Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Has America Lost its Drive?

Yesterday,  Karl Smith posted on Oil and the Structural Recession.  This seems to be one of Karl’s thinking-out-loud posts, with more questions than answers, some convoluted reasoning, and a conclusion that higher gasoline prices are in our future.  If I read him right, this will be due to a demand pull.

He included this graph from Calculated Risk.

Graph 1.  U.S. Vehicle Miles

The number of miles driven tends to flatten during a recession, then recover quickly when the recession is over.  At least, that’s the way it used to be.  The Miles Driven curve seems to have been losing slope since the late 90’s, and was close to flat-line during the housing bubble last decade, when everyone supposedly felt rich.  There has been no recovery after the recent Great Recession, which officially ended 32 months ago.

 The same CR post cited above also includes this next graph.

Graph 2.  YoY Change in Vehicle Miles

This confirms my eye-ball assessment that the slope in the first graph has been in decline since long before the oil price bubble of recent years.

But here is a contrary development.  Calculated Risk also reports that the truck tonnage index is way up for all of 2011, and especially in December, when it posted an all time high.

Graph 3. Truck Tonnage Index

Truck traffic is way up, but total miles driven, per graph 2, has been mostly in decline for four years.

This suggests that discretionary personal driving has been sharply curtailed.  I’m having a hard time coming up with any alternative explanation.  Can anybody suggest one?

Just in the last couple of months, it seems that discretionary driving has taken a deep plunge that has not yet shown up in the data posted above.  Deliveries to retail gas stations have been slumping for well over a decade, and now have fallen off a cliff.  If gasoline delivery is just-in-time, as I believe it is, then deliveries are an excellent proxy for consumption.

By the Way, improved fuel economy cannot account for more than a small fraction of this change.  The big improvements in fuel economy happened during the 80’s, when fuel deliveries were in an upswing.  Since 1990, fuel economy improvements for the actual fleet on the road have been on the order of 0.5% per year.

 Graph 4.  Gasoline Retail Deliveries

I made my own graphs of the retail delivery data (not posted,) and there is, surprisingly, no particular response to the recessions of 1991 and 2001.  It’s not easy to find any recession on Graph 4.  Deliveries were slumping even before the Great Recession, so whatever effect it might have had on its own was subsumed by the general trend.  The above graph is noisy, due to lack of seasonal adjustment.  The lowest row of dots over most of this graph represents January data.  Summer months cluster at the top of the array, as you would expect.  Those two lonely points in the lower right corner are October and November, 2011, the most recent data shown.

It’s remarkable that gasoline deliveries are now substantially lower than at any time available in this data set. spanning about 30 years.  And I would never have guessed that anything like this was happening, based on my many trips on I-75 between Detroit and Toledo.  That route must not be a representative sample.

In a comment on Karl’s post, I said that I see all petroleum prices as highly manipulated on the supply side, with demand as a follower.  This data makes me think that the same is true of gasoline, in particular.  But it can’t be the entire story for the decline in consumption.  There is no clear connection between deliveries and gasoline prices over the last several years.

I don’t know where gasoline prices are going.  Karl might be right that they are going up.  But I don’t see any way that this can be due to a demand pull.

Mish also has a couple of recent posts relevant to this topic.

H/T to commentor rjs at Karl’s post, who got me thinking about this, and provided a key link.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Euro Area Portfolio Flows

by Rebecca Wilder

Euro Area Portfolio Flows

Today the ECB released the Euro area balance of payments for December. This is a statistical release that is worthy of only the biggest data geeks – but it is quite interesting, especially in forming relationships between FX and capital flows. I’ll demonstrate what’s been going on in EA bond, equity, and money markets in one just chart. The data come from the ECB, and can be seen in the Monthly Bulletin, Table 7.3.


The chart illustrates portfolio flows as the 3-month sum total flows in and out of Euro area bond, equity, and money markets, or portfolio investment. The red line plots the dynamics of investment flows by foreign residents in (positive) and out of (negative) the Euro area. The blue line plots the dynamics of investment flows by Euro area residents in (positive) and out of (negative) the Euro area.

When the blue line is positive, Euro area residents are bringing assets home, or repatriating capital. This is rare. When the red line is negative, foreign residents are moving capital out of the Euro area by selling euro assets. This is also rare. Both occurred in 2011.

Foreign investors reduced exposure to euro-denominated assets, -€78.9 billion in Q4, while Euro area investors brought assets back home, +€55.8 in Q4. Spanning 2011, foreign inflows into equity, bond, and money markets turned 180 degrees from +€183 net accumulation in the 3 months ending in June to -€78.9 in Q4.

For 2011 as a whole, foreigners accumulated similar amounts of euro-denominated assets as in 2008 (the last time the foreign flows turned negative), €233 billion versus €266 billion, respectively. In contrast, the repatriation flows did make a big 2011 dent compared to the 2008 comparable year of repatriation, +€60.2 billion of inflows for the year as a whole versus -€4.9 billion in 2008.
We’ll see if 2012 is a year of normalization – EA resident outflows and positive foreign inflows. Certainly recent actions by the ECB have helped to assuage foreign investors, as evidenced by the +€5.3 billion portfolio inflow in December 2011. The January release will be an interesting one!

Happy Presidents’ Day, Rebecca

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Romney Ad in Michigan Advances “Liberal” Policy. Really.

As Bain Capital PR agent Charlyn Lusk (see my post from yesterday morning) and other AB readers know by now, I’ve posted a series of posts here over the last few days that discuss the oddity that Mitt Romney has repeatedly claimed whenever the subject of the auto company bailouts arises, that, while, yes, he had in fact argued against the government bailouts for the two companies, and had written a New York Times op-ed saying that a government bailout would spell the end of the auto industry in the U.S.—apparently on the presumption that up is down and down is up—he had argued for an alternative that would have been better: managed bankruptcy.

My posts, and now reporters here in Michigan covering Romney’s campaign stops in the state—see my post from last evening, and the corrected final sentence of it—point out that, Romney’s comments notwithstanding, the companies did file for bankruptcy.  My first post on this, prompted by a new Romney op-ed, this one in the Detroit News, mentioned that thanks to government funding of the process (a.k.a., the bailouts), the bankruptcies were managed ones, which enabled both companies to emerge from the bankruptcy process much smaller but intact. 

My posts also noted that, Romney’s claims to the contrary, there was no private funding available to fund these managed bankruptcies.  And that in any event, the solution that Romney claims to have suggested—private-equity loans backed by government guarantees for those loans—would not have saved any public money.  It would, however, have handed the keys to the U.S. auto industry to private-equity firms. And in a bizarre ad running on local TV news programs here in Michigan, Romney makes startlingly clear what the difference would have been, and why he so objects to the government’s bailout of the two companies.

The result of the bailouts are indisputable, and Romney no longer attempts to dispute them: Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the auto industry were saved, the companies are now successful, and both are hiring again in order to add plant shifts.  He did, though, claim without explanation in his Detroit News op-ed that the wrong workers’ jobs were saved.  I.e., union jobs, a theme he advances in the TV spot.

The titles of my earlier posts in this series were intended as sarcasm.  The title of this post is not. This ad is among the oddest I’ve ever seen, and among the most revealing. In last evening’s post, I described it as a weird, incoherent ad that “actually hints at the elimination-of-union-workers thing, while actually advertising that ‘liberals’ got ‘Obama’ to save the auto industry. Seriously.”

Seriously. The ad begins with photos of from the 1950s.  One is of an AMC car of that era, another of Romney as a child, with his father at the Detroit Auto Show, circa late ‘50s.  Romney is the narrator, and talks of his lifelong love of the Detroit auto industry.  Then, abruptly, there’s the current Romney, driving a car down a residential street in a Detroit neighborhood, talking about how great it is that the auto industry is coming back to life.  But as he’s driving, he suddenly says something like, “Obama gave the liberals everything they wanted” in the auto bailout. 

Like what, exactly? The unions gave huge concessions in exchange for the bailout.  Huge concessions. In any event, the concessions were enough to allow the two companies to thrive less than three years later, and for one of them, GM, to regain its place, from Toyota, as the leading auto company in the world. It announced record profits yesterday, after the ad was made and shown repeatedly, but GM’s success has been clear for some months now.

So what’s Romney’s problem with the bailouts? Bruce Webb summarized it well, I think, in a lengthy comment to my post of last evening:

On a serious note Romney in his statements about Obama selling out to unions makes it clear that his definition of “managed bankruptcy” is narrowly focused on Bain (Capital not Consulting) style bankruptcies that include ripping up union contracts and stripping pension funds to leave a “leaner, meaner” company whose interests are 150% aligned with the shareholders.  …
That is Romney sees two different fors of ‘managed bankruptcy’, one that attempts to reach Pragmatic/Utilitarian Greatest Good outcomes, and another that attempts to maximize returns on capital and sees the former as inherently illegitimate. Morally. Obama by allowing labor to be a stakeholder as opposed to 100% privileging capital was to that degree a traitor.  

Adding it all up, that does seem accurate.  And it’s hard to imagine a nicer hat tip to liberal policies than Romney’s acknowledgment that the current success of GM and Chrysler, and, correspondingly, the suddenly enlivened economy of Michigan at least, and probably of Ohio (another big auto- and auto-supplier manufacturing hub) too is due to Obama’s caving into all the liberals’ demands.  GM announced bonuses of up to $7,000 for most of its blue-collar workforce yesterday.

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Health Care: Supply Chain Meltdowns

by Tom aka Rusty Rustbelt

Health Care: Supply Chain Meltdowns

First:
Counterfeit vials of the cancer drug Avastin have been found in three states. The vials, sold directly to physician offices, lack the active ingredients to make the drug effective. Somewhat luckily, the packaging was so sloppy the vials were spotted, although some of the medication was likely used. We might not be so lucky next time.
   
Then:
The drug common Methotrexate, used to treat several kinds of cancers, is in short supply. Methotrexate is considered essential in battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia in adults and in children.

As drugs become generic the cost goes down, but generic drug makers are not especially adept at making injectable medications, being better at mass production of pills. The closure of just a few plants can cause a shortage, as we have now.
   
More than 250 meds have been on the shortage list in the last year or two, as the lower costs of production are offset by lower reimbursements leading to less capital investment and production.


And Finally:
The Johnson and Johnson Depuy subsidiary is in hot water with the FDA for joint replacements failing too early too often (15 years is the hoped for life of joint replacement surgeons, results vary by patient). Depuy recently received some bad publicity for selling the same joint replacements in Europe.

Meanwhile U.S. malpractice lawyers are having a field day, and a fake internet artificial joint registry disappeared when registrants were hustled by lawyers they had never heard of (the feds are working to start a legitimate registry).

So:
Most of the medical supply chain is efficient and provides quality goods, but a few meltdowns can have horrendous impacts.
   

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Mitt Romney Reads Angry Bear!*

After the Bain Existence controversy about my post about Bain Capital yesterday, and whether or not Bain Capital really wanted to lend Chrysler and GM money to fund their managed bankruptcies, and about whether or not Bain Capital’s PR agency understands the concept of sarcasm and can recognize it even when it’s wearing a red flag, and about whether or not Mitt Romney knows that Chrysler and GM did file for bankruptcy and did undergo managed ones that, thanks to the government’s bailout money, enabled them to emerge as ongoing entities rather than pieces for liquidation, I swore off politics posts on AB and figured I’d just limit myself to my tried-and-true subject matter: legal analysis.

But, well, I live in Michigan, which is both Ground Zero for the auto companies and Ground Zero for the next big day of primaries.  And, well, Romney was in the state today (albeit not my part of the state) giving a speech and being interviewed by local journalists.  And his speech and the interviews were covered on the local evening news broadcasts, including the one I watched. 

I still might have resisted commenting, were it not that Romney apparently was asked by a reporter this afternoon why he continues to imply in his spoken comments and op-ed pieces that GM and Chrysler did not go through bankruptcy, or did not go through managed bankruptcy, as he repeatedly now says he recommended at the time, and instead were given the federal bailout money to survive without filing bankruptcy.  I say “apparently,” because the news clip I saw, on the Detroit metro NBC affiliate (clickondetroit.com), showed only Romney’s answer to whatever question was asked; it did not show the reporter asking the question. 

But, speaking between clenched teeth  embedded in a frozen “drop dead, you liberal elite member of the news media” smile—eyes flashing with barely-controlled rage—he said, um, that the car companies did file for “managed bankruptcy,” and that they finally did so at his urging, having earlier refused to do so, and that it is very nice that the companies have survived and are thriving now.

Which it is.  Very nice, that is.  But now that Romney has conceded that managed bankruptcy is in fact what the companies underwent, he now really should also concede that the only way they were able undergo and emerge from managed bankruptcy, rather than go through just a plain old bankruptcy whose endgame is liquidation, is that the federal government’s bailout financed it.  And that there was no other possible source of that financing.  Unless, of course, Bain Capital could done it, maybe through leverage provided by Goldman Sachs, which might have had the funds for it because it already had been bailed out by the government. 

Or maybe Bain Consulting (no relation to Bain Capital) had an even better idea—if only they’d been asked.

The managed bankruptcies that Romney had in mind in early 2009 for the two car companies pretty clearly were liquidations that would then allow Bain Capital or other venture capital firms to buy small parts of these companies, eliminate union workers, and … I’m not sure.  A weird, incoherent ad his campaign’s been running on the local news broadcasts actually hints at the elimination-of-union-workers thing, while actually advertising that “liberals” got “Obama” to save the auto industry.  Seriously.

Anyway, in keeping with my promise in my earlier post today in which I said I would never, ever—ever—again write something facetious would expressly identifying it as sarcasm, satire, or just a plain old joke, I make the following disclaimer: the title of this post is intended as a joke.  Mitt Romney probably does not read Angry Bear.  Even though he did seem awfully well prepared for the question.

The reporter who asked him the question must be an AB reader, though.*

—-
*That sentence was edited after this post was posted, to make clear that the reporter was quite well prepared, and that of course that indicates that he had read my AB post about Romney’s weird failure to acknowledge that the two car companies did go through managed bankruptcy and emerged from it as ongoing companies only thanks to the government’s financial assistance (a.k.a., the bailout) during the bankruptcy process.

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BREAKING NEWS: Bain Capital Really, Really, REALLY Did Not Want to Lend GM and Chrysler Money For Their Managed Bankruptcies!”*

Oookaaaayyy.  Normally when I receive an email message that I want to forward or mention elsewhere, I first ask permission of the emailer.  Not this time, though.

The following email was sent to Angry Bear last evening, and forwarded to me by Ken late last night:

On Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 6:27 PM, Charlyn Lusk <CLusk@stantonprm.com> wrote:

You currently have a blog posting regarding Bain Capital, GM and Chrysler, which is incorrect.  Refer to the CNBC retraction below.  Please update your story accordingly.

Best,

Charlyn Lusk

Charlyn Lusk

Stanton Public Relations & Marketing

880 Third Avenue

New York, NY 10022

            212-366-5300       (main)

            646-502-3549       (direct)

Allow me, please, to not just refer the CNBC retraction Ms. Lusk links to be to republish it here in its entirety:

WITHDRAWN: CNBC Report that Bain Advised Obama Administration on Auto Company Bailout Has Been Refuted

By Andrew C. McCarthy

January 13, 2012 8:56 A.M.

UPDATE: CNBC HAS WITHDRAWN ITS EARLIER REPORT THAT MITT ROMNEY’S FORMER FIRM, BAIN CAPITAL, ADVISED THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ON THE AUTO BAILOUT. CNBC says the “Bain Consulting” in the report turns out not to be related to Romney’s Bain firm.

I am deleting my earlier post about it, though I will save it in the event there needs to be some record of it — I haven’t thought that through, but in fairness to the Romney campaign, I want to delete the earlier post now.

Ah. Who knew?  Okay, well, who who doesn’t read the National Review or watch CNBC knew?

Anyway … late last night, Ken emailed Ms. Lusk back:

Sent: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 11:43 PM
Subject: Re: Your story on Bain Capital, GM and Chrysler

Updated to make the distinction clear.  I leave it to Beverly if she wants to change her title and/or any of the other text.

Ken

He cc’d it to Dan, Bruce Webb and me.  I responded, clicking the “All” response button:

Yikes.  The title of that post was intended as facetious.  Given the content of the post—which did not say that Bain actually wanted to lend GM and Chrysler money for their managed bailouts, but instead made the point than no private equity money or other private-source funding was forthcoming or likely to be forthcoming—I assumed that it the facetious intent of the title of the post would be obvious.

Silly me.  But then, I actually had no idea that there had been a report last month saying that Bain had … whatever … much less that the report was withdrawn.

Geeeeez.

I will write up a separate post now explaining this. The title of the post?  How about: “BREAKING NEWS: Bain Capital Really, Really, REALLY Did Not Want to Lend GM and Chrysler Money For Their Managed Bankruptcies!”

Beverly

By then, Dan had emailed me saying simply, “Can you follow up on the correction?

And so I have. 

Lessons learned:

1.      Never, ever write facetiously for public consumption without specifying that what you’re writing is intended as sarcasm, satire, whatever;

2.      Subscribe to the National Review, because you never know when it might have to retract a statement about a corporation, at the request of the corporation’s PR firm;

3.      That Bain Capital is an entity entirely distinct from Bain Consulting; and

4.      That I really need to retain a PR firm.  Or a lawyer.

What I didn’t learn, but really want to now, is what, exactly, Bain Consulting advised the Obama administration about the auto bailouts.  I can guess, though.  That it should allow the two auto companies to file for unsupported bankruptcy, so that vulture capitalists—er, venture capitalists can acquire what they want of the companies’ remnants on whatever terms they dictate, maybe?

Beverly

—–
*I just corrected the formatting of the post so that the font and font size are consistent throughout.  The weird font changes in the original were the result of cut-and-paste things (as well as my utter cluelessness about how to avoid such things). I did not intend that parts of the post make it look like I was shouting. Not that I wouldn’t mind shouting.  Or screaming.  But ….

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Michael Hudson on Greece

Greece and what is happening to it is not getting enough attention.  What is happening there, in my opinion is an example of the human race at it’s worse.  I do not see the implementation of austerity as an experiment.  I see it as just one more step by those in the world controlling banking to mold the world into its self image.

This is a link to an 11 minute interview of Michael Hudson:  Michael Hudson is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street Financial Analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City… 

In this interview, Prof. Hudson suggests that Greece is the test to see how far the world’s money people can push in preparations for further advancement within the EU.  Interestingly he notes, that in the US, because we privatized our utilities years ago, we are not seeing the same drive of austerity as we are seeing in Europe, including England.  Though we should not be complaisant.

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Santorum’s Tax Returns Out

by Linda Beale
Santorum’s Tax Returns Out

News Sources report Santorum has released tax returns. I’m on my way to San Diego for the ABA Tax Section meeting, so haven’t had a chance to peruse. But a tax rate of around 25-27% for 2007-2010 on income ranging from $659,000 in 2007 to more than a million in 2009 shows Santorum paid a considerably higher share of his income in taxes than did Romney (at not quite 14%).

See Exclusive: Santorum Releases 4 Years of Returns, Politico (Feb. 16, 2012) (the returns are accessible at links on the Politico website).

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Misleading Tax Rhetoric Abounds

by Linda Beale

Misleading Tax Rhetoric Abounds

I got the same piece of mail that my colleague and fellow blogger Jim Maule got–a disturbingly misleading rant trying to make a case for zero taxation of unearned income. I started to write a post about it, since this is the kind of material that gets my ire up. It is written with what appears to be an intent to confuse or mislead. It applies vague language when that suits the writer, and fails to explain even the simplest transactions acceptably.

Maule beat me to it. He has an excellent post on Issue 9.04 of Tax Bytes, put out by the Institute for Policy Innovation (a think tank on the right): When Double Taxation Doesn’t Exist, Mauled Again (Feb. 8, 2012).

The problem with the IPI starts with the title of the piece–“when investment earns you additional–not lower–taxes”. Right there they are conflating two things–the original amount earned that was put into the investment, creating a “tax basis” that will not be subject to tax on any disposition of the investment; and the return on the investment when it is sold (or when dividends are paid on it), creating additional “gross income” that will be subject to tax, though at the preferentially low, low rate currently applicable for capital gains.


As Maule points out, the piece seems to be written to try to make the unknowing reader think that all the proceeds of a disposition of an investment will be taxable, not just the NEW income represented by the gain –the increase in value of the investment over the original basis.

The fact that a think tank could publish this kind of tax rhetoric, with so many misleading or erroneous statements, is just one more reason that I have urged my colleagues here at Wayne Law to require all our students to take at least the basic federal income tax course. No student will come out of that course making the mistakes the IPI made in its piece on the taxation of gains from investments. And every lawyer ought to have that foundation, so that they don’t make such foolish statements as those in the IPI piece.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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BREAKING NEWS: Bain Capital Wanted to Lend GM and Chrysler Money For Their Managed Bankruptcies!***

**This appears to be incorrect. It was based on a story that CNBC has now updated. It was “Bain Consulting,” not Bain & Co., that advised the government on re-financing the automobile companies. — klh

Ah!  Mystery Solved! Yesterday,in my post, “Crony Capitalism On A Grand Scale“—the title of the post borrowed from an op-ed piece by Romney in yesterday’s Detroit News characterizing the auto bailouts that way—I noted that Romney seems unaware that both companies filed for bankruptcy.  Romney says, as apparently he says often when forced at gunpoint to explain his opposition to those bailouts, that he was for the idea of “managed bankruptcy” for both companies, and never actually acknowledges that that is what happened.  Much less that these bankruptcies were “managed,” and therefore were able to emerge from bankruptcy as ongoing enterprises rather than as pieces of physical assets, machinery and the like, for a Bain Capital-owned company in the process of being restructured, to scavenge and resell.

This was a mystery to me. Sure, Romney regularly makes up facts to match Tea Party of Club for Growth ideology.  But in Michigan,everyone—everyone—knows that GM and Chrysler went through formal bankruptcy proceedings.  In court. How, I wondered, did he expect to get away with pretending that these companies didn’t go through managed bankruptcies?

Ah! Mystery solved! In an ABC News report last night by Chris Bury (a genuine news reporter,not a pundit disguised as one, and a long-ago favorite of mine from back when he was reporting for Nightline), illustrates the impact of the bailouts on Michigan’s economy, which is suddenly resurgent.  And in the report, which is today’s Yahoo News highlighted ABC NEWS video, explains what Romney means by “managed bankruptcy.”

Turns out, he means, best as I can tell anyway, that private equity firms lend the corporation the money to get through bankruptcy, in exchange for ownership of the company after its emergence from bankruptcy.  In the case of GM and Chrysler, many tens of billions of dollars.  In an op[ed in the New York Times back then, he described the managed bankruptcy he had in mind as one in which the government would guarantee private loans, but it would not itself provide the financing.  Which raises the question of how, exactly, this would have saved the government money, since the companies are repaying the government the loans to the extent possible.

But it also raises the question of Romney’s recommendation that the government play Russian Roulette with the auto industry.  Bury’s report points out that Bush Administration officials who put together the initial bailout legislation recognized, as did the Obama administration officials who took over, that the chance was nil that private equity money in such large sums would be forthcoming.  And why he conflates ideology with fact, even when the stated fact is baldly nonsensical. “If(automakers) get the bailout … you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye,” Bury’s report quotes Romney as saying in that New York Times op-ed.  Destroying the industry by saving it?

Meanwhile, an editorial in today’s Washington Post* says,in complaining about Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on bailed-out banks in order (the editorial says) to cover the auto bailouts:

TARP was the price the country paid for a public good — financial stability — that the country needed. It’s inconsistent for the president to hail the bailout of one private industry —autos — while playing politics with the bailout of another — banking — that was and is no less necessary to a modern economy. It compounds the inconsistency to demand that the latter pay for the former.

Apparently the [Post]’s editorial board thinks GM and Chrysler caused the housing bubble and sold subprime mortgage-backed securities.

—–
*The sentence has been corrected to say that the editorial is in today’s Washington Post. Originally, the sentence said incorrectly that the editorial is in today’s Wall Street Journal.

—-

***Yup.  Definitely incorrect.  See my above post on the subject. 

As I just wrote in response to a comment, I’m still sorta dismayed that the title of my post was treated, even by a PR firm representing (I guess) Bain, as a representation of fact rather than as the sarcasm that it pretty clearly was.  

Oh, well.

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