Ben Buchwalter

Gov. Rick Perry’s Death Penalty Dilemma

For Texas, the nation’s leader in legal killing, abolishing the death penalty would be an economic slam dunk. Perry, who once suggested that his state should secede from the Union, showed he was a fiscal conservative when he refused to take bailout funds for unemployment benefits. Of course, barely a month later,  he had to ask the government for a $170 million loan to cover (you guessed it) unemployment. The Death Penalty Information Center released a report in October that found that Texas could save a bundle by scaling back its execution program. Perry missed the memo:

But the swashbuckling politician—who in April suggested that Texas could secede from the Union—has only reaffirmed his embrace of the death penalty. “Our process works, and I don’t see anything out there that would merit calling for a moratorium on the Texas death penalty,” he said on Tuesday. As Zack Roth notes, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry’s top challenger for governor in 2010 and a strong supporter of the death penalty, has criticized Perry on the issue. Still, she hasn’t commented on the death penalty’s economic or ethical dimensions, instead charging that Perry’s handling of the Willingham case is “giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty.”

Congress’ Travel Hypocrisy?

August 7, 2009

There’s no doubt that Congress is nuts. But that fact was more pronounced when the Wall Street Journal reported in August that in the middle of the recession, after lambasting corporate executives for flying on personal jets after receiving taxpayer bailout money, the House approved $550 million to buy eight brand new jets for congresspeople and their staff. I spoke to Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics about Congress’ unsurprising lack of judgment. Here’s what he said:

“It’s obviously an economically difficult time in this country, so every decision such as this will be looked at with more scrutiny than in times of prosperity” says Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “There could indeed be outcry by citizens of this country.” But, he says, congressional accountability will depend on how incensed constituents get about wasteful spending. With the public focused on the healthcare debate, an issue that directly impacts their wallets, these kinds of proposals could slip below the radar.

One-Way Tickets for Homeless?
November 22, 2009, 7:36 pm
Filed under: Economy, Mother Jones | Tags: , ,

July 29, 2009

In July, the New York Times reported that the city of New York has bought one-way tickets for homeless families to destinations including Florida, California, and South Africa since 2007. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg embraced the policy to reduce the strain on the city’s overcrowded homeless shelters and save the city a bundle. This follows a social experiment in Denver, in which city officials provided housing to the chronically homeless. The study found that subsidizing housing for approximately $10,000 per person — a third the price the city typically spends on this population in ER bills. Though such creative programs are appealing, they are politically tricky, as I wrote for Mother Jones. Here’s an excerpt:

On the surface, these experiements in New York, Denver and San Francisco sound like a homerun. They appease progressives because they offer social services to a disadvantaged population. And who doesn’t love a goverment program that saves money? But they are far from perfect, and raise questions about where to draw the line and how to guarantee that once the cash runs out, the homeless won’t end up back on the streets.

Prosecutors: Ponzi Scheming Art Dealer Bilked McEnroe, DeNiro

March 31, 2009

While at TPM, I wrote about Lawrence Salander, a bombastic art gallery owner who cheated his high-profile investors, including Robert DeNiro and John McEnroe, out of $88 million in a Ponzi scheme. Talk about guys you don’t want to piss off… Clearly, Salander’s crime pales in comparison to some of the more notorious financial villains — like Bernie Madoff and Sir Allen Stanford — but the allegation was significant because it was “part of a surge in Ponzi cases brought by authorities since the start of the year,” I wrote in March. The post was promoted on the TPM front page and mentioned on Josh Marshall’s blog. Read the TPMmuckraker post for all the gruesome details. Here’s a preview:

One of those came from McEnroe, who served as an apprentice to the gallery as his tennis career was winding down in 1993. According to Bloomberg, the mercurial left-hander bought from Salander two paintings by the Armenian-born 20th century modernist Arshile Gorky for $2 million, and was promised a 50 percent interest on their sale. But Salander allegedly made the same deal on the same paintings with Morton Bender, a Washington-based developer, to nab another $2.2 million. He then sold one of the paintings to a third person, for $2.5 million and kept all the profits. (“Why sell it once when you can sell it three times?” Morgenthau asked of the operation.) When Christies’ Auction House told McEnroe that he could not move the painting because Bender had lien on it, McEnroe sued Salander, at which point New York prosecutors contacted the former tennis star.

Salander also allegedly stole nearly 50 paintings from DeNiro, all of which were painted by the actor’s father. After Salander was entrusted with the paintings, DeNiro claims in his own suit against the dealer, Salander sold them to help settle the estimated $100 million debt he was facing following the bankruptcy.

As his scheme crumbled, said prosecutors, Salander used “innuendos and bullying” to dissuade disgruntled investors from speaking to investigators. Assistant DA Micki Shulman pointed to an email to investor Earl Davis in which Salander said he would protect his gallery at all costs. “It will not be pretty but believe me Earl I don’t think you understand what you would be in for,” he wrote.

Economy’s Impact on Charitable Giving
March 24, 2009, 7:57 pm
Filed under: Barack Obama, Economy | Tags: , ,

I really enjoyed Obama’s press conference tonight. I joked on Twitter that press conferences were more interesting when our Prez was a dolt. But really, I like it better this way (well, who doesn’t?). I thought one of the most interesting questions of the night came from Politico’s Mike Allen. The essence of his question (and I don’t have the text in front of me) was whether the implementation of progressive taxation would negatively impact charitable giving. The idea being that the country’s wealthiest individuals could be less likely to give to charity if their taxes are raised.

Obama said he didn’t agree with this reasoning at all. Raising taxes on the top 5% will not run them into the ground. Yes, people are saving everywhere they can and the current economic climate won’t be good for charitable giving. But that cuts across the board regardless of how people are taxed. Obama rightly concluded that what will permanently harm individual giving is allowing the economy to continue to tank. So if we think creatively about how to get us out of this mess, even if it means raising taxes a bit on the wealthy, then we could get out of this crisis faster and more permanently.

I was glad to hear Obama stick to his guns advocating for progressive taxation.

Old Tom Joad Calls for Nationalization
March 17, 2009, 9:14 pm
Filed under: Economy

As the economy took a dramatic turn for the worst in the past few weeks, prompting “tent villages” to sprout up in cities like Sacramento and Seattle, I had an unavoidable urge to re-read The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve only just begun, but one passage jumps right off the Kindle.

When a man comes to kick the Joads off their land – the land they lived on for generations – they don’t take too kindly to it. They ask, who is behind this decision to kick us off our land and make us starve? Surely, the men in charge of the banks have families and understand that you can’t just strip people of their livelihoods for no good reason.

They get this response:

No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank s something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

This is where capitalism falls short. In the past three decades, international events have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that capitalism is the best way we know to run a government. But there is something inherently harsh, mean, and inhuman about it.

I think that the majority people – even those most horrified by the actions of executives from Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG – would argue that we can’t do away with capitalism, which is essential to promote competition and keep us moving forward. So why, then, are we so angry at the banks that caused the financial crisis? Is it really appropriate to condemn financial institutions for doing what is central to capitalism – to make a shit-ton of money?

Well, yes. Even though these newly failed financial institutions were prime examples of capitalism for a while, we now know that their business model was incredibly unsustainable. If you make a lot of money for a few years and then lose it all, you don’t count for much IMHO.

The big problem here is that major financial institutions have too much power. If these businesses fail, everyone is screwed — even those who had nothing to do with them. We have given God-like power to people who are driven purely by capitalism to make as much money as possible.

So maybe nationalization of the banks isn’t such a terrible idea. If banks were nationalized, at least at least they’d be run by political appointees who would only keep their jobs if they kept things running smoothly and transparently.

But to me, the most comforting aspect of bank nationalization is that government does not run like a business. In government, people — not profits — are the most important factor. That’s why we pay taxes for Social Security, Medicare, and other social welfare programs. In government, you won’t see as many risks and massive profits, but you also aren’t likely to see massive economic destruction.

Government looks out for the Joads because government relies on their vote. Financial institutions as they currently exist, though, operate in an inhuman world that allows the Joads to starve because their land won’t produce crops. We shouldn’t accept this inhuman system simply because its the best way we know.

Maybe its time to give nationalization an honest try.

March 6, 2009, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Economy | Tags: ,

Kyle’s blog recently posted the above graph showing the Dow since 1928. I was struck by the fact that the Dow remained under 2,000 until the second half of the 1980s. But as far as I know, we did not spend half of the 20th century in a jobs crisis.

So here’s my thought (and I recognize that I might be WAY off base on this):

As the Dow continues to drop closer to 6,000, maybe we need to reconsider the ideal endgame here. Maybe the goal should not be restoring the Dow to 10,000 or above, but to learn how to create jobs in a world where the Dow is below 7,000, as it was before the mid 1990s. If we could do it then, something tells me we can do it now.

As of February 1997 (when the Dow was roughly where it is now), the unemployment rate was 5.2%. We learned today that as of February 2009, the unemployment was 8.1%.

The Dow is not the best way to judge our economy. But as far as I’m concerned, the lower the unemployment rate is, the better our economy is. So when do we decide that rocketing back above 10,000 isn’t going to happen and start to adjust?

I’d love for someone who knows a lot about this stuff to explain.