Monday, September 30, 2013

Dude, Where's My Pension?

One of the most egregiously inaccurate memes in America today is that there is a large class of takers/losers/slackers/Democrats who rake in money, benefits, and services they did not earn so they can continue an indolent lifestyle. They take it, as the story goes, from hard-working Americans, the ones who have jobs, pay their taxes, are pro-family, and vote Republican. I can hear it now: "This country would be fine if it weren't for certain of us getting what they don't deserve."

But as has been so common as of late, redstate angst has been fueled and then redirected by those who jerk their nose ring. One wonders how unequal wealth has to get in this country before all of us, not just some of us, realize how jaw-droppingly wrong the "creators vs takers" mythology really is.

Wall Street continues to play the central role in the trickle-up of assets from the middle class to the one percent. One way not well publicized, no surprise, is how these financiers raid public pension funds.

First a prelude. You have undoubtedly heard how burdensome state and local pension funds have become and how the gap between funded and unfunded obligations continues to grow. It is this growing gap that has conservatives howling about how public employees, goaded on by their reckless unions, are destroying state finances. Underneath it all is the conviction that the teachers and other workers have padded themselves enormous nest eggs they not only don't deserve, but have to be paid by the rest of us. Teachers living high on the hog? Who knew?
That brings us to Matt Taibbi, a journalist among the best at getting at the facts and telling a great story, especially the kind oligarchs would prefer you didn't hear. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Taibbi relates how pension funds are being looted by Wall Street. There is a lot in it, including some background on Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo and her Wall Street-financed role in gutting her state's public pensions and how Rhode Island became a model now being inflicted on the rest of us.

I urge you to read it all, but I'll highlight several points here. Whiz-kid Raimondo helped push through state legislation a cynic would call "pension reform", but financiers call gravy. The new legislation has enabled Raimondo to turn over millions of dollars of pension assets to hedge funds, who have the unmatched ability to generate huge fees, regardless of performance. Worse, the hedgies are run by ideologues who sit on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes privatizing public pensions. Nice way to get paid.

One implication, as Taibbi notes, is that Rhode Island's public workers are losing control of their assets, where they are invested, and how hefty the fees might be.
The state's workers, in other words, were being forced to subsidize their own political disenfranchisement, coughing up at least $200 million to members of a group that had supported anti-labor laws. Later, when Edward Siedle, a former SEC lawyer, asked Raimondo in a column for how much the state was paying in fees to these hedge funds, she first claimed she didn't know. Raimondo later told the Providence Journal she was contractually obliged to defer to hedge funds on the release of "proprietary" information, which immediately prompted a letter in protest from a series of freaked-out interest groups. Under pressure, the state later released some fee information, but the information was originally kept hidden, even from the workers themselves. "When I asked, I was basically hammered," says Marcia Reback, a former sixth-grade schoolteacher and retired Providence Teachers Union president who serves as the lone union rep on Rhode Island's nine-member State Investment Commission. "I couldn't get any information about the actual costs."
 Taibbi goes on to say:
Today, the same Wall Street crowd that caused the crash is not merely rolling in money again but aggressively counterattacking on the public-relations front. The battle increasingly centers around public funds like state and municipal pensions. This war isn't just about money. Crucially, in ways invisible to most Americans, it's also about blame. In state after state, politicians are following the Rhode Island playbook, using scare tactics and lavishly funded PR campaigns to cast teachers, firefighters and cops - not bankers - as the budget-devouring bogeymen responsible for the mounting fiscal problems of America's states and cities.
Taibbi tells us that the looting began as early as 1974, with the passage of ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Not a bad law, as it was intended to protect retirement accounts in sundry ways. Unfortunately, congress saw to that a huge loophole exempted public pensions. And that is when the fun began. The loophole in ERISA is what has allowed politicians of all stripes to raid --they would say "borrow"-- public pensions to redirect funds to more immediate needs, some worthy, some less so. But this is the reason there are unfunded pension liabilities; it's easier to borrow than it is to pay back.

It is not unlike social security, which has grown an enormous surplus-- the opposite of what conservatives tell you--only to see it "borrowed." Paying back the unfunded pension plans, just as putting the money back into the Social Security Trust Fund, is indeed painful, but it is not because the funding requirements have been onerous. Wall Street and mostly Republican politicians want you to think they are, so you will acquiesce to the ongoing destruction of middle class pensions.  

This shit gets so depressing. What galls me is not just that Wall Street and the politicians it has bought continue to reshape the country to suit moneyed interests, it's that so many of us don't see it, or believe crap that tries to pin it all on unions, spending, deficits, or those "job-killing" regulations. People at the top, where the money and power are, have convinced people in the middle, where the votes are, that undeserving people at the bottom, where the misery is, are the problem.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Trade Gets No Respect

I posted earlier this summer about international trade and why the US media has little to say about it. I contended that the investor class does not want to talk much about international trade because an informed electorate would threaten the continuance of free trade's role in an inherently unequal economic system on which the privileged and powerful depend.

For some, mostly wealthy, mostly Republican, and mostly on the Right,  there is not much to discuss regarding free trade; for them it is the default position that rarely needs defending, except to marginalize and shame heretics who might be tempted to explore the vast chasm between the orthodox gospel theory of free trade and the brutal empiricism of what the rest of us call the real world. They are rather oblivious to distinctions between global trade, which has many benefits, and unfettered free trade, which doesn't.

There is, of course, the cynical proponent, the paid operative, side by side with the ideologically-committed true believer. The former are less interested in the vagaries of free trade as an economic doctrine, but are determined to crack the whip of orthodoxy because they are, like the true believers, pleased to see global trade increase, but also because ever-increasing global trade contributes to what they view as the proper hierarchy of power, the one that puts corporations, the powerful men who run them, and that ever-astute risk-taking investor on top, and workers and other less morally-deserving hoi polloi on the bottom. Their incessant message is that robust and unfettered trade represents efficiency, choice, and competition, all of which we are told to crave and admire. You can't compete? Don't be weak, it's your fault anyway, so suck it up.

Having said this, it is also true that many on the Left do not have much to say about international trade, as it is currently playing out, despite bountiful data and a well-developed but under-utilized theoretical framework that vividly describes reality: unfettered, global trade impoverishes the working class and enriches (most) corporations and the managerial and investor classes.

Of course, there has been some protest against globalization. There is currently a push-back, one that may be growing, against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just as there was against NAFTA. Nevertheless, the TPP remains a second-tier concern for the Left.

The Left finds itself once again ideologically divided, its modest resources spread thin. Protesting the ravages of aggressive trade means the Left, to some extent, aligns itself with Corporate America. If you protest, say, Chinese or Korean steel dumping in the US, you not only are taking the ostensible view of the US Chamber of Commerce (e.g., imports are fine, but only at market prices), but you are uniting with the America's economic aristocracy, largely white, Republican, and reactionary.

And this is something the Left cannot abide. It is easier to view the US as economic aggressor. With that as their default position, few are willing to rally against Chinese trade aggression or systemic Korean disregard for American patents, copyrights, or intellectual property. We see occasional outbursts against China's export quality control, such as with food additives, but that is because our health as individuals is threatened. But cheap Chinese products as a growing threat to America's economic interests? Yeah, maybe, but I have a save-a-bug rally to attend, so later, dude.

What the US does in international commerce is considered an existential threat. To report critically about what China does is effortlessly labeled as fear-mongering and bigotry. The Left will do anything to avoid such charges, so any viewpoint that might equate the two countries is embraced very reluctantly. Accordingly, we rarely see any on the Left protesting the systematic circle jerk to which China subjects American companies.

The Left wants to see other nations, at least the non-white ones, as valiantly defending their economic sovereignty. American corporations are the modern exemplars of economic imperialism. The Left too often is content to view avarice as uniquely American (or western); nations whose citizens have brown or black skin are perpetually the designated victim.

To be sure, the American Left opposes oppression of civil rights abroad, be it China, Iran, or Zimbabwe. But when they care to look at the massive, chronic trade deficits the US has with Asia and elsewhere, or when they read how corrupt officials stonewall foreign companies in China, steal technology, or hack our government's computers, the protests are muted. Instead a blame-America-first mentality kicks in. Those on the Right complain about this all the time, and they have a point.

To fairly examine East Asia's neo-mercantilist complicity in America's de-industrialization requires a willingness to confront uncomfortable realities, so most on the Left move on to something less ambiguous, like minimum wage increases, or social security. Others, of course, focus on social issues, such as gay marriage or abortion rights. The dismantling of American industry remains a low priority with purveyors of identity politics.