Golems With Money

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In Jewish folklore, a golem is a mythic creature made from mud. Although the power to create a golem is thought to be reserved to the especially holy, the golem is bereft of speech and can never be more than the shadow of a human. In modern literature, golems often acquire terrible powers, and in the 1921 Czech play “R.U.R.”, robots take on this role and eventually conquer their human masters.

Corporations have become the golems of our time. They are the creations of man, endowed with limited powers for the purpose of serving humans in our attempt to improve the world. But those limited powers have been enough, combined with their singular focus on profit, to enable them to assert a power greater than our own.

In the early days of corporations, they were chartered by the Crown, and later by individual states of the United States. The chartering authority had the power to specify what they could or could not do, how they would be governed, and how long they would last. As they became more plentiful, the states passed general corporation laws enabling anyone to form a corporation under conditions set by the law. The essential characteristics of a corporation under any of these laws are perpetual life, limited liability on the part of the stockholders, and the power to sue and be sued in court as an entity.  The power to sue and be sued in court was said to derive from the corporation’s status as a “persona ficta” — not a real person, but considered to be one before the law.

After the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to ban slavery and to establish the rights of persons in the United States to due process and equal protection of the laws. Less than 20 years later, in 1886, the Supreme Court held that the word “persons” included corporations. The court’s decision contained no rationale for that holding — here is the entire passage:

One of the points made and discussed at length in the brief of counsel for defendants in error was that “corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Before argument, MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE said:

“The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does. “

That was it.  Corporations were now “people.”  Mind you, ten years earlier the Court had struck down civil rights legislation as unconstitutional and rejected an equal protection argument that would have allowed women to vote.  Ten years later the Court would uphold “separate but equal”.  The corporations didn’t need civil rights legislation — they had the Supreme Court.

Fast forward to the present.  Corporations are people, but people with perpetual life and limited financial liability for their actions.  These attributes permit them to accumulate piles of money larger than any individual could ever earn.  This power is needed to engage in the commercial activity for which corporations were created — building huge factories, railroads, bridges and entire villages of office buildings.

Not content with money, power and eternal life, the corporations now sought to acquire the facility of speech.  They cannot, of course, speak by themselves, but by using money to hire people as their agents to speak and write for them and in their name.  Qui facit per alium facit per se.  And in due course the Supreme Court let it be so.

With money, power, eternal life, and speech, it might be pardoned the corporations that they began to think of themselves as just like real people, only better.   And if ordinary mortals can vote, why not their betters?  A stumbling block was that the election laws all restrict the vote to actual human beings.  The corporations might have argued that these ancient laws were just as quaint as the Geneva Convention.  But they took a different route.  After all, if you have the right to vote, you can only exercise it once each election, in the municipality where you reside.  But corporations reside everywhere.   Surely they needed something more appropriate.

And so it came to pass that they hit upon the idea of using money to flood the public forum with speech, enough to line the campaign chests of Senators and put their message on every television set in the land. And that is where we find the Citizens United case.  Although it is only supposed to decide the narrow legal question before it, the Court majority was so anxious to decide the constitutional issue that it ignored the positions actually argued by the parties and held that corporations have the unlimited right to spend money in election campaigns, regardless of whether the corporation’s business was affected by the election, and regardless of whether it even does business in the state where the election is being held.

It will be observed that this right is equivalent to the power to accumulate unlimited amounts of money over an unlimited period of time and spend it in unlimited amounts to affect an election.  That right is greater than the right of the candidates themselves to raise and spend money in federal elections.  And in all this din, the speech of the individual is not even loud enough to be heard.

Now the golem has immortality, speech and an amplifier, too.  It appears to lack nothing besides worshipers, and with the advent of corporate evangelists that can’t be far behind.   Where can this end but in a world where we must bow down to our new masters?

The Medical Loss Ratio Debate

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I greatly admire Wendell Potter for his guts in coming forward, and for his contribution to returning the health care debate to some level of sanity.

I do have a quibble about his statement on MSNBC to the effect that it can be hard to get good numbers on medical loss ratios and the ability of insurers to fudge the numbers with accounting tricks. They may certainly try to do that, but if Congress enacts proper standards, it should be possible for even the most naive regulator to find the correct number.

I was able to get a back-of-the-envelope number simply by using publicly available Census Bureau tables. Although the data available to me was out of date — from 2006 — I was able to confirm the general belief that MLR averages 80% or less.

In 2006, according to the Census Bureau, total personal income was a little under eleven trillion dollars. After taxes, they had $9.63 trillion to spend. During the same year, total national expenditures on health care were 2.11 trillion dollars — an amazing 22% of net personal income.

Now, although $2.11 trillion was spent on health care, only $1.97 trillion was spent on actual health care goods and services. The difference, about 140 billion dollars, is presumably the “net cost” incurred by non-health care providers (i.e., insurance companies, HMOs and similar gatekeepers). That figure includes any income not directly spent for health care, such as advertising, marketing, sales commissions, premium taxes, additions to reserves, and profit.

In 2006, $723.4 billion was spent on health insurance premiums. Deducting the $140 billion leaves $583.4 billion spent on health care providers, which works out to a loss ratio of 80.6 percent. Since the providers spent some of that money on their own advertising and marketing, and their profits, the actual amount spent on direct health care is probably quite a bit less. If the providers spent 90% of their income on health care, that would result in a real MLR of 72.5%.

I was a math major in college, but I’m a lawyer, not a statistician. The lesson is that if I could derive these numbers in half an hour using public information, regulators getting detailed figures from each company could easily do a more accurate job. The key is not to add, but to subtract!

Is the filibuster unconstitutional?

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This is a comment I posted to an insightful DailyKos article:

I think the argument is persuasive.

First, many have noted the other constitutional provisions that require a supermajority in some instances, such as expelling a member or overriding a veto. (There are also sub-majority rules, such as permitting one-fifth of each house to demand a recorded vote.) Since a cloture vote is a vote to “call the question,” and the general rule is that a majority may govern, it is inconsistent to allow the majority to be frustrated in bringing a bill to the floor. (This would also weigh against the right of a single senator to put a “hold” on a bill.)

Second, the Constitution allocates power to the Congress and to each house of Congress as a body, not to individual members or blocs. Even though the cloture rule is a rule of the Senate, the political question rule does not automatically exclude further analysis; courts have intervened in that area in the past. Imagine if the Senate adopted a rule explicitly requiring a two-thirds vote to pass any bill, not just to override a veto. That would virtually stop Congress from exercising its power (and duty) to adopt legislation. It would be just as unconstitutional as if the President issued an executive order stating he would not sign any bill that had not passed by a two-thirds vote. For any branch of government to tie its own hands throws the entire system out of balance.

Third, the rights of the senators’ constituents (quaintly known as “the people”) need to be considered. Just as the “one man, one vote” decision held that House districts must be fairly apportioned so as to give all Americans a roughly equal voice, we need to consider the rights of those voters who elected 51 of the senators. The Court has ruled that it is a denial of equal protection to permit a few voters in the 13th Congressional District of New York to elect a representative but to require a greater number of votes in the 14th Congressional District.  So what would the Framers make of a rule that, as applied, gives a senator who is opposed to a bill 50% more voting power than a senator who favors the bill?

The Framers took elaborate account of state and sectional interests in setting up the constitutional scheme (particularly in giving each state two senators), and to that extent they approved a check on an overall national majority. But the Framers would have balked at any rule of the Senate giving a senator from, say, Connecticut one and a half votes and a senator from New York only one. Yet that is the effect of the cloture rule giving 41% of the senators the power to thwart the will of 59%.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” for the conduct of government. Congress cannot effectively exercise its role in the checks and balances system if it does not exercise that power. The constitutional imperative is that the government be allowed to govern, not that internal rules be sacrosanct.

FDR: The Four Freedoms Speech

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The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today. No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.

If the Congress maintains these principles the voters, putting patriotism ahead pocketbooks, will give you their applause.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 6, 1941

Rotisserie League Cabinet

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It’s too late now, of course, since Obama has already designated most of his Cabinet choices.  Some of them are fine, some are OK, and some are unknown.  But the Cabinet should be a source of pressure against the inevitable tendencies toward centrism and accommodation. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for progressives in Congress to set up a shadow Cabinet to point-guard every member of the real Cabinet (and other agencies) and blow the whistle when good things aren’t being done.  Here are my nominees — blanks indicate positions for which I’m still open to suggestion:

State Dept.:  Nicholas Kristof, the NYTimes columnist whose annoying persistence has kept a world focus on the disastrous events in Darfur.

Treasury Dept.:  Paul Krugman

Defense Dept.:  Sen. James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy

Justice Dept.:  David Cole, who has surveyed the panoply of legal abuses in the Bush administration and knows where the problems are.

Interior Dept.:

Commerce Dept.:

Labor Dept.:   Thomas Geoghegan, longtime labor lawyer who is now running to succeed Rahm Emanuel in Congress.

Health and Human Services:

Housing and Urban Development:  Dennis Kucinich, who knows how real people live their lives and has executive experience as mayor of Cleveland.

Transportation:

Securities and Exchange Commission:  Harry Markopolos, the investment professional whose documented warnings about Bernie Madoff were ignored, probably because the SEC staff couldn’t understand the math.

Surgeon General:  Joycelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General that Bill Clinton had to throw under the bus because she advocated birth control for teenagers and admitted knowing something about sex.

Three Financial Myths That Need to Be Changed, Now

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No, it wasn’t 9/11 that changed everything: it was Lehman Brothers.  With that firm’s failure, the plug was pulled from the warm bath that we imagined ourselves to be living in.  Now we’re seeing industries fail faster than Congress can stuff money into them, and our major creditor, China, is warning us about piling up too much debt and threatening to take away our car keys.

We are saving too little and piling up too much debt.  And the rationales voiced by the politicians for their bailout plans are starting to wear thin.  We need to free ourselves of myths that have sustained too much national economic policy.

1. Consumer spending will lift us out of trouble.  Actually, consumer spending is getting us into worse trouble.  It may turn out that Detroit’s problems began before the First World War when Henry Ford raised his employees’ wages generously, correctly calculating that this would not only buy loyalty but also turn them into consumers able to buy their own company’s products.  The trouble is that when you encourage consumer spending, you are diminishing the real value of wage increases.  If we mindlessly pump money into the consumer sector, it may generate business but soon will lead to demands for more wage increases from the same employers who are about to go under now.

2. Consumer and mortgage debt is good.  The subprime loan phenomenon is only a small part of the mortgage balloon that has expanded beyond recognition since 1935.  Federal policy shifted the standard mortgage from 15 or 20 years to 30 years, reducing the monthly payment and enabling house prices to rise.  Federal support of homeownership grew dramatically as a way to boost housing construction for returning veterans of World War II.  Mortgage industry demands led Congress to authorize variable rate mortgages and other exotic products in the 1980s, leading directly to no-money-down financing and “no-documentation” loans in the 1990s.  But when all these policy decisions cause home prices to rise, the amount of house you can afford stays the same — it’s just that the price has gone up, the mortgage payment has gone up, and you have been made able to afford it by deducting the interest and spreading out the payments.

Even apart from the current crisis, these props for the homeownership policy no longer make sense.  No one stays in a home for 30 years anymore, so there is absolutely no pretense that a 30-year mortgage will ever be repaid on schedule.  And allowing a tax deduction for interest makes owned housing more affordable, but does nothing for those who have chosen to rent their housing — either because they cannot afford to buy, or because their jobs require them to move frequently.  What these loan products do is to force consumers to invest a large part of their net worth in a single highly leveraged investment, a home which may rise in value (especially in a bubble) but which may also decline in value, disastrously.

Nor is credit card debt a good way to make consumers more secure.  Thanks to Congress, state usury laws have been wiped out as constraints on the amount of interest credit card issuers can charge.  Much of the debt that winds up on credit cards carries a rate of interest that would be considered loansharking if the banks were not licensed — and recent changes to the bankruptcy laws make it much harder to wipe out credit card debt in bankruptcy.  (Astoundingly, even those giveaways have apparently not rendered credit card issuers immune to the financial crisis.)  Any bailout “solution” that increases the debt load on ordinary consumers should be regarded as suspect.

3. All spending is equal.  We measure our economic health by gross domestic product, consumer spending, and other macro measures that fail to distinguish between buying a new refrigerator or buying a video game system.   There is nothing in our economic policy that encourages people (or businesses, for that matter) to spend money on necessities rather than on discretionary items.  We saw this recently when failing banks continued to fund lavish conferences at exclusive retreats for their executives.  It’s all deductible as a business expense, so why not?

It’s hard to construct a federal policy that encourages saving.  The only real way to do so is to end the federal policies that discourage it, and force lenders through better state and federal regulation to do their job of granting credit only to those who can repay it.

1. Lower Credit, Increase Saving. One first step in countering the pernicious effects of these myths would be immediately to repeal the two most significant federal laws that protect the credit card industry — federal preemption of state usury laws and federal bankruptcy laws that treat credit card debt differently from other types of debt.  This would result in a vast reduction of consumer credit, and in the short run would reduce consumer purchasing.  In the long run it would increase consumer saving as a means of accumulating the money needed to buy things that are truly necessary.

2. Make Mortgages Solid; Make Renting An Option.  Allow a tax deduction for rent paid to a landlord.  Reestablish standards that require a 20% down payment for most mortgages.  Make the “slicing and dicing” of mortgages illegal and force a licensed bank or mortgage lender to keep its money on the line for the entire amount of the loan.  End federal preemption of state laws that regulate the more exotic types of mortgages.  These four measures would reduce the volume of mortgage money available and channel it into loans that really can be paid back, stablizing home prices at a more realistic level while putting the rental option on an equal footing with homeownership.

How to Approach the Car Industry Bailout

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The taxpayer funds being directed to the financial industry are largely being targeted to putting liquidity back into the system — by encouraging banks to lend more, and through mortgage restructuring, allowing consumers to spend more.  (Never mind that these goals are not being achieved by the Paulson plan.)

By contrast, the auto industry is asking for funds to keep the individual firms, and the industry itself, alive in the United States despite evidence that they have made poor decisions over the years in relation to foreign car makers.  The rationale is that (a) we need these firms in the US for security reasons (they make tanks); (b) we need the many good jobs they provide directly and indirectly; and (c) eventually times will get better and they will repay us.

Right now the total value of all the common stock of the Big Three companies is probably about $13 billion (Chrysler’s figures are private).  There are lots of people around who have that kind of money.  The biggest billionaires could raid their cookie jars and buy all three for cash, right now.  But Warren Buffett chose to put his money into Goldman Sachs stock rather than a car company.  Why?  Probably because once the subprime mess passes through the python, the financial companies will do well because they are run efficiently.  By contrast, the GM execs evidently felt that a YTD loss of $21billion did not require them to lose their corporate jets or their bonuses.  They are like ship’s captains who have run out of fuel and have forgotten how to hoist a sail.

That leaves jobs and national security as reasons to put federal money into the car makers.  Both are good reasons.  But what form should taxpayer support take, given that we are not likely to get it back?  Remember that private money is not eager to fund these companies, and their execs have not seemed eager to go through Chapter 11 (even though it would permit them to leave the UAW holding the bag to some extent).  So this moment is somewhat akin to government funding of other programs that private industry is unwilling or unable to finance.

Like the space program, in other words.  That’s a program that the US taxpayers own and finance, contracting out production to private contractors (sometimes with less than optimal results).  It may never turn a profit, but we run it because it is useful.  Or like Amtrak.  That’s a government corporation that we formed to take over the hapless passenger railroads and operate them with a taxpayer subsidy that with any luck will turn into a profit over the years.  Either way, the government controls the operations, the executive pay, the perks, and the company’s priorities.  We can, and do, force them to provide the service that is needed the most, not necessarily the service they can advertise the most.

It may be that despite the ubiquity of automobiles, producing them in the US may be a luxury that we can rationalize only because in wartime we may need to produce tanks.  That may not be true in the long run, but it appears to be true now.  If that’s the case, we should pony up the $13 billion, buy every share, and run them the way we want them run — good jobs, good pensions, good fuel economy.  It’s better than paying twice as much to give the captain sailing lessons.

Agenda for the Generous Trillionaire

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Let’s say you are a trillionaire with a social conscience.  You see the disaster afflicting the US economy, and spreading rapidly throughout the world.  You want to make a difference, but how?

If you’re a trillionaire, you probably have people on your staff who know something about financial markets, business cycles, and tax policy.  And you probably have some experience making deals with strong and weak businesses.

Everyone’s clamoring for help.  The banks say credit will freeze up if you don’t shell out.  The auto makers say millions of jobs are in jeopardy if they don’t get some free money.  But you know that when they get the money, they use it to pay themselves first, and then to fatten their companies by acquiring weaker players.  If there’s anything left, they might just do what they promised to do.

Surely major investors don’t put up with that kind of crap.  Venture capitalists don’t just give money away — they demand a big share of the company, seats on the board of directors, and guarantees of how the recipient of their largesse will behave.  An investment bank like, oh, say, Goldman Sachs doesn’t just drop money in the box either —  it looks at balance sheets, income projections, and detailed evaluations of how the company manages its core business.  You’d think Hank Paulson would remember some of that when he’s investing the taxpayers’ money.

So when our trillionaire gets into the picture, what does it do?  Well, if its chief operating officer is Hank Paulson, it takes the money and ignores the strings attached, and hands out billions without even disclosing where the money went.  If its board of directors is a Congressional committee, it postures, pleads for special favors for the districts of the committee members, and largely fails to understand what it is doing or rein in its rogue manager.

Republicans have long insisted that government should operate like a business, but when they get the chance to do so, they ignore all their business training and throw money into one bad deal after another.  Evidently clearer heads are required.

The first thing to do is to get an accurate picture of what is going on and where the economy is headed if no intervention occurs.  Clearly the financial industry is in trouble, but there are two kinds of trouble:  that which impacts individual companies, and that which impacts society.  It is the latter on which our attention should be focused.  Unregulated greed led to imprudent behavior fueled by the apparent ability to externalize risk to a level approaching 100%.  This was so astonishingly brilliant, it’s no wonder their executives were compensated so handsomely.  They deserved everything that was coming to them, but the nation did not deserve the consequence:  a broken commercial credit system and a system of private homeownership that has left millions destitute and simultaneously laid low thousands of private and public pension plans.

The auto industry’s problems are of a different order entirely; those companies operate on very long timelines and their troubles originated in decisions they made years ago.  Car makers have lost sales for several reasons:  production of gas guzzlers, a distribution network that forces prices up to generate profits for dealers, and of course a drastically reduced ability of consumers either to buy cars or to get car loans.  Although the effects of a depressed auto market will be serious, they are not different in kind from the experience of many other industries that either sell big-ticket items to consumers or supply the basic materials with which those goods used to be made.  If Detroit firms went through Chapter 11, they could cut back on dealerships or even sell direct to consumers at the factory (as they once did, many years ago).

In each of these cases, our trillionaire needs to make hard decisions about what kind of concessions it needs to extract from those it assists.  This is not unfair; people who receive unemployment compensation are required to look for work, and those who receive food stamps are required to spend them on food, not lottery tickets.  Nor is it analogous to government regulation which is imposed on an unwilling industry; these companies are begging for our money.

What’s the best way to unstick the credit system?  We could open our own bank and lend money directly to businesses and individuals, in competition with the private banks.  They’re skittish about lending money right now; our trillionaire sees social value in taking those risks when they are needed most.  If we decide instead to funnel our money through existing banks, it’s entirely legitimate to tell them they have to run the way our state enterprise would run: low executive pay, a requirement to shove money into the credit pipeline, and restructuring of consumer loans to put individuals back on their feet.  And no mergers, dividends, stock buybacks or expensive “conferences” for the duration.

And what do we want from the auto makers?  Most of the above, plus retooling the plants to produce smaller and greener vehicles, or even (heaven forbid) trains.  Big investors follow the “golden rule” — he who has the gold, rules.  That’s how our trillionaire should think.

As a small contributor to the trillion, I have a say too.  My top priority would be to bail out state and local governments before they begin to cut essential services like education, police and fire protection.  The wave of foreclosures is causing a loss of revenue from income, sales and property taxes, which are the backbone of most state governments (other than Alaska, apparently).  And the fall in stock prices is putting retirement pensions in peril.   Before it gets worse, we ought to inject revenue there — say, $300 per inhabitant.  That would cost only $90 billion.  Surely after we’ve helped out the poor investment banks and auto makers, that much should be left over.

Now,  how to get more money into the consumer sector so someone will buy those cars, refrigerators and homes?  One way is to write down their mortgages so they can afford them, and perhaps have the trillionaire take an equity stake in the home in compensation for its generosity.  Another is to create jobs as was done in the New Deal — building roads, bridges, train lines, schools, national parks and water supply systems and forward-funding the future costs of maintenance.

A third priority would be to reward savings and reduce the demand for loans.  Unfortunately, there’s no direct way to do this, although proposals for a consumption tax have their appeal.  The best way, short of that, is to force a tightening of credit standards and terms.  Here are three ways to do that:  Bring back state usury laws (which are now outlawed by federal preemption) to shrink the credit card tumor.  Have Fannie and Freddie change the basic home mortgage term from 30 years to 20.  Change the tax law that excludes gain on the sale of a home, to exclude from taxation only the gain that is attributable to the cash investment of the homeowner.

How could Hank Paulson say no to that?

Is Mike Bloomberg starting to look like Henny Youngman?

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My Plan for the First Hundred Days

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Now that the Masters of the Universe have been proven not merely venal but completely wrong, we need an agenda for the First Hundred Days that truly “puts people first.”  Will John McCain endorse even one of these?

1.    End mortgage derivatives.  There is no reason to have this toxic form of securitization (which has only been in existence for 25 years) – except that the mortgage and investment banking industries wanted yet another way to generate huge profits.  The bankers proved incapable of valuing these mortgages but forged on in the hope of saddling unsuspecting foreign investors with the risk.  We need to decide as a nation that the freebooter ideology that supports these funny-money tricks, which produce no useful goods or services, is not worth the damage it has caused.

2.    End naked short selling.  Short selling – which was a major factor in the 1929 crash – was supposed to be regulated by the SEC, but the SEC has deliberately (and arguably corruptly) looked the other way.  There is no constitutional right to sell what you do not own, and no useful purpose to be served by allowing people to sell what they do not have in their portfolios.  Brokers should be subjected to heavy penalties for processing naked short sales.

3.    Reestablish the firewalls.  The New Deal’s separation of banking from brokerage and from insurance had a simple goal:  to focus banks on protecting their depositors and insurance firms on maintaining reserves with which to pay claims.  Removing those firewalls made those companies “globally competitive” without providing an ounce of added value to their U.S. depositors; in fact, the only way for them to earn the profits they hoped for was precisely to put their depositors and policyholders at risk, to the maximum extent the SEC will allow; now that they’re all in the same business, it is impossible to wall off temporary risk.  Paradoxically, the attempt of self-interested businesses to avoid inherent risk has multiplied that risk across the entire economy.

4.    End stock option compensation.  Here’s a radical thought on executive compensation: pay them in cash like everyone else.  As with wedding and holiday gifts, cash is always appropriate.  Not to deny that it’s a useful policy for executives to own stock in their companies.  The proper way to implement such a policy is for the company’s board to require top executives to buy a stated number of shares every year – with their own money, like everyone else.

5.    End taxpayer subsidies to hedge funds and CEOs.  There is no economic justification for taxing hedge fund compensation as though it were capital gains.  And in the tax policy context, where nearly every individual deduction is limited in some way, there is no reason to allow an unlimited deduction for executive compensation.  Someone has to step in and say that the duty management owes to shareholders – always invoked to justify unlimited profit – also requires that company funds be spent making whatever product the company makes, not providing free buffet tables for the execs.

6.    End tax favoritism for homeownership mania.  The mortgage interest deduction is an irresistible carrot for most Americans, and led many to overinvest in housing they could not afford.  If this deduction must be enshrined in tax policy, at the very least renters should get a similar deduction for rent payments.

7.    End taxation of debt forgiveness on primary homes.  Homeowners who cannot afford their current mortgages may win renegotiation of their loan terms, only to find that the debt forgiveness is taxable income.  That may prove to be the unkindest cut of all.  Congress enacted a limited, temporary suspension of this awful rule in 2007, but it has been extended to 2013 – will it be made permanent?

8.    End affirmative action for the rich.  Criticism of the estate tax has focused on its effect on owners of small businesses and family farms which have significant value but low liquidity, but the Bush administration’s wholesale cuts in the tax rate chiefly benefit those who inherit publicly traded securities.  Buying shares of existing companies does not inject capital into the economy, and the heirs of deceased owners have not put an ounce of work into the wealth they now own.  The current Bush estate tax regime must be allowed to “sunset” in 2010; in fact, considering our desperate straits, estate and income tax rates could use a return to the progressive levels in effect during the Eisenhower years.

9.    Bail out state and local governments.  In the next few years, the mortgage and real estate meltdown will nearly bankrupt local governments that rely on property taxes in poor areas where the reduced tax base no longer supports the level of taxation needed to run basic programs.  This is on  top of revenues that will be lost through failed investments.  We will soon need to consider bailing out those governments to avoid creating ghost towns across America.

10.   End “too big to fail” blackmail. The management of every public company should be required to answer this question annually:  “Is your company too big to fail?”  If the answer is yes, the company should be broken up immediately.  If the answer is no, they should be held to their answer.

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