Weekly Audit: Business Press Gets Nasty as Economy Worsens

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

The economy is terrible. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Wall Street bonuses are through the roof. But mainstream business journalism is still praising the con-men who created this mess, yet attacking anybody who takes real solutions—like government spending to create jobs—seriously.

Whatever corporate journalists say, the American economy will not recover until policymakers and the media acknowledge the mistakes of the past and move forward with a new economic agenda focused on middle-class prosperity, rather than financial evisceration by elites.

Creating jobs is key

As Annie Lowrey notes for The Washington Independent, while President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package has dramatically slowed the pace of job losses, it hasn’t been enough to make a serious dent in the unemployment rate, which currently stands at 9.6 percent. Without a serious new set of stimulus measures, we’ll see that rate stay near double-digits for years to come.

But the stimulus package is not the only policy relevant to the economic recovery. The financial excess that sparked the Great Recession was not an accident, and much of it was straightforwardly illegal—even by the remarkably weak regulatory standards of the past decade.

As I emphasize for AlterNet, under President George W. Bush, bankers got away with all kinds of frauds. They’re continuing to get away with them under Obama. The allegations of wrongdoing range from cooking the books to the outright laundering of hundreds of billions of dollars in drug money.

Crime always pays

But you wouldn’t know it from reading a recent Washington Post op-ed by Reuters’ business editor Chrystia Freeland, which defines Wall Street problems exclusively as the product of government inadequacies, not deregulation. And of course, bank regulations were wholly inadequate in recent decades. Bankers lobbied hard for those rules, and pounced on the middle class once they were enacted. But Wall Street didn’t just win weak rules, they routinely violated rules that crimped profits. Crime always pays until you get caught. If bankers know they can caught and avoid punishment, they have no incentive to obey the law when doing so would crimp their bonuses.

And those bonuses are still wild and wonderful for corporate elites. As Sam Pizzigati emphasizes for Yes! Magazine, CEO pay last year was an astonishing four times higher than during the years of elite dominance shepherded by President Ronald Reagan. This kind of pay isn’t good for the economy. It’s a waste of resources that could be going to rank-and-file workers.

Business journalists skewing facts

The editorial pages of major newspapers aren’t the only places where preposterous business journalism pops up. As Kevin Drum notes, you can also read it on the pages of major mainstream business magazines.

In a blog post for Mother Jones, Drum takes down one of the worst articles on both Obama and business that has yet been written. It’s by right-wing writer Dinesh D’Souza, and it reads like a combination between a Birther conspiracy theory, a coded racist rant and a completely incoherent assault on reasonable economic policy.

Without citing any evidence, D’Souza calls Obama, “the most antibusiness president in a generation, perhaps in American history,” and goes on to blame this attitude on the “anticolonialist” views of Obama’s Kenyan father. One might expect this kind of garbage to be running in white nationalist newsletters, but as Drum highlights, the article was published in Forbes magazine, a thoroughly mainstream conservative business rag (don’t confuse Forbes with Fortune, which uncovered the Enron scam).

Obama’s baby steps

Obama could make outrageous attacks like D’Souza’s easier to defend if he proposed a set of bold, new policies to combat the recession. Instead, as William Greider highlights for The Nation, Obama is going for half-measures that will make things a little less worse, but won’t really put the economy back on track. His recently proposed tax cuts for small businesses and $50 billion in infrastructure spending will indeed create jobs– just not enough of them.

We need a robust government plan to create jobs, which means lots of spending for government hiring, expanded benefits for the unemployed, and robust government investments in the national infrastructure. All of these things will cost money, but if we don’t put people back to work, the resulting lack of economic growth will make the federal budget deficit far worse than the jobs spending will.

Helping the middle class isn’t “antibusiness,” it’s common-sense economics. If all of our economic policies are geared toward throwing money at the rich, we’ll just watch rich people hoard most of that money. Repairing our economy requires repairing the middle class. That means lots of jobs—and in a deep recession, only the government can provide those jobs.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Congressional Inaction Feeding Unemployment Crisis

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

After months of modest gains, the U.S. economy lost 125,000 jobs during June. That’s the worst jobs-related news this year. Without serious action soon, the struggling U.S. economy is going to get even uglier. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s economic team was slow to recognize the severity of the jobs crisis, and now seems unable to get Congress to actually do something about it.

As David Corn notes for Mother Jones, the recent jobs data is actually much worse than the 125,000 figure implies:

“The economy needs about 150,000 new jobs a month to keep up with population growth and new entries into the jobs market. It needs a lot more than that to make up for the 8 million or so jobs lost in 2008 and 2009.”

Recession 2.0

Although the economy sluggishly recovered from the catastrophic events of late 2008, economists are warning of a “double-dip” recession in which mass layoffs return. So why is Congress refusing to deal with the jobs crisis in the face of such terrible economic conditions?

Part of the problem, Corn notes, is that Obama didn’t do a very good job selling his economic stimulus package to the public. The bill, which Obama pushed through in early 2009, really did improve the economy—it’s the only reason why the unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent instead of 12 percent or 13 percent. But by refusing to counter Republican attacks on so-called “wasteful spending” included in the package, Obama failed to show the public how much good the stimulus has done. Instead, the bill is widely perceived as another wasteful giveaway to special interests and akin to the bank bailout.

Spending is stimulus

In reality, government spending is the best way to stimulate the economy during a deep recession. It makes up for the shortfall in spending from consumers who have lost their jobs.

There are all kinds of ways the federal government can spend money to create jobs, including extending unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, providing funding to states to allow them to hire more teachers and cops, and hiring people to build roads and buildings. The government did all of these things with the stimulus package from early 2009, but it didn’t do enough of any of them. The stimulus package was simply spread to thin.

Roots of recession

As Robert Reich explains for The Nation, the recession itself was created by deep economic inequality. By 2007, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans made 23.5 percent of the nation’s total income. Figures like that had not been seen since 1929, when the richest 1 percent made 23.9 percent of the nation’s total wealth. All of this concentration at the top means that the elite enjoy a disproportionate share of economic gains, but it also sets the entire economy up for massive shocks.

When the rich have all of that money, they have to invest it somewhere. When the majority of citizens are seeing sluggish wage growth, or even a drop in wages, as the U.S. experienced during the Bush years, there aren’t enough valuable assets out there that can absorb that investment. As a result, rich people put their money in speculative asset bubbles. When those bubbles burst, the entire economy can come crashing down, as it did in both 1929 and 2008.

Rampant inequalities around the globe

As Melinda Burns highlights for AlterNet, rampant inequality in not unique to the U.S. More than half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and decades of conservative economic policies have been unable to reverse that hardship.

One of the best ways to relieve global poverty is also one of the most intuitive—give money to the poor. Brazil has made an aggressive push to cope with widespread poverty by providing $31 billion in pensions and grants to the poor every year. As a result, the nation’s poverty rate has declined from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2008, while child malnutrition was cut in half. These policies make good economic sense. When poor people have money to spend, they spend it and fuel growth that benefits the entire economy.

Social insecurity

And yet in the U.S., Obama is seriously considering cutting Social Security in order to reduce the federal budget deficit. As Margaret Smith emphasizes for In These Times, Obama has created a bipartisan “debt commission,” and packed it full of ideologues from both political parties who have been fighting for years to slash Social Security.

This doesn’t really make sense, because Social Security is funded by its own dedicated tax revenue, and is sitting on a multi-trillion-dollar surplus created by those taxes. It really can’t do much to reduce the deficit. With interest rates at record lows, lawmakers do not currently have any reason to be worried about the deficit. But if they wanted to take action on it, they’d have to deal with long-term issues like the rising cost of health care, the bloated defense budget and absurdly low tax rates on the rich. Cutting off income for senior citizens won’t help.

Blocking economic stimulus won’t help

And neither will efforts to block short-term economic stimulus. But Obama’s emphasis on the budget deficit plays into the hands of Congressional opportunists who want to block his economic recovery efforts. If we’re told over and over again that the real economic problem is the budget deficit, no money is going to be dedicated to problems like jobs—even if that money would actually help the government’s fiscal position by fueling economic growth.

The American economy is in the middle of an absolute employment crisis. Without strong federal action, it’s going to get worse.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: More Jobs Please

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

One year after President Barack Obama secured passage of his critical economic stimulus package, the U.S. Senate is finally taking anther look at how to create jobs and repair the economy. These issues are more important than ever, but absurd Republican obstructionism and timid Democratic negotiation are once again threatening good public policy.

Not really bipartisan, is it?

As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the Senate Finance Committee reached a “bipartisan” agreement to supposedly spur job creation last week. Republicans demanded billions in tax cuts for wealthy people, but kept on caterwauling about the federal budget deficit. In exchange for $80 billion to dedicate to jobs—an extremely modest figure given the state of the labor market—Republicans asked for hundreds of billions in giveaways for the rich. And that’s just to get the bill through the Finance Committee, much less the full Senate.

In a piece for Working In These Times, Michelle Chen notes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on the Finance Committee “compromise,” but stripped out a critical extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers in the process.

The Republican uproar over such modest job figures is an economically preposterous political ploy, and Democratic cave-ins to their demands are both bad politics and bad economics. Chen notes that 70% of Americans support a $100 billion jobs bill. And we know what kinds of programs help spur employment—many of them were passed in the stimulus bill last year and have saved millions of jobs.

Stopping the Bleeding

In an interview with Christopher Hayes of The Nation, Economic Policy Institute Fellow Josh Bivens explains that Obama’s economic stimulus package has worked well, effectively stopping the job hemorrhaging that the economy was experiencing immediately before Obama took office. Here’s Bivens:

“We haven’t returned to growth on employment … but the rate of contraction has slowed radically. Immediately before the Recovery Act is passed, we’re losing on the order of 700,000 jobs per month … In the past three months, we’re now down to something like between 50 and 75,000 jobs lost per month, on average … it really is a stark before and after.”

Racial inequality and the recession

The trouble is, the stimulus was only big enough to prevent the economy from getting much worse. It was not large enough to return the economy to serious job growth. And the brutal effects of the recession are not being shouldered equally. As LinkTV’s collaboration with ColorLines illustrates (video below), the Great Recession is hitting people of color much harder, but the story of racial inequality is being lost in stories about statistical economic recovery in the financial sector. The special profiles several families of color struggling to make ends meet in the worst recession since the Great Depression, which features Depression-era unemployment rates for African Americans.

“What we don’t see on TV are the [people] who never had a home or a good job to lose in the first place. These are the millions of poor people whose chance to cross the line into middle class has always been cut short by another kind of line, the color line,” says host Chris Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen.

Rabb, ColorLines and LinkTV describe a social safety net that has been shredded by opportunistic politicians. Instead of focusing on ways to guarantee good jobs, politicians since the Reagan era have demonized black single mothers by exploiting racist stereotypes in an effort to justify slashing federal supports for the poor and unemployed. The result is a fundamentally unstable economy. Our society has weak demand for goods and services in good times, and that demand completely falls apart when economic conditions deteriorate. And while these socially destructive initiatives have been described as “pro-business,” the truth is, businesses don’t like societies where millions of people are impoverished. They don’t have any customers.

Predatory lending strikes again

The recession hasn’t exactly been a picnic for the middle class, either. In an article for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll profiles the mortgage mess that Ocwen Loan Servicing created for borrower Deanna Walters. Unlike millions of other borrowers dealing with mortgage headaches, Walters wasn’t actually behind on her payments. She was making payments regularly, but Ocwen was misplacing them, and charging her thousands of dollars in improper fees. Walters even paid the fees, but Ocwen eventually foreclosed on her home and sold it in an auction without even informing Walters.

As Kroll emphasizes, Ocwen’s antics aren’t unique. There is an entire class of companies known as mortgage servicers that specialize in deceiving and bullying borrowers out of their money. They often use illegal tactics, and as I note for AlterNet, have been systematically exploiting a badly designed foreclosure relief program from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Funding projects that will put people to work

As prominent economist Dean Baker argues for The American Prospect, there are dozens of productive programs that would put millions of people back to work—if they could just get the funding. The government could quickly and easily provide money to improve public transportation, develop open-source software, fund objective clinical drug trials and (my favorite) support writers and artists, whose work would subsequently be available for the public to enjoy for free.

Taxing financial speculation

The federal government can afford these programs right now, especially without any additional tax revenue. But if we’re really worried about the budget deficit, we can always turn to reasonable new sources for taxes. As Sarah Anderson details for Yes!, an obvious place to look is financial speculation. Since excessive and risky trading helped bring down the economy in 2008, a tax discouraging this behavior could make the economy stronger and reap as much as $175 billion a year for the public.

Our economy wouldn’t face troubles of the same order as those it must overcome today if so-called conservatives had not spend decades pursuing a radical agenda to shred the social safety net. The stimulus package has not spurred job growth to date because of cuts demanded by Congressional Republicans, nearly all of whom refused to vote for the bill anyway. Our economy needs a jobs bill now. It’d be nice if Republicans would show some interest in governing, but if they continue to refuse, Democrats must act on their own.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Attack of the Imaginary Budget Demons

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

On Feb. 1, President Barack Obama unveiled his 2011 budget proposal. While conservative pundits reacted with predictable, yet preposterous, wailing about the federal budget deficit, the short-term U.S. budget outlook is just fine. If anything, Obama’s budget doesn’t dedicate nearly enough funding to create jobs.

As John Nichols notes for The Nation, Obama budgets just $100 billion for jobs in fiscal 2011. The amount is nowhere near enough to make a significant dent in the epic unemployment rate. The government’s fiscal 2011 calendar begins in October of this year, and by that time, the stimulus package Obama pushed through in February of 2009 will have been exhausted, leaving the labor market without serious support from the federal government.

The free market isn’t going to take care of the jobs shortage on its own. While the unemployment rate fell from 10.0% to 9.7% during January, the “improvement” is really just a statistical mirage—the economy actually lost 20,000 jobs during the month.

If we had pushed through a bigger, or as Nichols notes, a better stimulus package in the first place, we might not be facing the same situation today. Part of the problem is that Obama redirected about $326 billion of the $787 billion bill away from direct job-creation efforts toward a set of tax cuts intended to appease Republican senators.

Tax cuts do not equal job growth

But as Art Levine emphasizes for Working In These Times, the $100 billion that Obama sets aside for job creation in 2011 appears once again to take the form of relatively inefficient tax cuts. Giving money to businesses, even small businesses, isn’t really going to make them start hiring unless there’s a real demand for what those businesses produce. When everybody is broke and out of work, that demand doesn’t exist, since people don’t have money to spend.

If the government wants to create jobs, it has to do it directly by hiring people to help rebuild the nation’s infrastructure through institutions such as schools, transportation and green energy. Just as important, the federal government can provide funding to state and local governments to make sure that jobs that serve our communities—teachers, cops, etc.—don’t disappear.

Sure, these things cost money. But the short-term budget deficit is nowhere near the current deficits of many European nations, or the deficits the U.S. ran during World War II. The budget deficit only matters to economics insofar as it raises concerns that the government will not be able to pay back its debt. But despite caterwauling from the right, investors just aren’t worried about a U.S. debt default. If they were, they would demand very high interest rates on Treasury bonds, and Treasury rates are at their lowest levels in decades.

If policymakers want to keep the jobs bill from running the deficit higher, they could always raise taxes on somebody. Financial speculation on Wall Street seems like a good place to start, but just about any tax on the wealthy would work fine. Rich people don’t get hammered by recessions. After all, they’re rich.

Overzealous tax cuts hurt communities

In a piece for AlterNet, David Sirota details the budgetary disaster that has already befallen the city of Colorado Springs, CO., a conservative enclave where anti-tax extremists have managed to slash just about every basic government service imaginable. Rather than impose some modest taxes on the wealthy, Colorado Springs is going to lay off cops and firefighters, let its parks go to waste, shut-down rec centers and museums and even allow its streetlights to go out. This is the Republican plan for fiscal responsibility.

But several state governments recognize that shredding the social fabric just isn’t a good idea. In Oregon, Sirota notes, voters just approved two ballot initiatives to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals rather than allow their state to slide into social decay.

How to deal with a deficit

There are two ways to increase a budget deficit: You can either increase spending, or cut taxes. If you want to decrease the budget deficit, you can either cut spending, or raise taxes. As Kevin Drum notes for Mother Jones, Republicans both increased spending and cut taxes during the George W. Bush presidency. Now those same so-called fiscal conservatives are feigning outrage over the prospect of the government actually spending some money to put people back to work. These are not serious economic arguments—conservative politicians are just hoping to gut progressive policy priorities.

But while the attacks don’t hold any water, conservative media outlets are latching on to them, and Obama isn’t pushing back.

What caused the current crisis

Writing for The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner notes Obama’s recent support for a proposal from right-wing deficit hawks to create a commission to evaluate the causes of our so-called fiscal crisis. But we already know what put us in the current fiscal situation: Rising health care costs, a brutal recession, and the Bush era. The commission is being pushed by radical conservatives for a reason—it’s part of an effort to gut Social Security. It’s bad economics, bad public policy and it badly misreads the real source of public discontent. Kuttner explains:

“Public concern about deficits is really a proxy for broader unease that government is not delivering enough practical help . . . . The president should be helping citizens sort this out, not caving in to the fear-mongers.”

Fortunately, as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Senate leaders appear committed to passing at least some kind of legislation to help put people back to work.

Whatever right-wing pundits say, the U.S. fiscal crisis remains a totally theoretical problem. Someday, if the U.S. budget does not come down, it is conceivable that investors would be reluctant to purchase U.S. debt. For now, that is simply not the case. But the crisis in the job market is very real and requires direct action. Put simply, the deficit is no excuse for inaction.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

President Barack Obama invited leading economic thinkers to a job creation summit on Thursday to help combat the worst unemployment crisis in decades. The stakes couldn't be higher: If Obama can't build momentum for robust legislation that will create jobs, the unemployment rate could remain in double-digits all the way through 2011.

In Salon, Andrew Leonard highlights some positive comments Obama made at the jobs summit. In an exchange with The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner, Obama said that the long-term budget deficit is an issue, but that the best way to reduce that deficit is to spur economic growth. When the economy is growing, the same tax rates reap greater returns for the government.

If the U.S. dramatically slashes economic support programs to clamp down on the deficit in the short-term, the economy is going to shrink. About two-thirds of the economic growth in the third-quarter of 2009 came from intiatives related to Obama's economic stimulus plan. If we cut back on stimulus, we lose more jobs and make the long-term deficit worse by hampering growth.

We've faced this kind of dilemma before and seen what happens when you focus too much on the deficit,  as Katrina vanden Heuvel emphasizes in a column for The Nation. "In 1937, just as there was some recovery from the Depression, the debt hawks swooped in and there was a return to the deficit reduction model," vanden Heuvel writes. "Things went south again. We don't need a repeat of that."

So Obama doesn't want to attack the deficit at the expense of jobs, which is good. But it's problematic that the President is still at the summit stage on the most politically pressing issue for Democrats, as Terence Samuel explains for The American Prospect. If the labor market doesn't start getting better soon, voter dissatisfaction with Obama's economic platform will impact other critical policy initiatives, from health care to climate change.

"The president is up against an unpredictable clock," Samuel writes. "With his approval rating hovering around 50%, he can't be sure how long Democrats in Congress will stick with him on anything if there is not some noticeable improvement in the jobs picture soon. The urgency on the job situation is not lost on Democrats in the House and Senate who must defend the seats of 18 Democrats in 2010."

Most of the pressure Obama now faces is to create jobs, not just save them. That's because his stimulus helped get the unemployment rate under control--we're still losing jobs, but not as fast as we were in January. But as Aaron Glantz notes for New America Media, the risk of heavier job loss is still present.

State governments are up against very difficult budget constraints, thanks to tax losses related to widespread layoffs and foreclosures. If they don't get help from the federal government, states will be forced to cut expenses, which means shedding more jobs. Glantz highlights a recent conference call with AFL-CIO leaders who warned that state and local governments could be forced to cut up to one million jobs in 2010 if Congress and President Obama fail to enact a major jobs bill.

David Moberg envisions an ideal jobs bill for Working In These Times. We need a major aid package to state governments, modernizing our schools and transportation network, a public-sector job program to fund important work in our communities, and a tax credit for companies that hire workers. The whole thing would only cost $400 billion and would create 4.6 million jobs. That could be enough money to move unemployment out of crisis-mode. Right now, about 15.4 million workers are out of a job. Half those workers have been put out of work over the course of the recession. Creating 4.6 million jobs would make an enormous difference.

And while the $400 billion price tag may sound like a big number, it's a drop in the bucket compared to our $9 trillion fiscal deficit. Going back to The Nation: As vanden Heuvel notes, the whole package could be paid for with a modest tax on risky Wall Street securities trading.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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