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The Unbearable Lightness of Reform March 27, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Economic Crisis, Health.
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(Roger’s note: observe that the authors of this piece, having in effect dismissed “reform” a a genuine solution, conclude in their final paragraph that the answer may be to “organize people.”  This would certainly make Joe Hill happy (don’t mourn, organize); but the question is: organize toward what?  I wonder if in my lifetime we will begin seeing more common use of the  other “R” word.)

Published on Saturday, March 27, 2010 by CommonDreams.org

by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

That wickedly satirical Ambrose Bierce described politics as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

Bierce vanished to Mexico nearly a hundred years ago — to the relief of the American political class of his day, one assumes — but in an eerie way he was forecasting America’s political culture today. It seems like most efforts to reform a system that’s gone awry — to clean house and make a fresh start — end up benefiting the very people who wrecked it in the first place.

Which is why Bierce, in his classic little book, The Devil’s Dictionary, defined reform as “a thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation.”

So we got health care reform this week — but it’s a far cry from reformation. You can’t blame President Obama for celebrating what he did get — he and the Democrats needed some political points on the scoreboard. And imagine the mood in the White House if the vote had gone the other way; they would have been cutting wrists instead of cake.

Give the victors their due: the bill Obama signed expands coverage to many more people, stops some very ugly and immoral practices by the health insurance industry that should have been stopped long ago, and offers a framework for more change down the road, if there’s any heart or will left to fight for it.

But reformation? Hardly. For all their screaming and gnashing of teeth, the insurance companies still make out like bandits. Millions of new customers, under penalty of law, will be required to buy the companies’ policies, feeding the insatiable greed of their CEO’s and filling the campaign coffers of the politicians they wine and dine. Profits are secure; they don’t have to worry about competition from a public alternative to their cartel, and they can continue to scam us without fear of antitrust action.

The big drug companies bought their protection before the fight even began, when the White House agreed that if they supported Obama’s brand of health care reform — not reformation — they could hold onto their monopoly. No imports of cheaper drugs from abroad, no prescriptions filled at a lower price by our friendly Canadian neighbors to the north.

And let’s not forget another, gigantic health care winner: a new report from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity says the battle for reform has been “a bonanza” for the lobbying industry. According to the Center’s analysis, “About 1,750 businesses and organizations hired about 4,525 lobbyists, total — eight for each member of Congress — and spent at least $1.2 billion to influence health care bills and other issues.”

But while we’re at it, a cheer for the federal student loan overhaul — Democrats managed to pass that reform with an end run around powerful lobbyists, cleverly nestling it in the health care reconciliation package.

Nonetheless, under pressure from the lending industry, it, too, was watered down from its original intent. The three Democratic senators who voted against — Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor — have all received campaign contributions from Nelnet, the student loan company based in Nelson’s home state of Nebraska, or its lobbyists.

(And would you be amazed to learn that one of the student loan industry’s lobbyists used to be Blanche Lincoln’s chief of staff? The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call described Kelly Bingel as Lincoln’s “alter ego,” and cited a former colleague saying Bingel was “first on the list of the Senator’s callbacks,” words that would sound like heaven to any Washington lobbyist’s ears.)

Another case of reform gone off track: this week, a year and a half after Wall Street brought us so close to fiscal hell we could smell the brimstone, a crippled little financial regulation bill seems to be hobbling out of the wreckage, but still faces an array of well-armed forces gunning for it.

No wonder. In the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, members of the Senate Banking Committee — which sent the bill to Congress this week — received more than $39 million from Wall Street and the banks; members of the House Financial Services Committee raked in more than $21 million — so far. Just how serious do you think they’re going to be about true reform?

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd of Connecticut has sounded like a champion of reform ever since he announced he will not run for reelection. It’s about time. Since 2005, his top ten campaign contributors have included Citigroup, AIG, Merrill Lynch and the now deceased Bear Stearns, all front-line players in bringing on the financial calamity.

Then there are the Republicans, shamelessly hawking their favors en masse to the highest bidder. The website Politico.com reports that the reelection campaign of Tennessee Senator Bob Corker — who’s one of the key negotiators on financial reform — sent an e-mail to Wall Street lobbyists and others soliciting contributions of up to $10,000 for a chance to meet or grab a meal with the senator.

Informed of the e-mail, Corker was shocked — shocked! — saying the e-mail was “grotesque and inappropriate.” But did House Republican leader John Boehner think it was inappropriate last week when he advised the American Bankers Association to fight back against the proposed rules and regulations?

This is, of course, the same John Boehner who in the summer of 1995 walked around the floor of the House of Representatives handing out checks to his fellow Republicans — checks from a tobacco company. And the same John Boehner who was the grateful recipient of campaign contributions from the four Native American tribes represented by Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist currently cooling his heels in a Federal corrections facility.

So wouldn’t it have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall earlier this year when Boehner sat down for drinks with Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase? Reportedly, he invited Dimon and the rest of the financial community to pony up the cash and see what good things follow.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Republicans already were receiving an increasing share of campaign contributions from the Street. In the game of reform, it’s the political version of loading the dice.

We can’t know for sure what Ambrose Bierce would have made of all this; what The Devil’s Dictionary author would say about the current DC scams. But he might have agreed that the only answer to organized money is organized people. That would be one hell of a reformation.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at http://www.pbs.org/moyers.

Who Are You and What Have You Done With the Community Organizer We Elected President? November 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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Published on Wednesday, November 18, 2009 by TruthDig.comby Robert Scheer

What’s up with Barack Obama? The candidate for change once promised to take on the powerful banking interests but is now doing their bidding. Finally, a leading Democrat, in this case Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, has a good idea for monitoring the Wall Street fat cats who all but destroyed the American economy, and the Obama administration condemns it.

Dodd wants to take supervisory power from the Federal Reserve, which is controlled by the banks it pretends to monitor, and put it in the hands of a new independent agency. That makes sense given the Fed’s abject failure to properly monitor the financial sector over the past decade as that industry got drunk on greed. As Dodd’s spokeswoman Kirstin Brost put it: “The Federal Reserve flat out failed at supervising the largest, most complex firms.” But White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee frets that taking power from the Fed would cause financial industry “nervousness.” Isn’t that the whole point of government regulation-to make the bandits look over their shoulders before they launch their next destructive scam?

Not so in the view of Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, who blithely insists that the Fed “is the best agency equipped for the task of supervising the largest, most complex firms,” despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. There is some irony in the fact that the largest of those complex firms got to be “too big to fail” because of the radical deregulatory legislation that Wolin drafted during his previous incarnation as the Treasury Department’s general counsel in the Clinton administration. Wolin is now deputy to Timothy Geithner, who as head of the New York Fed in the five years preceding the banking meltdown looked the other way as the disaster began to unfold.

Why is Barack Obama allowing these retreads from the Clinton era who went on to great riches on Wall Street to set economic policy for his administration? The fatal hallmark of this president’s financial policy is that it is being designed by the very people whose previous legislative efforts created the mess that enriched them while impoverishing the nation, and they now want more of the same.

In the Clinton years, Wolin was general counsel to then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the key architect of the radical deregulation that caused the recent banking collapse. Summers went off to work for hedge funds and banks that paid him $15 million in 2008 while he was advising Obama. Meanwhile, Wolin became general counsel for Hartford Insurance Corp., which had to be bailed out by the taxpayers because it took advantage of the radical deregulation that he helped write into law.

Wolin, Geithner and Summers were all protégés of Robert Rubin, who, as Clinton’s treasury secretary, was the grand author of the strategy of freeing Wall Street firms from their Depression-era constraints. It was Wolin who, at Rubin’s behest, became a key force in drafting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which ended the barrier between investment and commercial banks and insurance companies, thus permitting the new financial behemoths to become too big to fail. Two stunning examples of such giants that had to be rescued with public funds are Citigroup bank, where Rubin went to “earn” $120 million after leaving the Clinton White House, and the Hartford Insurance Co., where Wolin landed after he left Treasury.

Both Citigroup and Hartford would not have gotten into trouble were it not for the enabling legislation that the three Clinton officials pushed through while they were in power. But even with that law, had Geithner been on the case protecting the public interest while head of the New York Fed much of the damage could have been avoided.

Thanks to the legislation that Wolin helped write, the limits preventing mergers between insurance companies and banks imposed during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was reversed. Hartford got into banking, and as The Washington Times observed in a scathing editorial, “Hartford … rushed to buy regulated savings and loans just so they could call themselves banks and qualify for government TARP funds.” Wolin collected his millions while the taxpayers were obliged to cover Hartford’s losses.

It is depressing for a columnist who had great hopes for Obama to be forced by the facts to credit editors at the right-wing Washington Times for getting it right when they opined: “Revolving doors between industry and the administration and fat-cat political contributors getting bailed out at taxpayer expense sound like business as usual. This certainly isn’t change we can believe in.” Please, Mr. President, say it ain’t so.

© 2009 TruthDig.com

Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Subprime Prosecution Stops Foreclosures But Lets Goldman Sachs Off Hook May 12, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Economic Crisis, Housing/Homelessness.
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(Roger’s note: read this then tell me why the Bailout funds could not be used to help homeowners pay subprime mortgages so that the Attorney General could pursue criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for the sake of justice and future deterrence; instead of letting Goldman Sachs get away with breaking the law with impunity and buy their way out with the taxpayers dollars.  I am guessing that the Massachusetts AG is taking her cue from Barack Obama and his AG, Eric Holder, who would rather “reconcile” and “look forward” rather than comply with their oaths of office to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution.)

Ryan Grim, www.huffingtonpost.com, May 12, 2009

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley won a victory against the Goldman Sachs Group Monday, forcing the financial firm to cut a $10 million check to the state and pony up $50 million to help around 700 homeowners pay subprime mortgages.

“Goldman Sachs is pleased to have resolved this matter,” says Michael DuVally, a Goldman spokesman, declining to comment further.

They were also pleased, no doubt, by the terms in the settlement that allowed Goldman to avoid admitting any wrongdoing. Letting Goldman off excuses what could have been criminal behavior, but it also brings relief to hundreds of homeowners and offers a roadmap to some sort of law-enforcement-driven solution where lawmakers have come up short.

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said he wouldn’t “second guess” Coakley’s decision to settle short of criminal convictions. “I don’t know what other avenues she had available, but I will say this: Getting significant relief for 700 people is very important, both for them and for the economy. Now, that’s a legitimate consideration in getting it done more quickly than waiting for a couple years to go through the criminal procedure,” he tells the Huffington Post.

Rep. Bill Delahunt was a Massachusetts District Attorney for 23 years. He said balancing immediate justice for victims with bringing the white-collar criminals to justice can be difficult.

“You almost have to judge those on an ad hoc basis. There’s no formula,” he says in general, adding that he didn’t know enough about Coakley’s investigation to comment on her specific course of action.

“Clearly, there’s a preference to pursue them criminally because I think that creates deterrence,” he says. “You know, it’s difficult to deter a kid who’s going to rob a 7-11 store for 25 bucks but for people who are purportedly educated, or at least sophisticated, who defraud others, they’re more susceptible to being deterred.”

But the most sophisticated they are, the more they can drag out a prosecution. By the time they’re found guilty, half the victims may be out on the street, their homes foreclosed.

“It’s not always a perfect world and you can’t always secure the perfect justice,” says Delahunt. “It would appear that our attorney general did some good work that resulted in a very significant sum of money for redress by their behavior.”

Frank agrees. “I can’t tell exactly what the considerations were, but I’m inclined to think the value of getting immediate relief for 700 people and saving their homes, yeah, I’d trade off a little for that,” he says.

Goldman Sachs was not accused of originating the subprime loans in question, but rather investigated for facilitating the process by buying them and bundling them into securities without regard to whether the borrowers would be able to pay them back — or whether the borrowers or originators had followed reasonable lending practices or filed the appropriate paperwork.

“We will continue to investigate the deceptive marketing of unfair loans and the companies that facilitated the sale of those loans to consumers in the Commonwealth,” Coakley said in a statement. (Coakley’s press office did not return a call.)

The state attorney general’s office has previously pulled in more than $75 million from settlements with UBS, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, and Merrill Lynch, all related to the financial crisis.

But the U.S. attorney general would have a hard time making a similar case nationally. Coakely relied on stricter rules on subprime lenders who make “unfair” loans under state law.

Congressional Democrats hope to give the federal government the power some states now have. Last week, the House passed anti-predatory lending legislation that Coakley helped Frank’s committee draft.

“What we do in our bill is to go beyond any set of state laws,” says Frank, citing a requirement that five percent of the loan portfolio be kept by the company that originates the loan. Having that amount of skin in the game, he hopes, will persuade a lender to take a loan seriously.

The bill is now, like much else, stalled in the Senate.

Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) says that subprime lending reform is a lesser priority because the credit freeze has inadvertently dried up the business.

“That’s true right now but we cannot count on that being true forever,” says Frank. “You couldn’t count on getting a non-predatory loan a little while ago and it is true that the freeze has helped some. That’s true in some other areas as well. There aren’t a lot of credit default swaps being written.”

But, says Frank, the financial industry won’t have forgotten how to write a bad loan once the market thaws.

“It is important to get laws on the books, because this de facto moratorium isn’t going to last forever,” he says.

Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America

Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Wall Street’s Ownership of Government April 5, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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by Glenn Greenwald

White House officials yesterday released their personal financial disclosure forms, and included in the millions of dollars which top Obama economics adviser Larry Summers made from Wall Street in 2008 is this detail:

Lawrence H. Summers, one of President Obama’s top economic advisers, collected roughly $5.2 million in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw over the past year and was paid more than $2.7 million in speaking fees by several troubled Wall Street firms and other organizations. . . .

Financial institutions including JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch paid Summers for speaking appearances in 2008. Fees ranged from $45,000 for a Nov. 12 Merrill Lynch appearance to $135,000 for an April 16 visit to Goldman Sachs, according to his disclosure form.

That’s $135,000 paid by Goldman Sachs to Summers — for a one-day visit.  And the payment was made at a time — in April, 2008 — when everyone assumed that the next President would either be Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and that Larry Summers would therefore become exactly what he now is:  the most influential financial official in the U.S. Government (and the $45,000 Merrill Lynch payment came 8 days after Obama’s election). Goldman would not be able to make a one-day $135,000 payment to Summers now that he is Obama’s top economics adviser, but doing so a few months beforehand was obviously something about which neither parties felt any compunction.  It’s basically an advanced bribe.  And it’s paying off in spades.  And none of it seemed to bother Obama in the slightest when he first strongly considered naming Summers as Treasury Secretary and then named him his top economics adviser instead (thereby avoiding the need for Senate confirmation), knowing that Summers would exert great influence in determining who benefited from the government’s response to the financial crisis.

Last night, former Reagan-era S&L regulator and current University of Missouri Professor Bill Black was on Bill Moyers’ Journal and detailed the magnitude of what he called the on-going massive fraud, the role Tim Geithner played in it before being promoted to Treasury Secretary (where he continues to abet it), and — most amazingly of all — the crusade led by Alan Greenspan, former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin (Geithner’s mentor) and Larry Summers in the late 1990s to block the efforts of top regulators (especially Brooksley Born, head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission) to regulate the exact financial derivatives market that became the principal cause of the global financial crisis.  To get a sense for how deep and massive is the on-going fraud and the key role played in it by key Obama officials, I highly recommend watching that Black interview (it can be seen here and the transcript is here).

This article from Stanford Magazine — an absolutely amazing read — details how Summers, Rubin and Greenspan led the way in blocking any regulatory efforts of the derivatives market whatsoever on the ground that the financial industry and its lobbyists were objecting:

As chairperson of the CFTC, Born advocated reining in the huge and growing market for financial derivatives. . . . One type of derivative—known as a credit-default swap—has been a key contributor to the economy’s recent unraveling. . .

Back in the 1990s, however, Born’s proposal stirred an almost visceral response from other regulators in the Clinton administration, as well as members of Congress and lobbyists. . . . But even the modest proposal got a vituperative response. The dozen or so large banks that wrote most of the OTC derivative contracts saw the move as a threat to a major profit center. Greenspan and his deregulation-minded brain trust saw no need to upset the status quo. The sheer act of contemplating regulation, they maintained, would cause widespread chaos in markets around the world.

Born recalls taking a phone call from Lawrence Summers, then Rubin’s top deputy at the Treasury Department, complaining about the proposal, and mentioning that he was taking heat from industry lobbyists. . . . The debate came to a head April 21, 1998. In a Treasury Department meeting of a presidential working group that included Born and the other top regulators, Greenspan and Rubin took turns attempting to change her mind. Rubin took the lead, she recalls.

“I was told by the secretary of the treasury that the CFTC had no jurisdiction, and for that reason and that reason alone, we should not go forward,” Born says. . . . “It seemed totally inexplicable to me,” Born says of the seeming disinterest her counterparts showed in how the markets were operating. “It was as though the other financial regulators were saying, ‘We don’t want to know.’”

She formally launched the proposal on May 7, and within hours, Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt issued a joint statement condemning Born and the CFTC, expressing “grave concern about this action and its possible consequences.” They announced a plan to ask for legislation to stop the CFTC in its tracks.

Rubin, Summers and Greenspan succeeded in inducing Congress — funded, of course, by these same financial firms — to enact legislation blocking the CFTC from regulating these derivative markets.  More amazingly still, the CFTC, headed back then by Born, is now headed by Obama appointee Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive (naturally) who was as instrumental as anyone in blocking any regulations of those derivative markets (and then enriched himself by feeding on those unregulated markets).

Just think about how this works.  People like Rubin, Summers and Gensler shuffle back and forth from the public to the private sector and back again, repeatedly switching places with their GOP counterparts in this endless public/private sector looting.  When in government, they ensure that the laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall St. firms, literally abolishing all safeguards and allowing them to pillage and steal.  Then, when out of government, they return to those very firms and collect millions upon millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented when in government.  Then, when their party returns to power, they return back to government, where they continue to use their influence to ensure that the oligarchical circle that rewards them so massively is protected and advanced.  This corruption is so tawdry and transparent — and it has fueled and continues to fuel a fraud so enormous and destructive as to be unprecedented in both size and audacity — that it is mystifying that it is not provoking more mass public rage.

All of that leads to things like this, from today’s Washington Post:

The Obama administration is engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay, according to government officials. . . .

The administration believes it can sidestep the rules because, in many cases, it has decided not to provide federal aid directly to financial companies, the sources said. Instead, the government has set up special entities that act as middlemen, channeling the bailout funds to the firms and, via this two-step process, stripping away the requirement that the restrictions be imposed, according to officials. . . .

In one program, designed to restart small-business lending, President Obama’s officials are planning to set up a middleman called a special-purpose vehicle — a term made notorious during the Enron scandal — or another type of entity to evade the congressional mandates, sources familiar with the matter said.

If that isn’t illegal, it is as close to it as one can get.  And it is a blatant attempt by the White House to brush aside — circumvent and violate — the spirit if not the letter of Congressional restrictions on executive pay for TARP-receiving firms.  It was Obama, in the wake of various scandals over profligate spending by TARP firms, who pretended to ride the wave of populist anger and to lead the way in demanding limits on compensation.  And ever since his flamboyant announcement, Obama — adopting the same approach that seems to drive him in most other areas — has taken one step after the next to gut and render irrelevant the very compensation limits he publicly pretended to champion (thereafter dishonestly blaming Chris Dodd for doing so and virtually destroying Dodd’s political career).   And the winners — as always — are the same Wall St. firms that caused the crisis in the first place while enriching and otherwise co-opting the very individuals Obama chose to be his top financial officials.

Worse still, what is happening here is an exact analog to what is happening in the realm of Bush war crimes — the Obama administration’s first priority is to protect the wrongdoers and criminals by ensuring that the criminality remains secret.  Here is how Black explained it last night:

Black:  Geithner is charging, is covering up. Just like Paulson did before him. Geithner is publicly saying that it’s going to take $2 trillion — a trillion is a thousand billion — $2 trillion taxpayer dollars to deal with this problem. But they’re allowing all the banks to report that they’re not only solvent, but fully capitalized. Both statements can’t be true. It can’t be that they need $2 trillion, because they have masses losses, and that they’re fine.

These are all people who have failed. Paulson failed, Geithner failed. They were all promoted because they failed, not because…

Moyers:  What do you mean?

Black: Well, Geithner has, was one of our nation’s top regulators, during the entire subprime scandal, that I just described. He took absolutely no effective action. He gave no warning. He did nothing in response to the FBI warning that there was an epidemic of fraud. All this pig in the poke stuff happened under him. So, in his phrase about legacy assets. Well he’s a failed legacy regulator. . . .

The Great Depression, we said, “Hey, we have to learn the facts. What caused this disaster, so that we can take steps, like pass the Glass-Steagall law, that will prevent future disasters?” Where’s our investigation?

What would happen if after a plane crashes, we said, “Oh, we don’t want to look in the past. We want to be forward looking. Many people might have been, you know, we don’t want to pass blame. No. We have a nonpartisan, skilled inquiry. We spend lots of money on, get really bright people. And we find out, to the best of our ability, what caused every single major plane crash in America. And because of that, aviation has an extraordinarily good safety record. We ought to follow the same policies in the financial sphere. We have to find out what caused the disasters, or we will keep reliving them. . . .

Moyers: Yeah. Are you saying that Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong?

Black: Absolutely.

Moyers: You are.

Black: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. . . . What we’re doing with — no, Treasury and both administrations. The Bush administration and now the Obama administration kept secret from us what was being done with AIG. AIG was being used secretly to bail out favored banks like UBS and like Goldman Sachs. Secretary Paulson’s firm, that he had come from being CEO. It got the largest amount of money. $12.9 billion. And they didn’t want us to know that. And it was only Congressional pressure, and not Congressional pressure, by the way, on Geithner, but Congressional pressure on AIG.

Where Congress said, “We will not give you a single penny more unless we know who received the money.” And, you know, when he was Treasury Secretary, Paulson created a recommendation group to tell Treasury what they ought to do with AIG. And he put Goldman Sachs on it.

Moyers: Even though Goldman Sachs had a big vested stake.

Black: Massive stake. And even though he had just been CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming Treasury Secretary. Now, in most stages in American history, that would be a scandal of such proportions that he wouldn’t be allowed in civilized society.

This is exactly what former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson warned about in his vital Atlantic article:  “that the finance industry has effectively captured our government — a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises.”   This is the key passage where Johnson described the hallmark of how corrupt oligarchies that cause financial crises then attempt to deal with the fallout:

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique — the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large. . . .

As much as he campaigned against anything, Obama railed against precisely this sort of incestuous, profoundly corrupt control by narrow private interests of the Government, yet he has chosen to empower the very individuals who most embody that corruption.  And the results are exactly what one would expect them to be.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy.

Resistance to Housing Foreclosures Spread Across the Land January 24, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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www.truthout.org

23 January 2009

by: Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

 

  Community-based movements to halt the flood of foreclosures have been building across the country. And they’re not the usual suspects.

    “This is a crowd that won’t scatter,” James Steele wrote in the pages of The Nation some seventy-five years ago. Early one morning in July 1933, the police had evicted John Sparanga and his family from a home on Cleveland’s east side. Sparanga had lost his job and fallen behind on mortgage payments. The bank had foreclosed. A grassroots “home defense” organization, which had managed to forestall the eviction on three occasions, put out the call, and 10,000 people — mainly working-class immigrants from Southern and Central Europe — soon gathered, withstanding wave after wave of police tear gas, clubbings and bullets, “vowing not to leave until John Sparanga [was] back in his home.”

    “The small home-owners of the United States are organizing,” Steele concluded, “tardily perhaps, but none the less surely.” It wasn’t just homeowners — three months earlier the governor of Iowa had called out the National Guard after farmers stormed a courthouse and threatened to hang the judge if he didn’t stop issuing foreclosures. They left him in a ditch, bruised but alive. By the end of the 1930s, farmers’ and home-owners’ struggles had pushed the legislatures of no fewer than twenty-seven states to pass moratoriums on foreclosures.

    The crowds appear to be gathering again — far more quietly this time but hardly tentatively. Community-based movements to halt the flood of foreclosures have been building across the country. They turned out in Cleveland once again in October, when a coalition of grassroots housing groups rallied outside the Cuyahoga County courthouse, calling for a foreclosure freeze and constructing a mock graveyard of Styrofoam headstones bearing the names of local communities decimated by the housing crisis. (They did not, unfortunately, stop the more than 1,000 foreclosure filings in the county the following month.) In Boston the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America began protesting in front of Countrywide Financial offices in October 2007. Within weeks, Countrywide had agreed to work with the group to renegotiate loans. In Philadelphia ACORN and other community organizations helped to pressure the city council to order the county sheriff to halt foreclosure auctions this past March. Philadelphia has since implemented a program mandating “conciliation conferences” between defaulting homeowners and lenders. ACORN organizers say the program has a 78 percent success rate at keeping people in their homes. One activist group in Miami has taken a more direct approach to the crisis, housing homeless families in abandoned bank-owned homes without waiting for government permission.

    It’s unlikely, though, that any of these activists will be able to relax soon. Other than calling for a ninety-day freeze on foreclosures — which, given that loan negotiations can take many months to work out, would almost certainly be inadequate — President Obama has been consistently vague about his plans to address the foreclosure crisis. He has indicated his support for a $24 billion program proposed in November by FDIC chair Sheila Bair, which would offer banks incentives to renegotiate loans, aiming to reduce mortgage payments to 31 percent of homeowners’ monthly income. Obama’s economic team has since worked with House Financial Services Committee chair Barney Frank on a bill that would require that between $40 billion and $100 billion of what’s left in the bailout package be spent on an unspecified foreclosure mitigation program. It would be left to Obama’s Treasury Department to design that program. But Frank’s and Bair’s proposed plans are voluntary. Banks that choose not to accept federal assistance won’t have to renegotiate a single loan.

    Community organizers, however, aren’t sitting around waiting for banks to come to the table. Nowhere have they had more cause to keep busy than in California, home to a quarter of the 3.2 million foreclosures filed in the country last year. The collapse of the state’s hyperinflated real estate market has left as many as 27 percent of mortgage holders owing more on their homes than the properties are worth; California’s foreclosure rate is more than twice the national average. From San Diego to Stockton, in churches, union halls and community centers, angry homeowners have been organizing to freeze foreclosures and impose a systematic modification of home loans.

    The crisis has produced some unlikely activists. Faith Bautista didn’t start out as a rabble-rouser. A small, energetic and stubbornly cheerful woman, she has run a tiny nonprofit called the Mabuhay Alliance since 2004. Until recently, it functioned as an all-purpose minority small-business association. With a staff of six working out of a mini-mall office behind an auto parts store in an industrial section of San Diego, the Mabuhay Alliance served a largely Filipino community (mabuhay translates roughly from Tagalog as viva!) offering, among other services, free income-tax preparation, microloans and counseling for first-time homeowners.

    It was through the latter program that Bautista heard the first rumblings of the mortgage meltdown, which would ultimately bring down Wall Street’s most powerful financial firms. Southern California’s development boom hadn’t yet begun to ebb in late 2006, but, Bautista says, “people were already calling us and asking what was going to happen. They were clearly going to default.”

    The community Mabuhay serves — about 40 percent Filipino, the remainder Latino, African-American and other Asians — was hit particularly hard. Throughout the housing boom, immigrant and minority borrowers were disproportionately issued high-priced subprime loans, even when they qualified for less expensive, fixed-rate mortgages. One study by the California Reinvestment Coalition found that African-American and Latino borrowers were nearly four times as likely as whites to receive high-cost mortgages. Bautista had an adjustable-rate mortgage on the home she bought in 2004. Her monthly payments soon leapt to $6,000. It took her nine months, she says, and a personal meeting with the CEO of the bank that held her mortgage, to renegotiate the loan. It quickly became obvious to her that fighting the banks on an individual basis would be inadequate to the scale of the crisis — only an organized battle for systematic changes would help keep people in their homes.

    In the early months of 2007, as the first of the subprime lenders began to declare bankruptcy, Bautista started contacting major lenders, asking them to stop foreclosures and take part in a “massive loan-modification program” — dropping interest rates, writing down principals and donating executive bonuses to a fund for borrowers at risk of default. If lenders shared responsibility for the crisis, she calculated, homeowners shouldn’t bear the full brunt of the suffering. Not surprisingly, she laughs, “they didn’t want to talk to us.”

    That summer, with the help of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based research and advocacy group that works on racial equality issues, she was able to arrange a meeting with Countrywide co-founder and CEO Angelo Mozilo. At the time, almost one-fourth of Countrywide’s subprime loans were delinquent. The meeting, Bautista says, was fruitless: “Eyes are closed, ears are closed.” Over the next few months, she met three more times with Countrywide management, getting nowhere. “They didn’t want to admit they were doing anything wrong.”

    Elected officials appeared equally blind to the extent of the problem. Countrywide’s stock had plummeted, but the influence of the nation’s largest mortgage lender still ran deep. Mozilo’s so-called Friends of Angelo program had cut favorable deals on loans to his highly placed acquaintances, including Christopher Dodd and Kent Conrad, chairs of the Senate banking and budget committees, respectively. And Countrywide, along with other top mortgage lenders and industry associations, spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and gave millions more in campaign contributions. By mid-October 2007, the government’s only response to the foreclosure crisis had been the creation of the Hope Now alliance, a voluntary mortgage-industry coalition that established a telephone hot line to aid homeowners in altering the terms of their mortgages. But, critics say, the program has done little more than design repayment plans that in many cases actually increased borrowers’ monthly payments. “I call it Hope Not,” quips Bautista.

    At the state level, things weren’t much better. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brokered a nonbinding agreement in which Countrywide and other lenders volunteered to extend the introductory low interest rates on some adjustable-rate mortgages. It only deferred disaster and did nothing for those who were already in default. Meanwhile, new foreclosure records were being broken every month.

    The day before Thanksgiving, the Mabuhay Alliance, joined by the Mexican-American Political Alliance, staged a protest in front of Countrywide’s San Diego office. They attempted to hand-deliver a turkey to Mozilo, who, not counting stock options, would be paid $22 million in 2007, down from $42 million in 2006. Once again, the doors were locked. Only about fifty people showed up that day, but the protest got enough press to have a powerful symbolic effect. “No one was willing to take on Mozilo in California,” says Greenlining’s Robert Gnaizda. “He held enormous power. And [Bautista] took him on. She forced the financial industry to pay attention.”

    The next week, Bautista and Gnaizda went to Washington and met with Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and FDIC chair Sheila Bair, asking for a freeze on foreclosures and wholesale relief for mortgage holders. Bair was receptive, Bautista says. Bernanke was not. Eight months later, when the FDIC took over IndyMac, Bair immediately suspended foreclosures. “Now they’re willing to do it,” Bautista shrugs. If they’d acted earlier, she says, “all those people who were foreclosed wouldn’t have been foreclosed.”

    In December, a few weeks after the Countrywide protest, she and Gnaizda wangled a meeting with California Attorney General Jerry Brown, asking him to sue Countrywide for defrauding borrowers. He wasn’t interested, Bautista says. The following June, a few days before Bank of America bought out the crippled lender, Brown finally filed suit against Mozilo and Countrywide. Gnaizda explains the delay: “Countrywide was not weak in December.”

    In the meantime, all the major loan providers in the country have agreed to work with Mabuhay to modify individual loans. This means, Bautista says, that Mabuhay can help about twenty people a week. She is far from satisfied. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars given to the financial industry, no federal or state government has provided any substantive relief to the people hit the hardest by the mortgage crisis — the ones who are losing their homes. “You gotta start from the bottom and go up,” Bautista says. “If you start at the top, then at the bottom you get crumbs. You get nothing.”

    In December Mabuhay sponsored a “foreclosure clinic” at a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Vallejo, which despite its small size — its population is about 112,000 — boasted the tenth-highest foreclosure rate in the country at the time. About 150 anxious homeowners showed up, clutching thick folders of financial documents, waiting to speak with mortgage counselors. Their stories were painfully similar: one couple was struggling to pay an interest rate of 16 percent; another was unable to make $4,300 monthly payments and owed $630,000 on a home worth $370,000; another, in their mid-60s, had resigned themselves to losing the home in which they’d lived for twenty-three years and spending their retirement in a motor home.

    Standing beside Bautista at the front of the auditorium, Gnaizda did his best to channel the crowd’s frustration into action. “Ten million families are facing foreclosure right now,” he said. “Change is not going to come about because President Obama wants it to. He is not going to act unless you hold his feet to the fire.”

    Gnaizda was not alone in that conclusion: other grassroots efforts to stop foreclosures have been sprouting up all over California. In metropolitan Los Angeles and Oakland, groups like ACORN had already established an effective infrastructure to organize low-income homeowners. A list of community demands that came out of a December 2007 ACORN-sponsored meeting at an Oakland senior center became the basis for a July state law requiring banks to warn homeowners thirty days before filing a notice of default. The law is credited with dramatically lowering foreclosure rates in California for two months after it took effect. (Predictably, foreclosure rates resumed their northward climb after that.)

    More recently, ACORN has been pushing the adoption of the program the group helped pioneer in Philadelphia, a mandatory mediation process that forces lenders to negotiate with homeowners before filing a judgment of default. “If they can’t figure this out in Sacramento,” says ACORN’s Austin King, “they’re not trying.”

    Much of the local organizing on the issue, though, has not come from the usual activist suspects. Circumstances have forced groups that usually practice more staid forms of engagement into the fray, particularly in the former industrial towns just beyond the urban fringe, which have been among those hit hardest by the economic collapse. The antiforeclosure movement in Antioch, about thirty-five miles east of Vallejo, began with ten people forming an organizing committee at a local Catholic church. “We just heard dozens and dozens of stories of people struggling to keep their homes, of people losing their homes. They couldn’t get any of the banks to respond or even speak to them,” says Adam Kruggel, executive director of Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO). Two hundred and fifty people showed up at the group’s first meeting on the issue. “We sort of deputized ourselves,” Kruggel says. “The government wasn’t regulating the banks, so we were going to embarrass them in public.”

    The strategy worked. CCISCO protested in front of several Antioch bank branches in May. Lenders soon began returning the group’s phone calls and agreeing to renegotiate their members’ loans. But the Bush administration’s bailout plan generated enough anger that, Kruggel says, “we realized we needed to work on a local and national level. For less than what [the Treasury] gave Wells Fargo, they could create a loan-modification program that could save a million and a half families their homes.” CCISCO began coordinating with similar efforts one county over in Stockton and halfway across the country in Kansas City, and the group sent a lobbying delegation to Washington. It’s asking for a six-month freeze on foreclosures and a cap on mortgage payments at 34 percent of family income. “Any bank that got any bailout money needs to do systematic loan modifications,” Kruggel says. “We’re not going to wait for the Obama administration.”

    Craig Robbins, who directs ACORN’s foreclosure campaign, echoes Kruggel’s sentiment: “We’re excited about some of the things Obama has been saying, but there’s got to be tremendous pressure for a real, comprehensive federal solution.” Taking cues from Depression-era antiforeclosure movements, ACORN activists began disrupting foreclosure sales at courthouses across the country in Januaary. “We’re looking to throw a wrench in the foreclosure machinery,” says Robbins, adding that ACORN is planning to organize “rapid defense teams” ready to turn out crowds on short notice to prevent evictions. Until that happens, it might help to remember that the crowd of thousands that came to the Sparanga family’s defense in Cleveland didn’t gather until four years into the Depression. This one has just begun.

    ———

    Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles, is the author of The Suitors.

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