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Weekly Audit: Budget Good, Bailout Bad

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

President Barack Obama rolled out his highly anticipated federal budget proposal on Thursday, and while the plan represents a dramatic departure from the priorities of the Bush administration, its ultimate impact may be crippled by a counterproductive bank bailout.

First, the good news: The budget is awesome.

"Obama would raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for healthcare for the uninsured; cap pollution emissions; put billions more dollars into infrastructure and new technology; … invest in new education programs; and roll back the U.S. troop presence in Iraq," Mike Madden writes for Salon. "There were proposals to save money by modernizing the healthcare system … and by eliminating federal farm subsidies to the biggest and wealthiest recipients."

While it’s refreshing to see a set of priorities that put economic stability ahead of entrenched corporate interests, Obama’s call to reduce the federal deficit comes as a bit of a surprise. He has inherited a massive recession and defecit. Over at The American Prospect, Ezra Klein highlights an analysis of spending by Media Consortium alum Brian Beutler. Both bloggers agree that government debt is not a major problem, provided that borrowed funds are used to invest in something meaningful.

"Debt can be good if you expect that spending will offer a greater return than saving," Klein writes. "And right now, because Treasury bonds are the last safe investment, it’s the cheapest it’s been for the government to borrow money in 50 years."

Republicans are screaming about the enormous deficit that Obama’s budget requires, but most of that debt was passed down by President George W. Bush. Obama has actually taken cues from Congressional Republicans to find funding for financial shortfalls. Steve Aquino of Mother Jones notes that Obama’s move to raise premiums on Medicare received by wealthy Americans is a longstanding Republican priority. Additionally, Obama’s move to cap the itemized deduction tax subsidy at 28 cents on the dollar would re-establish Reagan-era levels.

But the line items missing from Obama’s budget are just as noteworthy. The Washington Monthly‘s Steve Benen dissects the Republican angst over Obama’s refusal to push for cuts in Social Security benefits. During his speech before Congress last week, Obama breezed right by the alleged Social Security crisis without asking elderly Americans, who have already seen their 401k plans cut in half over the past year, to take further cuts in their retirement income.

That’s a good thing, because as Matthew Rothschild explains for The Progressive, Social Security’s looming implosion is a Republican myth. "Social Security isn’t going bankrupt," Rothschild writes. "It’s fully funded until 2041, and could remain so for many more years simply by making the wealthiest Americans kick in their share."

The income limit for Social Security taxes is $105,000 a year, so billionaires pay the same Social Security as those making $105,000 annually. If Social Security ever does run into trouble, it can be easily fixed by charging rich people more for the program.

On to the bad news.

The government bailed out Citigroup and its shareholders for the third time on Friday, converting $25 billion in preferred stock into ordinary, run-of-the-mill, we-own-this-company common stock. But while Citi’s stock market value was hovering around $13 billion at the time, taxpayers only received a 36% stake in return for their largesse.

The Real News has a great interview with economist William Engdahl about the banking lobby’s ability to exercise control over public policy, despite the industry’s self-inflicted collapse. Engdahl argues persuasively that it is time for the government to stop propping up bank shareholders under the hope that "market prices" will magically appear for worthless assets. "Write those assets, those toxic assets, down to zero," Engdahl says. "Only the state can do that at this point. You don’t find the market price for these things."

The government has been playing for time for the last 18 months in hopes that the financial crisis could iron itself out. Rather than reward investors who put money into bad companies, Engdahl says Obama needs to wipe out the shareholders of failed banks and kick out the management teams that steered their companies into catastrophe.

Playing for time was the central economic strategy of Henry Paulson’s tenure as Treasury Secretary, but as Lagan Sebert and David Murdoch make clear in the below video for The American News Project, Paulson also managed to slip in major giveaways to big U.S. banks in the process.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) allowed the government to inject capital into banks, but Paulson charged them a much lower than market rate of return on the investment. As a result, taxpayers missed out on about $78 billion that they could have expected to receive in interest payments had their money been managed by, say, Warren Buffett instead of Paulson. To put that number in perspective: President Obama’s entire plan to avert foreclosures will cost taxpayers $75 billion.

The U.S. banking system is completely broken and will need an enormous taxpayer commitment to return to any semblance of health. But there are good ways and bad ways to go about doing that. A bailout should be accompanied by control over how a bank is managed.

The banking industry is working very hard to portray TARP as something other than a bailout. When Northern Trust, for example, throws decadent parties after receiving taxpayer funds, its executives justified those lavish expenditures by claiming that their company was not "bailed out," but merely received capital which it is paying for. The pricing of TARP was so favorable to banks and so disadvantageous for taxpayers that this claim cannot be taken seriously. Northern Trust got a bailout, and even if they pay back their TARP funds ahead of time, the interest they are paying is so far below market rates that the company will still be coming out ahead.

Obama’s budget shows that he knows what it takes to turn the economy around, but his financial policy indicates that he lacks the political will to shake off the banking lobby and do what is necessary to save ordinary Americans from disaster.

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