Missing the Point of the Anemic Housing Market (June 29, 2011)

Until four months ago, I had very little interest in real estate and personal finance news. I do not own a property, nor do I wish to, exist mostly off the credit economy grid and don’t have much of a head for financial statistics. That all changed in February when I was hired as a senior writer for a respected housing market and stock analyst. By day, I research, write and report on the numbers, which I don’t have to tell you folks, have been seriously depressing in recent years.

Typically, I try to keep my two writing worlds separate. In the evening and on weekends, I am preoccupied with theater, politics, urban agriculture and of course, myself.

Recently, because of immersion in the topics, I have come to understand that my disinterest in banking and housing limits my understanding of the full political scope. What could be more important, from a public policy perspective, than sustained, long-term unemployment and a pullback in available credit absolutely decimating middle class American families and their home values? Yet tragically, both political parties have chosen to ignore these truly pressing concerns in favor of epically immature posturing regarding gay marriage (Rick Santorum), Executive branch limousine rides (Michelle Bachmann) and pushing disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner out of office (Nancy Pelosi). While our elected officials play chicken with a vote on the debt ceiling, Middle America has been placed on the sidelines.

It has been nearly three years since the world learned that irresponsible, and in most cases criminal activity on the part of large Wall Street financial firms had brought the economy to its knees. To date the banks and their financial partners have had to pay the piper very little. But periodically, a wrist slap is handed out so that lawmakers and legal eagles can tout the appearance of justice to the voting public.

This morning, on the front page of the New York Times and other media outlets, we learned that Bank of America, the largest U.S. bank in terms of asset holdings, plans to set aside $14 billion to repay a group of critical investors as a resort of its malfeasance in bundling and selling high-risk mortgages.

Who are these critical investors, you may ask? According to reports, the claimants are “a group of heavyweight holders of the securities, including Pimco, BlackRock and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, that have been pressing for a settlement since last fall.”

Does anyone suppose that this group has been the real victim of Wall Street’s shell game? While it’s wonderful to hear that the bank is going to have to make some restitution, it is with the wrong folks. None of this $14 billion will ever reach the hundreds of thousands of American families who have lost everything because of the risks taken by a small group of arrogant charlatans.

Meanwhile, hopes for a housing market recovery, or even confirmation that we have finally reached the bottom, continue to be dashed. This week, CBS MoneyWatch reported that home prices in six cities fell to new all-time lows, and nationwide, home values are averaging 2000 levels. For those keeping score, that is 11 years of lost equity.

Who will finally decide that it is beneficial to the nation, and politically advantageous enough, to throw American homeowners a lifeline? Voluntary loan modification programs have proven to be a sick joke marked by millions of reams in lost paperwork. No one on Capitol Hill seems to want to touch the development of a plan to create jobs (which is the real key to getting the housing market back on its feet), and around we go.

It’s utterly disgraceful to have to endure the chronic bellyaching of Big Business, whining about the hostile corporate attitude of the Obama administration, while stories like this one go unheard.

Bank of America can spare the $14 billion. The nation’s middle class can no longer afford the loss of dignity, combined with collective callousness, bought on by the risks of elite cads who fail to connect with the real repercussions of their actions. And our public servants need to stop enabling this disconnect.

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Newt Gingrinch Gains a Little of My Respect…Before Promptly Losing It (May 18, 2011)

I have taken a detour the last couple months from my regular obsession with the political arena to talk all things divorce and cancer. But as I am enjoying a relative “good” period, filled with some degree of life satisfaction and emotional equilibrium, I am inspired to join the endless sport of Capitol Hill navel gazing once again.

I am a huge fan of NBC’s Meet the Press, the Sunday morning political chat stalwart now hosted by David Gregory. While Gregory with his whiny, waffley interview style is no match for the “just the facts” tenacity of the otherwise cherubic Tim Russert (may he rest in peace), MTP is a habit I just can’t break. In years past, I would enjoy the show while indulging in the traditional Sunday hangover remedy of carbs and Gatorade, but now I am in my 30s and am usually well rested and alert. There are things to like about aging.

Anyway, this past weekend I queued up my Tivo to watch the show commercial-free and nearly deleted it altogether when I saw that the featured guest was former Speaker of the House, and current Republican Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrinch. I will NEVER forgive Newtie for the 90s – from the ridiculous government shutdown of 1995, to his laughably hypocritical pursuit of President Bill Clinton on the “family values” front. This from a man on his third marriage, the second which began under the auspicious influences of infidelity.

For a number of years, Newtie sort of fell off the political radar, only emerging as the occasional commentator on really important issues like President Obama’s African, colonial worldview (I was under the impression that Hawaii ceased to be a colony in the late 1950s). Rhetorically, he was swatted away like the pop cultural gnat he became (though he prefers the term “gadfly,” thank you very much).

But Newt got my attention on Sunday’s Meet the Press when he addressed rising GOP star Paul Ryan’s irresponsible, top two percent-friendly budget proposal. Specifically commenting on the plan’s goal of dismantling Medicare as we know it, converting it to a voucher program, his Newtness said: “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.”

Well ok! Newt never stood a chance of getting my vote, but such refreshing honesty, such lack of pandering! Maybe we have a new Maverick on the right.

But of course my praise and excitement was premature. Once the Tea Party establishment (who seem to accrue power in inverse proportion to their distance from the mainstream) got wind of Newtie’s comments, Gingrich began backpedaling faster than a honey badger.

Paul Ryan had this to say to Reuters: “I think he now understands the magnitude of his comments — how wrong they were. And I think he’s going to have more to say about that. And he’s working on that. He basically called and apologized. And I accepted his apology.” Newt – you just got served by a man with a freakishly big head.

Last time I checked, Ryan is a lowly House member from the minorityparty, but we currently live in an upside down political universe, where less is apparently more. As the brilliant Paul Krugman put it: “Normally, a party controlling neither the White House nor the Senate would acknowledge that it isn’t in a position to impose its agenda on the nation. But the modern G.O.P. doesn’t believe in following normal rules.”

And an article in the “Caucus” section of today’s New York Times asks, “Can Newt Gingrich Control Newt Gingrich?”

I may be wholly biased and partisan but I happen to believe that running afoul of an increasingly wingnut right establishment, which has essentially declared war on the middle class, is the FIRST positive thing Newt has done in awhile. Alas, no more. He has been cowed and has summarily returned to placating the ultra-conservative. I would have hoped he’d take a lesson from 2008 also-ran John McCain (another formerly bold player who relinquished any and all respect I ever held for him). Winning over your party’s base almost necessarily means alienating the mainstream in this century. In short, the already debatably electable Gingrich just become untouchable.

Obama’s “Bad Blood” with Business (August 5, 2010)

Much has been made recently of the strained rapport between the Obama administration and corporate interests. Various talking heads and opportunistic Republicans have seized upon the trumped up “war” between the President and Big Business as the cause of everything from the consistently high unemployment rate (“corporations are afraid to hire in this era of policy uncertainty”), to hard times for small business (“Obama’s desire to let tax cuts for the wealthy expire harms entrepreneurship”), and even, to my incredulity, the fallout from the BP oil spill. For example, the UK’s new Business Secretary, Vince Cable has been quoted as saying of Obama’s rampant criticism of BP’s actions before, during, and after the deep well explosion, “the president talks in a cheap way about ‘kicking ass’. Whether or not the American president can kick our asses, he can certainly hurt our wallets and purses.”

Thank you Mr. Cable for your ever so enlightened inclusion of ladies’ “purses” in your corporate lament. We now see you for the truly forward thinking, fair-minded guy you are (cue laugh track).

Even the “liberal media” has enjoyed taking the issue apart. Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press featured a panel discussion this past weekend including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Greenspan, while rightly declaring the state of the economy to be “touch and go,” also added “The financial system is broke and I see we just stay where we are. There’s nothing out there that I can see which will alter the level of unemployment.”

As soon as the former Chairman uttered these words, I gleefully clapped my hands together and waited for host David Gregory to give him the what for. After all, that is what the incomparable and disinterested Tim Russert would have done. But the moment never arrived. How can Greenspan credulously state that he “sees nothing out there” to act as a positive force on current unemployment rates, at a time when Big Business is posting record profits, and holding onto wads of cash?

Companies like Adobe, AirTran, Honda – even the once shaky banks and mortgage lenders who needed a taxpayer bailout are suddenly right as rain. With all this good news, why isn’t a stronger bottom line leading to improvements for long struggling job seekers? As I perused The New York Times last week, suddenly the answer became clear:

Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/business/economy/26earnings.html

Writer Nelson D. Schwartz declares, “Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production.” On so very many levels, this makes me ill. Seems to me that instead of focusing on the trumped up antagonism between Obama and corporations, we should be talking about how Fortune 500 establishments have become the tormenter of American families.

So to return to my earlier question, how did the rumor that the Obama administration is the enemy of business get started, and more importantly, why is it being perpetuated? From where I’m sitting, it seems that it’s never been a better time to be a CEO, if not a regular working stiff. In addition to the record profiteering, I don’t recall Obama slamming the door in the faces of banks, automakers and other industries that showed up on Capitol Hill with a tin cup begging for change.

Probing a little further, it seems that the convoluted health care and financial reform bills could be the tacit excuse. Big Business would have you believe that the runaway regulations being passed by the “socialist” President are the root cause of its persecution complex (see first paragraph – “corporations are afraid to hire in this era of policy uncertainty”).

Pardon my French, but what a bunch of horse shit. If anything, President Obama hasn’t done nearly enough to roll back the heady days of Clinton/Bush deregulation. I believe I am not alone in my frustration – having to listen to the tiny violin playing martyrdom of corporations, even as they pop champagne over record profits, commending themselves for delighting shareholders on the backs of the jobless masses.

If the Obama administration has been the arch nemesis of business, how much worse off would the nation be if he acted as a friend?

And Then There Were 58…Bayh, Bayh Evan (February 16, 2010)

Bayh

http://news.yahoo.com/s/bloomberg/20100216/pl_bloomberg/a6qybv5vkza4

Aw nuts!

If there is one thing I admire about the hard Republican right, it’s their apparently insatiable appetite for battle. Over the last 12 months, the “Party of No,” has used its spare energy for nothing beyond intense ideological and bureaucratic grudge matches – and seems to relish the confrontation. Like Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple as well as Pixar, the people who have taken you back to the Revolution – literally to the 1770s with the resurgence of the “Tea Party” – seem to thrive on adversity and their underdog status. It’s like they are daring anyone in Congress to actually try something. Democrats are body checked at every turn.

But the bullying gets so much easier when your opponent takes his toys and goes home. It has always stymied me to come up with reasons why those most wed to change (many, but not all of the left leaning Dems) appear to have the weakest stomach when it comes to fighting for it.
Today we learn that Evan Bayh, a former two-term Indiana Governor, and two-term Senator, who has never lost an electoral contest, is leaving the game. His reason: “‘There’s just too much brain-dead partisanship’ in Congress, Bayh told ABC, and the American people need to vote out those who are ‘rigidly ideological.’”

Alright, I feel you there Evan, but how does your resignation help us to achieve that goal? By vacating your formly Democratic seat, aren’t you just opening it up to Republican takeover, a prospect not impossible in semi-conservative Indiana?

It is hard, both as a staunch liberal, and as a lover of the textbook (rather than actual) political process, to find much to celebrate these days. Though I do not place the blame on Obama, who has nonetheless developed into a curiously “lame duck” first term chief, “Change” becomes an ever dimmer possibility with every news cycle. The divided electorate seems more fractured and unwilling to come together to get work done than at any time in our history. And that is dangerous, because we have a comprehensive list of real problems that need solving now.
I would beg Senator Bayh to reconsider, but I am sure he has already fielded calls from Majority Leader Harry Reid, possibly even the President himself.

I am daydreaming of a targeted flood, a la Noah, that could wash away Capitol Hill and give it a fresh start. It appears nothing short of that is going to move American democracy forward. I guess Evan Bayh shares my dream. It’s just that I thought we went through the process of electing officials so they could help us, not get bored/frustrated/annoyed and give up. If Senators get disillusioned and quit, how do they expect us to stay engaged?

Welcome to the Jungle: The GOP Dysfunction Infused 112th Congress Reports for Duty (November 13, 2012)

They’re here. They of the 64 percent “Poor” performance rating, according to a late-August publication from Rasmussen Reports, while only eight percent of the voting public was confused enough at the time of the poll to pronounce the group’s accomplishments “Good.” Exactly no one judged the body “Excellent” when it comes to getting things done. You know who I’m talking about.

It’s Congress!

The greatest example of petty taunting and counter-productivity since the 7th grade lunch table returns to Capitol Hill today, fresh off President Obama’s re-election and just in time to do battle over measures that must be implemented to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff.” There are just seven weeks left to reach some form of agreement that would take the place of mandatory budget cuts and tax hikes that may very well deepen the already painful Great Recession.

Here we go again.

Removing the annoying shackles of campaign promises of bipartisanship, the GOP is back to its old tricks. While calling upon President Obama to work with House Republicans, Speaker John Boehner has reiterated the Republican Party’s opposition to raising any taxes to deal with the country’s debt and deficit. Because it’s always so much easier to roll up one’s sleeves and work together on a balanced approach with a group that demands full and total capitulation.

For years now it has been stupefying to watch Republican lawmakers wax philosophical about the “immorality” of our nation’s deficit while remaining quite willing to risk our collective future in order to save millionaires a few bucks. And in keeping with the party’s high moral standards, it is apparently acceptable to savage the social safety net and burden the poor and already-struggling middle class in order to save the “temporary” Bush tax cuts. Is anyone buying this?

The new faces showing up for work in Washington today offer an American public that wants to see something done a tiny sliver of hope. Democrats picked up two extra Senate seats that they didn’t have in October, for a total of 53 spots. Five of the newly elected Senators, across both parties, are strong women like consumer advocate and male-model crusher Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. It is also true that Dems collected three extra seats in the House than they had before, and may have found themselves at an even lesser disadvantage, were it not for the eminently questionable redistricting resulting from the 2010 U.S. Census.

How does a party retain power while losing the popular vote? Ask former President George W. Bush.

Regardless of its partisan makeup, this Congressional class may find it a lot harder to kick down the road. If the record turnouts and general rebuke of incumbents is any indication, the struggling electorate simply won’t tolerate further stagnation. A positive result of Capitol Hill’s growing paralysis since Obama took office in 2009 is a growing sense that Republican lawmakers care a lot more about winning and protecting their wealthy donors then they do about their constituents. They have a real opportunity to here to demonstrate otherwise. It will no longer do to play the blame game.