By Zach Carter
President-elect Barack Obama announced his economic transition team yesterday--and we'll get to that--but first let's take a look at the top economic stories from the week that you might not have heard--but need to know.
With so many recent headlines detailing the government's policy position on some of the nation's largest corporations, it's important to remember that economic policy ought to include people living at the other end of the economic spectrum.
Obama was charged with being a "redistributionist" by conservatives within and without the McCain campaign during the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election. Funny what happened. It turns out people actually find that drastic inequality thing offensive, particularly when they are losing their homes while the nation's largest banks are getting billions in speedy federal assistance.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson still refuses to allocate one dime of his financial bailout funds to help struggling homeowners, while giving lip service to the idea that the housing market "correction" is at the heart of our current economic woes. Even the modest anti-foreclosure bill Congress passed in July is slow-going. In addition to about $1.7 billion to help underwater homeowners refinance into affordable mortgages, the bill directed an additional $4 billion local governments to help communities rehabilitate foreclosed homes. That sum will barely make a dent in the deepening foreclosure crisis, as Garland McLaurin of American News Project and Mary Kane of the Washington Independent detail in this video, but many cities and counties are yet to see their share of the $4 billion kitty. By contrast, hundreds of billions of dollars have been injected into banks in recent weeks.
At this point in the economic cycle, mortgages are not the only loans causing major problems. Credit card delinquencies are at their highest rate in six years, and many banking industry experts expect them to go higher as laid-off consumers move basic expenses from checkbooks to plastic. What's worse, credit card companies currently have legal leeway to alter contracts in almost any way they wish, even if borrowers are current on their payments, as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., details in a blog for The Huffington Post. The Federal Reserve took a step in the right direction earlier this year by addressing some of the most egregious policies in the subprime credit card market, but it is time for Congress to rein in the rest of the predatory consumer lending industry.
Of course, wide swaths of the U.S. population do not worry about debt, but food. Writing for The Progressive, Brian Gilmore makes an impassioned case for swift public action to end poverty, noting that one in eight Americans did not have access to sufficient food in 2007.
When people are going hungry, the Bush administration appears to believe that eight years is an appropriate amount of time to wait for substantive public policy. But when the world's largest financial institution is up against the wall, it gets what it wants, when it wants it. The Bush team granted Citigroup another $20 billion in bailout funds over the weekend, just days after ponying up $25 billion for company. The best part? The company's management is still in place, and the government exacted no guarantees concerning how taxpayer money will be used.
Over at the American Prospect, Ezra Klein highlights former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's role in bringing the Wall Street titan to the verge of collapse. During the Clinton administration, Rubin resisted placing government oversight on the credit derivatives market, which after a decade of unregulated growth is wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy. But Citi is one of the biggest losers in the credit market fallout, thanks in part to Rubin's own advice as a member of the company's board of directors.
Speaking of Rubin, Obama just named one of his proteges at the Clinton Treasury to succeed Paulson at the Department's the top spot. Timothy Geithner, who has managed some of the most harrowing moments of the meltdown, including the Bear Stearns rescue in March, will move from the Fed's New York office to the Treasury Department in January. Unlike Rubin, however, Geithner has spent the last few years sounding the alarm on the very risks to the financial system that have taken such a heavy toll of late, as Andrew Leonard notes at Salon.com.
The Citi debacle reveals that Paulson's gambit to restore investor confidence in the U.S. financial sector has generated mixed results, at best. Citi shares closed at $3.77 on Friday, down from $18.35 on Oct. 3, the day Congress passed the bailout bill. The sad fact is that without some magical, and probably irrational, restoration of that elusive confidence, the $700 billion allocated by the financial rescue package will not be nearly enough to shore up the American banking sector, much less the auto manufacturing companies and retail stores that have been showing signs of extreme strain of late. William Greider details the state of affairs for The Nation, arguing that it is time to shut down the financial giants that are no longer viable and establish a new order based on smaller companies.
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