Tuesday Reads

autumn reading1

Good Morning!!

Is is just me or is there just about no important news coming out of Washington DC? We just finished with a horrible crisis in the government, and there’s another one coming up when Congress and the President have to deal with the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling once again. Yet there seems to be very little focus on dealing with this ongoing threat to the country’s ongoing well-being.

This silence on the economic situation makes me nervous. I suspect there’s a lot of planning and discussion behind the scenes on how those in power are going to convince the mass of Americans to give up our social safety net–they’re trying to figure out how to loot Social Security and Medicare.

I don’t think they’re going to be able to do it, because Americans are awake to the possibility now. As Dakinikat wrote yesterday, President Obama still dreams of a “Grand Bargain,” and so do many other powerful people like Pete Peterson, Alan Simpson, and lots of Republican and Democratic politicians. Just look at how Twitter responded when “Fix the Debt” tried to hawk its greedy plans on the social media site recently. Dakiniat wrote about that yesterday too.  So I guess I see the current silence on as the calm before the storm which will hit after all the politicians enjoy their long, relaxing Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

Meanwhile, the biggest political story at the moment is the apparent mess that the government made of the Obamacare website. I haven’t tried to get on the site myself, so I don’t really understand what the problems are. But the media is very focused on them. From what I can tell, the biggest problem seems to be that the site is too slow. Today’s Washington Post reports that the government was aware of the problems but went ahead with the site launch despite them.

Days before the launch of President Obama’s online health ­insurance marketplace, government officials and contractors tested a key part of the Web site to see whether it could handle tens of thousands of consumers at the same time. It crashed after a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to log on simultaneously.

Despite the failed test, federal health officials plowed ahead.

When the Web site went live Oct. 1, it locked up shortly after midnight as about 2,000 users attempted to complete the first step, according to two people familiar with the project.

As new details emerged about early warning signs of serious deficiencies in HealthCare.gov, Obama on Monday gave a consumer-friendly defense of the health-care law, insisting that the problems many Americans have faced in trying to enroll in insurance plans will be fixed quickly.

“There’s no sugarcoating it: The Web site is too slow; people have been getting stuck during the application process,” he said at a White House event.

At the same time, he admonished Republican critics of the federal insurance exchange, saying that “it is time to stop rooting for its failure.”

Obama’s reaction to the problems isn’t getting good reviews, even from supposedly liberal journalists. At the Atlantic, Garrance Franke-Ruta called Obama “Insurance Salesman In Chief.

Of all the things Barack Obama ever expected to be during the course of his life, a television insurance salesman is probably not one of them.

But that’s the role he took on Monday morning in a Rose Garden speech pitching insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplaces and acknowledging for the first time just how troubled the website to access them is. His remarks failed to address many of the specific concerns raised byreporters and technologists about the gargantuan Healthcare.gov website, and he and provided no new information about what went wrong or how, specifically, it will be fixed.

Instead, his message was more like an infomercial designed for the general public: We know there are problems with the site and we are on it. Meanwhile, we’re offering a great product that will save you money, so keep on trying, even if it’s a little frustrating.

Young_Lincoln_By_Charles_Keck

On yesterday’s Morning Joe,

Washington Post healthcare reporter and commenter Ezra Klein pushed back against the administration’s reference to the problem as bugs and technical problems.“These aren’t glitches, the website, to a first approximation, simply isn’t working” Klein said on Monday’s Morning Joe. Early traffic problems that occurred when the site was overwhelmed by visitors on the first few days may have actually masked the public from the larger problems, he said, like garbled or false information being sent to insurers.

“No one beta-tested the site, which is almost criminal,” the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein said.

“They keep using the word unacceptable. It’s not unacceptable, it’s outrageous,” Mike Barnicle said.“This is the president’s singular achievement, and to be so reticent about the problems that have gone is kind of surprising.”

Politico criticized Obama’s “passive” response to the problems with the website:

Once again, Barack Obama risks looking like a bystander to his own presidency.

Here’s what he did to kick off the week: assemble a crowd in the Rose Garden to hear him repeat how “frustrated” he was about the many problems that plagued the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s website, promise that a “tech surge” was already on its way to set those problems right and implore people to bear with him until they see what the program can do.

Here’s what he didn’t do: explain why those problems weren’t addressed before the Oct. 1 launch, why he didn’t seem to be aware of them before they went very public, or who would be suffering the consequences for any of it. He didn’t apologize. He announced, in broad terms, who would be coming in to help. But he didn’t say anything about who would be shown the exits.

His “nobody’s madder than me” Monday echoed the kinds of statements he’s repeatedly made about problems over the last few months — “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it” (the IRS scandal), “It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest” (the NSA scandal), “This is not a world we should accept” (Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons). He puts himself forward as a man frustrated with what’s happened on his watch, promising change, insisting that nothing of the sort could ever happen again.

I have to agree. Obama’s passivity is one of the biggest complaints I have about his presidency–particularly in the way he has (or hasn’t) dealt with the economic crisis.

The New York Times reports that it will take “weeks of work” to fix the website problems, despite the fact that most of the problems have been identified.

In interviews, experts said the technological problems of the site went far beyond the roadblocks to creating accounts that continue to prevent legions of users from even registering. Indeed, several said, the login problems, though vexing to consumers, may be the easiest to solve. One specialist said that as many as five million lines of software code may need to be rewritten before the Web site runs properly.

“The account creation and registration problems are masking the problems that will happen later,” said one person involved in the repair effort.

Personally, I’m finding this all pretty depressing, because it was starting to look like the Democrats could retake the House in 2014. The Obamacare mess isn’t going to help that project.

Today, CNN reported the results of new new poll that found that: 75% say most Republicans in Congress don’t deserve re-election.

A CNN/ORC International survey released Monday also found a majority saying that the Republicans’ policies are too extreme. And according to the poll, Democrats have an 8-point advantage over the Republicans in an early indicator in the battle for control of Congress. But with more than a year to go until the 2014 midterm elections, there’s plenty of time for these numbers to change.

The poll was conducted Friday through Sunday, just after the end of the 16-day partial federal government shutdown that was sparked in part by an effort by House conservatives to dismantle the health care law, which is President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

A majority of those questioned blamed congressional Republicans for the government shutdown and said the President was the bigger winner in the deal to end the crisis.

The survey also found nearly eight in 10 saying the shutdown was bad for the country, and the standoff has led to a loss of confidence and satisfaction in government. And more than seven in 10 think that another shutdown is likely.

I hope Obama gets serious about fixing the Obamacare problems so Republicans can’t get up off the mat.

leaves books

Another big story in the news is the $13 billion penalty the Justice Department is seeking to get from JP Morgan Chase.

From Bloomberg: JPMorgan Guilty Plea Sought by Holder Shows Harder Stance.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon went to Washington almost a month ago to see if U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would settle a criminal probe of mortgage fraud at the bank if it paid more money to resolve related civil investigations.

Holder’s team, which included Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Associate Attorney General Tony West, said ending the investigation by the U.S. attorney in Sacramento would require the bank to plead guilty to something, according to a person familiar with the talks, which were held in a conference room that was Robert F. Kennedy’s office when he had Holder’s job….

Later, the department proposed the bank plead guilty to making false statements related to sales of toxic mortgage bonds. The bank proposed a nonprosecution agreement, which Holder rejected, the person said. The bank agreed to assist the continuing criminal probe. The negotiation typifies the harder line the Obama administration is taking in its second term.

Well, that’s good news IMHO.

Holder’s refusal to let JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank, escape criminal liability for its mortgage-bond sales, and the move to extract penalties for wrongdoing that led to the financial crisis, may go a long way toward appeasing critics of the Justice Department who have been urging charges against bankers since the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008….

The effort began on orders from President Barack Obama, who promised in his 2012 State of the Union address to hold banks accountable for their role in helping trigger the deepest recession since the Great Depression. A mortgage task force of prosecutors and regulators set up to carry out the president’s mandate produced the record $13 billion deal, which requires a formal sign-off by both sides.

Great! Let’s hope Obama follows through. Another good sign is that The Wall Street Editorial page is up in arms about the settlement.

The tentative $13 billion settlement that the Justice Department appears to be extracting from J.P. Morgan Chase JPM +0.21% needs to be understood as a watershed moment in American capitalism. Federal law enforcers are confiscating roughly half of a company’s annual earnings for no other reason than because they can and because they want to appease their left-wing populist allies.

The settlement isn’t final and many details weren’t available on the weekend, but we know enough for Americans to be dismayed. The bulk of the settlement is related to mortgage-backed securities issued before the 2008 financial panic. But those securities weren’t simply a Morgan product. They were largely issued by Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, both of which the federal government asked J.P. Morgan to take over to help ease the crisis.

So first the feds asked the bank to do the country a favor without giving it a chance for proper due diligence. The Treasury needed quick decisions, and Morgan CEOJamie Dimon made them in good faith. But five years later the feds are punishing the bank for having done them the favor. As Richard Parsons notes nearby, this is not going to make another CEO eager to help the Treasury in the next crisis. But more pointedly, where is the justice in such ex post facto punishment?

The WSJ complains that banks are being turned into “public untilities.” I think that’s exactly what they should be.

We’d like to see Mr. Dimon fight the charges, but the political reality is that he and his bank don’t have much choice. His board is eager to move on, and the government will only turn the screws harder if he resists. In a post Dodd-Frank world, banks are public utilities and no CEO can afford to resist the government’s demands.

The real lesson of the Morgan settlement isn’t that justice has finally been done to the perpetrators of the crisis. That would require arresting Barney Frank and those in Congress who blocked the reform of Fannie and Freddie, plus the Federal Reserve governors who created so much easy credit.

Hahahahahahahaha!! The oligarchs don’t like it much when the shoe is on the other foot, do they?

I’m already running out of space, so here are a few more headlines link dump style:

CBC News: U.S. drone strikes break international law, report finds

Rolling Stone: U.S. Drone Strikes Violate Laws of War

CBS News: Sparks Middle School student: Gunman said “you ruined my life and now I’m going to ruin yours”

WaPo: Economy added 148,000 jobs in September, jobless rate fell to 7.2 percent

What’s the deal with Facebook?

BBC News: Facebook lets beheading clips return to social network

MacLeans: Facebook now allows teens to post public updates

Time: Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

Now it’s your turn. What stories are you following today? Please share your links in the comment thread.


The Sequestration Blues: Part 2 Pete Peterson Creates a Crisis

Web-caphill01-0212Ben Bernanke joined the chorus of economists concerned about the impact of the sequester on the sluggish recovery.  This is not the first time the Fed chair has commented on misguided and dysfunctional Fiscal Policy in our country.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress risks slowing the economy by allowing $85 billion in automatic spending cuts to be triggered on Friday, arguing they should be replaced with more deliberate, long-term cuts.

In prepared testimony for the Senate Banking Committee, Bernanke argued the sequester would pose a “significant headwind” to the economic recovery.

 “Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant,” he warned.Bernanke did not offer an opinion on whether tax hikes should be included as part of a replacement bill, and he did not call for any specific entitlement reforms.

Meanwhile, the White House released reports on how the expected cuts will impact states.  This undoubtedly will trigger more Republican whining on how mean the President continues to be to them as they continue their role as economic agents of chaos.

In Kentucky, home of the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, residents woke up on Monday to news articles like these: Widespread government spending cuts that begin on Friday will cost 21,484 jobs in the state. A construction project at Fort Knox will come to a halt. Three airports may endure partial shutdowns. Nearly $12 million in grants to public schools would be cut, putting at risk the jobs of 160 teachers and aides. More than 1,000 children would lose access to Head Start.

The White House released warnings for every state on Sunday in the hope that angry voters would besiege Republican lawmakers like Mr. McConnell and the House speaker, John Boehner, to stop the $85 billion in cuts, known as a sequester. President Obama wants to replace the sequester with a mix of tax increases on the rich and less damaging spending reductions. Republicans say they won’t consider any proposal that isn’t all cuts, so the sequester is all but certain to begin this week.

SequesterThere’s a fairly good list of the types of spending items that will be subject to cuts at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Setting aside the magnitude of the reductions, the most difficult aspect of both the defense and domestic cuts is that they will be made across the board to all non-exempt government spending regardless of programs’ merits or demerits.*** The reductions designed by law are executed at the Program, Project & Activity (PPA) level of the federal budget, sometimes defined in appropriations bills and which often includes very granular categories of expenditures, such as “two Virginia Class Submarines” or “salaries and benefits” of a particular agency.

Absent a new law passed by Congress, the president has little ability to spare one type of spending and cut more from another. This creates uncertainty in both the public and private sector because there remains much to be determined about how PPAs will be defined by agency administrators and how the cuts will be implemented. This inability to plan is already acting as a drag on economic growth.

Furthermore, the immediate and across the board nature of the cuts, along with their magnitude concentrated in a seven-month period, will impair economic growth as the year progresses. At BPC, we estimated last year that the sequester would reduce 2013 gross domestic product (GDP) growth by half a percentage point, and would cost the economy approximately one million jobs over the next two years. More recent estimates released by the CBO and Macroeconomic Advisors have roughly confirmed these projections.

Given all of this, you would think that most congress critterz would want to avoid the sequester.  However, there’s that same group of tea party crazies that are so disconnected from an evidence-based reality  it appears congress will tank the economy rather than develop a cogent Fiscal Policy related to economic theory and the state of the economy itself.

The White House strategy on the sequester was built around a familiar miscalculation about Republicans. It assumed that, in the end, they would be reasonable and negotiate a realistic alternative to indiscriminate cuts. Because the reductions hurt defense programs long held sacrosanct by Republicans, the White House thought it had leverage that would reduce the damage to the domestic programs favored by Democrats.

It turns out, though, that the defense hawks in the party are outnumbered. More Republicans seem to care about reducing spending at all costs, and the prospect of damaging vital government programs does not seem to bother them. “Fiscal questions trump defense in a way they never would have after 9/11,” Representative Tom Cole, a Republican of Oklahoma, told The Times. “But the war in Iraq is over. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan, and we want to secure the cuts.”

Cuts this draconian have no place in a tottering economy. But, realistically, the only way to break this standoff is for the cuts to exact their toll on daily life, causing Republicans to face pressure from the public to negotiate an alternative plan with higher revenues in March as part of talks to finance the government for the final six months of the fiscal year.

It’s difficult to believe that so many folks can be so misguided about the need to drastically cut the budget. Read the rest of this entry »