Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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May 26, 2009

Dispelling Myths

Douglas Ross over at Red Alert took a first pass through the political contributions of the Chrysler dealers who are losing their franchises, and noticed that virtually none of them contributed to Obama; that those who did contribute heavily favored Republicans, and that the ones who contributed to Dems at the Presidential level like Hillary.  So he asked if this might constitute some political juice in deciding whom to shut down.

A number of commenters pointed out that he hadn't looked at the contributions of those dealers who'd still be in business, so he posted both lists and asked readers to have at it.

Colorado is a swing state if ever there was one, which should make it especially vulnerable to this sort of political game-playing, if indeed it's going on.

It turns out that in Colorado, to the extent that there's any difference at all, those losing their dealerships are perhaps slightly more likely to have contributed to Democrats than to Republicans.

Of the 27 dealers keeping their businesses, 14 had made contributions at all, with only a little money going to Joan Fitz-Gerald, and the rest going to the NADA PAC, Republican candidates, and Republican PACs and committees.    Of the 11 losing their dealerships, 9 had made contributions, and while these are also heavily Republican donors, about $3500 went to Democratic candidates, the balance going to NADA and Republicans.

Ross found something interesting, asked a question, and made the raw data available, which is what good bloggers should do.  I'm just afraid that the fact that there doesn't seem to be any there there, at least not in Colorado, won't keep some folks from repeating this claim as fact.

May 15, 2009

A Day Late, A Billion Dollars Short - Maybe

After forcibly nationalizing the banks in all but name, redistributing ownership of GM and Chrysler, and making noises about the necessity of absorbing GMAC, speculation was that the insurance companies are next.

And sure enough, today, the government announced that it was freeing up $22,000,000,000 for insurers who had applied for TARP funds back when they were supposed to be used for buying up toxic assets.

Now, having seen what happens to cities that make deals with the Empire companies that make deals with this administration, at least two of the insurance companies are putting the money down and backing away from the table, while two more are likely to do so. Prudential and Ameriprise are expected to say, thanks but no thanks, and Allstate and Principle are also looking at the money like a side-dish they hadn't ordered, although, of course, they had. Only Hartford and Lincoln(!) seem willing to take the cash.

It's hard to blame the reluctant four, as they have seen banks refused the opportunity to repay their, "loans," contracts broken, officers fired, budgets rewritten, and now talk of salaries being determined in DC. We now know that banks and their officers were threatened with audits, and pension funds and other bondholders with public "shaming," a la the AIG employees who stayed on to wind down the derivatives division. (No such fate seems to attach to any employee of Fannie or Freddie, but that's a subject for another day.)

That two companies are giving into temptation is might disappointing, but hardly surprising, as companies almost never keep a united front against government plans, whatever they may be. And I suspect that we haven't heard the last of this yet. The Obama Administration will almost certainly try to threaten and browbeat the reluctant insurers into taking the cash, or of finding ways to preference their competitors who do. Hopefully the holdouts will continue to do so.

If so, I know who I'll be using to insure my new Ford, when I need a new car.

March 31, 2009

Lawlessness Under Cover of Law - II

Turns out if you work at a company that's taken federal money, the government's going to save you having to wait until your company derives your new pay scale from what they can pay the CIO this month.

But now, in a little-noticed move, the House Financial Services Committee, led by chairman Barney Frank, has approved a measure that would, in some key ways, go beyond the most draconian features of the original AIG bill. The new legislation, the "Pay for Performance Act of 2009," would impose government controls on the pay of all employees -- not just top executives -- of companies that have received a capital investment from the U.S. government. It would, like the tax measure, be retroactive, changing the terms of compensation agreements already in place. And it would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extraordinary power to determine the pay of thousands of employees of American companies.

...That includes regular pay, bonuses -- everything -- paid to employees of companies in whom the government has a capital stake, including those that have received funds through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The measure is not limited just to those firms that received the largest sums of money, or just to the top 25 or 50 executives of those companies. It applies to all employees of all companies involved, for as long as the government is invested. And it would not only apply going forward, but also retroactively to existing contracts and pay arrangements of institutions that have already received funds. (emphasis added -ed.)

On Backbone Radio a couple of weeks ago, my colleague Matt Dunn and I disagreed on whether or not the government should try to claw back the AIG bonuses.  I didn't think so, but could see there was an argument in using AIG as a cautionary tale to keep others from taking the bait in the first place.  Matt was wondering why the Republicans weren't making a bigger issue of this.

Turns out we were both operating under the delusion that there were still rules.

Readings of the Commerce Clause have been increasingly detached from reality for the last 70 years, beginning with a decision that selling corn within the borders of Indiana somehow constituted interstate commerce, because corn is fungible.  This was followed by a decision that a company was engaged in interstate commerce because its suppliers' suppliers moved products across state lines.

Since the government hasn't provided any exit strategies for these, ah, "investments," this amounts to a perpetual pay schedule.  And you thought that post-graduate degree was going to open the door to someone more than a GS-8.

In fact, Treasury is considering dispensing with the requirement that you have received Federal money, requiring only that you be publicly traded.  Given the open-ended nature of this commitment, it's only a matter of time before the employees of these companies demand that their competitors be held to the same standard.

After all, it's only fair.

February 23, 2009

The Team That Couldn't Count Straight

President Obama has announced that he'll be placing Vice President Joe Biden in charge of overseeing the Spending & Debt Package passed a couple of weeks ago.

"The fact that I'm asking my vice president to personally lead this effort shows how important it is for our country and future to get this right," he said.

Biden, in his new role, would meet regularly with key members of the Cabinet, governors and mayor to make sure their efforts are speedy and effective. He is expected to make regular reports to the president that will be posted online at

You can't make this stuff up.

This from a VP who can't count to three, and a President who thinks we have to re-do the flag. Still, the way Washington does accounting, perhaps he's the perfect man for the job.

We were told, variously, that Joe Biden would add foreign policy gravitas to the incoming administration, and immediately after the election that he wouldn't have a significant policy role. As Jim Geraghty points out, every statement from Barack Obama comes with an expiration date, the trick is figuring out what it is.

Nevertheless, it's hard to see how this is a really a significant role for Biden. He's not going to know the innards of the cabinet departments any better than the various secretaries do. Running those agencies is already a more-than-full-time job for them (unless it's Commerce, of course), and rarely has any cabinet secretary been able to implement any sort of efficiency program. Just ask Jim Hacker.

If Obama were serious about spending this money wisely he wouldn't have pressed for this bill in the first place. So Biden's appointment, like much else with this administration, is probably intended to give the appearance of something important, rather than the substance.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud