Weekly Audit: We Need a 'People's Bailout'

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

The economic free-fall is finally slowing down, although nobody expects the recovery to be very pleasant. Job losses and foreclosures are expected to increase well into next year. But even if our economic system gets back to normal, it's important to remember that gross inequalities are embedded in the global order. At home, minorities face significant barriers to economic security, while abroad, children in poor countries are denied access to basic nutrition. This is especially disheartening in the wake of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, which demonstrated that the world's economic leaders are more focused on bailing out banks than eradicating global poverty.

Robert Reich sums up the domestic economic scenario succinctly for Salon. The stock market is humming along, even as most Americans are tightening their belts. It's a counterintuitive situation: Wall Street is celebrating an economic recovery, but the consumers that drive our economy are still cutting back. Reich explains that the government has stepped in to fill the hole caused by consumer spending. Business executives may scream "Socialism!" when the tax man comes around, but without massive government help, those same CEOs would be watching their earnings and companies collapse.

Without the jobs and tax cuts created by President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package, we'd see more red ink from just about every industry. The entire U.S. mortgage market is currently supported by the federal government via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while other special initiatives like the Cash for Clunkers program brought the auto industry out of its recession-induced coma this summer.

The trouble is, while a few programs have been good for ordinary citizens, most of the government's economic salvage operations are aimed at giant corporations. Of all the paradoxes in today's economy, the most significant can be found in the financial sector. Bank stocks are up, even though banks are in serious trouble. Their customers are broke, foreclosures are soaring, and analysts are predicting a fresh round of multi-billion-dollar losses on commercial real estate loans soon. So what makes an investor want to buy a bank stock right now? Nothing but the government's limitless willingness to bail out banks.

How much bailout money did the government actually spend? We've all heard about the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), but the real haul for bankers is much, much bigger, as Nomi Prins and Christopher Hayes detail in a piece for The Nation. A whopping $17.5 trillion has been dedicated to subsidies, guarantees, below-market-rate loans, and other special perks for the financial industry. That's roughly one-fourth of the entire global economic output for a full year, and more than the entire annual productivity of the U.S.

Prins and Hayes make use of a clever thought experiment: What if, instead of spending the money on big institutions, the money had gone to a small-time gambler? It's an apt comparison. Taxpayer money went to financial speculators who used our homes and neighborhoods as poker chips in a global casino. The dozen or so bailouts the government has enacted seem absurd when we think of them as cheap financing for bets on the craps table. The number of programs is staggering. Bank executives love to proclaim that their banks didn't really need TARP money, they just accepted it because the government wanted them to. Next time you hear that boast (sometimes it sounds more like a whine), remember that every big bank in the country issued debt guaranteed by the government, then scored ridiculously cheap loans from the Federal Reserve while others got federal help through AIG, Fannie and Freddie.

"A fraction of the $17.5 trillion bailout could have been used to cut the principal of homeowners' mortgages (using homes, even devalued ones, as collateral) and cover student loans at zero percent interest," Prins and Hayes write. "Rather than pouring it into the top layers--the banks--a people's bailout would have cost less and been more humane. And it likely would have prevented the ongoing increase in defaults, foreclosures and general economic anxiety."

There are very good reasons to maintain a healthy financial sector, but only if banks actually do something useful. Banks are supposed to lend money to enable socially productive economic activity. This bailout money has not been spent on anything socially productive. Instead, it's covered losses from predatory lending and boneheaded speculation.

The dominant cause of the recession was the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble, which banks helped inflate with all outrageous loans. For decades, the value of a family's house was the foundation of most American middle-class wealth. When home prices took a nosedive, so did the spending power of every homeowner. Even borrowers who had affordable mortgage payments were hit hard. For borrowers stuck with expensive, predatory mortgages, the result was a wave of foreclosures. Writing for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll highlights a hard reality: Recovery in the housing market will not lead to middle-class financial security. It will be at least a decade before home prices reach pre-crash levels.

It's critical to remember how the recession is deepening existing inequalities, particularly along racial lines. In a post for In These Times, Michelle Chen explains how African Americans and Latinos are consistently paid less than whites during boom times, and are pushed even further down the ladder when things go bust. Communities of color are more likely to be targeted by predatory lending, which can devastate entire neighborhoods for generations. That means people of color are more likely to be foreclosed on, more likely to be laid off, and less likely to have access to basic necessities like health insurance.

The statistics are stark. In a story for New America Media, Christina Fernandez-Pereda, notes that while the overall unemployment stands at 9.7%, for minorities, the actual number is much higher. A full 15.1% of Blacks are unemployed, while unemployment among Asian Americans has doubled since early 2007. A full third of Latinos between the ages of 16 and 29 are unemployed.

The bank bailout has done nothing to improve the status of the global poor. The G-20 made grand promises to help those who need it most in developing countries this year, but so far, the talk has resulted in very little action. As Hayley Hathaway explains at Sojourners, only $50 billion has been dedicated to the 78 countries where humanitarian risk is greatest. As Hathaway notes, that's less than 25% of the TARP money received by the 20 largest U.S. banks.

Without major action, between 1.4 million and 2.8 million children will die of malnutrition in the next five years. Instead of pushing major humanitarian aid, the G-20 has promised $750 billion to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF was supposed to act as an international lender of last resort--if a nation's financial woes got really bad, they could get a loan from the IMF while they restructured. But IMF money ends up flowing to private-sector banks, and governments in need are forced to cut spending on programs that help the poor. When the G-20 met in Pittsburgh last week, a major topic of discussion involved giving developing nations a greater voice in IMF policies. But despite this talk, wealthy nations remain committed to the status quo, protecting the interests of their bankers eyeing future international bailouts.

For most people, it will be a long time before our economic recovery is a reality. But as the economy crawls out of the ditch, it's critical to build our future on a stronger foundation, one where we don't allow millions children to starve and where skin color does not determine economic security.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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Weekly Audit: Cheating Workers and Pampering CEOs

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Low-wage workers are struggling to navigate the current recession. A new study conducted by a team of academics reveals that the majority of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder have been shorted on their paychecks as recently as last week. But the compensation crisis looks very different on Wall Street, where excessive pay tied to risky activities helped set the economy on its crash course. Despite the resulting deep recession, pay for high-level U.S. financiers remains over-the-top, even as low wage workers struggle to navigate the downturn.

The U.S. has made a few gestures toward scaling back executive compensation for banks that it bailed out under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the rules have amounted to little more than window-dressing, according to a paper published last week by the Institute for Policy Studies. The paper's authors, Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati, found that ten of the 20 largest bailout banks have reported stock option compensation for 2009, and the top five executives at those companies have scored a full $90 million so far this year. That's just through stock options. The number gets even more obscene if you include bonuses, salary and other payouts.

As Anderson and Pizzigati explain in a companion piece published in AlterNet, bank executives collected huge bonuses based on the profits from subprime loans during the housing bubble. Since subprime mortgages were more expensive than traditional loans, profits were high--until borrowers stopped being able to pay back their predatory, unaffordable debt. Suddenly the banks were all busted, but the executives had already made a killing.

Katrina vanden Huevel emphasizes in The Nation that the U.S. government doesn't even try to tax this kind of income, much less regulate its connection to risk-taking. Billions of dollars in tax revenue are lost each year as financiers hide payouts in offshore tax havens, while on-the-books income from financial activities are taxed at arbitrarily low rates. Capital gains like stock price increases, for instance, are taxed at just 15%, while income from an ordinary paycheck is taxed at 35% for the wealthiest individuals.

While the U.S. dallies on executive pay, key leaders in Europe are moving to rein in risky compensation practices in the financial sector, as detailed in this video report over at The Real News. President Barack Obama will meet with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders of the G-20 in Pittsburgh later this month, and financial regulatory reform will be at the top of the agenda.

For ordinary workers, there are few positive signs in the current economy. The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen dissects the latest batch of unemployment numbers from the Labor Department. The good news is that the overall pace of layoffs seems to be abating. The bad news? The U.S. still lost a whopping 216,000 jobs in August. And broader measures of workplace woe are even worse. The unemployment rate does not include discouraged workers who have stopped looking for a job, and it doesn't include those who want to work full-time but have to settle for part-time employment. That statistic actually declined slightly in July, giving some economists cause for optimism. But the metric soared again in August, reaching the highest level on record.

And unemployment is not the only problem workers face. Both Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect and Elizabeth Palmberg of Sojourners highlight a New York Times story by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, which details how low-wage workers are routinely cheated by their employers. According to a recent study, a full 68% of these workers report having experienced an illegal workplace abuse in the past week, such as being denied overtime pay or being required to work for less than minimum wage. On average, workers lost 15% of their weekly income as a result of this exploitation.

We have good laws to protect workers, but they just aren't being enforced. Companies have successfully intimidated their employees into not reporting blatantly illegal pay practices. The best way to resolve this situation is to expand unionization and give workers a stronger voice in the workplace, making it safe to speak out against abuses. And the best way to expand unionization is to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, which lowers barriers to creating a union. But the legislative process has been delayed by a smear campaign organized by executives and managers claiming that unions, and not corporate elites, are the actual source of workplace coercion.

"It ought to make your blood boil--especially as people decry union thugs 'intimidating' people into joining unions when that doesn't happen and most workers want to join a union," Fernholz writes.

The U.S. needs to get its economic priorities in order. We should be protecting low-wage workers from executive excess, not the other way around. President Obama will have an opportunity to coordinate that effort globally at the G-20 summit later this month. Let's hope he doesn't squander it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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Bankruptcy Law is Key to Obama's Foreclosure Fight

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger 

President Barack Obama unveiled his administration's plan to fight foreclosures on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the most important element of the program will require Congressional action—and the banking and business lobbies are already on the attack.  The Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan has three chief components:

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Weekly Audit: Stimulus Stagnation

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire blogger 

Despite a lofty launch last week, the good ship Bipartisan is sunk, at least so far as the economic stimulus is concerned. President Barack Obama and House Democrats bent over backwards to appease the GOP by including several tax breaks and excluding a major anti-foreclosure measure from the package, but when it came time to vote, zero House Republican backed the bill. Lawmakers who actually care about the fate of the U.S. economy are furious. Every day spent haggling with obstinate Republicans means heavier economic damage. What's more, many of the tax breaks the GOP insisted on are simply terrible policies, whatever the economic climate.

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House 2007 Farm Bill Hearing, Day 1

Washington, D.C. - "A sound compromise that no one is satisfied with, but nevertheless represents real reform." - From Rep. Collin Peterson's (D-MN) opening statement today on the 2007 Farm Bill.

The first House Agriculture Committee markup session on the 2007 Farm Bill began with Rep. Collin Peterson's opening statement, followed by everyone else's. Peterson said that Americans were fortunate to enjoy low, stable food prices, and food that meets the highest standards of quality and safety.

No markup, or voting on specific amendments, actually took place during today's session. The last changes to the legislation weren't made until late last night, and today was the first chance most members got to see the final versions, though Rep. Peterson said that the changes were minor in comparison to the version released a little over a week ago.

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