Economy

Chicago, Yes; Wisconsin, Huh?

As Chicago teachers union officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office were assuring Chicagoans that they had reached an agreement Friday afternoon on their contractual dispute, a judge a hundred miles north in Madison, WIsconsin struck down as unconstitutional that state’s hugely controversial law banning collective-bargaining rights for public employees. As I write, the text of the judge’s decision is not yet available, but since a ban on public-employee collective bargaining exists in many states, either the judge found new grounds to declare the law unconstitutional, or he declared it so for reasons not related to the constitutionality of such prohibitions. Nor is it yet clear whether his decision immediately reinstates the old law, or whether the effect of his decision is on hold until a higher court rules on what is sure to be the state’s appeal. ​Things are clearer down in Chi-town. There, the union has apparently agreed to a teacher-evaluation system in which student test...

Ben Bernanke, the Newest Avenger

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Ben Bernanke’s announcement Thursday that the Fed would keep easing money sent the stock market soaring, but more important was his declaration that there is only so much the Federal Reserve can do. The Fed’s latest move, approved by the policy-setting Open Market Committee, will buy a total of $85 billion in bonds every month, including $40 billion per month of mortgage-backed securities. This pumps vast sums into the economy. It is the equivalent of printing money. Bernanke’s hope is to drive down interest rates generally, especially on home mortgages. The Fed will also extend its policy further into the future and keep interest rates close to zero through 2015. But as Bernanke himself put it, monetary policy alone can’t fix what’s broken. The more important tool in a severely depressed economy is fiscal policy. And here is where Bernanke is truly playing against type. The usual script calls for a Fed chair to demand fiscal tightening in exchange for liberal interest-rate policy. It...

As Common As Dirt

In the fields of California, wage theft is how agribusiness is done.

(Photography by David Bacon)
Photography by David Bacon "As Common as Dirt" has won the 2013 James Beard Award in the Politics/Policy/Environment category. The award is the highest honor for food journalism. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network , an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health. O ne morning earlier this year, in the borderland town of Brawley, California, 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos perched on a chair in his trailer, removed a plastic bag from the well of a rubber boot, and finished dressing for work. Dawn was still an hour away, and in the wan light of the kitchen, Villalobos took off his house sandals and pulled the bag over his right foot. He bunched it at the ankle, then slipped his foot into his boot. “These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he...

Koch: It's Only Crony Capitalism When I Don't Benefit

The right-wing press is chock-a-block with articles decrying the Obama administration’s romance with industrial policy. So reflexive is this ideology that some of them are even written by major beneficiaries of industrial policy, whose sense of entitlement must be so ingrained that they fail to notice this anomaly. Exhibit A appeared in Monday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page, in which Charles Koch of Koch Brothers fame took out after crony capitalism and industrial policy. “We are on dangerous terrain when government picks winners and losers in the economy by subsidizing favored products and industries,” Koch wrote. He further complained that government is currently “subsidizing and mandating politically favored products in the energy sector,” singling out “solar, wind and biofuels” for examples of sectors currently being helped out. But not a word about oil and gas can be found in Koch’s litany of complaints. Could this be because Koch Industries, of which Koch is chairman and CEO,...

Angela Merkel's Bad Medicine

The German chancellor’s remedy of austerity is killing Europe, and the failure to contain financial speculation is spreading the epidemic.

(Flickr/World Economic Forum)
O n July 26, as traders were once again deserting Spain’s government bonds, setting up the risk of a default and a deeper crisis of the euro, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank surprised and delighted financial markets. Speaking off the cuff in London, he vowed to do “whatever it takes” to save the European economy. Eric Palma The escalating crisis of speculative attacks on government bonds had spread from Greece to Portugal to Ireland to Spain and Italy, threatening to take down the euro and the European Union. It was a message that political leaders had been waiting for. The markets read Draghi’s statement as an audacious declaration that he would begin massive bond purchases, ending the threat of a slide into European depression. A week later, a chastened Draghi walked it all back. There would be no such purchases, he said, not until governments did their part by getting their budgets under control. Draghi made a rare disclosure of some of the infighting that led...

Europe: Old Austerity in New Bottles

In late July, European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi, speaking off the cuff in London, pledged to do “whatever it takes” to save the Euro, including massive intervention in bond markets to keep speculators from extending the Greek disease to Spain and Italy, where interest rates were ominously rising. This impressed money markets for a few days—until investors realized that Draghi’s commitment came with big strings. Strapped countries benefitting from these purchases would first have to double down on austerity. No thanks, said the leaders of Spain and Italy. On September 6, Draghi tried once more. After more than a month of consultations with his own board and national leaders, he declared that the ECB would make unlimited purchases of short term government bonds. He claimed “a massive majority of the [ECB] governing council for this concept.” But the council member who mattered most, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, remained adamantly opposed. A Bundesbank press...

Third Night of the DNC: TV & Twitter Review

So the DNC gave us a week that got more and more sober as it went on. By last night, we were down and dirty with tough choices and grim policies. Foreign policy dominated the early part of the evening, with a salute to military veterans that had many in my Twitter feed commenting on how strange it was that the parties have switched places. The Republicans hadn’t even mentioned the wars or the veterans; as conservative Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted , “Really was malpractice, and wrong, for Romney not to mention troops in Iraq, Afghanistan in convention speech.” And so for a night the Democrats became the party of LBJ again, the party of a strong military and uncompromising attack. By the time Joe Biden trotted out his bumper sticker line, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!” the crowd chanted it with him. How strange was that: a crowd of Democrats cheering for someone’s head on a plate, and for a business bailout? Don’t get me wrong; I understand that both absolutely had to...

Second Night of the DNC: TV and Twitter Review

The early part of last night’s DNC TV show couldn’t match Tuesday night. As I wrote yesterday, that first night rocked out over the body issues: health care for all, equal pay for women, open LGBT military service, repro rights, equal marriage laws—the human values of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. The speakers preached, and the crowd roared. The night was, as Robert Kuttner writes, a full-on embrace of the social issues that the Republicans have been attacking for decades. You hate homos? We love them! You think women are lying sluts? We believe in women’s integrity! It was awe-inspiring and energizing. Last night’s implicit theme was It’s The Economy, Stupid. Union dudes and CEOs stood up and explained—well, I couldn’t tell you what they explained, exactly, because one after another, they were so boring that my eyes rolled to the back of my head and my wife insisted that we turn it down the volume to “inaudible hum.” As Molly Ball (@mollyesque) tweeted, “The...

Foreclosure Free-For-All

The CFPB is getting resistance from its allies on proposed mortgage policies. 

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
It's almost four years since the economy cratered, yet 11 million homes—accounting for 23 percent of all outstanding mortgages— remain underwater. The Obama administration's efforts to shore up the housing market by offering incentives for refinancing, rather than the government directly purchasing loans, has been an utter failure ; countless homeowners have been left desperately negotiating with their lenders to modify the terms of their loan and more often than not, being tossed onto the street by mortgage servicers. Servicers are the companies that process mortgage payments; they're also the point of contact should something go amiss, resolving a defaulted mortgage by either restructuring the loan or beginning foreclosure proceedings. During normal times, servicers could better handle the requests of an occasional delinquent borrower. When the avalanche fell in 2009 and a massive pool of customers could no longer make the monthly payments, the incentives shifted, often pushing...

Where’s William Jennings Bryan When You Need Him?

(AP Photo)
The Financial Times is reporting that the Republican platform to be unveiled in Tampa next week calls for establishing a commission to examine whether the United States should go back on the gold standard. The theory behind this antiquarian fantasy, much loved by Ron Paul and his cult, is that by de-linking the dollar from the value of gold—a move begun by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and completed by President Richard Nixon in 1971—America’s leaders have debased our currency and loosed the genies of inflation, since the Federal Reserve can print as many dollars as it likes. It’s a curious time to call for a reversion to gold, but then virtually nothing in the Republican platform speaks to the America of today. For one thing, America hasn’t had a real bout of inflation since the 1970s, and in recent years, inflation has been nowhere to be found. Second, the dollar has never been stronger. The world’s investors have flocked to buy dollars in recent years. The interest payments...

“Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier”

Another day, another survey charting the decline of the American middle class. Yesterday, the Pew Research Center weighed in with “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” to which they appended the kicker, “Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier.” The median net worth of the middle-tier households (Pew defines “middle-tier” as households whose income is between two-thirds and twice the national median) declined from $152,950 in 2007 to $93,150 in 2010, reflecting the sharp loss in home value. Taking the longer view, people in the middle tier made 62 percent of all the household income in the United States in 1970, but just 45 percent in 2010. Middle tiersters didn’t lose to the lower tier, whose share of the national income also declined, from 10 percent to 9 percent. They lost it to the upper tier (who else?), whose share of national income rose from 29 percent to 46 percent. It’s not so much the bottom but the middle that’s fallen out of the economy. But be of good cheer. On Wednesday, the same day...

Five Things Government Does Better Than You Do

We know a lot less about how to manage money than we think.

(Flickr / Sheffield Tiger)
When Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and other hard-line conservatives talk about cutting the government’s budget, their primary rationale is that individuals can make better decisions with their own money than the government can. As Ryan himself said to an audience at Georgetown University, “We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families and to communities.” It sounds reasonable—of course we want individuals to have power, and of course we want communities to take care of their neediest members. And since conservatives have done a fine job of portraying the government as full of heartless, inept bureaucrats, allowing people to make their own decisions sounds better than the alternative. The conservative approach to government stems from a basic tenet of free-market economics: that people always act rationally to maximize their own benefits, and that from this rises a general state of well-being for...

Corn, Corn Everywhere, But Not a Bite to Eat

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm with members of the McIntosh family including Don McIntosh, third from right, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Missouri Valley, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa. L ast week, the United States Department of Agriculture released a report on the state of the country’s corn, and the verdict is not good. The report—the first that estimates production based on surveying the fields of U.S. farmers—shows that farmers are on track to produce 10.8 billion bushels of corn this year, a 17 percent drop from last year. This summer’s drought has parched King Corn: some ears have only a few sweet kernels to offer, others droop, brown and defeated. 10.8 billion bushels is still a lot of corn. The USDA report notes that this year’s harvest could be the smallest since 2006. What it doesn’t point out is there are only two years in U.S. history...

Obama's European Socialist Empire

(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
It has been a long time since Europe has featured so prominently in an American presidential race. Republicans, in particular, have seen the crisis plaguing the Eurozone as an opportunity to attack president Obama, who—they claim—is leading America away from its core values and towards the sickly collectivism prevalent in the European Union. Mitt Romney, in one of those hilarious-but-horrifying Republican debates last September, spoke of a president “taking his inspiration […] from the socialist democrats in Europe," before pointing out that he, in contrast, believed in America. His vice-presidential pick, Paul Ryan, was complaining to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza about the lurch towards a European style of government in March 2009, before the crisis in Greece had begun, and has continued invoking the frightening specter of the Europeanization of American as the Eurozone’s woes have deepened. It is well known that political campaigns leave little room for facts and sober analysis. I...

Too Long, Didn't Read My Rights

A new website helps consumers understand legal agreements

(Flickr/farouq_taj)
I'm not a huge fan of the internet acronym tl;dr. For those who are unaware, it stands for "too long; didn't read." As someone who writes long features for a magazine, I like to think readers will read a longer piece of writing if it is properly engaging. However, there is one form of writing that certainly doesn't meet that standard: terms-of-service agreements. Sure, you'll likely page through the agreements for longer, seemingly weightier agreements like mortgages and credit cards. But what about the daily legal pacts you sign as a matter of course? Want to buy something from the iTunes store? You'll have to wade through over 15,000 words of legalese. Even then, should you want to download an app for your iPhone, you'll need to consent to yet another agreement. Most consumers agree to these without bothering to read the handful of clauses in which they sign away the bulk of their legal rights. Thankfully, a new website is crowdsourcing the task of translating complex lawyer speak...

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