Citigroup

The Problem with Purportedly Apolitical Policy Wonks: Their Faulty Logic

Peter Orszag opines from the politically sheltered comfort of his gig at Citigroup that we have too much democracy.

I’ll say more about specific claims he makes below, but first, let me point out a fundamental problem with his argument. He suggests we need to establish institutions insulated from our so-called polarization to tackle the important issues facing this country. That argument is all premised on the assumption that policy wonks sheltered from politics, as he now is, make the right decisions. But not only is his own logic faulty in several ways–for example, he never proves that polarization (and not, say, money in politics or crappy political journalism or a number of other potential causes) is the problem. More importantly, he never once explains why the Fed–that archetypal independent policy institution–hasn’t been more effective at counteracting our economic problems.

If the Fed doesn’t work–and it arguably has not and at the very least has ignored the full employment half of its dual mandate–then there’s no reason to think Orszag’s proposed solution of taking policy out of the political arena would work.

Here’s Orszag’s initial claim that polarization is dooming our country.

During my recent stint in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was clear to me that the country’s political polarization was growing worse—harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing. If you need confirmation of this, look no further than the recent debt-limit debacle, which clearly showed that we are becoming two nations governed by a single Congress—and that paralyzing gridlock is the result.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, in response to the debt limit charade, voter approval of Congress and the President pretty much tanked. And while we don’t know how voters will act on their disgust with Congress’ (and the President’s) inaction, polling at least suggests that Congress will pay for the debt limit fiasco. It also suggests that support for the Tea Party, the architect of that fiasco, continues to decline. Which seems to suggest that democracy is working, it will end up punishing elected representatives for playing games with our country’s future, it will have precisely the result you’d want for such idiocy.

Add in the fact that Orszag later points to the automatic triggers that that flawed political process put in place.

Beyond automatic stabilizers, we also need more backstop rules: events that take place if Congress doesn’t act. In this sense, the fiscal trigger created as part of the debt-limit negotiations is a good step forward. It leads to automatic spending reductions if Congress doesn’t enact measures to reduce the deficit; in other words, it changes the default from inaction to action.

In other words, Orszag points to the debt-limit fiasco (and returns to it in his closing paragraph) as the best example of the problem with politics, but then points to the automatic triggers that resulted from that fiasco as a good thing. I don’t necessarily agree with him on that point, but his own logic doesn’t make any sense. He’s simultaneously saying the debt limit fight was the worst thing ever, but applauding the result.

Curiously, while Orszag tries to claim that the problem with all of Congress is polarization, rather than polarization being a problem in the House and Senate rules being a problem in the Senate (plus, the money in politics and crappy political journalism I mentioned earlier), he makes no mention of the number of centrists in the Senate. Perhaps that’s because the centrists back policy proposals (like immediate cuts) to the right of what Orszag proposes in his piece (which notes that economists advocate holding off on cuts and advocates for progressive taxation). The most likely outcome of more non-partisan or bipartisan commissions, then, are policies that aren’t the ones Orszag champions.

Which means the key to these so-called independent commissions would immediately get us into the question of who chooses them? Peter Orszag cites, among others, former Vice Chair of the Fed, Alan Blinder with approval; but he has been criticized for his own failed independence. Will we use the process that resulted in the selection of Ben Bernanke and the rest of the current Fed, that hasn’t even fulfilled its mandate, much less necessarily made the right decisions on restoring our economy?

In short, Orszag promises that independent wonks will make the right decisions for the country. But in making that argument he shows that even policy wonks sheltered from politics, like him, allow bad logic and personal biases to cloud their decisions.

The FDIC Takes Over a Bank

I made a juvenile joke the other day about the Northeast taking over Commerce and Freedom in Georgia. But the reality that banks are being taken over by the FDIC all over the country is no laughing matter.

FDIC allowed 60 Minutes to follow it as it closed down one small bank–watch the YouTube to see how it works (in this case it was fDiC taking over our Heritage, ha ha).

Two things, though. First, notice Sheila Bair’s reaction to two questions: how many more (she didn’t answer, "tons") and why not Citi (she didn’t answer, "we’re not equipped to take over Citi yet"). If I were Sheila Bair, I’d already be having nightmares about FDIC’s upcoming feast on Citi.

As to the latter point, remember this video shows a five branch bank being taken over, and the FDIC stationed 8 FDIC employees at each branch when they did the simultaneous takeover. How many branches does Citi have? This says 1,400, plus 3,800 ATMs. So 8 employees for all 1,400 branches, and the FDIC needs at least 11,200 employees just for the takeover, even before you get to runs on the ATMs and the website and the infrastructure (and given the global reach of Citi, "simultaneous" gets more challenging). I guess that’s why they’re hiring in big ways.

Citi, Morgan Stanley, Not Paying Their Taxes

Add one more thing to the "no one could have imagined" file: The GAO reports that Citigroup and Morgan Stanley have been sneaking their money off shore so as to avoid paying taxes.

The new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, released today by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), lists Citigroup and Morgan Stanley as having set up hundreds of tax haven subsidiaries, along with American International Group and Bank of America. Also in the tax-haven list are well-known companies and such federal contractors as American Express, Pepsi and Caterpillar.

[snip]

"This report shows that some of our country’s largest companies and federal contractors, many of which are household names, continue to use offshore tax havens to avoid paying their fair share of taxes to the U.S. And, some of those companies have even received emergency economic funds from the government," Dorgan said. "I think we should take action to shut down these tax dodgers, and we will be introducing legislation to do just that."

To illustrate the problem, Levin said the report found that Citigroup has set up 427 tax haven subsidiaries to conduct its business, including 91 in Luxembourg, 90 in the Cayman Islands and 35 in the British Virgin Islands. He said other havens include Switzerland, Hong Kong, Panama and Mauritius.

What Levin didn’t say, of course, is that these tax havens allow them to avoid financial oversight, too.

But I’m sure that won’t stop anyone from dumping billions of money into these firms–no questions asked–so they can continue to sneak the money off to the Caymans while the US goes broke. 

Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @natnicol Really, entire bar comes down to whether you can keep necessaries away from proctor isn't it? Hell I could pass that! @sarahjeong
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emptywheel @TyreJim I've only started with them. But them, I'm half-way to dead and still have only a radiation tattoo. @sarahjeong
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emptywheel @TyreJim If her Tor sticker were the one the NSA uses, with the hairy "terrorist" dude, that'd be lethal too. @sarahjeong
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emptywheel Bibi likely thinking to himself, "Ha! That windsurfer had to have a girl defend him."
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bmaz @carimachet @kevinjonheller But don't blow shit up my ass and tell me what and how to think on legal issues.
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emptywheel @sarahjeong Sure you will! YOu're missing the "National Security Agency Monitored Device" one, which is the real sticker of death. @TyreJim
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bmaz @carimachet @kevinjonheller Would IHL if applied properly make a difference? Along with other modalities, of course. Is it currently, no.
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bmaz @carimachet @kevinjonheller No, I will not argue your point because you are egregiously mischaracterizing what Kevin has opined.
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emptywheel @TyreJim Was thinking that myself. Going into the bar exam and not prepping to litigate the meaning of "excessive." @sarahjeong
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bmaz @carimachet @kevinjonheller I have known, seen and read Kevin for quite a while now and think you are terribly mistaken.
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bmaz @ryanjreilly Getting pretty close to every time now, albeit some a little more shaded than others.
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emptywheel @JasonLeopold To be fair, they ARE a bunch of liars, starting from the top. Question is are they lying THIS TIME?
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July 2014
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