondholders. Having citizens lose faith in their government seems far more dangerous than expecting bondholders to take a haircut.

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: Your Vote, Your Economy—Why Today’s Election Matters to Your Pocketbook

9:27 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Election Day is finally here, and control of the House and the Senate hangs in the balance. The differences between parties could not be more stark. Republicans have promised to repeal health care reform and slash government spending for social programs, all while preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Some of the more radical ideas bandied about this election season—by conservative candidates with a decent shot at winning—include privatizing social security and eliminating the Department of Education.

Anti-tax ballot measures

Josh Holland of AlterNet runs down the most economically important ballot initiatives facing the electorate today. Some of these measures could cripple states for decades to come.

For example, Coloradans are voting on a spate of radical anti-tax amendments including Amendment 60, which would eliminate all property tax increases passed since 1992 and halve property taxes over the next decade. If Initiative 1053 passes in Washington State, any future hikes in taxes or fees would have to be approved by a 2/3rds majority of legislators or by voters. In tough times, the promise of preempting tax increases may seem attractive, but those entranced by the 2/3rds rule should look to California as a cautionary tale. The state is structurally in the red because legislators can pass spending bills by simple majority but they need a 2/3rds majority to raise taxes.

Holland writes:

If you could create a political party that convinced a large number of people that by electing you they could eat all the ice-cream they want, and then sit on their butts watching TV all day and never put on an ounce, you’d have a pretty good chance at gaining power. That’s what the conservative movement has done in terms of taxes and spending.

In other words, it’s easy to say no to tax increases when you don’t stop to think what those taxes pay for. Everyone’s in favor of “limited government” in the abstract, but everyone likes roads, schools, firehouses, clean water, and other publicly-funded amenities.

Union-busting at the ballot box

Speaking of dubious ballot initiatives, at Working In These Times, Michelle Chen reports on several anti-union ballot measures that are designed to kill the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) before it’s even passed. EFCA is (currently moribund) proposed federal legislation  that would make it easier for employees to form unions.

Voters in Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah are grappling with ballot initiatives that would make it impossible to implement EFCA at the state level, should it ever come back to life at the federal level. For example, Utah’s proposed Amendment A would rewrite the state’s constitution to guarantee a secret ballot for unionization votes. These ballot initiatives are touted as a defense of workers’ privacy, but the real goal is to institutionalize as many barriers to unionization as possible.

All working people should be concerned about restrictions on their right to organize because unionization is a proven path to higher wages and greater job security. Even people who don’t belong to a union should care because high union density in an industry tends to increase wages for the industry as a whole, non-union workers included.

Wage equality and the social contract

Election day is a good time to reflect on the big questions: What do we owe each other as a society? What would a just economy look like? Mikhail Zinshteyn of Campus Progress argues that one of the basic tenets of the social contract in a capitalist system is that rewards should be proportional to production. If you produce more, you should get paid more.

Yet the widening gap between productivity and real wages in America shows that that our economy is not delivering on this basic tenet of fairness. Workers are more productive than ever, and in a just world, you’d expect they’d share in that extra wealth. Yet real wages have remained largely stagnant. The extra wealth is going overwhelmingly to those who own the companies. The people who actually create the wealth are being left out in the cold.

Stakes are high for working families

Sarah van Gelder explains in Yes! Magazine why it is so important for working families to turn out this season and vote their financial interests:

The Great Recession is creating hardship for families in every part of the country. More than 6 million Americans fell below the poverty line in the last two years, and nearly a quarter of all children under the age of six are living in poverty. Unemployed workers are typically going jobless for six months, nearly twice as long as they have during any time since World War II. Median household wealth fell by 20 percent since 2007, retirement savings have evaporated, and now some are talking about dismantling Social Security. This is not the year to stay home. Our families can’t afford it.

In tough times, domestic violence on the rise

In ColorLines, Julianne Hing reports that rates of domestic violence tend to increase as the economy deteriorates. The category of economic abuse becomes more salient as money becomes more scarce. The abuser can either extort money from the victim, and/or use their own money as a weapon to dominate the victim. Sadly, as the need for programs to protect the victims of domestic violence is rising, state budgets are shrinking.

When voters look at their tax cut ballot initiatives today, they should consider the services their taxes underwrite, including programs for the most vulnerable, like battered women’s shelters. It’s easy to say no to taxes. It’s hard to tell a battered woman that she has nowhere to go because the shelter was shut down.

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: Foreclosure Mills, Social Security and the Fed’s Failures

9:07 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Amanda Anderson, Media Consortium blogger

Editor’s Note: Zach Carter is out this week, but we’ve compiled a rundown of the biggest economy-related stories, including the rise of foreclosure mills and why social security isn’t in jeopardy. Zach will be back next Tuesday, so stay tuned!

Who needs ethics when you’ve got foreclosure mills?

Want to make money quickly, but don’t want ethics to get in the way? Big banks are outsourcing their foreclosure duties to fraudulent law firms, known as foreclosure mills, and getting away with it. Zach Carter explains the latest get rich quick scheme for AlterNet. Foreclosure mills are ethically questionable law firms that process legal documents for foreclosures. They tend to have an emphasis on quantity, not quality. Carter writes:

Big banks are not outsourcing their foreclosure processing to shady law firms with a history of breaking the law for a quick buck. These foreclosure scammers forge documents, backdate signatures, slap families with thousands of dollars in illegal fees and even foreclosure on borrowers who haven’t missed a payment.

Andy Kroll chronicles the evolution of foreclosure mills for Mother Jones. Kroll also exposes a notorious Floridian law firm founded by David J. Stern that is using every trick in the book—including backdating documents and illegally charging clients massive fees—to profit from the foreclosure crisis:

While rushing foreclosures isn’t illegal, Stern’s fledgling firm was promptly accused of something that is: gouging people who are trying to get out of default. In October 1998, Tallahassee attorney Claude Walker filed a class-action lawsuit involving tens of thousands of claimants, alleging that Stern had piled excessive fees on families fighting to keep their homes. (Walker, who visited Stern’s offices in 1999 to collect depositions, described the place as "a big warehouse" where hordes of attorneys holed up in tiny, crowded offices "like hamsters in a cage.")

Don’t blame Social Security for the deficit

Fact: Social Security benefits will be able to be paid, in full, through 2037.

Fact: 75% of Social Security benefits will be able to be paid thought 2084.

Fact: There is a huge surplus in Social Security trust fund- $2.5 trillion. So why the big push to trim the program? In an interview with The American Prospect, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) explains his proposed legislation that will actually expand benefits:

Ninety-five percent of the people in our country [already] pay Social Security tax on 100 percent of their income. The bill provides both contribution and benefit fairness: Even as people are going to be paying in more, they’re going to receive more benefits. Doing that, by the way, will also ensure the solvency of Social Security, which is terribly important.

The Fed’s failure and the AIG Bailout: A brief history

In The Nation, William Greider explains how the Federal Reserve Board gambled with American taxpayers’ money by not considering alternatives to the AIG bailout. Grieder highlights a report from the Congressional Oversight Panel, which “provides alarming insights that should be fodder for the larger debate many citizens long to hear—why Washington rushed to forgive the very interests that produced this mess, while innocent others were made to suffer the consequences.”

In short, the Fed acted “under the business-as-usual expectations of the private financial system, while skipping lightly over the public consequences."

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: Financial Reform Makes Headway, Jobs And Social Security In Jeopardy

8:33 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Two critical Wall Street reforms, once declared dead by U.S. megabanks, are suddenly close to Congressional approval. As the House and Senate iron out the differences between their financial overhauls, it now appears that lawmakers are finally willing to ban banks from gambling with taxpayer money by implementing a strong Volcker Rule, and to end taxpayer subsidies for risky derivatives operations.

These reforms will help stabilize the U.S. economy by clamping down on the naked speculation the drove financial markets off a cliff in 2008. But while lawmakers are finally waking up to the economic and political necessity of strong Wall Street reforms, conservatives have blocked key efforts to ease unemployment. President Barack Obama also appears ready to surrender to an assault on Social Security later this year.

Derivative of what?

Lawmakers now have the political momentum to end taxpayer subsidies for the trading of derivatives, as I emphasize for AlterNet. These risky businesses helped sink big banks and jeopardize the broader economy in 2008. These reforms would be a giant step towards reclaiming the U.S. economy for ordinary citizens, and they would fly in the face of opposition from both Wall Street and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Derivatives are the infamous financial weapons of mass destruction that brought down AIG and Enron. Many of the biggest scandals arising from the current financial crisis were derivatives operations, from Lehman Brothers’ accounting gimmicks to the SEC’s fraud suit against Goldman Sachs. By allowing traditional commercial banks to sell derivatives, the U.S. government actually subsidizes the entire market, encouraging speculation and ramping up risks across the economy.

Wall Street’s political clout stems from its derivatives machinations and its "proprietary trading," otherwise known as gambling for their own accounts. Both provide big, easy profits that banks convert to bonuses, lobbying and political contributions.

Ending the subsidies for derivatives, and implementing a strong Volcker Rule to ban outright bank gambling would be the first major blow to Wall Street’s total dominance on economic policy, one with lasting implications for the enforcement of other new regulations, including stronger protections for consumers.

Debtors’ Prisons

Plenty of economic battles will remain after this year’s Congressional contest over Wall Street. As Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent, authorities in several states are actually throwing people in jail for failing to pay off credit cards and other debts. Lowrey highlights a story and study by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune which reveals that, as the recession has deepened, judges have been ramping up arrest warrants for people who don’t pay their debts. In Minnesota alone, 845 people were arrested for being in debt in 2009, up 60 percent from four years ago.

As Lowrey notes, it’s not a crime to be in debt or fail to pay it off. But debt collection agencies have still been able to persuade judges to put borrowers behind bars until they make minimum payments. This is a total abuse of the justice system and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Sometimes borrowers just can’t pay—that’s the dominant risk involved in banking, and being able to figure out who can pay and who can’t is the job of a banker, not a police officer. Debt collectors, by contrast, purchase debts at a discount, precisely because it is unlikely that borrowers will be able to pony up. If they can’t, that isn’t the business of a criminal court. It’s the risk inherent in a business model based on scavenging.

Slashing Social Security

Other items on the economic policy agenda are looking similarly ominous. As Robert Kuttner emphasizes for The American Prospect, Wall Street tycoon Pete Peterson appears to have found an ally in the Obama administration for his lifelong quest to slash Social Security. The plan is to pull back support for seniors in the name of balanced budgets. These cuts will be totally counterproductive economically, as would the corresponding middle-class tax hike and domestic spending freeze that Peterson is pushing for.

The real fight over Social Security is still a few months away, but as GRITtv’s Laura Flanders notes in an interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), deficit hysteria has already infiltrated contemporary policies. Republicans and conservative Democrats are using the deficit as an excuse to deny people the most basic social services, like unemployment benefits and health care payment assistance for the unemployed.

More on the deficit "problem"

As the editors of The Nation note, there is no short-term U.S. budget deficit problem. Interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds are at record lows. Anybody who claims to be worried about the deficit is really worried about the longer-term implications, and those longer-term issues have big-picture, long-term solutions.

The single most critical variable in budget calculations in the increasing rate of health care costs, but the bloated defense budget and low tax rates for big corporations and wealthy individuals are also a target. Skimping on unemployment benefits, or refusing federal aid to hire teachers and cops doesn’t help those long-term issues one bit.

Cutting government spending and social services during a recession seriously threatens economic recovery. When everybody is broke, the government is the only reliable source for the spending needed to support growth and employment, and it has to keep spending until things really turn around. Obama’s 2009 stimulus kept the unemployment rate from reaching 12 percent or 13 percent, but it was just too small to really turn the economy around. With unemployment at 10 percent, we need more federal support for jobs, not less.

The recent progress on Wall Street reform shows that Congress finally understands that they need votes more than campaign contributions. Lawmakers who leaves those citizens out to dry by refusing to back a jobs bill or allowing unemployment benefits to expire will be in trouble come November.

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: Deficit Reduction = Selling Out to Wall Street

9:33 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

In the fall of 2008, decades of finance-first, bankers-know-best economic policies coalesced to create one of the worst economic crises in history, one that the banks themselves could not survive without staggering levels of government support.

Yet astonishingly, nearly two years after the crash, Wall Street is still setting the economic agenda in Washington. As Congress begins to examine broader economic policy, lawmakers are under heavy Wall Street pressure to reduce the federal budget deficit—even though that could mean deepening the jobs crisis without any substantive economic benefits.

Small-bore reforms

At the same time, the financial reform bill that Congress is on the verge of passing leaves quite a bit to be desired. As the editors of The Nation emphasize, that legislation includes several small-bore fixes to ease the damage caused by Wall Street excess, but almost nothing to actually curb the excesses themselves. The capital markets casinos will largely be left untouched. Congress still has time to improve the bill over the next month as the House and Senate iron out their differences, and many useful reforms remain in play.

Nevertheless, Wall Street’s lobbyists have succeeded in taking the most important reforms off the table. We will not break up the biggest banks this year, nor will we tax reckless financial speculation. We aren’t even banning economically essential banks from participating in risky securities businesses.

Et tu, Buffet?

As Annie Lowrey notes for The Washington Independent, the crisis has even discredited Warren Buffett, one the few financial superstars who previously had a reputation as a "straight-shooter" that invested in responsible enterprises.

Buffett was once a harsh critic of credit rating agencies, the firms who slapped top ratings on toxic mortgage-backed securities and derivatives. But Buffett himself is also a top shareholder in Moody’s, one of the worst ratings agencies. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission had to compel Buffett’s testimony at a recent hearing via subpoena after Buffett turned down multiple requests to appear. At the hearing itself, Buffett did everything he could to pass the buck from himself and Moody’s to any other possible target.

Slashing the deficit

Wall Street’s ugly influence on economic policy extends far beyond the realm of bank regulation itself. Right now, financial elites are pushing hard on a right-wing plan to slash the federal budget deficit, and even many moderate Democrats are coming out in support of reduced government spending.

This strategy is a tremendous political blunder, as Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly. It’s true that the deficit does not poll very well—but the deficit is only one side of the issue. Cutting the deficit means slashing federal support for jobs—we can help the economy or we can slash the deficit, but we cannot do both at the same time.

Nearly everyone believes that creating jobs should be a top priority for the government, but if politicians only ask questions about the deficit, they won’t hear answers about the economy. The political imperative is clear, as Benen notes:

This really shouldn’t be complicated: invest in more job creation, help struggling states as they keep laying off workers, and make clear to voters that the economy is more important than the deficit. Do this immediately, without apology.

Replacing Social Security with credit cards?

Wall Street loves cutting social services in the name of deficit reduction. Every public good that can be efficiently provided for by the government can also be inefficiently provided by the private sector—replacing public benefits with corporate profits. The bank lobby would like nothing more than to replace Social Security with credit cards for senior citizens. Wall Street doesn’t make a dime on the government’s Social Security payments—but they can make a killing on a privatized market.

Weak job growth=Weak private sector

Lest there be any question about whether or not the government needs to take strong action to strengthen the labor market, take a look at Friday’s jobs report. As Tim Fernholz notes for The American Prospect, this report was the most disappointing piece of economic news in months. While the economy gained 431,000 new jobs during the month, 411,000 of them were temporary hires by the U.S. Census, meaning the private sector is not able to support much new hiring.

There’s a critical lesson there: The only serious engine of job growth in the month of May was the federal government. Absent government hiring, the economy is not improving at all. There is an almost bottomless supply of critical social needs that require work right now, but no private-sector momentum to meet those needs.

The BP oil catastrophe should underscore how important new, green energy is to the U.S. economy—yet U.S. efforts to develop green energy solutions have fallen far behind those of China and other industrial powerhouse nations. Major federal investment into the research and implementation of green energy would be good for our environment and good for our economy.

Don’t let social services suffer

But astoundingly, the advice on the world economy currently coming from top policymakers at the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund and European central banks is echoing the bank lobby line: Slash social programs now, and let the job market fend for itself. As Dean Baker emphasizes for AlterNet, these are the exact same policymakers who missed the housing bubble, made the wrong calls on bank regulation and sent the global economy into freefall.

There has been little change in personnel and no acknowledgment of error at the central banks whose incompetence was responsible for the crisis . . . . their agenda seems to be the same everywhere, cut back retirement benefits, reduce public support for health care, weaken unions and make ordinary workers take pay cuts.

In short, Wall Street and the Wall Street policy agenda remain ascendant, despite economic catastrophe. In the Great Depression, the government actually learned its lesson—we regulated the banks, created Social Security and put millions to work through government hiring programs. That same basic agenda is needed today. Failing to meet it could well mean decades of economic decline.

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 Immigration Wire: Fighting H1N1 Hype

9:07 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Nezua, TMC MediaWire Blogger

This week’s Wire focuses on the opportunities for change that crisis can introduce. From the H1N1 "Swine" flu’s declining fervor to 2009′s May Day marches for worker rights and immigrant solidarity; from the tragic killing of Luis Ramirez to legislative movement on immigration, these are tumultuous times. But it is precisely such conflict and challenge that provides the best opportunities to make lasting change.

Last week, we highlighted how anti-immigration voices were exploiting the nation’s fear of the H1N1 flu to their own advantage. While still no joke (except in biting satire), the flu is an overhyped event used by Republicans to push an anti-immigration agenda, according to the Colorado Independent’s Daphne Eviater. While not all immigration comes from Mexico, the country and its people are often used as convenient scapegoats.

Mexico is suffering most from both the virus and an intensifying conservative backlash, as New America Media (NAM) revealed in several articles this week. As if the confluence of these forces weren’t enough, an April 27th earthquake struck Mexico, adding to the atmosphere "in an almost surrealistic fashion," writes NAM’s Kent Paterson. At least truths are beginning to surface as to the flu’s origin: