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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's time has come

Barack Obama has gone to Washington, in what seems to be the longest transition of Presidential authority ever. I am surprised by the upswell of positive anticipation which surrounds the event. I am not as pleased however, with the coronation ball kind of theatrics. These tend to inflate the President into a celebrity. Barack was chosen by the people, I know, but it just seems so Bush-like to put the man on a pedestal.

Perhaps I've been too long outside the margins to accept that a President--any President--could actually represent the Little People, or even care. The discrepancy between those who reign over us and us became clear with Obama when his handlers wanted to take his Blackberry from him. I was reminded of the treatment of the Chinese emperor Pu Yi in the movie The Last Emperor, or the youthful Dalai Lama as shown in Seven Years in Tibet.

Once elevated from the status of ordinary human to someone nearly divine, the Emperor is meant to be pampered. This elevation represents separation from the rest of us, simple mortals that we be. I don't see how any human being can't avoid being influenced by this pampering, and find themselves out of touch if not completely cut off from the world outside their well guarded, cloistered compounds.

Obama has said he intends to stay connected, a principle his handlers must find utterly terrified. We don't know who these people are, telling him he can't have his Blackberry, but just like the hunched-over eunuchs surrounding Emperor Pu Yi, these insiders want exclusive control over what Obama learns from the outside world. Their source of power over the monarch is controlling what he sees, hears, and ultimately does.

While the last emperor Bush may have come and gone, the system that surrounded him isn't. The caste system surrounds those in power in Washington, as archaic and convulted as any Imperial Court.

Whatever differences Obama may have with Bush tend to get overshadowed by the Presidential regalia and magnanminity, which makes the President's Club an exclusive one indeed. Obama may represent the anti-Bush, a man whose values contradict his predecessor's. When the doors that stand between the men in power and us, the people over whom they rule, close, who's President ight make little difference in the lives of most of us.

A good test of the fraternal bonds between Presidents will be whether or not Obama's choice of Attorney Generals, Eric Holder, pursues an investigation of the Bush administration for war crimes and torture. If not, the fix could be on--the rule of law subordinated to the whims of men, Presidents, yes, but just men. See Dr. Jerry Loo's article on this topic in OpEdNews.com.

I thought the Constitution was about overcoming the rule of men, by replacing it with the rule of law--objective, a little stale and formal, imperfect, but still a system which works best largely because it prevents agents of our government from ruling over us. Can the Constitution survive this most recent challenge--or will the authority of Presidents past and future--the rules of the Gentleman's Club--reign supreme? Maybe we've come to accept our Presidents as celebrity cum laude, kings to whom we grant nearly infinite power (or at least power which seems infinite compared to ours.)

Into such a system can a man of principle enter and not be affected? Most people born into the ruling caste get acclimated to their positions from birth, Senator's sons they typically are. Obama is clearly different in this respect, and may harbor illusions that he isn't as different from us Little People. Maybe the idea that Obama is one of us threatens the status quo or, if it's an illusion, it surely serves the interest of the Establishment to project an image of cooperation and shared values between ruler and the ruled. This solidarity can reduce the friction that occurs when a populace feels exploited by its ruling class.

Perception = reality

Americans worship celebrity. Obama has become a celebrity just as Bush was the antihero. If the replacement ruler can ease some of the people's many burdens, real or imagined, I'd say the coronation is a productive ritual--an end in itself. But as for the betterment of the American economy, or much of an improvement beyond some policy changes, I wouldn't expect very much. In many ways Obama will be correcting the damage Bush has done, erasing negatives, not necessarily charting a new course for prosperity, no matter what we want to believe.

I discussed the American's people fixation with change, to the point Obama can represent change and score political points. The most significant change is Obama's race. Maybe it's Obama's ascent that is the change, not what he can do to change the lives of ordinary Americans although I do hold high hopes. Undoubtedly, Obama's climb to the top represents a remarkable achievement, one that does inspire average people, and can encourage them to do great things, much like Martin Luther King Jr. did.

Obama will be able to lean on King's legacy, to borrow from the civil rights pioneers the spirit of resistance, "we shall overcome." Yet Obama's race alone doesn't entitle him to claim King's legacy--he's going to have to show that he honors King's values, earn it. Sharing his African heritage with the Reverend King does allow Obama to confront the fundamental injustice of poverty and inequality, to seize the high ground.

Obama will keep King's achievements close to his heart. Still, on some levels Obama seems inclined to disregard King's message on the immorality of war. King's is a fundamentally antiwar message; it can resonate with the world community battered by our imperial hubris and give Obama a major source of strength from outside our borders, giving us help to reach our foreign policy objectives.

Yet the opposite path, one of war and destruction, can continue to haunt the Obama administration and defile M.L.King's real legacy. For those labelled "terrorists," Obama appears willing to inflict more devastation, whether in Afghanistan or on some other battleground of America's (or Israel's) choosing, regardless of whether or not collateral damage--dead kids--is involved. [By the way, Rice signed a last-minute agreement with Israel to use American intelligence and manpower to stop the rearmament of Hamas. See this excellent article on Gaza and Obama by Arthur Silber.]

To stop the tide of militarism released by 9/11, a more thorough inquiry could dispel the notions that 1) that al Qaeda acted alone, without the cooperation of any foreign government and 2) our government didn't know the attacks were coming. As unpalatable as these conclusions might seem, they are part of a drive to determine the fundamental truth, which King would have demanded, especially if 9/11 was the causus bellum for so much blood-letting.

Perhaps in isolating the event from its Official Explanation, Obama will see that the knee-jerk response to 9/11 had little to do with preventing another 9/11 and was all about Caspian oil and a second term. In adopting King's positions, and confronting the Official Explanation with an inquiry of truth, the world might be spared untold suffering as American-built bombs drop and missiles fly throughout the Mideast.

Sorry to sound the grinch on such a historic day but I'm finding it hard to see what will change largely because I keep thinking of what won't change. In foreign policy these include:
1) ongoing occupation of at least one nation--Afghanistan--in Asia.
2) continuing meddling in the affairs of Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq
3) unconditional support for Israel's actions, no matter now egregious or unpopular

Gaza brings to light just how powerful the Lobby is in America. In his campaign speech before AIPAC during the summer, Obama more or less said he'd do whatever he could to help Israel, including a military confrontation with Iran. Much of this talk was likely political posturing, as Jews contribute huge sums to Democratic candidates. Still I don't know how Obama can achieve any foreign policy successes if his policies continue unchanged from his predecessors. Iran became such a target on the campaign trail that a real war between Israel and that state could bog us down for years, and consume the great majority of our resources and the skills and attention of our leaders.

Obama has reiterated his speciality will be domestic affairs. I simply don't think he'll be able to spend as much time to resolve our internal crises as long as the US has over 600 forward operating bases scattered in over 100 nations, a provocation in itself. All it will take is one angry terrorist to consume the bulk of the new Administration's attention in the recovery and sustaining the reaction. We don't know what response a terrorist attack will justify, but if our foreign policy remains the same, it'll mean another war and occupation in southwest Asia.

With deft managing by Hillary Clinton, and a lot of luck, events in the foreign policy arena might allow Obama to focus primarily on domestic issues. Here are the domestic economic challenges that will arise:
1) Trillion dollar deficits. Obama's domestic policies will ensure. These are due not only to war, but new bailouts and stimulus packages.
2) Declining manufacturing base (free trade over fair, China's gain=our loss.) Protectionism will have its appeal, especially as the slump drags on and Chinese exports are subsidized by an undervalued Yuan.
3) Declining dollar due to a weak balance of payments. We aren't making enough real things here. A cheaper dollar should make our exports cheaper and more competitive. However without a strong export infrastructure, a cheaper dollar hasn't proven to be anything more than an accounting gimmick.
4) Corporate media monopoly distorting what the American public knows and thinks, censoring by omission, and redirecting debate away from substantive issues towards a "centrist, pro-business" Washington consensus. The decline in newsprint/TV news is a free market force which has punished conglomerates and pushed millions to Web, so keep the crap coming Murdoch!
and 5) a Federal Reserve system composed of for-profit banks exploiting the monetary system through fractional reserve banking and the constant depreciation of our currency (96% loss of purchasing value since 1913).

Nothing substantive can come of Obama's time in office unless these systemic problems are addressed (unless of course we consider his election in itself an accomplishment.) Each challenge must be understood, which requires paying considerable attention to the various special interest groups in Washington, as well as playing the perception management game.

Very little is achieved in Washington that doesn't serve the interests of a corporate constituency (like the military industrial complex.) Weaning our government out of these long-standing co-dependencies will be nearly impossible. Obama might be able to use Presidential powers created in the post-9/11 environment to force change through the bureaucracy, a sort of good tyrant approach. Kennedy did issue one Executive Order authorizing the Treasury to issue money directly, just before he was shot, so maybe #5 above--limiting the Fed--should wait a while.

Judging by his Establishment picks in his Cabinet, Obama is pragmatic and prone to compromise--skills which demonstrate faith that the system can work, if properly led. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, was quite the dreamer, a man who bore the weight of his conviction outwardly, in opposition to the status quo, confronting the laziness and complacency in us that lets evil thrive. Atop the nation's largest employer, bureaucratic talent is needed, but so is leadership, which must contain an element of vision-casting, or the promotion of shared goals for the benefit of all both inside and outside the enterprise.

Obama's Cabinet choices hint at solidarity with insiders with close ties to vested corporate interests. I don't think Obama can fully trust anyone from the Washington establishment, but these people he believes are the best way to achieve change. Jimmy Carter brought in outsiders, and they took months just to figure out their jobs, so I guess there's a role for Establishment insiders to play in orchestrating any potential changes.

In my essay, "Road to change goes through Washington", I argued that Obama's election by itself would not bring change. It will take ongoing action--direct intervention by the people--to correct the situation we find ourselves in. Progressives will need to work hard to make sure that Obama's vision is being implemented. The act of voting for Obama, or even attending the inauguration and enthusiastically supporting him, won't be sufficient to achieve change.

If people falsely assume that Obama's election will remedy the problems of the present age--or at least those aspects of it that Obama seeks to change--, they will be sadly disappointed. Much has been said how Obama is just a man, and we can't expect him to change the world.

You may have heard the expression, "all politics are local." The idea is that politics matter most where they affect you the most. Obama's decision to close Guantanamo might make no direct impact on your life whatsoever. Nor would pulling out of Iraq, unless you had someone you cared about over there. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore any consequence unless it affects them personally and directly.

What happens in Washington therefore is unlikely to impact you as much as a hike in local property taxes, for instance. The local side of politics is what matters most. Still, what we now have is trickle-down impact from national policies impacting the local layer. With our economy so vulnerable, what's done in Washington will impact us on a local level--not necessarily directly but in the form of jobs lost to outsourcing, or in the value of our retirement accounts, which translates to a lower future standard of living.

State governments are ailing, so much so that California is issuing IOUs in lieu of money, a practice that differs little from Federl Reserve Notes, except that the California IOUs are dependent exclusively on that state's future tax revenues. Now if state governments could deficit finance, or issue their own money like they did early in our nation's history, they'd be a lot less concerned about their fiscal positions--just like our federal goverment. But many are forced by statute to balance their budget, or should be.

It's taken years for war in Iraq to make a domestic impact, but it's undeniably raised the costs of borrowing for the private sector. The more the government borrows, the less reason to take higher risks in the private debt markets.

Government debt offers a "virtually risk-free" premium over debt issued by companies that lack the ability to tax. So as trillions in debt head to the markets, the returns on government debt should be less attractive considering the higher yields on private sector debt. Being riskier, private sector debt isn't as desirable, so we have a speculative bubble growing in the market for Treasuries.

Spending on the war is exacting a tremendous opportunity cost. We've entered into the future already. What may have been years ago a problem for others to deal with has become a limitation on how much our government can continue to borrow now. After all, the future is the sum of our past behaviors. If we've borrowed recklessly in the recent past, we (us as individuals or our government) will be less able to borrow now. If we'd been spending to counter a real threat, or on a bailout that was working, that'd be different but the exception to fiscal restraint has become the norm.

I'm no expert in financial matters, but the changes that have arrived at our doorstep have long been in the making. They won't likely be cured, or remedied in any brief time span. The elaborate solutions needed will test Obama's skills, "mad" though they might be. He'll have to cope with the well-funded causes that inundate the Washington establishment.

Every little constituency will need to be fed, less it grow angry and revolt against his leadership, throwing obstacles in the path of change. Yet if Obama can't cut one greedy recipient of federal funds off, he'll be forced to limit his spending sooner or later (unless of course borrowing to infinity is possible.) And whoever gets cut off first will complain that they're being abandoned.

Yes, we can throw large sums of money at the current economic dilemma but it's all borrowed money. Too much borrowing got us into this mess to begin with. More lending equals more growth; a formula that can only lead to runaway debt and a depreciating dollar.

Necessity for change

We can only hope that Obama 's Presidency will bring changes to the way our government does things. Yes, there will be positive changes, and great things accomplished, but the choice of Presidents is no panacea for our economic difficulties--he's just a man. Unless we eliminate the fundamental causes of our failures, they are doomed to cause continuing problems. Until we find effective solutions, that don't mortgage the fiscal health of our children, we are simply passing on the mistakes of the past, in order to avoid the errors of the present.

Nowhere is the need for change more apparent than in our financial system. The consequences of the relaxation of regulations under Bush and the GOP is just now beginning to make its full impact. Capitalism gone wild and the greed of the Bush years degenerated into a free-for-all where the rich made all the rules, and managed to amass great fortunes courtesy regressive changes to the tax code.

The people responsible for oversight and capable of exercising restraint didn't; there was simply too much cash available for the taking. Players in the mortgage-backed securities market like Henry Paulson, head of Goldman Sachs at the time, made massive profits repackaging, selling, and insuring SIVs (structured investment vehicles.) During the regulatory lapse, investment banking profits soared, and with them compensation for CEO's in the industry, with Paulson amassing over a half billion dollars of personal wealth. That culture of greed persists and imperils the role of the financial sector in helping engineer a recovery. The cancer must be purged.

Now we have the "time to look forward" spiel. This approach seems to vindicate the all-too-common American practice of tossing any bad memories into the Memory Hole. This may be our favorite method for coping with previous mistakes: forget them and move on. Well, the methodology for moving forward requires that we must reexamine on a fundamental level what we've done wrong, and correct it, before the consequences do even more harm.

If we're going to ignore the past, it could come at considerable expense to our future and our children's future. It won't be enough to spend our way out of this economic downturn. We simply can't borrow like we have, nor can our government. Until we limit how much borrowing our government does, we won't be able to rectify the deteriorating credit environment. And unless we're willing to accept that a contraction is important, and necessary step, we're bound to perpetuate the problems we now face, or delay them.

Natural, cyclical swing

Progressive are a sympathetic lot, and quickly lean towards easing the pain of those who suffer. Clearly, the lower rungs of the economic ladder suffer most. Still, we need to steel ourselves to the reality that our economy is global, and jobs are disappearing, and we'll need to do things differently to embrace the future.

Simply put, people who aren't able to rebuild their skills and adjust to the fluctuations of the labor market will go without work. And until corporations are made to provide health care for their workers, they won't. It's the job of a business to get away with paying its people less, and the job of a union to help less skilled workers retain jobs and benefits. Government has a role to play, which it hasn't, making the lives of ordinary Americans mired in the service economy impossible.

Our standard of living has fallen and social mobility stalled. We need to change that, and we can't do it overnight. We need more education, and more value from it. We need to bring workers up to speed now to work in the post-industrial economy. Quite simply we're falling behind. Not for incalculable reasons, but very specific ones: free trade and a lack of single payer health care.

Now we need to be careful with protectionism. At the beginning of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Smoot-Hartley Act which "protected" domestic industries damaged by foreign competition. Such legislation passed today would be harmful, although I suppose we need to demand fair trade, so we can have a level playing field. With the US the ONLY developed county without government-sponsored health care, you could argue our companies have an unfair disadvantage. How big of one? $1,500 per car produced, I've heard, a pretty big disadvantage.

Economic crises can't be separated from their cause. We can't find a solution by avoiding a cause--what's done is done. Now we can and should avoid a similar cause in the future, lest the same conditions lead to another crisis. Unfortunately the bulk of Americans have so little knowledge of economics they are bound to let the same unraveling of regulations and absence of regulatory oversight lead to an excess, a bubble.

Americans' capacity to remember is limited, so let me refresh you. The Depression had its predecessor, the Roaring Twenties. Stock prices surged, based largely on margin borrowing--the practice of borrowing to speculate, a practice great for boom times but doomed to one day generate massive margin calls, which in turn lead to a unwinding of positions based on borrowed money.

History repeats itself, particularly when long-term memory fails so utterly, as it tends to do here (remember the "no ground wars in Asia" pledge after Vietnam?) The proportion of stock purchases based on margin loans wouldn't climb until 2007 or so, when the high-flying speculation bubble in commodities encouraged hedge funds and everyone who could to borrow at ridiculously low rates of interest.

Leveraging, as it's called, inflated to some forty times equity, after the Commodities Futures Modernization Act was passed in 2000. See Jim Moore's explanation here on HuffPo. The huge reduction in margin requirements made borrowing easy for speculators.

With greatly diminished regulatory restraints, speculators were free to pursue maximum returns using borrowed money. As long as the regulators didn't clamp down, or access to borrowing dry up, the markets were likely to go up with so much capital infusing them. This positive effect contributed to a rally in the the commodites markets, just as excess borrowing had done in the high flying tech stock market bubble in 2000-1, a phenomena which led Greenspan to term the phrase "irrational exuberance."

If the standards for housing loans had been tightened, we wouldn't have so many foreclosures now. But the Fed and Bush had sought to increase home ownership--an objective which could be better described as increasing lending for home loans, something the banks wanted, as well as the mortgage brokers and real estate construction people. Those groups are now paying the price for the poltical favortism they held during the Bush years, a sort of payback courtesy the free hand of the markets. Loaning too much and building excess supply decimates prices and we've seen a housing collapse that may well continue.

Ultra-low interest rates offered by the Federal Reserve allowed the crisis to happen. Inadequate oversight of home lenders was a gross dereliction of federal responsibilities to regulate home lenders; the lapse was so severe as to cause former Governor of New York Elliot Spitzer to sue the federal government, just before his outing.

On the consumer side, Americans splurged, times were good, so good in fact that no one probably paid much attention to who was going to pay for it all. The party had to end sometime. It has. And nothing Obama can do will be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

An article on atheoblog offers a good rundown on Labor and Commerce Department. It offers these rays of gloomy figures:
"The eroding economic position of US consumers is reflected, paradoxically, in an increase in the savings rate, according to recent data. In the third quarter of 2008, household indebtedness decreased for the first time since the Federal Reserve began to compile statistics on household savings in 1952, while total consumer spending declined for the first time in 17 years."

I'm not going to tell you that this has a good side to it, like Dennis Kneale might on CNBC, but Americans are changing the over-borrowing habits that kept spending high. Cheap money policies by the Fed and rising housing prices created the conditions that allowed the bubble; unprecedented household borrowing gave consumers the money to spend. The collapse of the housing market has brought spending into line, at the cost of economic growth. I guess this is the yin, when we've been all yang up to a few years ago.

I'd argue the benefit of this contraction is the higher savings rate. Americans have been borrowing too much and spending much. Any prognosis that we're in a Depression needs to be tempered by the reality that our previous growth rates were unsustainable.

Industries like construction and mortgage lending are themselves in mini-Depressions, especially if you happen to own or work in those sectors. If you have a family, a house payment, and climbing insurance costs, you're likely to want a bailout just for yourself. Hard working, and victimized by events beyond your control, you clearly deserve one. Still, much of the government's access to credit has been tapped. As it turns out the banks were in line waiting for their bailout long before you got there. They've emptied the shelves, drained the government teat, leaving you and your family with that much less.

Obama's stimulus package will need to stimulate the economy enough to pull us out of the recession. At a minimum, it will need to keep the recession from worsening.

Don't count on any relief--what comes will be directed towards specific industries. Maybe, if you're lucky, someone in faraway Washington will hear your faint calls of distress (or those of your ailing employer) before you end up homeless.

Frankly, anyone could be better at listening than Bush. But Bush had a good time economy rolling, so the jobs were always there and the economy held up, albeit on borrowed time. He didn't need to listen, or respond and when he lied, people were enjoying the benefits of a "fundamentally strong" economy back in 2004. Not true for the economic backdrop in which you, and Obama, finds yourselves, alongside me.

Federal debt has been piled on high, long since given to war contractors like Halliburton, and consumed by banks and big corporations, who've had legions of K street lobbyists to protect their interests. You aren't as lucky, or as rich, so I wouldn't expect much of anything from our government. Bush's legacy appears to be the YOYO--Your On Your Own--world that he helped create.

What isn't working, won't

I'm not going to try and diminish the severity of the crisis, though I do protest the immediacy of the reaction--"pass the stimulus now, or else!" I've been reading several good articles critical of the anti-stimulus crowd (Mike Whitney's term) of which I suppose I'm a member, including Dean Baker's, which Whitney brings up and I cited in my last post.

I'm also a progressive, so I do take offense when I'm lumped in with conservatives who oppose the plan. I'm a fiscal conservative and that has nothing to do with political conservatism. Can't we just drop the labels entirely?

I agree something needs to be done now that the damage done by the regulatory abandonment has occurred. We can't ignore the massive layoffs, although that would make Bush proud. I also can't ignore the investor class, which has made runaway profits on the back of the American worker. So when I hear about how we need this or that, I'm understandably suspicious of the motives--just who has the President's ear? Who is determining who gets what?

T.A.R.P. was badly designed and lacks transparency, so we don't know just who is getting how much. Maybe that will fade with the departure of the Bush junta, whom I fear is trying to squeeze all it can out of the Treasury before it bails.

The convulted process of calling on the second tranche for an additional $350 billion I still can't understand. Apparently the President must veto a resolution by Congress to approve the funds for distribution. Still, as I said, Barney Frank and others on the Hill are apparently demanding better rules and a more orderly processing of disbursements--with more demands on the big corporate borrowers.

This from a Congressional panel convened to find out just what's happened to the $350 billion first installment of the massive bailout, courtesy truthout.org:
"The Panel still does not know what the banks are doing with taxpayer money." Can't get more blunt than that. The Executive Summary continues:
"Treasury’s strategy appears to involve allocating the majority of the $700 billion to 'healthy banks,' banks that have been assessed by their regulators as viable without federal assistance."
The banks actually bought regional banks, shrinking free market competition. With impunity, they issued multi-million dollar bonuses to top executives with our money. Absent any numbers, we must assume that very little to none has been loaned out to consumers, for housing loans, or to buy stuff.
"...the marketplace assesses the assets of some banks well below Treasury’s assessment..."

In other words the Treasury paid too much for what they got. If they'd let those debt securities depreciate in the open market, they could have intervened much more effectively, and got more for their 'investment.' But maybe the whole TARP intervention has been about NOT getting the most out of the public loans, but rather the opposite--how to give the banks the most they can, at term the least beneficial to the public. The people running the Treasury department are investment bankers--still--so who's best interest do they represent?

The report's Executive Summary goes on to say that the purchasing of bank assets might not help "restore stability and confidence." The funds aren't being used to prevent foreclosures, or stabilize the collapsing housing market. The Treasury Department is unwilling and/or unable to explain how the TARP program is meant to work or what it will achieve in its current form.

See the video of the House Financial Services Committee. If TARP is progress, I'm skeptical of whatever Act Two will bring.


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  • At 10:47 AM, Anonymous How To Start A Business In North Carolina said…

    It has been a long journey for improvements on civil rights and equality, and with Obama being sworn in, the civil rights movement have come full circle since the “I have a dream speech”. I hope Obama can concentrate on increasing jobs, advancing education, and the decreasing of our dependence on fossil fuels.

  • At 8:59 PM, Blogger jbpeebles said…

    Must read article by Michael Parenti: "Capitalism's Self-Inflicted Apocalypse." Parenti's skill with writing is impressive; he touches on many of my main points with far better writing grace.

    About Madoff, he says, "The plutocracy devours its own children." He goes on to frame Madoff actions perfectly:

    "Is the crisis of 2008-09 caused by a chronic tendency toward overproduction and hyper-financial accumulation, as Marx would have it? Or is it the outcome of the personal avarice of people like Bernard Madoff? In other words, is the problem systemic or individual? In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive. Capitalism breeds the venal perpetrators, and rewards the most unscrupulous among them. The crimes and crises are not irrational departures from a rational system, but the converse: they are the rational outcomes of a basically irrational and amoral system."

    Wow! See it here.

    The article "The Obama Stimulus Plan Won't Work" by Don Armentano in lewrockwell.com intersects many of the points I've made earlier.


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