AIG Bonuses

The issue of bonuses is complex. In some societies, Christmas (or year end) bonuses are a traditional way of sharing the risk of how well a firm does each year between firms and their employees. In poor years, employees share the firm’s fate by taking home less (no bonus or a smaller bonus). The signing bonus in sports increases a star athlete’s salary above and often millions of dollars above his or her fellow athletes. In the case of sports we all recognize that the club owners pay such big bucks out of the desire to maximize the income of the club for their own benefit. Generally we cheered the lucky athletes for their great skills and for getting some of that money for themselves (earlier rules in base ball, for example, imposed monopoly like restrictions on recruiting that kept more of the clubs’ incomes for the owners and less for the players).

Companies have also increasingly fashioned stock options and other bonus incentives (partially influence by tax laws) as a tool for rewarding above average performance and increasing the firm’s profits. For senior management (and financial market traders) performance bonuses were some time VERY large. Many shareholders (and society at large) are increasingly questioning whether bonuses as structure today do in fact increase shareholder value. The practice needs and will get a serious review by shareholders.

Weaknesses in corporate governance may make it difficult for shareholders to properly monitory or control the salaries and bonuses senior management give themselves. If performance bonuses are a reward for improving the firm’s profits, something has gone wrong if bonuses were paid in 2008 when many firms made losses. The structure of bonuses in many firms, especially financial firms, reward very short term profits (making loans) without sufficient regard for the longer run impact(loan repayment) of investments made today. Thus long run profits were sometime sacrificed for very short run gains. It is fair to say that in many instances the bonus system is broken and needs to be fixed.

The outcry over AIG $165 million in bonuses paid this week, on the other hands, seems largely misplaced. First of all they are not performance bonuses. They are retention bonuses—bonuses paid to keep valuable knowledge employees from leaving a sinking ship. Chief Executive Edward Liddy, appointed by the government in September 2008 as part of the government’s infusion of $173 billion, “said he knew about the bonuses since October but determined that they could not be legally altered. He also said he believed the retention bonuses at the financial products unit were necessary, so that competition would not take AIG’s best minds away…. I am trying desperately to prevent an uncontrolled collapse of that business,” he said. “This is the only way to improve AIG’s ability to pay taxpayers back quickly and completely and the only way to avoid a systemic shock to the economy that the U.S. government help was meant to relieve.”[1] Losing the staff with the inside knowledge to unwind AIG’s credit default swaps and other complex instruments could cost the tax payers a lot more than the bonuses for keeping them.

From here the story gets totally bazaar and ugly. The fact that the government had put tax payer money into AIG gave the government a responsibility to ensure that those funds were used as intended in the public interest. But Congress’s reaction to the bonuses demonstrated some of my worst fears of the likely consequence of government involvement in “private’ enterprises. Congressional rantings befitted a ship of fools. No one can deny that many businesses (and investors) have made foolish and costly mistakes. At least in the beginning they thought they were doing so with their own money, which sharpens the mind. AIG’s bonuses may or may not have been good business decisions (saving the taxpayers money), but it is laughable to think that Congress can make wiser ones. What are we to think of Congressman Barney Frank’s complaint that: "These are not the people you want to retain — you need to get people who understand the mistakes and undo them,"[2]

The Federal Reserve (which provided the initial $80 billion bailout money last September) approved the bonuses last fall. Pointing figures at who knew what, when only undermines the credibility of Congress and the Administration and is irrelevant. Fannie Mae, which is now fully owned by the government, is paying four top executives retention bonuses of over one million dollars each. In this instance, at least, the government (FHFA) considers the bonuses a sound business decision.[3] One of the most ludicrous rants from Congress, and there are many to choice from, came from Congressman Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa "Why wasn’t this committee informed? And do you realize that the actions that you take at AIG and took in this precise case not only impacts AIG … but it may have jeopardized our ability to get a majority of this Congress to support further legislation to provide funds to prevent a recession, depression or meltdown?" It is hard to believe that these are the words of an adult.

Congress’s and the Administration’s demands that the AIG bonuses be stopped, and then after they had been paid that they be returned, ran into the constraint that these are valid contracts made with people who had other options and that we still believe (most of us anyway) in the rule of law. Such contracts can be abrogated or renegotiated in the contact of bankruptcy but AIG is not operating under bankruptcy rules. Congress’s rantings can be dismissed as the political posturing that it is. After all few of us are happy about out of control bonuses that don’t really always seem to be serving the interests of (long run) shareholder value. But the efforts today to pass tax legislation to tax back most of AIG’s bonuses reveals a big brother mentality that is truly scary. Sadly President Obama has joined in the demagoguery. The government has already increasingly intruded into the internal affairs of a growing list of company. “Late last week, Kovacevich gave a talk at Stanford University, complaining about how unfair it is that the government forced his bank to take $25 billion in bailout money last year when it could have easily raised private capital — and then compounded that outrage by changing the terms of the deal and forcing Wells to cut its dividend.”[4]

In my opinion the financial sector crisis is being resolved and is about over as a result of actions taken by the Federal Reserve. The sight of a hysterical and vindictive government willing and able to bully the financial industry and potentially any other area of the economy is dangerous and threatens to derail or at least delay the market’s return to health. Investors will be more reluctant to restart investing and lending under these conditions and the economy cannot recover until they do. I hope that President Obama comes to his senses soon.


[1] By David Goldman and Jennifer Liberto, "Tug of War over AIG Bonuses" CNN Money.com, March 18, 2009

[2] Ibid.

[3] Zachary A. Goldfarb, "Fannie Plans Retention Bonuses as outlined by the Government", The Washington Post, March 19, 2009, Page D01.

[4] Steven Pearlstein, "Wall Street’s Dangerous Refusal to Learn", The Washington Post, March 18, 2009, Page D01.

Travel Notes for March 2009

Hi from Astana

Capitalism-service

When I first started coming to Kazakhstan in 1992 I was struck by the dramatic difference in the quality of customer service in the post communist country and the standards of the non-communist world. Under capitalism we make money serving others and you can make lots of money serving others better than anyone else. In the communist world, they explained to us, “they (the government) pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Service was begrudging and lousy. In fact, Hyatt and other international hotel chains refused to establish hotels in Almaty for a several years because they concluded that it would be too difficult (costly) to train local staff in the service levels expected at four star hotels around the world. Today, the Hyatt Regency I stay in when in Almaty and the Radisson I am staying in now in Astana provide excellent service, which is to say normal service. Impressive progress has been made toward the service orientation of capitalism. You can’t appreciate the transformational nature of this reorientation of incentives unless you have seen both.

Capitalism-standards

Even in the United States we have abdicated standard setting and enforcement in a growing number of areas to the government. I guess we are wealthy enough to afford it (i.e., to absorb the costs and inefficiencies of government rather than private provision of almost anything). But there are limits beyond which we will lose the wealth from which we afford such wastes. I was thinking of this while looking at the water purification facility hidden in the back of the Intercontinental Hotel I stayed in for three weeks in Nairobi a few weeks back. If Western travelers had to rely on third world government standards and enforcement of water purity, food quality, etc. (even electricity), we wouldn’t travel to the third world. What we rely on and trust in is the greedy self interest of international hotels to protect their reputation as clean and safe places to stay anywhere in the world.

International Cooperation

International cooperation is useful if not essential in almost every area of life. The need for different power plugs in different countries and driving on the left some places or on the right in others, stand out as examples of where cooperation on standards falls short. But modern technology overcomes some of these areas of limited standardization. We do manage to send emails and visit the WWW anywhere and from anywhere in the world seamlessly. Making payments anywhere is getting easier. Thus I was struck when leaving Nairobi two weeks ago with a “final” security check point (those at the gates after having passed one to get into the boarding area) at the entrance to the gate waiting room and another one on the other side of the room on the way to the plane. Guessing that the first one was Kenyan and the second one British Air, I ask the Brit at the second one why the guys at the first one didn’t trust him (my way of trying to be nasty). He shrugged and said that their two governments had not yet managed to negotiate an agreement on the matter so they were both required to have check points. More over, if I were arriving by in the U.S. in Atlanta, I would have to take my shoes off and go through it all again before being let back into the country. Fortunately this is not the case when arriving as I am at Dulles in Washington DC. There is more work to be done

Buy American—Dumb and Dangerous

The every thing but the kitchen sink stimulus package bill (I can’t remember its cute name) included Buy American restrictions on where the money could be spent (this particularly upset our Canadian friends whose economy is highly integrated with ours). This is dumb (it reflect ignorance of basis economics) because if we can’t buy cheaper better foreign goods and services, foreigners will not have the dollars with which to buy our relatively cheaper, better goods and services (ever hear of comparative advantage?). Increases in American exports were the one positive factor keeping our economy going last year. No jobs will be saved by “buying American”, they will just be shifted into less productive areas lowering our (and the rest of the world’s) standard of living. Every college student who has taken basic economics knows this. It is dangerous because it could lead to a rise in protectionism around the world (Buy Kazakh, Buy Russian, Buy German, etc) of the sort that was a major cause of the depth and duration of the Great Depression when retaliatory tariffs were raised all over the world in response to high tariffs in the U.S. Do we never learn anything?

The return of Marxism?

This is a dangerous time in many respects. One is the danger of a backlash against capitalism, despite the great wealth it has helped create and the huge increase in the standard of living of hundreds of millions of people around the world that it has made possible. We must address its weaknesses and vulnerabilities very carefully and thoughtfully. The economic Forum I participated in here in Astana, was full of anti-capitalist rhetoric. Ed Phelps, a Nobel Prize winner in economics (Bob Mundell, another Nobel Prize winner in Economics was also participating in the Forum), made the absolutely stupid proposal that the American banking system be restructured with government subsidies to focus on business lending. The chair of my panel, the last of the day, ended by quoting Marx (Karl not Groucho) favorably. Those of us who believe in the virtues and merits of capitalism (and this includes most of Obama’s team despite some very disappointing moves toward bigger government) have a big challenge to defend it in the coming years. This will require some adjustments in the government’s regulatory role and improvements in macro policies that contributed to the current crisis, in the never ending search for the best balance (partnership is the currently popular word) of the public and private sectors.

All the best,

Warren

A review of my book, “One Currency for Bosnia”

The Weekly Standard March 9, 2009

www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Protected/Articles/000/000/016/206tjbiw.asp

Cash for Balkans
A sound currency is the least of Bosnia’s problems.
by Stephen Schwartz
03/09/2009, Volume 014, Issue 24

One Currency for Bosnia
Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina
by Warren Coats
Jameson, 349 pp., $42.50

Thirteen years after the Dayton peace accords that ended the combat in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and almost a decade since the end of the NATO intervention in Kosovo, these two Balkan examples of American-supported "nation-building" seem about to reappear on the political horizon. And Clinton-era figures now prominent in the Obama administration–Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke–are all apt to preen about their exploits in Southeast European conflicts. So with the reappearance of Americans associated with the Balkan torment as policy wizards, it makes sense to examine what has transpired in Bosnia and Kosovo since the onset of Western involvement.

Warren Coats, who had 26 years’ service as an economist for the International Monetary Fund, has published this densely detailed but instructive account of how, with his participation from 1996 to 1999, divided Bosnia was provided with a modern financial system by the international community that had assumed responsibility for that badly wounded country’s future.

Textbooks and similar authoritative chronicles of the practical transformation of onetime Communist economies, deformed or disfigured by years of ideological interference, are rare. Coats brought to his work in Bosnia a background that included experience in Bulgaria and Moldova–two deeply corrupt states that, although they did not suffer the bloodshed seen in Bosnia, were (and remain) economically and socially handicapped–as well as in the Palestinian territories. He later worked in Kosovo, Serbia, and Turkey.

He patiently recounts the travails required for the confection of a hard currency, the Bosnian convertible mark or KM. It replaced the Deutsche Mark, which was used as Bosnian money immediately after Dayton, and at the end of 2001 gave way in Germany to the euro. This is an irreplaceable contribution to the study of post-Communist finance.

Coats and an army of international advisers and mentors, including personnel from the Agency for International Development, had to contend with many obstacles in the creation of a Bosnian currency, a policy objective mandated by the Dayton agreement. Serbs, now as then, occupy more than half of Bosnian territory as a statelet that was the model for Moscow’s puppet regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Croat representatives had their own claims on turf and practice. Bosnian Muslim representatives, like their ethnic peers, were encumbered by a socialist centralized "payment bureau" system that substituted for normal banking.

As Coats describes it, the domestic payment law in the Muslim-Croat federation making up the rest of Bosnia "was confusing, internally inconsistent, and at variance with actual practice." The payment bureau acted as an intermediary between financial clients and the banks. The international advisers did not consider the payment bureau to be a holder of deposit liabilities, but the functionaries of the Federation Payment Bureau viewed their outfit as a central bank.

Transferring the daily cash operations required by Bosnian businesses from the payment bureau to a brand-new Central Bank of Bosnia-Herzegovina–intended to function at an international standard and succeeding the former National Bank of Bosnia-Herzegovina–had to be accomplished without the new institution enjoying credit resources to cover overdrafts.

Such issues are as daunting for the lay reader as they were (in Coats’s narrative) for him and his colleagues. Coats acknowledges the useful counsel of Steve Hanke, the libertarian economist, who noted that a "currency board" crafted for Bosnia by the international community, which should have kept a strong hand on financial operations, included too many loopholes that prevented it from promoting monetary stability. Nevertheless, overcoming limitless barriers, Coats and his team succeeded in establishing the KM as a solid currency, with "culturally neutral" paper money designed to be acceptable among Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Coats describes the introduction of the KM as "an enormous success," but Bosnia’s financial restructuring failed to solve serious problems of lawlessness.

He describes as "depressing" the spectacle of Bosnian political obstruction of privatization of state banks and other financial reforms. In addition, because of persistent ethnic rivalries and the hoarding of KM coins, the definitive acceptance of the KM as Bosnia’s money was held up for years.

Unfortunately, such minor issues as the scarcity of paper and small metal change don’t figure in a study written from the viewpoint of an "international," as foreign administrators are known in the Balkans. But this is predictable:

Coats shuttled in and out of Sarajevo without having to deal with the frustrations of daily economic life in a deeply traumatized, ex-Communist country. Until recently, the worst thing anybody living in Bosnia could do was to offer a bill over 10 KM as payment for any item: Ne imam sitni (I don’t have change) was the infuriating response of Bosnian service and clerical employees to any such tender. Under the payment bureau system, merchants were required to settle their accounts daily, and this was a pretext for starting business each morning without the small "bank" used to make change in any normal store. Some Bosnian retail clerks were so primitive in their outlook that they would not accept bills that had slight tears in them!

Bosnia was lucky that dedicated professionals like Coats came and fought their way through thickets of intrigue and obstinacy to create a central bank. Nobody sane, in a country undergoing nation-building, would reject such a glittering asset, and Coats rightly expresses satisfaction that Bosnia was the first ex-Yugoslav republic to replace the old central payment bureau system–although it embarked on the path to modern banking later than others. But now that the "Bosnia crowd" are restored to power in Washington, should we ask how such efforts have improved the lives of Bosnians?

As a consequence of the neglect of Bosnia’s social rehabilitation, the country has become a field for the expansion of radical Islam. When Dayton was signed–imposing what increasingly looks like a permanent partition–"Afghan Arabs" who had gone to the country to pursue extremist jihad were only a minor element: Some 6,000 of them, at most, joined the Bosnian struggle, but comprised no more than a rivulet in the wide stream of armed Bosnian resistance. These mujahedeen won no battles and otherwise never influenced the outcome of the fighting, and their Saudi-sponsored Muslim missionary work was met with hostility by indigenous Muslims dedicated to moderate Sunnism.

Today, however, after so many years of endemic unemployment, and with the growth of a Muslim mafia, Bosnian Muslims find their capacity to resist extremist blandishments seriously weakened. The country’s top Islamic cleric, Mustafa Ceric, has revealed an almost limitless capacity for self-aggrandizement. Parading in white robes with gold brocade trim, Ceric travels around Europe and visits the United States (where he formerly acted as an imam in Chicago) projecting himself as a candidate for an Islamic papacy, and delivering speeches, empty of serious content, on interfaith cooperation.

As 2008 wound down, Ceric generated a new, bitter controversy with a plan to erect a massive residence for himself on a hill overlooking Sarajevo. The Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic accused Ceric of paying for his new palace with money from Bosnian Muslim and ethnic Albanian gangsters. Ceric’s building project has also elicited protests by students at the Sarajevo Faculty of Islamic Studies (who lack a dormitory) and condemnation from less prominent, but more respected, clerics. The latter include Mustafa Spahic, preacher at the Cobanija mosque, and his colleague as a professor of Islamic studies, Resid Hafizovic, one of the world’s outstanding scholars of Sufism.

Asked about the spread of Wahhabism in the country, Hafizovic has warned pointedly against "the uncontrolled operation of an unacceptably large number of madrassas and Islamic universities .  .  . [a] threat and betrayal of quality in the educational institutions of the Islamic community."

Notwithstanding an excess of Islamic schools, Hafizovic continues, "we see the paradox that Bosnian Muslims, instead of being freer in spiritual terms, more creative, self-confident, and intellectual, today find themselves in a condition of utter spiritual enslavement, crippled, and intellectually castrated."

Coats’s account of Bosnian economic reform shows the bright side of nation-building. But those who have seen the realities of Bosnia in the streets of Sarajevo must conclude that something more than foreign generosity and expertise is required to rescue countries from dictatorship and war.


Stephen Schwartz is the author, most recently, of The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.

Hi from Nairobi, Kenya

I am entering my third and last week of this visit to Nairobi. This time I am here for the IMF to provide assistance to the Central Bank of Kenya’s implementation of its monetary policy (it follows a monetary rule). This visit comes exactly two years after my first, which was for a regional meeting of the Mount Pelerin Society. So I looked back to see what I had said about that earlier visit. To my surprise, I had come last time from Kazakhstan with a pleasant stop over in Istanbul. This time I am traveling on to Kazakhstan, with a week in Amman, Jordan for meetings with the Central Bank of Iraq in between. And the President of Turkey is here in my hotel. I had breakfast with him this morning, sort of (from across the dinning room). Who would have imagined such a connection between Kazakhstan, Kenya, and Turkey.

Nairobi is a nice city of high and low rise buildings among many parks and a population of almost 4 million. It has too many cars and bad traffic. Its altitude of 5,450 ft above sea level is too high for malaria carrying mosquitoes. Its two rainy seasons produce a beautiful green country side with exotic and beautifully shaped trees the likes of which I have only seen in Africa. Kenya is near the equator and always temperate but February enjoys particularly good weather, which is generally clear and in the upper 70s during the day and the low 70s in the evenings.

I walk the five blocks between my hotel and the Central Bank each morning and afternoon. I took special note the other day that during my walk back to the Intercontinental I did not see one white face among the thousands I passed on the street. Inside my hotel is another matter. The Kenyans I have met are very friendly and helpful, often sensing correctly that I am lost (generally within the Central Bank). They are very open and easy to talk to, something highly valued in my profession of advisors. Everyone speaks English fluently.

A few days ago I meet with eight members of the Association of Financial Market Dealers to discuss the trading of government securities and a new inter bank repo (purchase/repurchase agreements for government securities). The issue was why this new instrument, which had been several years in preparation, had not yet traded. Like dealers every where in the world they were young and full of energy (or vinegar as my grandfather used to say). They were not shy about identifying this or that problem. At the end of our meeting the head of the Association, a witty, quick talking young man in his mid to late 20s, smiled and said: “Yes we can.”

On several occasions I was asked where I was from. Upon replying “America,” my questioners would smile and say something like, “You know that your new President is our brother.” It is nice not having to claim to be Canadian any more. No offense Bill.

Comments on Obama’s lost opportunity

Hi from Nairobi Kenya

Last week I communicated my disappointment that President Obama had lost the moral high ground by standing by several appointees to his cabinet who have violated tax laws and my relief that he acknowledge that he had goofed. Here are some interesting comments from some of you.

Warren

You are giving them too much credit.

RWR (Richard Rahn, Great Falls, VA)

*****************************

Dear Warren,

He may have confessed to screwing up, but he still didn’t withdraw the nomination of Geitner. 

And now he’s limiting compensation to $500,000 for execs.  This reminds me of the notorious $1 million limit on tax-deductible exec pay in the early 1990s, which caused the crazy stock option boom (unintended consequences). 

There’s no free lunch.

Best wishes, AEIOU,

Mark (Skousen, Freedom Fest, Los Vegas)

***********************

Warren:

I like the idea of the Rangel Rule for other Americans … a loophole for the ordinary.

Bill (Crosbie, Canadian Foreign Ministry, Ottawa)

************************

This was said AFTER the Secreatry of Treasury was confirmed WITH tax issues.

Donna (Wiesner-Keene, Alexandria, VA)

*************************

Enjoy the warm breezes.

I agree and share the outrage and dismay at public figures — in the financial world, so they have to know better–assuming they are above the tax laws, while we the sheep dutifully calculate our pittance and pay up.  Obama (and the Pope, in his sphere)  need to listen up.  Regards,

Dorothy (McManus, Alexandria, Va)

********************

Warren:
I have a bit different take on it.  The indiscretions were minor in my opinion, but Obama made such a thing during the campaign about style and process (change you can count on; doing things differently in DC; no lobbyists in government) he has now been caught on his own campaign rhetoric.  When substance should matter ("Hey! I really need him for the health agenda"), he has no choice but to dump Daschle because he told people to watch the style and process, not the substance, of his administration.  So…we’re watching.
Jim (Kolbe, former U.S. Representative from Arizona)

**********************

I am a fan of President Obama but, frankly, it’s a bit creepy to have a Secretary of the Treasury who’s a tax cheat.  TOM (Lauria, Arlington, VA)

*****************************

Yes, a pity that he had to do that within the first few days of his administration.  After all he has to rely on his advisors to check things out for him who obviously let him down.  Great that he still accepted responsibility instead of passing the buck to his juniors.  I trust the American public will see that.

I see your "retirement" is a busy one….

Cheers, Sam (Alfreds, Victoria, Australia)

***************************

Warren,

Geithner and Daschle were trapped in a sudden tectonic cultural perception shift, Daschle with greater negative impact.  This was accurately and hilariously identified by David Brooks in his excellent op-ed item in the Feb. 3 New York Times.  q.v.:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/opinion/03brooks.html

I was watching Lehrer’s News Hour a week or so ago, and some Wall Street type seemed perplexed about the massive bonuses provided to high level employees of various failing banks and financial houses.  "It’s been done that way for years," he said (or words to that effect), thus revealing the cluelessness of the malefactors of great wealth.  As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, "They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing."  The same is true, I might add, of the Democrat Caucus in the House.  They are permanently stuck, like a fly in amber, in about 1978.

Enjoy the Caymans — it’s utterly frigid here.  Dinner when you return?

Tom (Neale, Washington, DC)

*************************

Warren,

I too was pleased with Obama’s mea culpa, and the limousine liberal’s withdraw – but wonder why he was first so willing to fall into the typical cover-up and fight mode.

I also think this salary cap is a bunch of smoke and mirrors nonsense.

All in all, the groundwork is being laid for quite the ambitious administration. 

Rob (Teir, Houston, Texas)

"I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability."

-Oscar Wilde

****************************

Hi Cayman Warren,
you have probably seen the enormous assault on health care "reform" by the Obama administration.
Do something, please …
And hope to see you in DC or Paris before long.
Very best, J. (Jacob Arfwedson, Paris, France)

A lost opportunity

President Obama promised that he wanted to change the way Washington does business. He wants and more open and honest government. By turning a blind eye to the new Treasury Secretary’s failure to pay his social security taxes for 2001 and 2002 (until he was nominated to head the Treasury Department, which included the Internal Revenue Service), the President missed an important opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness of his commitment to the integrity of his administration. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has risen quickly through the ranks to high position, is highly respected, and will most likely make an excellent Treasury Secretary. However, after being audited by the IRS in 2006 and found to have mistakenly failed to pay his social security taxes for 2003 and 2004, any misunderstanding he might have had about his need to pay these taxes were surely removed. Yet he did not pay the unpaid social security taxes for 2001 and 2002 until his nomination by Obama to his current position at which time he paid an additional $25, 970 in back taxes and interest penalties.[1] No person is indispensable and the failure of the President to sacrifice his first choice for the position looks more like business as usual than a new page of integrity.

The slippery slope has been greased and viola, down the slope we go with the revelation that Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.), President Barack Obama‘s nominee to head the Health and Human Service Department had not paid more than $128,000 in back taxes over several years. Is that over the line, or should we forgive him as well?

In the interest of fairness and to reestablish the principle that the law applies to every one, Congressmen John Carter’s office issued the following press release:

“IRS Penalties and Interest Eliminated for All U.S. Taxpayers under new “Rangel Rule” Legislation

“(WASHINGTON, DC) – All U.S. taxpayers would enjoy the same immunity from IRS penalties and interest as House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Obama Administration Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, if a bill introduced today by Congressman John Carter (R-TX) becomes law.

“Carter, a former longtime Texas judge, today introduced the Rangel Rule Act of 2009, HR 735, which would prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from charging penalties and interest on back taxes against U.S. citizens. Under the proposed law, any taxpayer who wrote “Rangel Rule” on their return when paying back taxes would be immune from penalties and interest.

“We must show the American people that Congress is following the same law, and the same legal process as we expect them to follow,” says Carter.  “That has not been done in the ongoing case against Chairman Rangel, nor in the instance of our new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. If we don’t hold our highest elected officials to the same standards as regular working folks, we owe it to our constituents to change those standards so everyone is abiding by the same law.  Americans believe in blind justice, which shows no favoritism to the wealthy or powerful.”

“Carter also said the tax law change will provide good economic stimulus benefits, as it would free many taxpayers from massive debts to the IRS, restoring those funds to the free market to help create jobs.”

Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute promptly noted that: “The bill also needs a Tom Daschle amendment to also provide immunity from criminal prosecution for outright tax evasion, such as not bothering to report $83,000 a year from consulting fees, or pretending that being given the use of a free limo with driver (a payolamobile) is not really income but simply "a generous offer from a friend." 

This all sounds sadly familiar.


[1] http://finance.senate.gov/press/Bpress/2009press/prb011309d.pdf

President Barack Obama

January 20, 2009

Happy New Year

Today is a proud day for America. Yesterday, Martin Luther King Day, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, wrote in the Washington Post about "The Dream This Jan. 20" saying that “Martin Luther King Jr. would be extraordinarily proud of Mr. Obama for becoming the nation’s first black president. Perhaps more important, he would be proud of the America that elected him.” We can be proud, not because we elected a son of a black Kenyan (in whose country I will spend three weeks next month), but because we elected a very intelligent and thoughtful leader, who happens to be black—despite his being black (to be blunt). In Obama’s own words “It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn’t underestimate the force of that." I am happy to say that when I saw the title of the Post article in which that last quote appeared, "President-Elect Sees His Race as An Opportunity", I actually thought it referred to his campaign for the Presidency.

But Obama’s own thinking is far deeper than that. “Beyond the symbolism of his historic achievement, Obama said, he hopes to use his presidency as an example of how people can bridge differences — racial and otherwise. ‘What I hope to model is a way of interacting with people who aren’t like you and don’t agree with you that changes the temper of our politics,’ he said. ‘And then part of that changes how we think about moving forward on race relations. Race relations becomes a subset of a larger problem in our society, which is we have a diverse, complicated society where people have a lot of different viewpoints.’

Obama embraces the traditional American values of personal responsibility and hard work. At dinner last night long time friend Sergio Pombo suggested that many older black leaders (the we are victims and are entitled to this or that crowd) are bound to be disappointed that Obama doesn’t deliver to them all the favors they hope for. These old attitudes will pass along with the white prejudices that helped give rise to them and Obama will help speed their passage by insisting that position and honor be earned. Washington DC’s black mayor, angered a few of the city’s older black residence (the vast majority of its residences are black) when he replaced the black chief of police with a white woman and the black Superintendent of Schools with a Korean woman because they were the best available. The vast majority of the city is excited by the implications, and prospects for a better city.

I am very impressed with the professional experience and quality of Obama’s cabinet appointments, especially his economic team. I expect many good things from them. I also expect things I probably will not like much because Obama has more faith in the capacity of government to do good than I do. What we desperately need from our national leaders after eight years of “my way or the highway” is serious debate about the important economic, foreign policy, and security issues before us. President Obama, who as President of the United States works for all of us, must build broad understanding of and consensus for new policy initiatives, and he has the skills and intension to do just that. We need to put behind us the view of some low lives that claiming Obama was really a Muslim (as if that automatically disqualified him) constituted an intellectual argument against what ever he might propose. We must return to a civil public discussion of the pros and cons of policy options rather than demonizing those with whom we disagree. I for one will do my best to marshal soundly reasoned and empirically supported arguments for private market solutions and limited but efficient government. I hope that the debate will focus on the most appropriate and beneficial partnership (and boundary) between government and the private sector (us).

Those who accused Bush W of manufacturing evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are guilty of the same enemy demonization. The fact that our war in Iraq was a tragic mistake does not mean that Bush did not think he was acting in the national interest. As E. J. Dionne Jr. pointed out in the Post in "Why the Uniter Divided Us", “Bush did not respect the obligation of a leader in a free society to forge a durable consensus. He was better at announcing policies than explaining them. He dismissed legitimate opposition and plausible doubts about the courses he wished to pursue. It is partly because of these failures that Americans reacted by selecting a successor with such a profoundly different political personality.” Fortunately, President Obama is a man of a very different temperament and not a minute too soon.

I suppose that it is human nature, one that civilization is dedicated to overcoming, to be less comfortable with or suspicious of people not like ourselves. The demonization of those we political disagree with feeds on itself unnecessarily sharpening political divisions. In another interesting Post article yesterday Shankar Vendantam reported on research on this subject in his article "Why the Ideological Melting Pot Is Getting So Lumpy". It seems that neighborhoods are becoming more homogenous politically (e.g. Greens vs. garden fertilizerers) rather than ethnically or religiously. My Iranian neighbor dropped by for tea the other day and shared an interesting comment about our neighborhood (he lost everything in Iran when the Shah fell and he and his wife moved to the U.S.). He said, you know there is only one other Republican in this neighbor (of 64 houses) besides you and me. He is also excited about Obama’s Presidency though he didn’t vote for him either.

The Richness of America

As I have not traveled outside of the area since the last Cayman Islands Monetary Authority’s board meeting November 5, my usual excuse for these notes, I would like to share with you a recent twenty minute car trip into town.

November 18

The orchestra for this evening’s concert rose as its young director Gustavo Dudamel walked to the podium. Then, still standing, they broke into The Star Spangled Banner. For a moment this cause some confusion among the Kennedy Center audience, as concerts, plays, movies and other public events in our country do not generally begin with the National Anthem as in many other countries. But we quickly rose to our feet and some even sang along with the orchestra. They played our National Anthem more beautifully than I had ever heard it before and tears actually formed in my eyes. As the music played I quietly reviewed some of America’s many strengths and virtues. I was proud of America again. It had been a while.

Before we could take our seats at the end of the Anthem, the orchestra took up the Hatikvah (the Hope). The haunting, melancholy strains of the Israeli National Anthem kept us standing for a few minutes more. We took our seats and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began Felix Mendelssonh’s Symphony No. 4, his “Italian” symphony. The young German composer traveled to Italy at the ago of 21 and wrote: “Italy at last. And what I have all my life considered as the greatest possible felicity is now begun, I am basking in it.” He began his Italian symphony during his nine month visit to Italy and premiered it three years later in London at the age of 24. And I was enjoying his symphony and even more Brahm’s (also German) much richer Symphony No 4 that followed it here in Washington DC performed by Israel’s premier orchestra.

The mix of nationalities reminded me of my first full Opera many years ago. Jean and Tom Dusenbery took me to the Berlin Concert Hall to watch Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. These beautify arias about an American in Japan where sung in Italian. I was watching it in West Berlin (my older friends will remember that there was a West Berlin for 28 years as well as a West Germany for about 45 years). For all its problems the world is a better place for most people.

December 24

Last months concert is one of the many experiences of rich cultural diversity that make life here so rich and exciting. It has been a trying and difficult year in many ways, but we do have so much to be thankful for as well and 2009 will be a new and I think exciting year. I wish you the very best for the coming year.