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Boring is Good

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 2:43 PM EDT

Paul Krugman wants banking and finance to become boring again:

The banking industry that emerged [in the 1930s] was tightly regulated, far less colorful than it had been before the Depression, and far less lucrative for those who ran it. Banking became boring, partly because bankers were so conservative about lending: Household debt, which had fallen sharply as a percentage of G.D.P. during the Depression and World War II, stayed far below pre-1930s levels.

Strange to say, this era of boring banking was also an era of spectacular economic progress for most Americans. After 1980, however, as the political winds shifted, many of the regulations on banks were lifted — and banking became exciting again....And the meltdown came.

....But my sense is that policy makers are still thinking mainly about rearranging the boxes on the bank supervisory organization chart. They’re not at all ready to do what needs to be done — which is to make banking boring again.

Part of the problem is that boring banking would mean poorer bankers, and the financial industry still has a lot of friends in high places. But it’s also a matter of ideology: Despite everything that has happened, most people in positions of power still associate fancy finance with economic progress.

This is right on target.  High finance is always going to be more exciting than, say, running a regulated electric utility, but it shouldn't be a lot more exciting.

I've had the same thought on a narrower scale too.  There's a real sense in which credit derivatives and structured finance — things like credit default swaps and CDOs — are genuinely useful.  They shouldn't be outlawed.  But if they're done properly, the spreads on these instruments ought to be pretty thin.  Selling CDS ought to be about as exciting as selling property insurance and selling CDOs ought to be about as exciting as running a mutual fund.  But when you get to a point where merely packaging a bunch of securities and then rearranging them makes them suddenly far more lucrative — a blatant violation of the Law of One Price — you should know immediately that something is badly wrong.  These things should be reliable money spinners, but not much more.

So what's the best way of shrinking the financial industry and making it more boring?  This is plainly the key to any future regulatory reform.  Trying to cap pay, or even trying to reform how pay is established, is a hopeless task as long as the industry itself is huge and swimming in money.  But if you shrink the industry, pay takes care of itself.

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Will H.R. 875 Kill Organic Farming? Nope.

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

For a few weeks now, Internet rumors have been flying about H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The bill, proposed in February by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in response to the peanut/salmonella scare, would split the FDA into two agencies, one responsible for overseeing our national food supply and the other for drugs and devices. But an email (of the chock-full-of-exclamation-points variety) warns that Monsanto and other big aggers are behind the bill—and they want to use it to shut down every small-scale farm in the country, including your garden:

It is imperative that you look into this immediately and with extreme scrutiny as our heath and well-being are threatened!!! If this bill passes, you can say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer’s market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!

 

Taxing the Dead

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 1:52 PM EDT

Michael Kinsley has a stemwinder today in the Post about the idiocy of Democrats holding out against their own president on reform of the estate tax.  Obama wants to keep the basic rate at 45% and the exclusion at $7 million per couple.  The holdouts want 35% and $10 million.  Ramesh Ponnuru comments:

Kinsley glancingly refers later to the possibility that the prospect of leaving an estate might motivate people to work harder. But he completely ignores what seems likely to be a bigger effect: that it would motivate wealthy people to spend less. You can agree or disagree with the case that the estate tax impedes capital formation. Ignoring the debate seems like a poor way of winning it.

I'll confess that I've pretty much ignored this debate myself.  I mean, you name the tax, and conservatives always have some white paper or another making an arcane argument for why raising it would wreck the economy and end up producing less tax revenue out of the ensuing rubble.  The linked analysis is typical of the genre, full of vague handwaving and precisely zero actual evidence.

Frankly, the prospect of higher estate taxes inducing wealthy people to buy platinum-plated bathroom fixtures instead of gold-plated ones doesn't strike me as a very serious objection here.  Ponnuru thinks this "seems likely" to happen if the estate tax is kept at 45%, but I guess I'd like to see some evidence of this before I waste any time trying to refute it.  This is generally good advice in any tax argument, of course, but it's particularly good advice in estate tax debates, which are so rife with outright lies from conservatives — farmers! small businesses! socialism! — that it's usually an offense against the English language to call them debates in the first place.  If we're going to spend any serious time on this topic, I'd rather spend it on finding ways to keep the super-rich from loopholing their way out of paying any estate tax at all, not pretending that our nation's brave farming families will be devastated by a mere $7 million exemption.

In the meantime, I'll just make an obvious point: no tax lives in isolation.  The question isn't whether a tax is good or bad, it's whether it's better or worse than other taxes.  After all, money has to come from somewhere, and whenever I ask myself whether it's better for that money to come out of the pockets of dead people or live people — well, I always come up with the same answer.  Selfish of me, I suppose.

The Decline of the West

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 12:23 PM EDT

George Packer has a chat with his roofer about why he's so irritable these days.  It's not the recession, it turns out:

It turned out that cell phones had become a major headache in his work. Customers called him all the time, expecting him to hear every little complaint even while he was wrestling with a roof hatch. Meanwhile, they were more and more unreliable, not answering their phones, missing scheduled appointments.

....“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug” — he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me — “and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said — “the more educated, the worse.”

....This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions — had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

WTF?  These folks call constantly on their cell phones, so it's not that they've lost the ability to carry on a verbal conversation.  It's just that they can't do it face-to-face.  Do I have that right?

Is anyone else skeptical about this?  Obviously I have zero experience with 20-something metrosexuals in New York City, but, seriously?  Is this happening?  More anecdotes, please.

PETA to Pet Shop Boys: Roll Over

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 12:03 PM EDT

PETA has finally gathered up the courage to ask the Pet Shop Boys to change their name. Explaining that pet shops often treat animals cruelly, the group suggests that the PSB consider a more critter-friendly name, like Rescue Shelter Boys. It's not clear why PETA has waited more than 20 years to make this request, though I suspect it wanted to preempt an Onion headline that's just been waiting to be written. So what will be the next step in the campaign to remove animal cruelty from musical monikers? Asking Brian Wilson to change Pet Sounds to Animal Companion Sounds?* Hounding bands like Dogs Die in Hot Cars, Psychedelic Furs, and the Meat Puppets? MoJoer Lauren Rice proposes that Meat Loaf rechristen himself Cruelty Loaf. Or Textured Vegetable Protein Loaf. Presumably Cat Power and Animal Collective are off the hook. But just to be safe, the reunited Phish may want to rename itself Sea Kittenz.

*Nonspeciesist Beach Boys makeover after the jump.

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Beaucoupkevin used under a Creative Commons License.

Chart of the Day - 4.10.2009

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

Via Felix Salmon, this chart shows how much overdraft charges cost you.  The bar on the left (labeled POS) is from point-of-sale debit card overdrafts.  Here are the numbers: the average overdraft is $17, it's paid back in an average of five days, and the average charge is $35.  Result: you're paying $1.94 for every dollar "borrowed."  You'd probably need scientific notation to figure out the APR.

But here's the kicker:

When debit cards first came into common use, they promised the convenience of a credit card without the cost, because debit card users were required to have the funds in their account to cover their purchase or withdraw cash. As recently as 2004, 80 percent of banks still declined ATM and debit card transactions without charging a fee when account holders did not have sufficient funds in their account. But banks now routinely authorize payments or cash withdrawals when customers do not have enough money in their account to cover the transaction, so debit cards end up being very costly for many account holders.

Italics mine.  This is just so you understand how deliberate this strategy is.  The banks could easily decline NSF transactions.  They used to.  But they don't anymore because the fees from inadvertant overdrafts are so lucrative.  Alternatively, they could charge reasonable fees, since the actual administrative cost of overdrafts is minuscule these days.  But they don't.

And who pays these fees?  Small account holders with modest incomes, of course.  That's the modern banking industry for you.

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The Decline of Fearmongering

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 11:11 AM EDT

In 1950 Joe McCarthy had in his hands a list of 205 communists.  In 2009 Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) has in his hands a list of 17 socialists.  Conservatives really have lowered their sights over the past half century, haven't they?  It's kind of sad.

Legal Citizens Nabbed By ICE

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 10:44 AM EDT

The Center for Investigative Reporting on Rennison Vern Castillo, a U.S. citizen and veteran held for months after immigration officials mistakenly took him for an undocumented immigrant:

After domestic disputes with a girlfriend, he was convicted in 2005 of felony harassment and violating a no-contact order, and was sent to Pierce County Jail in Washington state for eight months. He was in a holding area with inmates about to be released when a corrections officer held him back.

Castillo was handcuffed and whisked off in a van to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. A federal officer said records showed he was an illegal immigrant.

[Snip]

Castillo went before an immigration judge, who appeared via video conference, a common procedure in the crowded immigration court system. Again, he claimed citizenship. The judge didn't believe him. He was ordered deported on Jan. 24, 2006.

ICE says cases like Castillo's are extremely rare; human rights organizations say otherwise. But the real value of a story like Castillo's lies in the picture it paints of how clumsy, disorganized and overburdened our immigration courts can be—just one indication of the need for immigration reform. A database of all legal citizens and legal aliens doesn't exist, and those suspected of being an undocumented immigrant don't have the right to an attorney during their hurried hearings.

This week, the Obama administration outlined, albeit broadly, its proposal for immigration reform, which would include a national database to check the immigration status of workers. That would, at the very least, be a start; cases like Castillo's would probably diminish completely if such a database were created. But it's only one of the problems of our broken immigration system.

Obama says he wants to take on the issue this year, a move one anti-immigration advocate said would be "politically disastrous." But the question of what to do with our undocumented immigrants—a bloc whose population shrank last year but still numbers 12 million people—is so contentious I doubt there's ever a good time to tackle it. The looming census complicates the issue even further: Parts of the right have already accused Obama of wanting to pass immigration reform before 2010 to create new Democrat-friendly districts with heavy Latino populations. They forget, though, that Latinos aren't a Democratic monolith.

1/4 of Former Lawmakers Heading to the Lobbying Ranks

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 9:51 AM EDT

This Bloomberg story is a nice compliment to Dan and my story from yesterday.

Dan and I reported that over 100 former congressional staffers and executive branch employees -- including some extremely well-connected people -- have left public service and are now lobbying on behalf of the zombie banks being kept afloat by your tax dollars. Despite Obama's efforts to change the revolving door culture of Washington, the huge gobs of money being handed out by the federal government these days means the Capitol Hill/K Street connection is more prevalent than ever. As Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation told me when we were reporting our story, "It has not gone unnoticed by special interests or K Street firms that there is a bonanza there."

It hasn't gone unnoticed by former congressmen and senators, either. According to Bloomberg, a full one-quarter of lawmakers who retired or were defeated in 2008 have moved to K Street. There is absolutely no concern anymore for the ethical questions that move creates. Bob Kaiser, author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, gave me a great bit of historical context on this when I did a Q&A with him in March. I find it fascinating. I think you might, too.

Goldman's Capital

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 12:30 AM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc., riding a rising market, is considering making a multibillion-dollar offering of its shares to investors as part of an effort to repay a $10 billion government loan, according to people familiar with the matter.

...In October, the Treasury Department forced the nation's largest banks, including those that didn't need additional capital, to take government funds. Goldman received $10 billion....Goldman executives privately say the firm doesn't need new capital to pay back the loan but doing so would signal its financial health.

Let's not shilly shally here: I don't believe a word of this.  If Goldman could pay back the loan, which they only received six months ago, they'd just do it.  Conversely, there's simply no way they'd try to raise private capital in the worst environment for stock offerings since the Depression unless they really needed the money.  What they say "privately" to the contrary isn't worth the paper it's not written on.