Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Code green

Bill Maher (of Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO) asked an important question to his panel recently. He asked that how is the current Obama plan to buy toxic assets (also called the 'cash for trash' strategy) better than Bush's? He is doing the same thing that Bush was doing, and somehow he is being given a clean chit no matter what.

Right now we are bailing out companies, some of whom do not deserve it. Obama has imposed severe restrictions on the auto companies, including asking a CEO to step down, and forcing them to form mergers. Why not have them file bankruptcy? There is enough bailing out right now: the banks might be too big to fail, as them falling down would dehydrate the market of finance, and businesses would choke, resulting in loss of commodities and jobs nationwide.

The auto-makers do not enjoy such a strong niche in the market according to me. They have been exploiting the low price of oil by building gas-guzzlers in the past, and they collapsed as a combination of two problems: the sudden increase in gas prices which forced buyers to turn to more economical Japanese and German cars. This resulted in a stagnation of sales which ran them into losses. Also companies like GM could not afford to pay health insurance premium for their workers. At one point, they were spending more on health insurance for their employees than they were spending on raw material for their cars! The employer-paid for health insurance system has many drawbacks, one of them being the increase in illegal employees simply because the employers can pay them less than minimum wage, ignore exploitation rules and deny them healthcare. But I digress. The auto makers have been exploiting their connections with the Republicans, not to mention the collusion between the Democrats and the auto worker unions. This is vote-bank politics. It is red, white and blue, instead of saffron, white, green and blue. Hence, we may not notice it as much.

The thing is, by bailing out US carmakers, you are favoring them over their Japanese, German, Italian and other counterparts. This goes against fair competition where the govt. is favoring one of the candidates with a safety net. Such a protection might result in the rapid dumping of shares of other auto companies which might increase the magnitude of the recession.

Some might regard my suggestion ludicrous, but one of the possible solutions is to encourage small businesses and increase job creation. Other projects like building more roads and subways are always a classic. As I have mentioned before, I have a huge problem with the govt. printing notes without any security against them. It is fine right now, but when the economy starts to recover, there will be so many dollars floating in the market that the value of the dollar will fall. A better way to get more cash is the equivalent of the Indian National Savings Certificate (NSC). The govt. could introduce an NSC plan and say that, should people invest, they could double their money in five years. They could give tax breaks on the amount invested, and impose penalties on early withdrawal of funds. This will pull in extra cash for the government to play with, but will not generate fake dollar bills. This will also encourage Americans to save some part of their paychecks. One must remember that the amount of assets is always limited, and this ruled applies to cash as well.

Another idea that might be more popular with my readers (but not a populist one) is to increase the number of H1 visas. Able, talented, educated and industrious people are waiting to get here and do well. They can improve productivity and create competition, which will force existing workers to do much better. No one should be in any sort of comfort zone at this juncture. When we spread the risk over the entire nation, it seems like less of a load on a fraction of that population which carries it now.

Usually the working class always takes care of the older retired generation, and thus all retirement bonuses could be justified. Now, however, the baby boom generation has retired, and America has a large number of people who are dependent on the working population to take care of them. Benefits like 401k and provident fund equivalents are fine, as they are a part of your salary anyway, but other benefits (and there are many) need to be trimmed. Recently, the Metropolitan Transport Authority (the people who run the subways and buses in NYC) announced a fare hike. This is fine; this would be our contribution to an organization that transports us through large distances for just $2, but is now struggling. But, do you know that an MTA employee can retire at 55 and start reaping retirement benefits as opposed to the regular 65 yr retirement age. So basically, taxpayers have to employ a new guy, pay him, and pay this retiree for an extra ten years than they would have to. The MTA is asking the general public to invest in it, to get some rolling cash. How would anyone want to invest in this when they find out that their hard-earned money is being given to early retirees and that there is no way to expect returns on any money that goes there?

Also, the govt. needs to explain to the people that now that the s**t has hit the fan, they need to cut down on the entitlements and grow up for once, or face a depression that would rival the 1930s. Again, this long post is my two cents. Better opinions are more than welcome.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Hang on, Darfur...no spare change

Nick Kristof is a very passionate man. His Op-Eds for the gray lady are from the heart and head in a nice combination. He writes a lot about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for the President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This man has now imposed further sanctions on aid given to the hurt in Darfur. Kristof argues that this is genocide by another method.

I salute the man's passion, but I am compelled to ask, is this the best time for America to be philanthropic. Nothing comes for free, and helping Darfurites is costing dollars. Dollars you don't have. Dollars you are planning to print without having assets to account for them. (Any government which prints currency is required to show assets whose current value amounts to that total amount printed. Sans this, the notes are barely worth the cotton they are printed on.)
The one thing about the US helping in Darfur is that it does not have strategic US interests (which Bill Maher says means 'white people and oil'). So there seems to be true altruism in that.

In the 90's, you walked the walk, so you could talk the talk. Now, the US needs to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, and it cannot afford to drop a quarter in the homeless guy's cup on the way to starbucks. Also, it cannot afford starbucks.

People are having an entitlement complex like the 'rayees baap ki bigdi aulad' which fouls up everything and then expects papa dearest to bail it out. The people here want the government to help them out everywhere, but do not want to cut down on their leisure and luxury expenditures. Why do I see such lines outside movie halls, broadway theaters, malls, jewellery shops etc when everyone claims to be financially crippled right now? (I know you might be wondering what I'm doing at all the aforementioned places, but let's leave that for the moment!)

Sad though it may sound, the US cannot afford feudalistic pleasures like throwing a coin to the serf. So Darfur will have to wait for the Dow Jones to rise. I hate myself a little for suggesting this.