Monday, July 16, 2012

Protecting Romney from Criticism of Bain

Have you ever been in a car with somebody, waiting to pass an accident scene, while they observe that the traffic accident is not obstructing the road and that the only reason traffic is slow is because of the gawkers? And then, as they pass the accident, they themselves are distracted to the point that they don't notice that the car in front of them has driven on and they're now the gawker causing the slowdown?

The beltway pundits who call for more polite, mannered political campaigns remind me of that sort of driver. Actually, some of them seem a bit worse - some of them would stop their car in the roadway, get out, and share their opinions on the seriousness of the accident and whether it merited gawking, and offer running commentary about the other drivers passing the scene, oblivious to the fact that they've become part of the problem.

When the accident is cleared, they might recite that they're happy that it's over, but they'll keep bringing it up until the next accident comes along, and even then it may become a point of comparison. In many cases they'll talk incessantly about an accident in the northbound lane and, when you point out another accident, they'll express that accidents in the southbound lane are completely different.

Today, Robert Samuelson offers a lot of hand-wringing over problems in the northbound traffic lane, deploring what he calls "character assassination on the campaign trail". I don't follow Samuelson closely, so I am ready to stand corrected if he has in fact deplored past attacks on President Obama - Joe Wilson's outburst at the State of the Union Address, Justice Scalia's outburst from the bench, the entire "birther" phenomenon (Romney's contribution), absurd accusations that he's a socialist (in Romney's softened version, Obama "takes his political inspiration from Europe, from the socialist-democrats in Europe."), attacks on his religion, both his actual Christian faith and his imagined Muslim faith.... If Samuelson has ever demonstrated the slightest bit concerned about any of those acts of character assassination, I'm afraid I missed it.

But, oh, his heart melts for his friends in the financial industry.
Obama practices a cheap populism. He seems to presume that the complexities of the ACA and his repeated attacks on business (on oil companies, insurance companies, banks, hedge funds, private-equity funds and “the rich” in general) have no effect on the climate for investment or job creation. This is dubious.
It should be noted that Samuelson provides no context for any of this "repeated attacks", no quotes, no links. He also provides no evidence that any of President Obama's so-called attacks have resulted in any changes of policy, any economic impact, anything at all. "Dubious"? That's the best Samuelson can do? He thinks that substitutes for facts and evidence? I am aware that certain extremely wealthy people have complained that the President isn't sufficiently nice and deferential to them, and dares to suggest that they might bear some responsibility for the financial crisis and state of the economy. Samuelson apparently agrees with that. But when I look for what the President has actually said I find statements like this:
The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires; tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.

It would be nice if we could keep every tax break there is, but we’ve got to make some tough choices here if we want to reduce our deficit. And if we choose to keep those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, if we choose to keep a tax break for corporate jet owners, if we choose to keep tax breaks for oil and gas companies that are making hundreds of billions of dollars, then that means we’ve got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we’ve got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.
Or this:
While full recovery of the financial system will take a great deal more time and work, the growing stability resulting from these interventions means we're beginning to return to normalcy. But here's what I want to emphasize today: Normalcy cannot lead to complacency.

Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we're still recovering, they're choosing to ignore those lessons. I'm convinced they do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation's. So I want everybody here to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.
Does Samuelson have another, secret example of the President being mean? Because although I can characterize the elimination of tax breaks for corporate jets as symbolic, it's more than fair to suggest that calls for sacrifice should not stop with the middle class. Yet Samuelson sees that as an attack on "the rich"? Does Samuelson see a call for the end of subsidies as an attack on oil companies? An accurate assessment of the position taken by some within the financial industry, that the bailout signaled a right to return to business as usual, LIBOR fraud, reckless trading, manipulation of commodities prices, and the like, is an attack on "banks, hedge funds" and the like? Sadly, I expect so.

I'll present a counter-point from Paul Krugman:
In the wake of a devastating financial crisis, President Obama has enacted some modest and obviously needed regulation; he has proposed closing a few outrageous tax loopholes; and he has suggested that Mitt Romney’s history of buying and selling companies, often firing workers and gutting their pensions along the way, doesn’t make him the right man to run America’s economy.

Wall Street has responded — predictably, I suppose — by whining and throwing temper tantrums. And it has, in a way, been funny to see how childish and thin-skinned the Masters of the Universe turn out to be. Remember when Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group compared a proposal to limit his tax breaks to Hitler’s invasion of Poland? Remember when Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase characterized any discussion of income inequality as an attack on the very notion of success?
And I'll let you wager about which of the two gets invited to the billionaires' cocktail parties. As Krugman put it,
But here’s the thing: If Wall Streeters are spoiled brats, they are spoiled brats with immense power and wealth at their disposal. And what they’re trying to do with that power and wealth right now is buy themselves not just policies that serve their interests, but immunity from criticism.
Fear not, young bankers, Robert J. Samuelson has your back.

Why is Samuelson suddenly so concerned about "character assassination"? Why is he suddenly willing to advance the silly argument that the President's occasional, seemingly consistently accurate, statements about tax distribution and the financial industry, are somehow the cause of a slow recovery? It's pretty obvious: the President's reelection team is targeting Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital for criticism, and those attacks appear to be working.

Samuelson is on the record about "character assassination," true or untrue, fair or unfair, in elections:
We have entered an era of constitutional censorship. Hardly anyone wants to admit this -- the legalized demolition of the First Amendment would seem shocking -- and so hardly anyone does. The evidence, though, abounds. The latest is the controversy over the anti-Kerry ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and parallel anti-Bush ads by Democratic "527" groups such as Let's assume (for argument's sake) that everything in these ads is untrue. Still, the United States' political tradition is that voters judge the truthfulness and relevance of campaign arguments. We haven't wanted our political speech filtered.
That is, unless it's working for the other side better than it's working for our own, in which case it's, "Look at that horrible accident in the northbound lane!"

Update: The substance of Samuelson's attacks on Obama, which were peripheral to the discussion above, have been ably tackled by Dean Baker.

Update 2: If Samuelson is concerned that Obama's occasional, accurate rhetoric is going to devastate the economic recovery by hurting the feelings of bankers, oh, how he must hate the facts.

1 comment:

  1. Worth noting that the previous president was apparently also a Kenyan socialist:
    “The fact is that income inequality is real. It has been rising for more than 25 years,” the president said. “The earnings gap is now twice as wide as it was in 1980,” Bush said, adding that more education and training can lift peoples’ salaries. …

    “Government should not decide the compensation for America’s corporate executives,” he said. “But the salaries and bonuses of CEOs should be based on their success at improving their companies and bringing value to their shareholders.”

    In effect starting last month, the rules give investors access to clearer and more detailed information from public companies on their top executives’ pay packages and perks. Their impact will become apparent as corporations begin issuing 2006 annual reports.
    All Republicans loved him when he was in office, but Bush might be too much of a hard-left socialist for today's Republican Party.


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