As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Truth Behind The Armchair Constitutionalists

Whenever I hear media stars like Lawrence O'Donnell and Howard Fineman pontificating over whether something is Constitutional or not, I get extremely wary, particularly considering they have spent several years arguing about detainee policy and wiretapping and torture in mostly POLITICAL terms instead of the constitutional aspects. Suddenly when Congress tries to set tax policy toward a particular class of wealthy people the media gets out their social studies texts. I imagine there can be a fair amount of reasonable argument around this, but Scott Lemieux, claims the Constitutional concerns are groundless.

Ed -- regrettably echoing the hapless Charles Krauthammer -- says that "Bills of attainder" and "ex post facto" are two phrases well-known to high school freshmen taking mandatory civics classes, so they must certainly be known to Congressmen." The ex post facto clause, however, has been held since the early 19th century to apply exclusively to criminal cases. The prohibition on bills of attainder is even less relevant; it certainly prohibits Congress from convicting AIG traders of criminal offenses without a trial, but says absolutely nothing about Congress's ability to set tax policy.

Another blogger, in addition to the clearly erroneous claims, asserts that the bill violates the equal protection clause. The obvious problem with this argument, however, is that it proves too much. The tax code discriminates in countless ways -- against renters and wage earners and in favor of homeowners and investment income earners, for example. It was been well-settled for decades that such discrimination require only some rational relationship to a legitimate government interest. The policy taxing bonuses for corporations that would have gone bankrupt without public support bears a much clearer relationship to a legitimate public objective than a law preventing anyone but an optometrist or ophthalmologist from putting lenses in glasses frames, which the Supreme Court upheld unanimously.

The debate about whether a large excise tax is good public policy ought to go forward. But let's be clear what these Constitutional questions are all about. The average salary of practically everyone you see on the teevee is well beyond the national average, and in most cases beyond the $250,000 a year cited in the House bill, and used as a dividing line in Obama's budget to reset marginal tax rates from 35% to 39%. And so, for Overton Window purposes, characterizing any effort to reduce income inequality as unconstitutional makes a whole lot of sense. Take a look at Mark Haines, CNBC's latest hero, arguing that no company can be "run well" by anyone making under $250,000 a year. Because they've been run so well by the overclass to this point.

Here's a separate interview between Haines and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA):

HAINES: It does not go far enough, sir?

SHERMAN: Absolutely -- it doesn't deal with the Merrill Lynch bonuses, since they were paid in December, and worse than that it doesn't deal with million-dollar-a-month salaries. More importantly, we should have AIG in receivership, they should've been put in receivership months ago, and we would have saved tens of billions of dollars. We wouldn't see tens of billions going to the richest on Wall Street, and overseas -- and of course, these bonus contracts would have been voided. We need receivership, and we need limits on salaries as well as bonuses.

HAINES: Well, receivership ... I think most people agree, that would have caused some systemic problems.

SHERMAN: Most people on Wall Street agree. But most people on Main Street do not.

HAINES: And what do the people on Main Street know about running a financial system?

SHERMAN: What do AIG executives know about running a financial system? [crosstalk] They only know how to destroy one.

HAINES: This is witch-huntery. I'll be perfectly honest with you.

SHERMAN: We don't have to hunt the witches. We know who they are.

HAINES: You and people who share your opinions seem to think, you know, let's hold salaries on Wall Street to $100,000. Do you have any idea what Wall Street would look like if you do that?

SHERMAN: Well, first of all, I wouldn't set the limit at $100,000.

HAINES: Well, whatever. $250[,000]. All the business would go -- all the business would go overseas, that's the bottom line.

SHERMAN: Obama's position is $500,000 plus unlimited restricted stock. That's where I'm at as well, although I was actually at a higher level before Obama's statement. But for you to assume that Wall Street is acting in the national interest flies in the face of recent reality.

There's a multi-pronged attack here. Congress cannot tax exorbitant bonuses of companies they bailed out because it's unconstitutional. Corporations can only be run well by the rich because greed is virtuous. Only investor participation can save the financial system, so government had better not get any ideas about capping executive compensation. And those executives must be kept happy and lavished with gifts because they are so wise in the ways of exotic financial instruments that they are the only ones who can defuse them, a fairly ridiculous idea.

Similar arguments made during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when currencies and stock markets collapsed in much of Southeast Asia, turned out to be a smokescreen to protect the executives who were partly responsible for the mess. Recovery from that crisis required Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand to close or consolidate banks. In all three countries, bankers protested, claiming that their connections with borrowers were critical to recovery.

In South Korea, cozy relationships between banks and the large conglomerates called chaebols were a major reason for the crisis. But after the crisis hit, Korean bankers and companies insisted that the complexity of chaebols like Samsung and LG — with their many separate but interwoven businesses — meant that outsiders would not be able to distinguish good loans from bad.

In Thailand, some argued that the preponderance of family-owned businesses — and the lack of clarity about precisely which family members were really in charge — meant that only bankers already working in big institutions like Bangkok Bank and Siam Commercial Bank could determine which borrowers were creditworthy.

The leaders of Thailand and South Korea did not listen to such arguments, and thank goodness. Some of the leading Thai banks were taken over by the government. After the crisis, a civil servant in charge of one such bank noted that its bad loans were much bigger than had been indicated before the takeover, largely because of an internal coverup. Only when outsiders took over did the public discover the full scope of the losses.

We have a major inequality problem in this country. Wages for workers have stagnated while the rich grow ever richer. It is well within the public interest to address that, and because this has become so extreme as to affect consumer spending and economic activity, it's more vital now than ever. Wall Street has decoupled salary from performance and perpetuated a culture of greed in the belief that such greed made sense for the overall economy. But an oversized financial sector that produces nothing but imagined wealth actually debilitates a country. Simply put, astronomical profits from making side bets on the economy should be discouraged, making the same profits from inventiveness and innovation would be encouraged in the exchange.

If it turns out that you can make a comfortable living at zombie institutions but can’t earn big bucks there, then smart, confident, ambitious, greedy people will leave their jobs and go do other things. In a good way! Maybe they’ll start small businesses. Maybe they’ll join non-enormous, better-managed firms and help them grow and prosper. That’s the kind of thing smart, confident, ambitious, greedy people ought to be doing. Putting their talents to work in the pursuit of profitable market exchanges. Not putting their talents to work trying to run scams at taxpayer expense.

There are promising signals that the Administration is taking concerns about executive compensation seriously, although there are far better ways than having a secretive institution like the Federal Reserve "oversee" giant corporations (which they failed to do in the run-up to this crisis). Perhaps one way is to actually tie pay to performance through Silicon Valley-style compensation schemes, but the best way is through the tax code with rates at the highest marginal levels (I'd insert an additional rate above $1 million or more) that look more like the pre-Reagan era. Which is why those who wed themselves to the establishment elite get so nervous with clawback provisions like the AIG bonus tax. They don't want anyone in Washington getting any funny ideas about marginal tax rates. After all, it's unconstitutional.

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