When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.

Op-Ed: Should we set up New Deal-style work camps for the needy?

From today’s LA Times:

They are sending out emergency calls for shoes, underwear, sleeping garments, household equipment, mattresses, springs and bedding,” a Los Angeles Times story reported from Southern California. Do-gooders were doing what they could to help the destitute. “They have no sanitation,” a volunteer said. “No running water. Before the storms this week, we had set into motion a campaign in their behalf.”

The above reads like an article about the homeless from this month’s California section. But the dispatch actually dates from 1938, and the needy were the most mythologized of Golden State refugees: the Okies. Some 16,000 had settled in Montebello and Bell Gardens, the Times wrote, and the “distress … [was] terribly acute.”

Dust Bowl migrants have been on my mind recently, mostly because I just finished “California and the Dust Bowl Migration” by Walter J. Stein, a 1973 book that’s one of the earliest academic surveys about how that momentous exodus changed the state. It’s a great, if dry, read, and the Canadian professor puts more blame on the New Deal for pushing Oklahomans from their farms than he should.

But the book offered me perspective. The most recent estimate of California’s homeless population, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point in Time Census, is 114,000. That number pales in comparison with the estimated 350,000 Okies who flooded California, mostly during the second half of the Great Depression. And, despite initial hiccups, we came out of it just fine.

Stein’s tome also provides a way forward: workers’ camps. Yes, that sounds politically incorrect, somehow, but stay with me.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) built about 15 such camps to house Okies who were getting booted out of the shantytowns known as Hoovervilles. The government-sponsored camps were refuges from hate, with running water and clean living quarters and an ordered way to find work. Most even printed monthly newsletters. They sprang up in the Imperial Valley and Sonoma, the Central Valley and near Indio. Only one remains in operation: the Sunset Labor Camp just outside Bakersfield, which served as the inspiration for the Rooseveltian eden that the Joads find in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Now’s the time to bring them back, especially since Orange County officials plan to evict the hundreds of homeless along the biking trails of the Santa Ana River, within eyesight of the 57 and 5 freeways. Similar schemes are in the works across the state. Advocates are already warning that the homeless will have nowhere to go: There’s not nearly enough shelter space, and many are in no condition to reenter society, which means they will set up their tents in residential neighborhoods, whose inhabitants will just call the cops and offer no help.

Read the complete article here.

CFPB to reconsider rule on payday loans

From CNN Money Edition:

The watchdog agency said in a statement Tuesday that it intends to “reconsider” a regulation, issued in October, that would have required payday lenders to vet whether borrower can pay back their loans. It also would have restricted some loan practices.

If the rule is thrown out or rewritten, it would mark a major shift for an agency that had zealously pursued new limits on banks and creditors before Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s budget director, became the CFPB’s acting director.

Mulvaney took over the top job at the CFPB in November following a leadership scramble. A vocal critic of the CFPB when it was run by President Obama appointee Richard Cordray, Mulvaney since said the agency would cut back on burdensome regulations.

Tuesday’s announcement does not amount to a formal repeal of the payday lending rule. But it does cast doubt on whether it will ultimately be implemented.

Payday loans provide those in need with small amounts of cash — typically between $200 and $1,000. The money needs to be paid back in full when a borrower receives his or her next paycheck, and such loans often come with exorbitantly high interest rates.

Consumer advocates that have supported the CFPB’s restrictions on the loans say such transactions often take advantage of people in desperate financial situations.

“The CFPB thoroughly and thoughtfully considered every aspect of this issue over the course of several years,” Karl Frisch, executive director of progressive group Allied Progress, said in a statement. “There is no reason to delay implementation of this rule — unless you are more concerned with the needs of payday lenders than you are with the interests of the consumers these financial bottom-feeders prey upon.”

The sentiment was echoed in a statement by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who helped create the CFPB.

“Payday lenders spent $63,000 helping Mick Mulvaney get elected to Congress and now their investment is paying off many times over. By scrapping this rule, Mulvaney will allow his campaign donors to continue to generate massive fees peddling some of the most abusive financial products in existence,” Warren said.

Read the complete article here.

MLK Day 2018, A Time to Reflect on Socio-Economic Injustice In All Forms

In honor of MLK Day, we post a short educational video here with excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin that draw the connection between racial injustice and economic inequality in the United States. Their insights are as true today as they were fifty years ago, showing just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. If we want peace, we must work for justice in all its forms.

KY Gets OK To Require Work From Medicaid Recipients, Most Already Do

From National Public Radio:

Poor residents in Kentucky will have to work or do volunteer work if they want to keep their Medicaid benefits after the Trump administration on Friday approved the state’s request to add the requirements to its Medicaid program.

The new requirements apply only to “able-bodied” adults who get their health insurance through Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor. People with disabilities, children, pregnant women and the elderly are exempt from the requirement.

“Kentucky is leading the nation in this reform in ways that are now being replicated all over the nation,” said Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, in announcing the plan’s approval.

Kentucky’s program was approved a day after the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it would look favorably on proposals from state to require poor Medicaid beneficiaries to work, go to school, get job training or do volunteer work to earn health coverage.

Nine other states — Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin — have asked CMS to allow them to add “community engagement” requirements to their Medicaid programs.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma says the work requirement option is designed improve people’s financial status and health outcomes.

In addition to the work requirement, some of Kentucky’s Medicaid beneficiaries will have to begin paying premiums for their coverage and will have to meet certain milestones to earn dental and vision care.

Before Verma joined CMS she was a private consultant and an architect of the Kentucky plan that was approved Friday.

It’s not clear how many people would be affected by the new rules in Kentucky and elsewhere.

study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 60 percent of “able-bodied” Medicaid beneficiaries already work. And a third of those who don’t have jobs say it’s because they are ill or disabled.

Ralph Nader: Trump’s Anti-Consumer Agenda Hurts His Voters

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Ralph Nader;

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised regular people, “I will be your voice,” and attacked the drug industry for “getting away with murder” in setting high prices for lifesaving medications. But as president, he has declared war on regulatory programs protecting the health, safety and economic rights of consumers. He has done so in disregard of evidence that such protections help the economy and financial well-being of the working-class voters he claims to champion.

Already his aggressive actions exceed those of the Reagan administration in returning the country to the “Let the buyer beware” days of the 1950s.

Though Mr. Trump is brazen in his opposition to consumer protections, many of his most damaging attacks are occurring in corners of the bureaucracy that receive minimal news coverage. His administration, for instance, wants to strip the elderly of their right to challenge nursing home abuses in court by allowing arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has announced that it is canceling a proposed rule intended to reduce the risk of sleep apnea-related accidents among truck drivers and railway workers.

And the Environmental Protection Agency is busy weakening, repealing and under-enforcing protections, including for children, from toxic exposure. Scott Pruitt, the director, went against his agency’s scientists to jettison an imminent ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide widely used on vegetables and fruits. Long-accumulated evidence shows that the chemical is poisoning the drinking water of farm workers and their families.

This assault began with Mr. Trump choosing agency chiefs who are tested corporate loyalists driven to undermine the lifesaving, income-protecting institutions whose laws they have sworn to uphold.

At the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Trump has installed Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former pharmaceutical industry consultant, who supports weakening drug and medical device safety standards and has shown no real commitment to reducing sky-high drug prices. At the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire investor in for-profit colleges, has weakened enforcement policy on that predatory industry, hiring industry insiders and abandoning protections for students and taxpayers.

Mr. Pruitt, as the attorney general of Oklahoma, filed suits against the E.P.A. He has hired former lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industries. Mr. Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress are pushing to restrict access to state courts by plaintiffs who seek to hold polluters accountable.

The administration is even threatening to dismantlethe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fire its director, Richard Cordray, who was installed after Wall Street’s 2008 crash. Their sins: They returned over $12 billion to defrauded consumers and plan to issue regulations dealing with payday debt traps and compulsory arbitration clauses that deny aggrieved consumers their day in court. (The Senate is now considering legislation to gut the arbitration rule.)

Draconian budget cuts, new restrictions on health insurance, diminished privacy protections and denying climate change while putting off fuel-efficiency deadlines and auto safety standards will hurt all Americans, including Mr. Trump’s most die-hard supporters.

Read the complete article here.

In the Fight Against Poverty, Work Is Our Most Powerful Weapon

From today’s Harvard Business Review by Leila Janah:

Fourteen years ago, I left suburban Los Angeles to teach English in rural Ghana. I’d expected, like so many young people with bleeding hearts and big dreams, to make a difference by donating my time as a schoolteacher for six months. Upon arrival in the village, I was shocked to discover that my students, avid listeners of Voice of America and BBC radio, already spoke English quite well, and some could speak to me about President Clinton’s state visit to Africa. These were blind or partially sighted kids from families earning less than $3 a day.

How was this possible? I’d learned from countless TV specials on war and poverty in the continent that Africans needed aid. They needed us to send food and clothes and to build wells and schools. But on the ground, almost every poor person I spoke to told me the same thing: “We don’t want aid, we want work.” I spent the next four years studying development economics at Harvard, designing a special major to focus on African development, and later working at the World Bank to further understand the problem of poverty and how to fix it.

My conclusion after all this time isn’t so novel. But it bears repeating because we’ve lost our way: Work is the most powerful weapon we have to fight poverty and all its downstream effects, from child malnutrition to maternal mortality, both domestically and abroad. We need to modernize workforce training, incentivize companies to hire low-income people, and encourage consumers to support those organizations that #GiveWork, not aid.

Last year, the 2,000 largest companies spent an estimated $12 trillion on goods and services, a lot of it directed to suppliers that mine or harvest raw materials or make and grow things in poor countries. The fair trade movement was a strong first step in working to access these reserves of capital to fund poverty reduction directly. Started in the 1950s, it pushed purveyors of commodity goods like coffee, chocolate, sugar, and cotton to adhere to a rigorous set of core principles, including deliberately working in marginalized communities and paying living wages. And the results have been good. For example, Starbucks sources all its European espresso beans from fair trade certified producers, and Dutch company Fairphone sells the world’s first entirely fair trade Android phone, with batteries made from ethically mined minerals.

But I believe we now need something broader and simpler to mobilize companies and consumers to think differently about aid: a model called “impact sourcing,” which pushes for workforces (whether directly employed or employed through suppliers) to be economically diverse enough to include some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. This shift could, by our estimation, lift millions out of poverty in a single year.

Read the entire article here.

Racism at Work in America: Unemployment in Black and White

From today’s New York Times Editorial Board:

The recent finding by The New York Times that black students are still vastly underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities is one sign of how little the country has managed to do to close racial gaps.

Unemployment rates among black workers give a similarly gloomy picture. The jobless rate for black Americans is generally about twice that of white Americans, a ratio that improves only somewhat in “good” times, like the present, and persists no matter the level of educational attainment. The overall unemployment rate for black workers is now 7.4 percent and for white workers is 3.8 percent. For college-educated workers, the recent average jobless rate was 4.2 percent for blacks, compared with 2.5 percent for whites.

The hard truth is that the persistence of twice-as-high joblessness for black workers has led policy makers to accept it is as normal. Just look at the Federal Reserve. Monetary policy is supposed to foster stable prices and full employment. But the Fed has historically favored inflation fighting over boosting employment, a policy bias that generally leads it to raise interest rates before the job market is as strong as possible, as measured by low unemployment and rising pay for all groups of workers. The Fed has already raised rates twice this year and many Fed officials appear to favor a third increase by year’s end, with evident disregard for the fact that black unemployment is now at levels that prevailed for white workers in 2012, when the economy was still very much in the shadow of the Great Recession.

Another hard truth is that even when the economy picks up and employers are on a hiring binge, black people have a harder time getting jobs and are paid less than similarly situated white workers. That is exactly what happened from 1996 to 2000, the last genuinely hot job market, and it points clearly to racial discrimination, not just in hiring, but in a range of public policies that disproportionately affect black people. These include the dearth and high cost of child care, which harms single mothers the most; poor public transportation in many rural and suburban areas, which makes keeping a job difficult; and mass incarceration of black men and the barriers to employment that go with it.

Other factors include erosion and weakness in the enforcement of labor standards and legal safeguards. The wage gap between black and white workers is larger now than it was in 1979 or in 2000, and has grown the most for college graduates.

The whole economy is weighed down by the higher unemployment among black Americans, in part because it deprived the economy of consumer demand, the main engine for growth. Worse, the job and wage gap signals a loss of human potential, a singularly valuable form of capital. The economy cannot be said to be at full employment while black workers lag behind their white counterparts. Nor can the society be said to be just or healthy.

A Better Deal for American Workers

From today’s New York Times by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

Americans are clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy. They feel, rightfully, that both systems are rigged against them, and they made that clear in last year’s election. American families deserve a better deal so that this country works for everyone again, not just the elites and special interests. Today, Democrats will start presenting that better deal to the American people.

There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know — I grew up in that America.

But things have changed.

Today’s working Americans and the young are justified in having greater doubts about the future than any generation since the Depression. Americans believe they’re getting a raw deal from both the economic and political systems in our country. And they are right. The wealthiest special interests can spend an unlimited, undisclosed amount of money to influence elections and protect their special deals in Washington. As a result, our system favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers.

And for far too long, government has gone along, tilting the economic playing field in favor of the wealthy and powerful while putting new burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans.

Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people — and that we stand for three simple things.

First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.

Over the next several months, Democrats will lay out a series of policies that, if enacted, will make these three things a reality. We’ve already proposed creating jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan; increasing workers’ incomes by lifting the minimum wage to $15; and lowering household costs by providing paid family and sick leave.

Read the entire op-ed here.