Thursday, May 14, 2009

Last Call

WaPo is reporting tonight that several insurance companies have been approved to receive TARP funds.
Recipients are Hartford, Prudential, Allstate, Ameriprise, Lincoln National and Principal Financial Group, he said. The insurers notified yesterday are among hundreds of financial institutions in the pipeline "that are being reviewed and funded as appropriate on a rolling basis," Williams said.

The money could shore up the life insurance industry, which plays a major role in the economy and has been weakened by the financial crisis. In addition to paying death benefits, life insurers deliver retirement income in the form of annuities. They are big investors in corporate bonds and commercial real estate.

However, the erosion of their investments -- and the possibility of further declines in the value of stocks, bonds and mortgages -- raised concern in some quarters about the outlook for the industry.

"These funds would further fortify our capital resources and provide us with additional financial flexibility during one of the most volatile market climates in our nation's history," Hartford chief executive Ramani Ayer said in a statement.

Hartford said it received preliminary approval for an infusion of $3.4 billion, the full amount it estimated last year that it might obtain.

Step right up to the trough, kids! There's enough taxpayer money for the insurance companies too!

Some questions:

  1. If everything's okay with the economy, why do the insurance companies need billions now?
  2. If the insurers are in such bad financial shape to require unprecedented TARP money from the government then why did it take several months for approval for TARP funds?
  3. If we're now in the business of giving away taxpayer billions to industries from an emergency bailout fund and have the leisure time to wait several months before doing it, why not offer the same deal to every industry in America?
I'm going to have to start calling Obama "President Halfway." Every time I think his guys are doing something really good for America, he does something equally stupid and Bush-like (which is still a pretty damn good improvement over 100% Bush-like the last guy was.) One step forward, one step back.

The problem is you never get anywhere that way, and in the end you're still stuck in the hole Bush left behind.

Kabuki Backfire

I honestly think the GOP kabuki dance on the Cheney/Pelosi torture issue is about to backfire catastrophically on the Republican party. Not sure how right I am about this, but there's a theory, and it goes like this:

The most likely outcome of the Pelosi side of the story is going to be a full investigation into who knew what when. Pelosi not only didn't pull the Democratic Fetal Position tuck 'n' whimper, but she dared the Republicans to in fact start that investigation they so badly seem to now want. This is bad for the Republicans how, exactly? Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House and a Democrat. How could this possibly be bad for the GOP?

Well, because somebody named Dick can't keep his damn mouth shut, is why. Josh Marshall illuminates us (emphasis mine):
Next you have a flurry of claims that a key motive behind the push to torture was to elicit 'confessions' about an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida, which was of course the key predicate for the invasion of Iraq. That again has to create much more pressure to clarify what happened. The basis of most of the anti-torture push has been the assumption that torture was used for the purpose of eliciting information about future terrorist attacks. Whether it was illegal, wrong-headed, misguided, immoral -- whatever -- most have been willing to at least give the benefit of the doubt that that was the goal. If the driving force was to gin up new bogus intel about the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link, politically it will put the whole story in a very different light. And rightly so.
In other words, if torture was used to get dubious evidence that Saddam was linked to 9/11 and Al Qaeda that was in turn used to get us into a war with Iraq, and the orders for that inhuman treatment came from Dick Cheney's office, somebody is in a crapload of trouble.

If the investigation that results from Pelosi's statements crosses paths with Cheney's torture factory, then we're going to have ourselves a grand old time. And I think now that the Republicans have gone down the "investigate Pelosi now!" path, the excuse that expanding that investigation to include the Bush White House would somehowbe a "partisan witch hunt" would evaporate. After all, it's Republicans who are now saying "Yes, we need to know exactly what happened in 2002 and 2003!" on the torture front.

Republicans kicked the door open, only to possibly have it bounce back and hit them square in the teeth. Should "Bush lied, our troops died" becomes "Cheney tortured, our troops died" then this thing is going to take on a life of its own.

Here's A Question For You

If Dick Morris truly believes the only way to cut health care costs is to "ration healthcare, thereby destroying our system" then isn't he basically saying that the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance are simply too poor to deserve the increasingly expensive privilege of health care?

In other words, if you can't afford heath care, it's your fault...and that's the way it should be if you're in Dick Morris's world...and he's not the only one spouting the same crap from 1994. " Why should we do anything for these lazy, shiftless losers? They are a drain on our resources." If we help them, we'll "bankrupt the country" according to Larry Kudlow.

Hey Larry, Dick, have you two been paying attention to where our economy is now? We're already bankrupt.

[UPDATE] 14 of the top 15 highest paying salaried jobs in the US in 2008 were medical doctors and specialists, including the top nine paying jobs in America. (Chief Executives came in at #10.)

Yet we're supposed to believe that Obama is about to drive thousands of doctors out of the industry because we're not paying them enough to make people go into med school as it is?

Somehow I doubt that.

CIA Lied, Pelosi Cried

Nancy Pelosi says that the CIA mislead her on waterboarding. Republicans are scoffing, saying "Well why didn't you try to stop waterboarding in 2003?"
“If she felt it was wrong, she should have acted,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime waterboarding critic, told POLITICO on Tuesday. “Let me just tell you, I was briefed on it — and I vehemently objected to it. We did the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

McCain, who drew criticism from the left for opposing a Democratic waterboarding ban last year, added, “I’m sure she has her argument, and we’ll see if the American people agree.”

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly dismissed such criticism as “Republican attempts to create a distraction” from their own culpability on interrogation. Over the past week, a half-dozen senior Republican and Democratic aides canvassed by POLITICO have outlined a menu of options Pelosi could have pursued to protest harsh interrogations.

All agreed she could have written a classified letter to the CIA — as Rep. Jane Harman, her successor on the intelligence committee, did after she was briefed on the technique in February 2003.

Pelosi, they said, also could have pressured President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney directly by requesting a meeting with them, or by buttonholing them during previously scheduled meetings, or by writing a letter to them.

“To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t do any of those things,” said Rep. Pete Hoeskstra (R-Mich.), currently the ranking member of the House intelligence committee.

“We were in the minority at that point,” replied Daly, who dismissed the idea of protesting directly to the White House. “We were not in a position to change the policy. When the Democrats took over in 2007, we passed a bill outlawing torture — and the president vetoed it, with the support of Sen. McCain.”

Ahh, but Republicans need to be careful here.
Pelosi has angered Republicans by pushing for a “truth commission” into the Bush administration’s possible use of torture, but the news that she learned of waterboarding in 2003 has left her on the defensive.

When asked about Pelosi’s predicament on Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) offered no sympathy and seemed to grow angrier as he spoke.

“If we’re going to look backwards, as some have insisted, then we need to make sure we talk to everybody instead of just harassing lawyers who were asked for their opinion in the Department of Justice,” he said. “And let’s talk to members of Congress who knew about them and may have encouraged them.”
You absolutely sure you want to do that, Lamar? Are you dead positive you want Congress to be investigated? Truly? If Republicans are suddenly screaming for an investigation now, the Democrats just may grant them their wish. Pelosi in fact seems all for it.

By all means, let's have a full investigation of Congress, Republicans and Democrats...and let's include the Bush White House as well.

New Boss Same As The Old Boss

Our new Afghanistan commander, Gen. McChrystal, is a real character. A character out of a Tom Clancy novel, that is.

Now, at this deserted hotel, Jeff is taking an outsider into that program for the first time.

The waitress brings salads. In the pause, Jeff reminds Garlasco that he's still enlisted. The United States government can bring misery to a soldier who crosses it, so he doesn't want to be too specific about exactly who he is or when he started his assignment, giving himself the cover of reasonable doubt. Sometime in February or March, then, he reported for duty at an unmarked compound. This was Camp Nama, the home of Task Force 121, the Special Ops team that chased Osama bin Laden and caught Saddam Hussein and would ultimately locate and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-described leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was Rumsfeld's baby, the Platonic ideal of his fast and mobile army. From its size to its mission, everything about it was and remains an official secret. Except for the concertina wire, Camp Nama was a nondescript cluster of buildings.

The only thing Jeff knew about Camp Nama was that he'd be able to wear civilian clothes and interrogate "high value" prisoners. In order to get to the second step, he had to go through hours of psychological tests to ensure his fitness for the job.

Nama, it is said, stood for Nasty Ass Military Area. Jeff says there was a maverick, high-speed feeling to the place. Some of the interrogators had beards and long hair and everyone used only first names, even the officers. "When you ask somebody their name, they don't offer up the last name," Jeff says. "When they gave you their name it probably wasn't their real name anyway."

To this day, Jeff has no idea of the true names of his superior officers. His supervisor was a colonel who called himself Mike, although Jeff is sure that wasn't his real name.

It was a point of pride that the Red Cross would never be allowed in the door, Jeff says. This is important because it defied the Geneva Conventions, which require that the Red Cross have access to military prisons. "Once, somebody brought it up with the colonel. 'Will they ever be allowed in here?' And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there's no way that the Red Cross could get in — they won't have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators."

Black ops, baby.

Black ops. And now he's in charge of Afghanistan, where our new SOCOM approach to counter-insurgency is run by a guy who's used to keeping what goes on in the dark.

That won't blow up in our faces or anything.

Your Daily Dose Of Doctor Doom

Roubini warns we're heading for China's currency becoming the new world reserve. Locally, the Chinese yuan is known as the renminbi, literally "people's currency". It may end up being the currency of the world at the rate the dollar's power is disintegrating.

If China and other countries were to diversify their reserve holdings away from the dollar — and they eventually will — the United States would suffer. We have reaped significant financial benefits from having the dollar as the reserve currency. In particular, the strong market for the dollar allows Americans to borrow at better rates. We have thus been able to finance larger deficits for longer and at lower interest rates, as foreign demand has kept Treasury yields low. We have been able to issue debt in our own currency rather than a foreign one, thus shifting the losses of a fall in the value of the dollar to our creditors. Having commodities priced in dollars has also meant that a fall in the dollar’s value doesn’t lead to a rise in the price of imports.

Now, imagine a world in which China could borrow and lend internationally in its own currency. The renminbi, rather than the dollar, could eventually become a means of payment in trade and a unit of account in pricing imports and exports, as well as a store of value for wealth by international investors. Americans would pay the price. We would have to shell out more for imported goods, and interest rates on both private and public debt would rise. The higher private cost of borrowing could lead to weaker consumption and investment, and slower growth.

This decline of the dollar might take more than a decade, but it could happen even sooner if we do not get our financial house in order. The United States must rein in spending and borrowing, and pursue growth that is not based on asset and credit bubbles. For the last two decades America has been spending more than its income, increasing its foreign liabilities and amassing debts that have become unsustainable. A system where the dollar was the major global currency allowed us to prolong reckless borrowing.

Now that the dollar’s position is no longer so secure, we need to shift our priorities. This will entail investing in our crumbling infrastructure, alternative and renewable resources and productive human capital — rather than in unnecessary housing and toxic financial innovation. This will be the only way to slow down the decline of the dollar, and sustain our influence in global affairs.
The America of 2020 is going to be a much different place. It most likely will be a realm where America no longer dominates the world economically, but instead competes with China, the EU, and Russia as economic equals.

Or it may be less than equal to these economic powerhouses. It depends much on Obama, and much on ourselves.

Dealt Out Of The Game

CNBC has a list of the nearly 900 Chrysler dealers being shut down (PDF). Last dealership on that list, Zimmer Motors? I live about a mile from it. They employ a good 40 people there.

Not much longer.

Dear America:

"Hey Liberals.

You've been had.

Har Har Har!"

--Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds

Exploring The Heart Of Darkness

See, it's like ROTC, only for Border Patrol agents.
The Explorers program, a coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America that began 60 years ago, is training thousands of young people in skills used to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence — an intense ratcheting up of one of the group’s longtime missions to prepare youths for more traditional jobs as police officers and firefighters.

“This is about being a true-blooded American guy and girl,” said A. J. Lowenthal, a sheriff’s deputy here in Imperial County, whose life clock, he says, is set around the Explorers events he helps run. “It fits right in with the honor and bravery of the Boy Scouts.”

The training, which leaders say is not intended to be applied outside the simulated Explorer setting, can involve chasing down illegal border crossers as well as more dangerous situations that include facing down terrorists and taking out “active shooters,” like those who bring gunfire and death to college campuses. In a simulation here of a raid on a marijuana field, several Explorers were instructed on how to quiet an obstreperous lookout.

“Put him on his face and put a knee in his back,” a Border Patrol agent explained. “I guarantee that he’ll shut up.”

One participant, Felix Arce, 16, said he liked “the discipline of the program,” which was something he said his life was lacking. “I want to be a lawyer, and this teaches you about how crimes are committed,” he said.

Cathy Noriego, also 16, said she was attracted by the guns. The group uses compressed-air guns — known as airsoft guns, which fire tiny plastic pellets — in the training exercises, and sometimes they shoot real guns on a closed range.

“I like shooting them,” Cathy said. “I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.”
Today's teenagers get the skills they'll need tomorrow: harassing minorities, getting their gun on, and being cogs in the fascist oppression machine!

Pray tell, where's Shelly Bachmann to declare this to be Obama's version of the Hitler youth program?

In Which Zandar Answers Your Burning Questions

Josh Marshall asks:
If we need to keep evidence of torture, like photographs, secret, to protect our troops, doesn't that suggest that torture isn't a great way to keep them or us safe?
Yes, you are correct.

You know what would also keep our troops safe?

Getting them the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

If It's Thursday...

Still 637,000 new jobless claims, and the number of people on unemployment has broken the 6.5 million mark.

Quote of the Day:
"I'm afraid a little Round-Up has been sprayed on the 'green shoots' of the recovery", said Lee Olver, fixed income strategist at SMH Capital in Houston, Texas.
You don't say.

A Derivative Of The Truth

Obama wants to regulate financial derivatives, the $1 quadrillion elephant in everyone's room.
In its first detailed effort to overhaul financial regulations, the Obama administration on Wednesday sought new authority over the complex financial instruments, known as derivatives, that were a major cause of the financial crisis and have gone largely unregulated for decades.

The administration asked Congress to move quickly on legislation that would allow federal oversight of many kinds of exotic instruments, including credit-default swaps, the insurance contracts that caused the near-collapse of the American International Group.

The Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, said the measure should require swaps and other types of derivatives to be traded on exchanges or clearinghouses and backed by capital reserves, much like the capital cushions that banks must set aside in case a borrower defaults on a loan. Taken together, the rules would probably make it more expensive for issuers, dealers and buyers alike to participate in the derivatives markets.

The proposal will probably force many types of derivatives into the open, reducing the role of the so-called shadow banking system that has arisen around them.

“This financial crisis was caused in large part by significant gaps in the oversight of the markets,” Mr. Geithner said in a briefing. He said the proposal was intended to make the trading of derivatives more transparent and give regulators the ability to limit the amount of derivatives that any company can sell, or that any institution can hold.

The initiative was well received by senior Democrats in Congress with jurisdiction over the issue. The proposal had been expected, but some lawmakers, impatient with the pace of the new administration’s efforts, had begun moving ahead themselves.

Hinting at a lobbying campaign to come, Robert Pickel, the chief executive of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a trade group, said his organization “looked forward to working with policy makers to ensure these reforms help preserve the widespread availability of swaps and other important risk management tools.”

But some in the financial industry say that regulation is inevitable. “Nobody is in a ‘just say no’ mode,” said Steven A. Elmendorf, a former aide to the House Democratic leadership who represents several major financial institutions and groups. “Everybody understands that we’ve been through a financial crisis and that change has to happen. And the only question is how the change happens.”
Which is amusing, as Congress Senate Conservadems have already said no to overhauling foreclosure laws and resoundingly said no yesterday to limiting credit card interest rates. What makes anyone think they are going to allow the really, really big money in the financial sector to be regulated in any way? Derivatives are where the billions in Wall Street bonuses really come from.

What Obama wants then really doesn't matter, since Evan F'ckin Bayh, Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter, Blanche Lincoln, Jon Tester, and the other Conservadems are the ones apparently running the country by foiling that "wildly unpopular and partisan President" at every turn.

Funny how that works.

They Still Have No Clue

The GOP is convinced they have a secret weapon against climate change legislation...the intolerability of $2.30 gasoline!

Republicans believe that rising gas prices are their trump card against a Democratic-sponsored climate change bill.

The GOP is struggling to regain footing after two successive electoral blowouts, but party leaders are relishing an opportunity to debate what they call a “national energy tax.”

The Democrats’ plan of moving a cap-and-trade bill this summer plays into GOP hands because as the cost of gasoline spikes, so does the public’s awareness of energy prices, Republican leadership aides say.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the former House GOP conference chairman, said that the cost of gas is not likely to hit last summer’s national high of $4 a gallon, but he noted that oil prices have been creeping up recently.

Putnam said most Americans want to increase oil production, not restrict consumption, adding, “At some point, gas prices become a very potent political weapon again.”

Troy Green, spokesman for AAA, said that the cost of gas generally rises in the summer: “This is typically the time of year when we see the price of gas rise — the spring/summer run-up.”

Last month the national average price per gallon of self-serve gas was $2.05; now it is $2.27.

Republicans, who have been playing defense on housing, credit card reform and healthcare, claim they have a huge political advantage on energy.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said, “As news comes in that arctic sea ice is at an eight-year record high and the trend of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere extends, it would appear the climate for the Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill isn’t very good. Timing the vote to coincide with the beginning of the summer spike in vacation travel and gas prices is just as logical. The issue is, can Democrat leaders convince [the] rank and file to vote irrationally?”
Yes, because Americans have clearly completely forgotten how their friends the Republicans and their buddies in the oil business speculated America right into $5 a gallon gas last summer, so Republicans have a clear advantage on energy...

Oh wait, they don't.
Republicans are widely viewed by the public as less competent than Democrats to handle issue ranging from health care to education and energy, according to internal polling presented to top GOP officials in Congress.

The same survey found President Barack Obama holds the support of a significant minority of self-described conservative, independent voters.

The Associated Press obtained partial results of the survey, which was conducted in late March by New Models, a firm with close ties to Republicans. GOP lawmakers in Congress have generally opposed Obama's early legislative agenda, voting with near unanimity against economic stimulus legislation and unanimously against a White House-backed budget that cleared Congress on Wednesday.

The survey found the public holds greater confidence in Democrats than in Republicans in handling most of the issues that are involved in Obama's legislative agenda.

Democrats were favored by a margin of 61 percent to 29 percent on education; 59 percent to 30 percent on health care and 59 percent to 31 percent on energy. Congress is expected to consider major legislation later this year in all three areas.

Democats were also viewed with more confidence in handling taxes, long a Republican strong suit. The only issue among nine in the survey where the two parties were rated as even was in the war on terror.

The GOP's own poll numbers show that Democrats have a nearly 2 to 1 advantage on energy among voters and enjoy a major advantage on nearly everything else.

But the Republicans are still convinced "Drill baby drill" is going to win for them, thanks to the power of gas that might hit $3 a gallon. They are convinced that pretending global warming is a myth is still going to win them over young voters, smart voters, and environmentally concerned religious voters.

Even funnier, it's the fiscally concerned House Republicans pushing the actual carbon tax as a bi-partisan effort.

They still have no clue.

[UPDATE] Cap-and-trade legislation is back on the table moving ahead out of the negotiation phase and into a final House bill phase.


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