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

"pensioners: 17 cents on the $; BoA, UBS 75 cents on the $"

Detroit Said to Reduce Swaps Debt by 25% in Deal With Banks . The swaps were a “bet” on the direction of interest rates. With the decline of variable interest rates, Detroit found itself owing to the banks. With the decreased credit rating to B2, the same as AIG, Detroit found itself at the mercy of the banks who demanded their money. Except, there was no President of Congress moving quickly with legislation to establish a fund like TARP did for AIG. Nor did the Fed establish the city as a Bank or buy up its municipals. Even the state of Michigan did little to help the cash strapped city.  When the first Michigan Emergency Manager Act was struck down, the Republican dominated legislature reacted quickly, far quicker than voting on the expansion of Medicaid (one year has passed since SCOTUS ruled on the PPACA); but then, this is TBTF and business we are talking about and not ~ 450,000 constituents living with incomes less than FPL. With little delay, the legislature passed a new Emergency Manager Act, Public Act 436 giving derivatives such as the Interest Rate Swaps top priority similar to what the Federal 2005 Financial Services Modernization Act did. Public Act 436 goes as far as to supersede payments to pensioners and child support payments.

Sec. 11. (1) An emergency manager shall develop and may amend a written financial and operating plan for the local government. The plan shall have the objectives of assuring that the local government is able to provide or cause to be provided governmental services essential to the public health, safety, and welfare and assuring the fiscal accountability of the local government. The financial and operating plan shall provide for all of the following:

(a) Conducting all aspects of the operations of the local government within the resources available according to the emergency manager’s revenue estimate.

(b) The payment in full of the scheduled debt service requirements on all bonds, notes, and municipal securities of the local government, contract obligations in anticipation of which bonds, notes, and municipal securities are issued, and all other uncontested legal obligations. [ As written by a Republican legislature and signed into law by a moderate Republican, Governor Rick Snyder]

Besides awarding derivative holders and bank first in line status, the Republican State Legislature also took it upon themselves to make sure Public Act 436 can not be overturned through voter referendum. Governor Rick Snyder wasted no time in signing the bill.

The winners in the Detroit crisis are the banks who have reaped $millions in fees, avoided property taxes on partially foreclosed properties (the foreclosures were never completed after driving the owners out of the houses and left the uninformed former mortgage holders on the hook for back taxes), and moved to the front of the line of Detroit debt holders. Typically these Interest Rate swaps are of the variable interest rate variety and are often exchanged for fixed rate through the Swaps. When the Fed drove down the variable interest rates, cities found themselves on the hook for the higher fixed rates. Many of the Swaps are also tied to the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) which was being manipulated by the largest banks. As a result, the banks owe little due to low variable rates and the cities are on the hook for higher fixed rate costs. Just a measly $1.4 billion of the $3.8 billion Interest Swaps tied to Detroit Pension Funds to which pensioners are being asked to accept far less than what banks are being asked to accept.

The losers?  Retirees who have pensions covered by the Interest Swaps. Workers who took and will take wage cuts. Detroit with thousands of partially foreclosed vacant houses which property taxes can not be collected on from the former owners or the banks. The state of Michigan; it will have a black eye for doing little to help the abandoned city over the decades. Without it and its trade with the US largest trading partner Canada, the state would be little more than a large vegetable farm. Banks may take a trim around the ears; but, it will not be anywhere as severe as the haircut the pensioners and workers will have taken when all is sorted out.

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Ways and Means–still distracting with false scandals

by Linda Beale

Ways and Means–still distracting with false scandals

GOP representatives Camp and Boustany are continuing to beat the dead horse of an IRS “scandal” connected with the way the IRS has attempted to efficiently filter new applications for 501(c)(4) status to provide extra scrutiny to the most likely groups to be engaged in illicit politicking.  See their July 30th letter to IRS deputy commissioner Daniel Werfel [hat tip Prof. Evelyn Brody]  in which they suggest that there is email evidence that IRS official Lois Lerner may have inappropriately released confidential tax information in the 501(c)(4) application process to an FECofficial.  They’ve included in the pdf file a series of emails between Lerner and FEC officials and IRS officials relating to a request for information about the exempt status of a particular group.

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David Sirota Agrees with me on the Tax Reform "Secrecy" Scandal

by Linda Beale

David Sirota Agrees with me on the Tax Reform “Secrecy” Scandal

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Max Baucus has established a secret submission process for Senators to let him know what pet tax loopholes they want to retain (probably the ones that high-paid lobbyists representing corporations with operations in their states have pushed for).  Senators will be granted 50 years of secrecy–constitutents won’t be able to find out what their own senators proposed and supported, or their rationales for those proposals, unless the Senators themselves opt out of the “protection from constituents” process.  The anti-transparency measure adopted by Senate Finance Committee leaders smacks of a complete disregard for democratic processes and citizens’ rights to know what proposals their representatives in Congress are supporting.  The one thing we can be sure of is that whatever tax “reform” a group comes up with in these closed-door circumstances won’t have the best interests of the ordinary American worker in mind but rather the best tax “loopholes” for multinational corporations and their wealthy managers/owners.

Senator Bernie Sanders already opted out of the secrecy promise by publishing his own proposals on his website.  Let’s hope many others realize the anti-democratic nature of a process that spurns the public’s input or knowledge of what the Senate millionaires club is up to.

David Sirota has a good piece in on this issue.  See Corporate Sellouts Exploit a Secret New Gimmick, (July 31, 2013).

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State Run and Free Healthcare Clinics ? ? ?

“For goodness sakes, of course the employees and the retirees like it, it’s free,” says Republican State Sen. Dave Lewis.

11,000 Helena state employees, retirees, and dependents now go to a state run healthcare clinic which is free. No co-pays, no deductibles, doctors are salaried, wait time is a few minutes, and visits are up 75%. Of course, the skepticism is high:

“I thought it was just the goofiest idea”

“If they’re taking money out of the hospital’s pocket, the hospital’s raising the price on other things to offset that,” Lewis suggests . . .

He (Lewis) and others faulted then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer for moving ahead with the clinic last year without approval of the state legislature, although it was not needed.

One year has passed and what about today’s feelings ?

“They’re wonderful people, they do a great job, but as a legislator, I wonder how in the heck we can pay for it very long,” Lewis says. (me)Someone changed his mind.

– division manager Russ Hill says it’s actually costing the state $1,500,000 less for healthcare than before the clinic opened. (me) Sounds like it will fund itself in the end.

“Because there’s no markup, our cost per visit is lower than in a private fee-for-service environment,” Hill says.

Some of this may not sit well with physicians; but, why the big difference ? ? ?

Physicians are paid by the hour, not by the number of procedures they prescribe like many in the private sector. The state is able to buy supplies at lower prices.

Bottom line: a patient’s visit to the employee health clinic costs the state about half what it would cost if that patient went to a private doctor. And because it’s free to patients, hundreds of people have come in who had not seen a doctor for at least two years.

Hill says the facility is catching a lot, including 600 people who have diabetes, 1,300 people with high cholesterol, 1,600 people with high blood pressure and 2,600 patients diagnosed as obese. Treating these conditions early could avoid heart attacks, amputations, or other expensive hospital visits down the line, saving the state more money. and lower costs over all in the end (me).

– That personal attention has proved valuable for library technician Pamela Weitz. A mammogram late last year found a lump. “That doctor called me like three or four times, and I had like three letters from the clinic reminding me, ‘You can’t let this go, you’ve got to follow up on it,’ ” she says.

This is what is meant by improved quality and better outcomes from healthcare as opposed to a services for fees scenario.The patients appear to be happier as well as the doctors employed by the state run clinic.

– Clinic operations director and physician’s assistant Jimmie Barnwell says this model feels more rewarding to him. “Having those barriers of time and money taken out of the way are a big part [of what gets] people to come into the clinic. But then, when they come into the clinic, they get a lot of face time with the nurses and the doctors,” Barnwell says

Maybe it is a fluke; but at least, one state tried it with what appears to be good results. I live in Michigan where the state Repubs have been haggling with the teacher and state employee’s unions over paying for healthcare insurance. I could see this model working here for both groups as well as Detroit workers and retirees where the city is seeking to end it for retirees and cut it for workers. In the end, it appears it could save Michigan and Detroit money which is sorely needed in “some” cases. It is interesting a state which is 50-50 in politics appears to have found a way out of the healthcare cost and insurance quagmire. Montana’s State-Run Free Clinic Sees Early Success

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The headline juxtaposition boggles the mind

David Zurin from The Nation writes The headline juxtaposition boggles the mind:

The headline juxtaposition boggles the mind. You have, on one day, “Detroit Files Largest Municipal Bankruptcy in History.” Then on the next, you have “Detroit Plans to Pay For New Red Wings Hockey Arena Despite Bankruptcy.

Yes, the very week Michigan Governor Rick Snyder granted a state-appointed emergency manager’s request to declare the Motor City bankrupt, the Tea Party governor gave a big thumbs-up to a plan for a new $650 million Detroit Red Wings hockey arena. Almost half of that $650 million will be paid with public funds.

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Watch for testimony on NSA surveillance

Glenn Greenwald offers his thoughts on the issue of NSA surveillance:

On Wednesday morning, I’ll be testifying, by remote video, before an ad hoc committee in the House of Representatives about NSA disclosures. It begins at 9:30 am ET and will, I believe, be broadcast on C-SPAN. Following my testimony will be an excellent panel featuring representatives of the ACLU and the Cato Institute on the dangers and excesses of the NSA.

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Magistrates Vs Politicians in Italy

This is likely to be a hot issue tomorrow. Today, Italy’s highest court of appeals is hearing Berlusconi’s appeal of his conviction for tax evasion and embezzling from his firm. As I wait for their decision, I write about the issue in general.

Things are very different here East of the Channel. There is a very strong tradition of judicial independence. Importantly, prosecutors are magistrates (as are judges) and also independent from elected officials (defence lawyers absolutely hate the fact that prosecutors and judges are part of the same corporate body). Together judges and prosecutors are the “Magistratura”. One becomes a magistrate by scoring high on an exam which is grade anonymously. The magistratura is governed and disciplined by the CSM a committe the majority of whose members are elected by magistrates. Magistrates control promotion and assignment of magistrates. They are really independent.

The magistratura retained some independence during the ventennio (20 years of Fascist rule). The Fascists set up separate special tribunals to persecute their opponents, while the normal magistrates continued semi hemi demi normally. From WWII about until my arrival in Italy in 1989, the legal separation of magistrates and elected officials was one of those things which are important in theory but not in Italy. They were part of an establishement united by anti-communism and corruption. Then a new generation of magistrates became senior enough to be independent and the corruption was prosecuted. Very few powerful people actually went to jail, but the division of power with two independent and hostile parties became explicit.

Aside from criminal prosecution of criminal politicians, there is actually a lot of judicial activism. One judge decided to enforce the provision of the Italian Constitution which guarantees a right to health (not health care health) and ordered doctors to cure cancer (really to provide a quack’s cure). The important and deadly boring part is the TAR di Lazio (regional administrative tribunal of the region which contains Rome). They are constantly ordering ministers to do this or that. They are always ignored.

Huh ? Yes this is another way in which the Channel is very wide. In Italy, judges don’t make the winner of the case own the contested property say. They instruct the loser to instruct some bureaucrats to update an correct the property records. But the loser of the case keeps title until the bureaucrat does something. Failure to obey a judge is not a special crime — contempt of court. It is just failure to do ones job (which is what we Italian public employers do best).

Also civil cases typically take about 10 years. The Supreme Court decided that the rule of law meant it was impossible to force Paula Adams to wait 2 to 6 years to have her absurd case against Clinton thrown out because, according to her version of events, he owed her $0.00 in damages, cause being a jerk isn’t a tort. It is impossible to explain this to Italians. In fact, Italians don’t grasp the idea that sexual harassment is a tort not a crime, because accusations of sexual harassment have effects and, in Italy, torts don’t.

My point, if any, is that I think there is a close connection between the independence of magistrates and the paralysis of the judicial system. Elected officials can’t appoint magistrates, but they do finance the judicial system and write the code of procedure which must be followed. The judicial system is extremely underfunded with unfilled vacancies in support positions, so everything is very slow. The proceudures are extremely complicated and time consuming. Non violent crimes can’t be prosecuted after a statue of limitations expires. This means they are punished only if the time doesn’t expire before all appeals are exhausted. Defence attorneys for crooked politicians basically devote their entire effort to delaying things until their client (who clearly did the deed) gets off because of the time limit (note one for Berlusconi expires tomorrow).

The system is designed to not work, because if it did it would be a threat to the people who make the rules.

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Playing Minesweeper

Lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts:

Minesweeper in the Washington Post.

“It’s like Minesweeper,” former Wyden staffer Jennifer Hoelzer told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein in June, referring to the computer game in which players slowly probe unknown territory, looking for bombs. “You just have to ask questions to try to get the outlines of what they’re not telling you. Because they can’t tell you what they’re not telling you.”


Instead of targeting just the calls of terrorism suspects, the program records “metadata” for millions of calls between average Americans. This includes the numbers dialed and the duration of calls, but not the content of calls. Intelligence officials have defended this program, saying their ability to connect phone numbers has led them to disrupt dozens of terrorist plots in the United States and overseas.

Notice that “intelligence officials” didn’t say that meta data from US to US phone calls has been useful in disrupting a terrorist plot.   Note that the officials didn’t say how many plots were in the USA or whether they are counting the guy who planned to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch.

I think it is safe to assume that they would have stressed such highly relevant facts if the facts didn’t prove the opposite of their claim.  Recall how intelligence officials described useful data obtained from the high value detainee interrogation program (the program which eventually involved “enhanced interrogation”) and neglected to mention that the information was obtained *before* the interrogation was “enhanced.”


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Added information to the context for NSA legislation

Wired points to lawsuits fizzling so far, but also more secrecy and claims it is off limits to courts.

The Obama administration for the first time responded to a Spygate lawsuit, telling a federal judge the wholesale vacuuming up of all phone-call metadata in the United States is in the “public interest,” does not breach the constitutional rights of Americans and cannot be challenged in a court of law.

Thursday’s response marks the first time the administration has officially answered one of at least four lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a secret U.S. snooping program the Guardian newspaper disclosed last month. The administration’s filing sets the stage for what is to be a lengthy legal odyssey — one likely to outlive the Obama presidency — that will define the privacy rights of Americans for years to come.

By the numbers also from Wired.

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