A Thousand Words August 17, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, History.
Tags: american way, bread line, class, depression, history, inequality, middle class, poverty, roger hollander, standard of living
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Bill Clinton’s $80 Million Payday, or Why Politicians Don’t Care That Much About Reelection August 4, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Economic Crisis.
Tags: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, bribes, commodities futures, corey booker, deregulation, derivitives, Economic Crisis, hillary clinton, matt stoller, presidency, roger hollander
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Tuesday, May 22, 2012
“There was a kind of inflection point during the five-year period between 1997 and 2003 — the late Clinton and/or early Bush administration — when all the rules just went away. You went from a period, a regime, where people did have at least some concern about going to jail, to a point where everything is legal, and derivatives couldn’t be regulated at all and nobody went to jail for anything. And looking back I would say that this period definitely started under Clinton. You absolutely cannot blame this on George W. Bush.” – Charles Ferguson of Inside Job
“I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I’ve done reasonably well since then.” Bill Clinton
On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill called the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. This law ensured that derivatives could not be regulated, setting the stage for the financial crisis. Just two months later, on February 5, 2001, Clinton received $125,000 from Morgan Stanley, in the form of a payment for a speech Clinton gave for the company in New York City. A few weeks later, Credit Suisse also hired Clinton for a speech, at a $125,000 speaking fee, also in New York. It turns out, Bill Clinton could make a lot of money, for not very much work.
Today, Clinton is worth something on the order of $80 million (probably much more, but we don’t really know), and these speeches have become a lucrative and consistent revenue stream for his family. Clinton spends his time offering policy advice, writing books, stumping for political candidates, and running a global foundation. He’s now a vegan. He makes money from books. But the speaking fee money stream keeps coming in, year after year, in larger and larger amounts.
Most activists and political operatives are under a delusion about American politics, which goes as follows. Politicians will do *anything* to get reelected, and they will pander, beg, borrow, lie, cheat and steal, just to stay in office. It’s all about their job.
This is 100% wrong. The dirty secret of American politics is that, for most politicians, getting elected is just not that important. What matters is post-election employment. It’s all about staying in the elite political class, which means being respected in a dense network of corporate-funded think tanks, high-powered law firms, banks, defense contractors, prestigious universities, and corporations. If you run a campaign based on populist themes, that’s a threat to your post-election employment prospects. This is why rising Democratic star and Newark Mayor Corey Booker reacted so strongly against criticism of private equity – he’s looking out for a potential client after his political career is over, or perhaps, during interludes between offices. Running as a vague populist is manageable, as long as you’re lying to voters. If you actually go after powerful interests while in office, then you better win, because if you don’t, you’ll have basically nowhere to go. And if you lose, but you were a team player, then you’ll have plenty of money and opportunity. The most lucrative scenario is to win and be a team player, which is what Bill and Hillary Clinton did. The Clinton’s are the best at the political game – it’s not a coincidence that deregulation accelerated in the late 1990s, as Clinton and his whole team began thinking about their post-Presidential prospects.
Corruption used to be more overt. Lyndon Johnson made money while in office, by illicitly garnering lucrative FCC licenses. It was the first neoliberal President, Jimmy Carter, who began the post-career payoff trend in the Democratic Party. In 1978, Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas convinced Carter to back ethanol subsidies. After Carter lost to Reagan, he faced financial problems, as his peanut warehouse had been mismanaged and was going bankrupt. AMD stepped in, overpaying for the property. But Carter wasn’t nearly as skilled as Clinton, because he didn’t stay in the club.
Over the course of the next ten years after his Presidency, Clinton brought in roughly $8-10 million a year in speaking fees. In 2004, Clinton got $250,000 from Citigroup and $150,000 from Deutsche Bank. Goldman paid him $300,000 for two speeches, one in Paris. As the bubble peaked, in 2006, Clinton got $150,000 paydays each from Citigroup (twice), Lehman Brothers, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the National Association of Realtors. In 2007, it was Goldman again, twice, Lehman, Citigroup, and Merrill Lynch. He didn’t just reap speaking fee cash from the financial services sector – corporate titans like Oracle and outsourcing specialist Cisco paid up, as did many Israel-focused groups, Middle Eastern interests, and universities. Does this explain the finance-friendly, oil-friendly and Israel First-friendly policies pursued by the State Department under Hillary Clinton? Who knows? But if you could legally deliver millions in cash to the husband of a high-level political official, it wouldn’t hurt your policy goals.
Speaking fee money isn’t just money, it is easy money. In one appearance, for one hour, Clinton can make $125,000 to $500,000. At an hourly rate, that’s between $250 million to $1 billion annually. It isn’t the case that Clinton is a billionaire, but it is the case that Clinton can, whenever he wants, make money as quickly and as easily as a billionaire. He is awash in cash, and cash is useful. Cash finances his lifestyle. Cash helped backstop his wife’s Presidential campaign when it was on the ropes.
And these speaking fees aren’t the only money Clinton got, it’s just the easiest cash to find because of disclosure laws. Apparently, Clinton’s firm apparently had a paid $100k+ a month consulting relationship with MF Global, and Clinton and Tony Blair have teamed up to help hedge funds raise money. His daughter worked for a giant hedge fund and political ally (Avenue Capital). And Clinton has unusual relationships with billionaires and Dubai-based investors.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the best at what they do, but they aren’t the only ones who do it. In fact, this is what politics is increasingly about, not elections, but staying in the club. Erskine Bowles, former White House Chief of Staff, lost two Senate elections. But he’s on the board of Facebook and Morgan Stanley, as well as authoring the highly influential Simpson-Bowles plan to gut Social Security and Medicare. Tom Daschle, who lost a Senate race in 2004, is a millionaire who in large part crafted Obama’s health care plan. Former Senator Judd Gregg is now at Goldman Sachs. Current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made $12 million in between his stint at the Clinton White House which ended in 2000 and his election to Congress in 2002. Former Congressman Harold Ford, now at Morgan Stanley, is routinely on TV making political claims. Larry Summers is on the board of the high-flying start-up Square. Meanwhile, Russ Feingold, a Senator who did go after Wall Street, is a professor in the Midwest. Eliot Spitzer is a struggling TV host and writer.
In other words, Barack Obama and his franchise are emulating the Clinton’s, and are speaking not to voters, but to potential post-election patrons. That’s what their policy goals are organized around. So when you hear someone talking about how politicians just want to be reelected, roll your eyes. When you hear an argument about the best message or policy framework to use for reelection, stop listening. That’s not what politicians really care about. Elections in many ways are just like regular season games in basketball – they are worth winning, but it’s not worth risking an injury. The reason Obama won’t prosecute bankers, or run anything but a very mild sort of populism, is because he’s not really talking to voters. He just wants to be slightly more appealing than Romney. He’s really talking to the people who made Bill and Hillary Clinton a very wealthy couple, his future prospective clients. We don’t call it bribery, but that’s what it is. Bill Clinton made a lot of money when he signed the bill deregulating derivatives and repealed Glass-Steagall. The payout just came later, in the form of speaking fees from elite banks and their allies.
Ironically, Clinton has come to express regret about deregulating derivatives. He has not given the money back.
One (Obscenely Profitable) Day In the Life of Big Oil August 2, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Energy, Environment.
Tags: abby zimet, big oil, carbon pollution, Obama, oil ceos, oil companies, oil industry, oil profits, roger hollander, romney, stock paybacks, tax breaks
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by Abby Zimet
Every hour this year, the five biggest oil companies have made $14,400,000 in profits, or more in one minute than what 96% of American households earn in one year. Each hour they also received over $270,000 in federal tax breaks, or $2.4 billion a year. Romney and the GOP want to double that, even though they already pay under 17% in taxes. ThinkProgress created a great chart tracking their money and pollutants over one day.
Wal-Mart: 50 Years of Gutting America’s Middle Class July 8, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: big-box, economy, labor, middle class, retail business, roger hollander, sam walton, stacy mitchell, walmart
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Walmart’s explosive growth has gutted two key pillars of the American middle class: small businesses and well-paid manufacturing jobs
Movie poster detail from the documentary, ‘Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price’.
Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in Rogers, Arkansas, 50 years ago this month. Sprawled along a major thoroughfare outside the city’s downtown, that inaugural store embodied many of the hallmarks that have since come to define the Walmart way of doing business. Walton scoured the country for the cheapest merchandise and deftly exploited a loophole in federal law to pay his mostly female workforce less than minimum wage.
That relentless focus on squeezing workers and suppliers for every advantage has paid off since July 1962. Walmart is now the second-largest corporation on the planet. It took in almost half-a-trillion dollars last year at more than 10,000 stores worldwide.
Walmart now captures one of every four dollars Americans spend on groceries. Its stores are so plentiful that it’s easy to imagine that the retailer has long since reached the upper limit of its growth potential. It hasn’t. Walmart has opened over 1,100 new supercenters since 2005 and expanded its U.S. sales by 35 percent. It aims to keep on growing that fast. With an eye to infiltrating urban areas, Walmart recently introduced smaller “neighborhood markets” and “express” stores.
Whatever we may have saved shopping at Walmart, we’ve more than paid for it in diminished opportunities and declining income.
While the big-box business model Sam Walton pioneered half a century ago has been great for Walmart, it hasn’t been so great for the U.S. economy.
Walmart’s explosive growth has gutted two key pillars of the American middle class: small businesses and well-paying manufacturing jobs.
Between 2001 and 2007, some 40,000 U.S. factories closed, eliminating millions of jobs. While Walmart’s ceaseless search for lower costs wasn’t the only factor that drove production overseas, it was a major one. During these six years, Walmart’s imports from China tripled in value from $9 billion to $27 billion.
Small, family-owned retail businesses likewise closed in droves as Walmart grew. Between 1992 and 2007, the number of independent retailers fell by over 60,000, according to the U.S. Census.
Their demise triggered a cascade of losses elsewhere. As communities lost their local retailers, there was less demand for services like accounting and graphic design, less advertising revenue for local media outlets, and fewer accounts for local banks. As Walmart moved into communities, the volume of money circulating from business to business declined. More dollars flowed into Walmart’s tills and out of the local economy.
In exchange for the many middle-income jobs Walmart eliminated, all we got in return were low-wage jobs for the workers who now toil in its stores. To get by, many Walmart employees have no choice but to rely on food stamps and other public assistance.
Walmart’s history is the story of what has gone wrong in the American economy. Wages have stagnated. The middle class has shrunk. The ranks of the working poor have swelled. Whatever we may have saved shopping at Walmart, we’ve more than paid for it in diminished opportunities and declining income.
And the worse things get, the more alluring Walmart’s siren call of low prices becomes. While the Ford Motor Co. once profited by creating a workforce that could afford to buy its cars, today Walmart profits by ensuring that Americans cannot afford to shop anywhere else. The average family of four now spends over $4,000 a year at Walmart.
Such market concentration is unprecedented in U.S. history, as is the concentration of wealth it has engendered. Sam Walton’s heirs own about half of Walmart’s stock and have a net worth equal to the combined assets of the bottom one-third of Americans — about 100 million people. This year alone, the Waltons will pocket $2.7 billion in dividends from their Walmart holdings.
They are among the few Americans who have reason to celebrate Walmart’s 50th birthday. As for the rest of us, the milestone offers a good moment to reflect on the company’s business model and where it might lead us if we allow Walmart’s growth to continue full-steam for another 50 years.
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which challenges the wisdom of economic consolidation and works to advance policies that build strong local economies. Stacy directs initiatives on community banking and independent retail. She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and produces a popular monthly bulletin called the Hometown Advantage.
Tags: barbara ehrenreich, Criminal Justice, debtors prison, poverty, poverty cycle, roger hollander, subprime, usury, wage theft
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By Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch | News Analysis
Thursday, 17 May 2012 10:09
Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But asBusiness Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.
The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.
Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.
It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.
The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.
Government Joins the Looters of the Poor
You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.
These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributesabout $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.
And while government generally turns a blind eye to the tens of billions of dollars in exorbitant interest that businesses charge the poor, it is notably chary with public benefits for the poor. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help.
At the local level though, government is increasingly opting to join in the looting. In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.
And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country — from California and Texas to Pennsylvania — counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours. In New York City, it’s now a crime to put your feet up on a subway seat, even if the rest of the car is empty, and a South Carolina woman spent six days in jail when she was unable to pay a $480 fine for the crime of having a “messy yard.” Some cities — most recently, Houston and Philadelphia — have made it a crime to share food with indigent people in public places.
Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense — having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light — at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail.
Local Governments as Predators
Each of these crimes, neo-crimes, and pseudo-crimes carries financial penalties as well as the threat of jail time, but the amount of money thus extracted from the poor is fiendishly hard to pin down. No central agency tracks law enforcement at the local level, and local records can be almost willfully sketchy.
According to one of the few recent nationwide estimates, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 10.5 million misdemeanors were committed in 2006. No one would risk estimating the average financial penalty for a misdemeanor, although the experts I interviewed all affirmed that the amount is typically in the “hundreds of dollars.” If we take an extremely lowball $200 per misdemeanor, and bear in mind that 80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent, then local governments are using law enforcement to extract, or attempt to extract, at least $2 billion a year from the poor.
And that is only a small fraction of what governments would like to collect from the poor. Katherine Beckett, a sociologist at the University of Washington, estimates that “deadbeat dads” (and moms) owe $105 billion in back child-support payments, about half of which is owed to state governments as reimbursement for prior welfare payments made to the children. Yes, parents have a moral obligation to their children, but the great majority of child-support debtors are indigent.
Attempts to collect from the already-poor can be vicious and often, one would think, self-defeating. Most states confiscate the drivers’ licenses of people owing child support, virtually guaranteeing that they will not be able to work. Michigan just started suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who owe money for parking tickets. Las Cruces, New Mexico, just passed a law that punishes people who owe overdue traffic fines by cutting off their water, gas, and sewage.
Once a person falls into the clutches of the criminal justice system, we encounter the kind of slapstick sadism familiar to viewers of Wipeout. Many courts impose fees without any determination of whether the offender is able to pay, and the privilege of having a payment plan will itself cost money.
In a study of 15 states, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found 14 of them contained jurisdictions that charge a lump-sum “poverty penalty” of up to $300 for those who cannot pay their fees and fines, plus late fees and “collection fees” for those who need to pay over time. If any jail time is imposed, that too may cost money, as the hapless Edwina Nowlin discovered, and the costs of parole and probation are increasingly being passed along to the offender.
The predatory activities of local governments give new meaning to that tired phrase “the cycle of poverty.” Poor people are more far more likely than the affluent to get into trouble with the law, either by failing to pay parking fines or by incurring the wrath of a private-sector creditor like a landlord or a hospital.
Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell. The further you descend, the faster you fall — until you eventually end up on the streets and get busted for an offense like urinating in public or sleeping on a sidewalk.
I could propose all kinds of policies to curb the ongoing predation on the poor. Limits on usury should be reinstated. Theft should be taken seriously even when it’s committed by millionaire employers. No one should be incarcerated for debt or squeezed for money they have no chance of getting their hands on. These are no-brainers, and should take precedence over any long term talk about generating jobs or strengthening the safety net. Before we can “do something” for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.
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Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
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