The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Paul Krugman - The B Word

The B Word

O.K., here it comes: The unthinkable is about to become the inevitable.

Last week, Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, and John Lipsky, a top official at the International Monetary Fund, both suggested that public funds might be needed to rescue the U.S. financial system. Mr. Lipsky insisted that he wasn’t talking about a bailout. But he was.

It’s true that Henry Paulson, the current Treasury secretary, still says that any proposal to use taxpayers’ money to help resolve the crisis is a “non-starter.” But that’s about as credible as all of his previous pronouncements on the financial situation.

So here’s the question we really should be asking: When the feds do bail out the financial system, what will they do to ensure that they aren’t also bailing out the people who got us into this mess?

Let’s talk about why a bailout is inevitable.

Between 2002 and 2007, false beliefs in the private sector — the belief that home prices only go up, that financial innovation had made risk go away, that a triple-A rating really meant that an investment was safe — led to an epidemic of bad lending. Meanwhile, false beliefs in the political arena — the belief of Alan Greenspan and his friends in the Bush administration that the market is always right and regulation always a bad thing — led Washington to ignore the warning signs.

By the way, Mr. Greenspan is still at it: accepting no blame, he continues to insist that “market flexibility and open competition” are the “most reliable safeguards against cumulative economic failure.”

The result of all that bad lending was an unholy financial mess that will cause trillions of dollars in losses. A large chunk of these losses will fall on financial institutions: commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and so on.

Many people say that the government should let the chips fall where they may — that those who made bad loans should simply be left to suffer the consequences. But it’s not going to happen. When push comes to shove, financial officials — rightly — aren’t willing to run the risk that losses on bad loans will cripple the financial system and take the real economy down with it.

Consider what happened last Friday, when the Federal Reserve rushed to the aid of Bear Stearns.

Nobody expects an investment bank to be a charitable institution, but Bear has a particularly nasty reputation. As Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times reminds us, Bear “has often operated in the gray areas of Wall Street and with an aggressive, brass-knuckles approach.”

Bear was a major promoter of the most questionable subprime lenders. It lured customers into two of its own hedge funds that were among the first to go bust in the current crisis. And it’s a bad financial citizen: the last time the Fed tried to contain a financial crisis, after the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, Bear refused to participate in the rescue operation.

Bear, in other words, deserved to be allowed to fail — both on the merits and to teach Wall Street not to expect someone else to clean up its messes.

But the Fed rode to Bear’s rescue anyway, fearing that the collapse of a major investment bank would cause panic in the markets and wreak havoc with the wider economy. Fed officials knew that they were doing a bad thing, but believed that the alternative would be even worse.

As Bear goes, so will go the rest of the financial system. And if history is any guide, the coming taxpayer-financed bailout will end up costing a lot of money.

The U.S. savings and loan crisis of the 1980s ended up costing taxpayers 3.2 percent of G.D.P., the equivalent of $450 billion today. Some estimates put the fiscal cost of Japan’s post-bubble cleanup at more than 20 percent of G.D.P. — the equivalent of $3 trillion for the United States.

If these numbers shock you, they should. But the big bailout is coming. The only question is how well it will be managed.

As I said, the important thing is to bail out the system, not the people who got us into this mess. That means cleaning out the shareholders in failed institutions, making bondholders take a haircut, and canceling the stock options of executives who got rich playing heads I win, tails you lose.

According to late reports on Sunday, JPMorgan Chase will buy Bear for a pittance. That’s an O.K. resolution for this case — but not a model for the much bigger bailout to come. Looking ahead, we probably need something similar to the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took over bankrupt savings and loan institutions and sold off their assets to reimburse taxpayers. And we need it quickly: things are falling apart as you read this.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Republicans See Storm Clouds Gathering

Republicans See Storm Clouds Gathering
Week of Bad News Highlights Difficult Challenges for GOP in Fall Elections

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008; A05

While all eyes were on the presidential campaign and the demise of New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill were suffering a run of bad news that could hold dire implications for the campaign season.

It started with the loss last weekend of the seat held for two decades by former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). It got worse when Republicans lost potentially strong challengers to Democratic senators in South Dakota and New Jersey, and failed to field anyone to oppose the reelection bid of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

The latest blow came with the revelation that the former treasurer of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had allegedly diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and possibly as much as $1 million -- from the organization's depleted coffers to his own bank accounts.

If Republicans needed any more evidence of how difficult this fall may be, the past week had it all, analysts said. The Illinois race demonstrated new levels of disaffection, the party's efforts to go on offense elsewhere were thwarted by recruiting failures, and the NRCC scandal will divert campaign resources and could frighten off badly needed contributors, they said.

"It's no mystery," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "You have a very unhappy electorate, which is no surprise, with oil at $108 a barrel, stocks down a few thousand points, a war in Iraq with no end in sight and a president who is still very, very unpopular. He's just killed the Republican brand."

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional politics, said: "The math is against them. The environment is against them. The money is against them. This is one of those cycles that if you're a Republican strategist, you just want to go into the bomb shelter."

The loss of Hastert's seat in a special election in the far suburbs of Chicago was particularly painful, Republicans conceded. GOP campaign aides contended that the victory of Democratic physicist Bill Foster, a political neophyte, was more a reflection of the unpopularity of his Republican opponent, Jim Oberweis, than a tectonic political shift in a district that once exemplified the GOP's stranglehold on the nation's outer-ring suburbs.

But that's not how Foster sees it. Voters "had a pretty clean choice between a candidate who had aligned himself with George Bush's policies and one who felt we needed a change of course," he said.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.) helped Oberweis raise money, and the NRCC pumped more than $1.2 million into the district -- using more than 20 percent of its cash on hand -- to no avail.

"Even if it was mostly about Jim Oberweis, it's a terrible sign," Rothenberg said. "It adds to Democratic energy and further depresses the Republicans. And you can't dismiss the idea that there is an atmospheric advantage for the Democrats."

Two days after the Illinois election, South Dakota's former lieutenant governor, Steve Kirby, announced he will not challenge Sen. Tim Johnson, one of the few Democratic senators seeking reelection in a swing state.

On the same day, Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Dennis Milligan said his party has no candidate to challenge Pryor, another swing-state Democrat, and in Minnesota, wealthy trial lawyer Michael Ciresi dropped out of the Democratic primary. That cleared the way for comedian Al Franken, the remaining Democratic candidate, to spend the next eight months focusing on Sen. Norm Coleman (R).

After suffering a minor stroke, wealthy Republican developer Anne Evans Estabrook this month dropped her challenge to 84-year-old Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey. On Wednesday, New Jersey state Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R) announced that he will not run, either.

On Thursday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report updated its congressional race outlooks to list nine Republican House seats -- and one Democratic seat -- as tossups. Foster's reelection prospects shifted from a tossup to his advantage.

Cook now lists the Senate seats of Republicans Ted Stevens (Alaska) and John E. Sununu (N.H.) as tossups, along with the seats being vacated by Republicans Wayne Allard (Colo.) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.). Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, is listed as likely to claim the seat of retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner.

In the House, Republicans have largely failed to recruit credible candidates for the swing-district seat of retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) or to challenge several Democratic freshmen who took GOP seats in 2006. They include Zack Space of Ohio, Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Chris Carney and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, John Hall of New York, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heath Shuler of North Carolina.

"We've had a difficult time with candidate recruitment this entire cycle," said Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster who works closely with congressional Republicans.

The disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the NRCC, the House GOP's campaign arm, may not have a direct political impact, but it will not help, Republicans conceded. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ended January with $35.5 million in cash. The NRCC had $5.7 million before an annual fundraising dinner Wednesday raised $8.6 million.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the NRCC, said the committee has turned a corner and, after almost a year in the red, has a positive cash balance and has rooted out internal corruption.

"We're pretty confident we'll be where we need to be," Cole predicted of the NRCC's financial standing later this year. "Is this a challenge? Sure, you'd rather not have to do it. But you do."

But some of that NRCC cash, instead of bolstering Republican candidates, will go to lawyers and accountants as officials try to unravel the damage they said has been done by former treasurer Christopher J. Ward. They already have spent $370,000.

Cole said his most important financial constituency -- GOP lawmakers, whose cash transfers and other fundraising efforts provide the largest chunk of money -- are supportive of his efforts.

But other Republicans worried that news of what could become one of the largest political frauds in recent history may dampen fundraising as donors question the committee's controls on their money.

"It's not helpful; it doesn't attract donors," Davis said.

Still, Republicans are not without hope. Thursday night, Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer (D-Ala.) announced his retirement from a district that Bush carried with 60 percent of the vote in 2004, giving Republicans their clearest shot yet at a Democratic seat.

The GOP has pummeled swing-district Democrats for refusing to back President Bush's update of counterterrorism surveillance laws and for last week's budget agreements that will allow most, if not all, of Bush's tax cuts to expire in 2011. Davis said the issues are not getting political traction now, but they could before November.

More cause for hope resides in the presidential campaign, which could provide a new storyline for Republicans down the ticket, said Newhouse, the pollster. Some national polls showed McCain pulling even in matchups with Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by week's end, and Newhouse said McCain's appeal to independents and some Democrats could change the political dynamics in some swing districts.

"What you're seeing," he said, "is the impact the Democratic primary is having on voters at the national level. The longer this goes on, the better for our chances in November."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.