Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Do You Define "Recovery?"

Listening to the nightly news or reading or listening to "expert" economists spin the latest government data is an interesting exercise these days. To hear the "recovery" cheerleaders tell it the latest week of declining new jobless claims, "impressive" holiday sales figures, reports of increased private sector jobs and an upward swing in other obscure economic indicators we are pointing to a not-so-bad national economy heading into 2011. I would suggest it depends on your perspective--if you have a job circumstances are certainly brighter than for the millions of people still unemployed or significantly underemployed as a result of the Great Recession. How does the term "recovery" translate for them? Not so bright, I'm afraid.

The numbers remain staggering with 15 million people still classified as unemployed with an ever increasing percentage of this total more seriously unemployed for a year, two years or longer. In the latter case, many of these folks have not only exhausted their regular savings but also their retirement nest egg savings, borrowed all they can from friends and relatives, and even sold their jewelry or prized family possessions to try to make ends meet. Still others have reached the absolute bottom of their financial well and face bankruptcy and/or foreclosure on their homes. Outdoor homeless camps seem to be sprouting up and growing larger outside many major U.S. cities, thousands are sleeping in their cars or forced to move back into cramped quarters with elderly parents or relatives, and record numbers are depending on government food stamps or private food banks barely able to keep up with the increased demand. If there is an economic "recovery" in progress it certainly isn't trickling down to these particular Americans.

And it's certainly no picnic for "older" unemployed workers either, those 55 or older downsized at no fault of their own because they're easy targets for budget cutting with salaries and/or benefits that have grown to certain levels due to decades of dedicated service. Ageism in today's job marketplace is blatant. Companies know that "older" people in this economy cannot afford to litigate so hiring managers everywhere are boldly instructing their HR gatekeepers to eliminate any candidate resumes with 15, 20 or more years of experience, no matter how impressive the credentials, and even though most of these candidates would be more than willing to take substantial pay cuts just to secure a job. The fallout from this practice is not only an incredible "brain drain" of quality candidates forced from the workforce but the long-term economic consequences of "older" workers that basically fall into a growing involuntary retirement category who by necessity must prematurely tap their retirement nest eggs merely to survive. And if the nation's Social Security system is not already under tremendous stress, record numbers are also being forced to take early retirement at 62 despite decreased benefit levels. Delaying retirement to the full benefit stage is no longer an option because no one will hire them and they need the money. Granted there are exceptions to this rule where internal politics, nepotism or a "good old boy" network exists but these more fortunate situations are far outnumbered by the masses of ordinary Americans.

So in the final analysis the term "recovery" is diluted by a new economic reality for 2010 and beyond. A once relatively prosperous middle class is now under siege. Without meaningful full-time replacement jobs (and discounting all of the "job creation" statistics bloated with temporary or part-time positions) huge middle class numbers that in the past could be counted on to fuel a true economic recovery are just no longer there. By necessity, these once dependable consumers are dialing back their lifestyles big time because many may never work again, especially "older" Americans, or, alternatively, must compete with larger numbers of Americans forced into minimum wage jobs paying a fraction of their former salaries (if they can get by the "overqualified" employer argument, that is). Instead of a consumption mode, these middle class Americans must revert to a survival mode. The sooner these economic recovery optimists recognize this new societal economic landscape and, more importantly, the sooner the Obama administration and the Congress examine more closely the statistics they are being fed and recognize the true crisis and importance in America today with respect to job creation instead of partisan bickering the better it will be for millions of Americans. How "recovery" is defined from this time forward will be far different from the past in order for the term and its users to accurately retain their credibility with a majority of Americans.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Congress is Broken--It's Time for a Fix

Recent polls indicate that only 17 percent of Americans approve of the job the Congress is doing. Surprise? Hardly. Pure and simple, more and more Americans are sick and tired of the gridlock, the finger pointing and over-the-top partisanship. The body is flat out dysfunctional and their record of accomplishment is abysmal. The body routinely passes 1,000-1,500 page bills that the congressmen themselves admit they have not read. For the sake of party and politics, either you have much ballyhooed Rose Garden signings or minority party sound bites sensationalizing perceived legislation flaws. The end result is more often than not bad legislation that then requires more time consuming and equally contentious "fix-up" legislation ad infinitum. I have to believe our Founding Fathers would be absolutely appalled at the current process and how the government's legislative function has evolved. Certainly, the times and the issues are much more complex now than in those early days but the model is now sadly battered beyond recognition.

Modern day examples are too numerous to mention but what about financial regulatory reform legislation as just one. Either you have legislation that is weakened or altered beyond recognition in the translation to regulations or laws and follow-up regulations misinterpreted or not enforced by incompetent and undermanned regulatory bodies. Topping the list is the flood of legislation that emerged after the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall legislation in the Clinton administration originally passed after the Great Depression to separate commercial and investment banking, the Sarbanes-Oxley or SOX legislation post Enron and WorldCom that in the beginning may have been well meaning to make Boards and management teams more financially accountable to investors but has since proved to be an administrative and extremely expensive nightmare for smaller companies, and, now, the latest round of post-Great Recession "reform" legislation that has passed the House and Senate in differing versions and now must be reconciled in what is sure to be a contentious conference committee process. It's legislation that more often than not is conceptualized in a reactive rather than proactive mode and then almost always must navigate a minefield of overly partisan political theatrics, demagoguery, and populism as well as powerful and hugely financed corporate lobbies. Add in archaic congressional procedural rules and inevitable delays on the road to passage or failure due to any number of reasons and you have dysfunction.

Many will argue that our representative Congress is better than any alternative despite its flaws. It's the American and Democratic way. Granted, this assessment has validity but this doesn't mean that there can't be meaningful improvements to what we now have and what it has become. At a minimum, elected representatives should be mandated--no exceptions--to vote in accordance to the wishes of their constituents and their districts and not in lock step to the party hierarchy. More strict limitations on fund-raising and political donations should be established for individuals, corporations and their PACs and loopholes closed for the Move structural hybrids, including an energized objective enforcement, so representatives are less beholden to various interests, especially those with the deepest pockets or the most powerful lobbyists. Media political ads before they are printed or aired should be subjected to a more academic and non-partisan censorship system that is above reproach and there should be equal limits on how much space and/or time can be purchased as well as when and how often all advertisements are run. Ideally, this oversight should include the Internet but I also realize this may not be possible or practical with today's technology. Finally, much stronger rules need to be established for policing the employment of ex-congressmen with businesses and corporations, especially ex-chairmen or committee members under whose jurisdiction relevant legislation falls.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But 83 percent of Americans is a pretty convincing majority that demands something be done with how the Congress now performs. It's easy to say just "throw the bums out" but as a practical matter in today's gerrymandered system of "safe" districts what are the odds for any significant improvement? History has shown over the years that we need to do more than change personalities, much more. Bottom line, today's system is broken and needs to be fixed. It is not a sacred cow. While a 100 percent or even 90 percent approval rating for the Congress may be a real stretch we surely should be able to set our sights on a level significantly higher than today's anemic standards. Let's face it, the future welfare of this country and millions of Americans are at stake and to sit back and do nothing is not and should not be an option.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Enough Already...Let's Move On!

Yesterday's Washington health care reform summit, while perhaps well-intentioned, just extended the futility of the Obama administration in trying to forge some sort of compromise with Republicans on achieving any true reform on this important issue anytime soon. The President is desperate to trumpet success on a signature promise of his campaign but the Republicans are just as desperate to block it. Answer? For the good of the country and its citizens we must move on to address the far more pressing joblessness dilemma in this country before it becomes a national death spiral beyond the point of no return.

Alarmist? I don't think so. According to the Labor Department, jobless claims bumped up close to 500,000 in the latest week while the measurable number of long-term unemployed--those out of work over six months and near the end of their unemployment benefits--continues to grow. (The key word here is "measurable" since BLS "official" numbers continue to underestimate the true breadth of the crisis.) Other economic indicators like new orders for durable goods and housing starts continue to stagger along. Yes, the Congress may yet finally pass a modest bipartisan jobs bill but it is far too little in the face of an ever deepening problem. We need leadership at the highest level to present bold, new FDR era-like initiatives because it is increasingly obvious the private sector likely will remain on the sidelines much longer awaiting a true recovery before they will resume any real, substantive job hiring.

In the meantime, the suffering of a once vibrant middle class of Americans continues unabated. Government outreach programs are woefully inadequate and bogged down with needless paperwork and bureaucracy. Solid citizens who have diligently and proudly worked for decades, always paid their bills on time and enjoyed comfortable yet not lavish lifestyles are for the first time facing the nightmare of their lives and once unthinkable symbols of societal failure in foreclosure, bankruptcy, divorce and worse. Discussion boards on the Internet are flooded with thousands of stories of personal despair and desperation. From all over America across all demographics the stories are sad and frightening, not just for those unemployed, underemployed or otherwise hurting but also for many fortunate enough with jobs yet fearful that they, too, could join the ranks of the less fortunate as what has been described as the "nascent" recovery sputters.

Americans have a history of strength and resiliency but when you take away their ability to work to support their families and their "pursuit of happiness" it's like a dagger to the heart. Life basically stops during unemployment--roles are reversed, relationships altered, priorities shift, and emotions boil over. Add in the ongoing frustrations and humiliation of fruitless job searches, sleepless nights, constant money worries, including agonizing over having to borrow from friends and relatives for the very first time, and the loss of individual security and dignity and it is not difficult to see how job loss ranks right at the top by experts as one of the most stressful events in any lifetime.

So...Mr. President and members of Congress, enough already! Isn't it about time to put country ahead of party and politics, compassion ahead of money, greed and lobbyists, and responsibility ahead of foot-dragging and do a full-court press on the unemployment crisis in this country? Americans need you to do what we elected you to do--work as hard as you can to especially help those most in need so they and our country can be the very best (it) we can be. The suffering and despair are real, yet the disconnect between constituents and elected officials in Washington and in our state capitols grows deeper. It's past time to step up and make a change. It's too late for many but opportunities remain for millions more. Let's move on!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

OK, What Do We Do Now?

Borrowing Robert Redford's line after he unexpectedly won his election in the movie, The Candidate, no more appropriate words could describe the political and economic environments at this time, one year into President Obama's presidency. Anyone who is anyone, irregardless of political party, could not disagree with the fact that the populist unhappiness with the current state of affairs in the economy and so many lives is not the fault of one man--there is plenty of blame to spread around, including former presidents Bush and Clinton, the Congress, the Republicans, the Democrats--yet as the point person in our form of government in the U.S., rightly or wrongly, President Obama and his administration are obvious targets because he is the current captain of the ship. The daunting challenge now is to keep the ship from sinking despite the larger and larger waves of suffering and dissatisfaction.

We've heard the statement many times in recent weeks--"what a difference a year makes." A year ago President Obama was swept into office with hopes of change and political non-partisanship to help usher in his ambitious agenda. But therein lies two of his problems--party partisanship and gridlock are more entrenched now than ever and maybe his agenda was too ambitious and many would argue not prioritized as it should have been. Let's face it, despite the rhetoric, the Republicans covertly have hoped all along the President would fail because a legislative victory in his health care reform effort, or any major legislative initiative for that matter, could mean the wave of positive momentum could sink the Republican Party, already barely treading water from ideological differences between its moderate and far right, conservative wings. Merits or not, whether it's the cost, the deficits, federal government intrusion in our lives or ineptitude, you name it, health care reform could not and would not succeed without at least some Republican support. Enter the unemployment crisis and the lingering effects of the Great Recession allowed to fester during the President's watch while a contentious health care reform debate drags on for months and months and you have a perfect storm for what happened in Massachusetts--a Republican senator elected for the first time since 1972. I'm not saying health care reform is not important or badly needed--almost universally this is a given--it's just that the economy and joblessness should trump even health care reform at this time. What good is health care reform when people don't have jobs to pay for it even when you factor federal subsidies in the equation? One could also argue that provisions in the House and Senate-approved plans could even be at least a partial contributing factor in why businesses aren't hiring new employees because of the plans' projected cost implications and advertised penalties to business for non-compliance. At this point, decisions will have to be made on whether any real reform is possible in this overly partisan political environment and/or what watered down version could emerge worthy of the President's signature. If I were a betting man, I would have to say that the chances are not good--certainly below the over 50 percent needed.

So, all this being said, President Obama and his team now are forced to chart a new course in these turbulent waters. Health care reform is relegated to a sidebar issue and the targeted focus turns to where it probably should have been in the first place--the economy and jobs. We'll hear more details on the new course direction in the President's State of the Union address this week. How much the President and his team can really do to help on today's job scene when conditions are so bad is certainly debatable, but something needs to be done and done quickly. As the unemployment crisis drags on, every day solid and responsible middle class Americans are losing their life savings, their retirement nest eggs, their homes, and, more importantly, their sense of security and dignity. Suffering is happening across all demographics but the situation is especially bleak for those 18-29 and increasingly so for those over 50 who want and need to work but have become not only victims of corporate downsizing but also of age discrimination as they try to seek new, full-time responsible paying positions in competition with everyone else. With 6.7 unemployed (not to forget the underemployed) people seeking each single job opening, the odds are not good, especially for those in the 50+ demographic where hiring managers and youthful HR gatekeepers are often quick to dismiss their candidacies as too costly and/or overqualified.

There are no easy answers during these unprecedented times. But one thing is clear. It is not the time to point fingers or crow about artificial political "victories." While things might be rosy with the stock market, on Wall Street, the big banks and others bailed out by the taxpayers, on Main Street a real crisis exists and needs solutions not gridlock. Democrat or Republican, neither party should feel particularly secure about their positioning in this midterm election year. People need help not empty promises.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Has Happened to the Financial System Reform Initiative?

I recall early on in the Obama administration a major provision of his "change" agenda was to dissect what was wrong with our financial system that allowed the meltdown of 2008 and to incorporate changes on Wall Street and within the existing financial system regulatory structure to assure a repeat performance could be avoided in the future. In light of all the constituent outrage and heart-wrenching accounts from millions who have lost jobs, their retirement savings due to stock market slides and now are losing their homes to foreclosure, it would appear reform was certainly politically possible and that a path was "greased" for much-needed legislation. But as we enter a new year--most importantly, a critical midterm election year--as well as amidst high level government economists' declarations that the "recession is over," it appears now that the air has gone out of the proverbial balloon for financial system reform much to the chagrin of millions of middle class Americans who continue to suffer from the effects of this Great Recession. Where did the momentum go and why the change?

Just as quickly as we realized that a gambling casino mindset of recklessness and greed that began on Wall Street and sent shock waves across the world just averting a total financial system collapse, a mindset of euphoria and the "good old days" has returned to Wall Street thanks largely to government bailout induced profits and accentuated by the recent announcement of a new round of big compensation bonuses. Both Senator Chris Dodd of the Senate Banking Committee and Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee, as chairmen of their respective committees with jurisdiction on these matters, were quickly out of the gate with major reform bills last year that both included thoughtful, proposed changes to the current system of oversight and regulation--the formation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency with increased powers, power shifts amongst existing regulatory agencies, including the Federal Reserve Board, a reexamination of the Glass-Steagall repeal legislation that occurred during the Clinton Administration, which post Great Depression had established a then much-needed separation between the investment banking and commercial banking communities, and a much-needed revisionary focus on the "too big to fail" doctrine that has dogged this country's financial regulatory system and its regulators for decades. But as the months of contentious debate over a major health care reform bill have dragged on, not to forget the debates over Afghanistan, the economic stimulus, the deficits and a host of other issues, combined with the vigorous opposition of the big bank/Wall Street lobbyists already indebted to the American taxpayer for huge government bailouts, "true" financial system reform now seems, in the parlance of " inside the Beltway" political analysts as DOA or "dead on arrival." Also not to be overlooked is the fact that Senator Dodd, the champion of reform in the U.S. Senate, has announced his retirement. It's too soon to tell whether Senator Dodd will cave into the growing anti-reform sentiments or forge ahead with a substantive legacy reform bill in the remaining months of his Senate tenure.

With all of this as backdrop, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, constructive will come out of the public hearings of a blue-ribbon Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that are scheduled to begin this week. The supposedly bipartisan commission established early last year to investigate what happened on Wall Street and within the financial system to cause the near domestic collapse and international domino effect will hopefully through its leadership and investigative staff bring to light the abuses that contributed to the meltdown and maybe, just maybe, this could reignite the ongoing congressional reform efforts. Concerned middle class Americans everywhere should be rooting for this commission and hope it truly reveals the precarious position our Wall Street/big bank dominated financial system is in and that it can present thoughtful and meaningful recommendations that can be incorporated into reform legislation.

I want to be optimistic but considering all of the factors noted above I am skeptical. Why? Significantly, the pre-meltdown, speculative climate has returned to Wall Street. While millions of Americans continue to suffer economically in the aftermath of the horrific abuses resulting from the near collapse, according to Wall Street the recession is over and happy days are here again. The risk-taking is back as are the collateralized debt obligations (CDO's), the credit default swaps, the speculative and complex derivatives and other exotic Wall Street concoctions that got us into the huge financial mess in the first place. The rating agencies are still being paid by the firms who issue the securities and assigning artificial high grades for unsuspecting and/or uninformed marketplace investors. Finally, and most egregiously, it's big bonus season on Wall Street again with six-and seven-figure bonuses set to be doled out in the weeks ahead as if the 2008 financial collapse and near financial disaster never even occurred. Do these financial executives have any consciences at all? To me, in light of their bailouts, jacking consumer interest rates on even their best customers and other behavior this situation is unconscionable. While they feast on their hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars, there are millions of proud, hard-working Americans who have already and continue to face financial ruin, mostly due to the Wall Street and big bankers' unregulated and senseless excesses. It's indeed a sorry time for this country and one can only hope the powers to be somewhere wake up before it's too late.