Friday, November 28, 2008

Pay to Play is alive and well

Daniel Howes, Detroit News: Cashing in on double standards

The feds pump another $20 billion into teetering Citigroup Inc. and insure $306 billion in bad assets just days after Congress slaps Detroit's automakers for failing to table "a plan" to justify $25 billion in loans and folks 'round here cry, "Double standard! Double standard!"
......Double standard? You bet, but it's more than a geographic cabal of coastal Democrats and anti-union, pro-foreign auto Republicans from the South that clearly has it in for Detroit. It's money and political alliances, folks, neither of which the boys at General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC have in abundant supply.
How come Citigroup gets a pass and a big fat check? First, failure of its sprawling operations truly would pose a mortal threat to the global financial system. Second, the banking giant is exceedingly well connected to the campaign wallets of the very same folks -- and their allies -- who are poised to foist draconian terms on Detroit to keep it afloat.

Howes goes on do detail all the incestuous ties between the twits who brought us the financial crisis and the Democratic powerbrokers. It's a good thing that John McCain did such a bang up job getting corporate money out of Washington.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

One Question

It sounds like Congress had a great deal of fun hectoring the heads of the automakers and the union. One thing that bothers me though. If the principle holds that people who fail deserve a pay cut then it seems, given the failures in regulation and oversight at the root of this financial disaster, to be pertinent to ask "Where is Congress' pay cut?"

Make no mistake the vast sums of borrowed money from Uncle Sam Hu being stuffed into the carcasses of the banks this Thanksgiving are intended to save, not the assets of the imprudent Bankers, but the asses of the Congressmen whose sins of omission and commission were the prerequisites to this slow motion disaster.

[Update: Mitch Albom lays down a delightful rebuke of Congress.

Is a man an interchangeable part?

Right now the UAW is trying to present a united front with the management of the Big 3 but under the surface is a bitter mutual dislike. The UAW sees management as being incompetent, overpaid, and quick to blame the union for its own failures. Management for its part is very bitter about the above market wages and benefits that the unions are able to extract for "unskilled labor" and union workers "inflexibility".

Building a car with competitive efficiency is a highly complex process involving careful design of both the car and the production process. Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler both had the ability to build a car from the ground up with their own hands. Such skills are rare, though, and both turned to masses of semi-skilled laborers, used in very carefully engineered ways, to build their cars. One of the essential points of such an arrangement is that employees are expected to be like the parts they assemble: interchangeable. The process is developed with the intention that any capable person could be placed in any position on the line and keep up. There are some more skilled positions (usually in maintenance and setup) that require more education and pay a little more but the principle holds.

Is it any wonder that people trained to think that a person is an interchangeable part would find the idea of a few people making a huge multiple of what everyone else makes absurd? Management would take the other side and argue that paying a worker nearly double what another worker off of the street would cost* is absurd.

For my wooden nickel, the workers have the better side of it. But then again this is a world where a great inner city school teacher makes far less than a mediocre backup quarterback in the NFL.

*The difference in cost is not so much the wages and benefits being paid to the person on the line, but in pensions and benefits being to retirees that are part of the contract with workers.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Little Naughty Fun

John Emerson explains the economic crisis.

An appetizer:
Tranches are bundles of loans mysteriously sorted and packaged according to how risky they are. Large corporations buy tranches and use them as collateral to borrow money from other large corporations. These corporations are owned partly by individuals, but mostly by still other large corporations, which themselves might very well also be owned by more large corporations yet. In the end you have millions of actual home loans at one end and millions of actual individual investors at the other, with an undecipherable maze of legal entities and financial instruments linking them. (You might as well discuss quantum theory, it’s easier). Few or none of the flesh and blood owners have any idea what’s going on, until finally one day they wake up and BOOM! their money is all gone. (If anyone knows what happened, it’s probably the managers hired to manage these various legal entities, but they have just voted themselves enormous bonuses and never have cared to socialize or communicate with the pitiful rabble who own the stock anyway.)

Economists don’t worry about these things, though. (Nader does, but Nader isn’t an economist and he’s crazy too.) Economists worry about welfare Cadillacs, transfer payments, and waste in Democratic budgets. Government, in sharp contrast to the free market, is inefficient and corrupt and can never do anything right.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

So long and thanks for all the votes

Chicago Tribune: Obama's team on economy reflects times

In Chicago on Friday, President-elect Barack Obama will meet with his economic transition team. It's a group that looks a lot like America, or an America that wears very well-tailored suits, anyway.

Often, the "looks like America" phrase, which originated with the Clinton administration, is shorthand for saying the assembled members are not all white men. But the typical measures of diversity—race and gender—are not the principal distinctions in this case.

The America in this group of 17 high-powered advisers is the America of our troubled economy. Wall Street is represented, and so is Detroit. There's a dot-commer, an old-media guy, a real estate investor and some politicians.

....Perhaps the most interesting part of the grouping is the notable swath of the economy that is, in many respects, left out: industrial America and organized labor.

....The lack of labor presence might raise questions about whether Obama truly is committed to revising terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement to protect labor's interests. But perhaps the presence of Bonior, who opposed NAFTA as a representative from suburban Detroit, should put suspicions to rest.

I'm sure Obama will be "interested" in the Rust Belt again in time for the next election.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Myth of the Spendthrift American

Robert Reich slaps a bad idea across the snout and sends it whence it came:

Post Meltdown Mythologies: Americans Have Been Living Beyond Their Means
What brought on the economic meltdown of 2008? Besides the bursting of the housing bubble, Wall Street's malfeasance and non-feasance, and Washington's massive failure to oversee Wall Street, fingers are also being pointed at average Americans. Some of them took on mortgages they couldn't afford, of course, but we're also hearing a more basic theme that goes something like this: For too long, Americans have been living beyond our means. We went too deeply into debt. And now we're paying the inevitable price.

.....But this story leaves out one very important fact. Since the year 2000, median family income has been dropping, adjusted for inflation. One of the main reasons the typical family has taken on more debt has been to maintain its living standards in the face of these declining real incomes.

.....The "living beyond our means" argument suggests that the answer over the long term is for American families to become more responsible and not spend more than they earn. Well, that may be necessary but it's hardly sufficient.

The real answer over the long term is to restore middle-class earnings so families don't have to go deep into debt to maintain what was a middle-class standard of living. And that requires, among other things, affordable health insurance, tax credits for college tuition, good schools, and an energy policy that's less dependent on oil, the price of which is going to continue to rise as demand soars in China, India, and elsewhere.

In other words, the way to make sure Americans don't live beyond their means is to give them back the means.

The hollowing out of the American middle class had the perverse effect of simultaneously holding down wages and interest rates. Jobs are outsourced to China, driving down demand for American Labor (and thus the price). China sends many of those dollars back to the US (to raise the price of the dollar versus the Yuan) and as a side effect lowering long term rates. For the worker it's rather like being robbed and then offered a low interest loan from your own wallet by the mugger.