Tag Archives: Barack Obama

From the NYT: ‘Homegrown Aid’, by Jeffrey Sachs

Homegrown Aid , by JEFFREY D. SACHS

Published: April 8, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA has embarked on a promising new course to fight hunger and promote economic growth and political stability in countries like Cambodia, Honduras and Malawi. These countries, and many more, have large populations of impoverished farm families. Tough climates, environmental degradation and a lack of modern farm technology often limit food production to one-third or less of its potential. President Obama recently called upon Congress to double financial support for agricultural growth in developing countries to more than $1 billion in 2010. His program aims to help smallholder farmers get things like better seeds, fertilizer, small-scale irrigation and access to markets so they can overcome hunger and break out of extreme poverty. This new program could have amazing results — if it is properly carried out.

A crucial factor in determining the program’s success will be how Washington delivers aid to the farmers. The traditional approach, and the wrong one in this case, would be for Washington to try to decide what’s best for each country, and then spend considerable time and money on report-writing, site visits and professional advice. When aid programs are operated this way, they can end up spending half or more of their funds on United States-based travel, personnel and administration, and take years to get off the ground. The benefits for poor countries are then much too little and too late.

Rather than have Washington decide the kind of aid each country will receive, the recipient countries should be invited to prepare plans and budgets that would be reviewed by independent experts. These plans would describe the inputs needed by the farmers, the expected increase in production, how the strategy would be put into place and how much money would be required. Such plans, if described with care, could then be closely monitored by the United States and other donors to gauge results and avoid corruption.

Two international programs during the last decade, championed jointly by the United States, other governments and the Gates Foundation, have demonstrated the benefits of such a scientific, results-based aid approach: the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. These programs have saved millions of lives and protected hundreds of millions more from disease and infection. Here’s how they work: Low-income countries submit national action plans to the two programs, which then scrutinize the plans on their scientific, financial and management merits. If the plans are properly put into effect, recipients get more financing.

It’s time to adopt these strategies to fight hunger. The good news is that many poor and hungry countries already have elaborate and sophisticated plans for their smallholder farmers, but until now they’ve lacked the financial means and donor support to put those plans into action.

Read the full article here.

The AIG bailout debacle: Careful not to let the pitchfork wielding crowds out

It was quite amusing, watch The Colbert Report dated March 16th where Colbert encouraged his audience to join him in creating a huge, angry, pitchfork wielding crowd and go march on AIG (watch the clip here). And while most of us do feel that anger at what happened, we are far too civilized to actually do that.

Or are we? Discussion boards are teeming with angry threats, and I have received a couple of emails about some readers’ anger over what happened with AIG. While the anger is understandable, perhaps we aren’t channeling it in the right way.

One example of a positive channeling of this anger is – can you guess who I am going to talk about? Yes, about Barack Obama. But let’s face it – he’s the President of the United States, ergo he has some power to do what needs to be done. But what can we, little people of the world, do when all the power we have is that over our younger siblings and/or our children – and even that power is often challenged?

There needs to be a major restructuring of the way we do things, not only at the top (which good old President Barack Obama seems to be taking care of), but also at the bottom. We cannot continue to feed into a system made to make us consume excessively and irresponsibly.

My advice? Stop shopping too much, start shopping wisely and start contributing your time, money and attention to those around you who need it, from your neighbor’s child with ADHD who needs to be tutored with patience to the poor people across the city who can barely make ends meet. Let’s be the change!

There are probably a lot of other things we can do, and I’m open to trying many of them – but the one thing we can’t do is let this anger blind us or, worse, make us so things we are going to later regret.

From IHT: Whipping A.I.G. feels good, but it hurts us all

By Joe Nocera (published on March 21st 2009)

Can we all just calm down a little?

Yes, the $165 million in bonuses handed out to executives in the financial products division of American International Group was infuriating. Truly, it was. As many others have noted, this is the same unit whose shenanigans came perilously close to bringing the world’s financial system to its knees. When the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, said recently that A.I.G.’s “irresponsible bets” had made him “more angry” than anything else about the financial crisis, he could have been speaking for most Americans.

But death threats? “All the executives and their families should be executed with piano wire — my greatest hope,” wrote one person in an e-mail message to the company. Another suggested publishing a list of the “Yankee” bankers “so some good old southern boys can take care of them.” (…)

How does outing these executives fix skewed compensation incentives, which have created that unjustified sense of entitlement that pervades Wall Street? No, it’s mostly about using subpoena power to satisfy the public’s thirst for blood. (…)

Then there was that awful congressional hearing on Wednesday, in which A.I.G.’s newly installed chief executive, Edward Liddy, was forced to listen to one outraged member of Congress after another rail about bonuses — and obsess about when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner learned about them — while ignoring far more troubling problems surrounding the A.I.G. rescue.

Oh, and let’s not forget the bill that was passed on Thursday by the House of Representatives. It would tax at a 90 percent rate bonus payments made to anyone who earned over $250,000 at any financial institution receiving significant bailout funds. Should it become law, it will affect tens of thousands of employees who had absolutely nothing to do with creating the crisis, and who are trying to help fix their companies.

Meanwhile, the real culprits — like Joseph J. Cassano, the former head of A.I.G.’s financial products division— are counting their money in “retirement.” Nobody on Capitol Hill seems much interested in getting that money back. (And the bill does nothing about bonuses that were paid before 2009, meaning that most of those egregious Merrill Lynch bonuses, paid at the end of last year, will not be touched.)

By week’s end, I was more depressed about the financial crisis than I’ve been since last September. Back then, the issue was the disintegration of the financial system, as the Lehman bankruptcy set off a terrible chain reaction. Now I’m worried that the political response is making the crisis worse. The Obama administration appears to have lost its grip on Congress, while the Treasury Department always seems caught off guard by bad news. (…)

How is the political reaction to the crisis making it worse? Let us count the ways.

IT IS DESTROYING VALUE During his testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Liddy pointed out that much of the money the government turned over to A.I.G. was a loan, not a gift. The company’s goal, he kept saying, was to pay that money back. But how? Mr. Liddy’s plan is to sell off the healthy insurance units — or, failing that, give them to the government to sell when they can muster a good price.

In other words, it is in the taxpayers’ best interest to position A.I.G. as a company with many profitable units, worth potentially billions, and one bad unit that needs to be unwound. Which, by the way, is the truth. But as Mr. Ely puts it, “the indiscriminate pounding that A.I.G. is taking is destroying the value of the company.” Potential buyers are wary. Customers are going elsewhere. Employees are looking to leave. Treating all of A.I.G. like Public Enemy No. 1 is a pretty dumb way for a majority shareholder to act when he hopes to sell the company for top dollar.

Read the rest of the article here.

Barack Obama’s Naw Ruz video message to Iran

President Barack Obama has sent a video message to Iran and its people on Naw Ruz, the Persian New Year that falls on the spring equinox. Interestingly enough, this is at the same time a Zoroastrian religious tradition that became part of the Iranian (non-religious) culture, as well as a Baha’i religious tradition.

What a great video, what great timing, and what a lovely effort to try to speak Persian at the very end of the video (the accent wasn’t too bad either). What an amazing thing to for an American president to do, to reach out to a country who doesn’t like the United States (to put it mildly). ‘Be the change’ seems to be more than a motto for this administration, and this administration seems intent on proving it time and time again.

Perhaps the best consequence of this video won’t necessarily be the response of the Iranian government, but rather that of both the Iranian and the American people: to be piqued with curiosity enough that they will open up to what the other country really is like, rather than to believe in all the misconceptions that have been flying around both countries. And perhaps this will lead both governments to open up even more to each other. How great would that be!

A new era of activism? From IHT: U.S. outcry forces chief of A.I.G. to give ground

By David Stout, published on March 18th 2009

WASHINGTON: As the lucrative bonuses paid to employees of the American International Group fueled fresh outrage at the White House and on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the embattled chief executive of A.I.G. said that he had asked some recipients to give at least half the money back.

The chief executive, Edward M. Liddy, made the announcement during his testimony on Wednesday afternoon before a congressional committee investigating the problems at the insurance giant.

“I have asked the employees of A.I.G. Financial Products to step up and do the right thing,” Mr. Liddy told lawmakers. “Specifically, I have asked those who received retention payments of $100,000 or more to return at least half of those payments.” (Sahar’s comment: ‘at least’ half? Seriously? I would say they should ‘at least’ give all the money back and perhaps not pay a hefty penatly!)

The A.I.G. chief said that some recipients had already offered to give up all of their bonuses, and he added later that he expected to get most of the money back.

Of the 418 employees who received bonuses, 298 got more than $100,000, according to the New York attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo. The highest bonus was $6.4 million, and 6 other employees received more than $4 million. Fifteen other people received bonuses of more than $2 million and 51 received $1 million to $2 million.

Before Mr. Liddy’s testimony, the A.I.G. affair prompted President Obama to declare that a culture of “excess greed” demonstrated in A.I.G.’s dealings should have no place in a new Wall Street.

“As we get out of this crisis, as we work toward getting ourselves out of this recession, I hope that Wall Street and the marketplace don’t think that we can return to business as usual,” the president said after meeting with his economic advisers.

Accordingly, Mr. Obama said, he will push for quick congressional legislation to create a regulatory framework for entities like A.I.G., which is not a bank, similar to the powers that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has over banks.

“I’m angry,” the president said. “What I want us to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way.”

(…)

The president did not call on Wednesday for the bonuses to be paid back, or taken back somehow. But there was strong sentiment on Capitol Hill over the $165 million in bonuses, and it was by no means clear that asking bonus recipients to give up half of their windfalls would appease the lawmakers. A.I.G. has received nearly $200 billion in federal bailout funds.

“We are the effective owners of this company,” said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, going on to suggest a lawsuit to recover the $165 million in bonuses. “I think it’s worth trying.”

By “we,” Mr. Frank made clear, he meant the American taxpayers, whose collective anger has been felt on Capitol Hill over the last several days. And no wonder, said Representative Gary L. Ackerman, a Democrat from Long Island. The typical taxpayer knows he is “the ultimate sucker” in the A.I.G. debacle, Mr. Ackerman said.

The lawmakers, having heard from their furious constituents, seemed unwilling to be mollified by the pledge from Mr. Liddy, who took the helm at A.I.G. last fall after it had begun imploding because of reckless investments, that the company’s 116,000 employees were united in wanting to work out of the morass, and work “shoulder to shoulder” with federal regulators. (Sahar’s comment: It doesn’t seem fair that all the regular AIG workers are going to have to pay, quite literally, because of mistakes of a couple of AIG employees).

(…)

“A million dollars is a sizable sum to the typical American family,” Mr. Kanjorski said, “and a million dollars is a lottery prize for anyone who has just lost a job.” He called on A.I.G.’s employees to join with the legions of Americans who “have made personal sacrifices to survive these difficult times.” For the American people, said Representative Paul Hodes, Democrat of New Hampshire, the initials ” A.I.G.” now stand for “arrogance, incompetence and greed.” (Sahar’s comment: Ouch!)

But Representative Scott Garrett of New Jersey, the senior Republican on Mr. Kanjorski’s subcommittee, said he had a question for those who are unhappy with the way the A.I.G. story has unfolded: “What did you expect, and why weren’t you asking more questions before?” (Sahar’s comment: Good point. Hopefully we will learn from our lesson. But it doesn’t excuse what AIG did.)

Read the rest of the article here.

Sterwart vs Cramer: In Cramer we might be able to trust?

For all its worth, the Stewart-Cramer showdown might have served one purpose: to give birth to a man not only brilliant in his analysis of the economy, but who has learned the hard lesson of humility (and no, I did not mean humiliation). Because while my admiration for Jon Sterwart increased exponentially for being so politely harsh (when was the last time you saw such a polite stripping down?) I have to admit that I felt sorry for Cramer, and I hope that he channels his genius into helping create the change needed in our society.

Then he could become poster-boy for Barack Obama’s ‘Be the Change’ motto. Who knows?

Until then, you can watch the interview here.

And for those of you who would rather read about it here is a little something from CNN. I found CNN’s take very interesting, although I wouldn’t agree with the way the article describes some of the exchange between Cramer and Stewart. I couldn’t help but post some personal comments on the article below.

By most accounts, the showdown was pretty brutal.

Many watching Thursday night’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central felt that comedian-turned-media-critic Jon Stewart held bombastic financial guru and CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer’s feet to the fire.

And Cramer flinched.

Stewart, known for his zany, satirical take on the news, was serious as he took Cramer’s network to task for what Stewart viewed as their “cheerleading” of corporations at the heart of the nation’s current economic crisis.

And despite the title of his financial show, Cramer came off as less mad and more apologetic. (Sahar’s note: And Cramer should be applauded, first for appearing on the show knowing Stewart had him, second for not defending himself too much knowing that he made big mistakes, and third for apologizing. That’s pretty big.)

If it was a prize fight, they would have stopped it,” said Howard Kurtz, the “Washington Post” media critic and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” “I was stunned that Jim Cramer kind of did a rope-a-dope strategy and didn’t really defend himself against Jon Stewart’s assault.”

Kurtz is very familiar with the style of both men.

He has appeared on “The Daily Show” and is the author of “The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street’s Game of Money, Media and Manipulation,” in which Cramer is featured.

Kurtz said Stewart “made clear at the outset that he wasn’t going for laughs” and displayed very much the same passion for holding the media accountable as he did when he appeared on, and denounced, CNN’s “Crossfire.” (Sahar’s note: Too bad people – myself included – are too busy to see these things, up to a certain point, for themselves, especially in the age of blogging)

“When I went on [Stewart's] show last year, he was so wound up in ripping the media that he went on for another 10 minutes, knowing full well that we were out of time,” Kurtz said. “Stewart, as funny as he can be, is a very trenchant media critic who cares passionately about this stuff, and we saw that Thursday night.”

iReporter David Seaman of New York said he was surprised at the vigor with which Stewart “attacked Cramer’s credibility.”

The public wants answers as to how the country got into such financial distress, and viewers really want someone to answer for the mess, Seaman said. (Sahar’s note: And it’s a little unfortunate that Jim Cramer had to take the fall. After all, he didn’t create the mess – he helped perpetuate it.)

“People want to see a lot of the financial gurus on a shish kabob, being skewered,” Seaman said. “It’s really important to hold people accountable, and as we saw last night, Jon Stewart is a bit of a wild card, so if you aren’t living up to expectations, he may call you out.”

David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of “Now on PBS,” commended Cramer for his bravery in going on the show, though he said he was surprised that the brilliant founder of TheStreet.com seemed ill-prepared for Stewart’s very thoughtful questioning.

Brancaccio, the former host of American Public Media’s “Marketplace” radio program, echoed the comments of many in that he found the exchange visibly uncomfortable for the usually showman-like Cramer.

“You have the comedian as journalist, and you have the financial journalist as clown, in that on his show, Cramer’s goofing around and plays the clown,” Brancaccio said. “What a role reversal.”

Read the rest of the article here.

From CNN: America becoming less Christian

… And my personal questions: why, and what does it imply?

America become less Christian, survey finds

America is a less Christian nation than it was 20 years ago, and Christianity is not losing out to other religions, but primarily to a rejection of religion altogether, a survey published Monday found.

Three out of four Americans call themselves Christian, according to the American Religious Identification Survey from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1990, the figure was closer to nine out of 10 — 86 percent.

At the same time there has been an increase in the number of people expressing no religious affiliation.

The survey also found that “born-again” or “evangelical” Christianity is on the rise, while the percentage who belong to “mainline” congregations such as the Episcopal or Lutheran churches has fallen.

One in three Americans consider themselves evangelical, and the number of people associated with mega-churches has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million in the latest survey.

The rise in evangelical Christianity is contributing to the rejection of religion altogether by some Americans, said Mark Silk of Trinity College.

“In the 1990s, it really sunk in on the American public generally that there was a long-lasting ‘religious right’ connected to a political party, and that turned a lot of people the other way,” he said of the link between the Republican Party and groups such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family.

“In an earlier time, people who would have been content to say, ‘Well, I’m some kind of a Protestant,’ now say ‘Hell no, I won’t go,'” he told CNN.

Silk also said the revelation that some Catholic priests had sexually abused children — and senior figures in the church hierarchy had helped to hide it — had driven some Catholics away from religion.

And, he said, it is now more socially acceptable than it once was to admit having no religion.

Read the rest of the article here.