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Is the Recession Over? Author, Democratic Senate Hopeful Jonathan Tasini on “The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and the Looting of America”

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With the US economy snapping a record streak of four straight quarterly declines and expanding 3.5 percent in the third quarter, many economists are claiming the nation’s worst recession since World War II may now be over. We speak to Jonathan Tasini, author of the new book The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves, and the Looting of America. Tasini is challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary for the 2010 US Senate special election in New York. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Many economists are claiming the nation’s worst recession since World War II may now be over. On Thursday, the government announced the US economy had expanded by 3.5 percent in the third quarter, snapping a record streak of four straight quarterly declines. But it appears that most, if not all, of the growth can be credited to government stimulus efforts, including the cash for clunkers program and the first-time homebuyer’s credit.

Despite the latest growth figures, workers are still struggling to find jobs. The Labor Department announced yesterday that 530,000 people filed for unemployment benefits last week for the first time. Many analysts expect the nation’s official unemployment rate to soon top ten percent.

President Obama said Thursday the country still has a long way to go before fully restoring the economy.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am gratified that our economy grew in the third quarter of this year. We’ve come a long way since the first three months of 2009, when our economy shrunk by an alarming 6.4 percent. In fact, the 3.5 percent growth in the third quarter is the largest three-month gain we have seen in two years. This is obviously welcome news and an affirmation that this recession is abating and the steps we’ve taken have made a difference.

    But I also know that we’ve got a long way to go to fully restore our economy and recover from what’s been longest and deepest downturn since the Great Depression. And while this report today represents real progress, the benchmark I use to measure the strength of our economy is not just whether our GDP is growing, but whether we’re creating jobs, whether families are having an easier time paying their bills, whether our businesses are hiring and doing well.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Tasini joins us now. He runs the blog He’s the author of the new book The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves, and the Looting of America. He is challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary for the US Senate special election in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now! The state of the economy today, the compensation of the executives, unemployment — go at it.

JONATHAN TASINI: Well, as Juan pointed out before in the introduction, if we’re talking about a recession ending, when you have more than half-a-million people all of a sudden filing for unemployment benefits, you know, the recession — I’ve criticized this for many, many years. We use these numbers that the government spits out about production, GDP growing, which is what the President refers to, that often and in this case doesn’t reflect what’s happening to real Americans.

When you have an unemployment rate that is officially — and one number is at ten percent, we really are talking about an economy where one out of five people really does not have full-time paying work, because that ten percent number, as Juan knows, does not include people who’ve stopped looking for work, people who would like to have full-time work but can only find part-time work, and it doesn’t even include all the people working at minimum wage, which is really a poverty-level wage. We in America accept the notion of poverty as part of the economy, as part of the functioning economy. I think that’s a moral outrage. And we see it today throughout the economy, where people are just very, very distressed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jonathan, there is the issue that some of the programs the government has instituted for stimulus, both the cash for clunkers and the homebuyer’s credit, are temporary.

JONATHAN TASINI: That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: They’re going to end. Well, one has already ended, and the other is about to end. And the issue is, what will happen then, without these stimuli to help in the coming months?

JONATHAN TASINI: It’s going to be a disaster for lots of people. You know, we lived for many — for probably twenty years with the notion of the American Dream, but people really only rented the American Dream. People never achieve the American Dream. We survive, most of the American people, on credit cards. That’s maxed out. People then turn to their home equity. That’s gone. And so, what are people now going to fall back on, when wages have been flat for thirty years? You know, productivity has been skyrocketing, and wages have been flat. So we are — as you point out quite well, that this has been a temporary shot in the arm. And what we really need is a real re-inflation of people’s wages. And the so-called recession and the longer-term depression for people is not going to end until we have higher wages, which I believe will only come when we have a stronger labor movement.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you point out in your book — I mean, you concentrate specifically on obviously the — many people have noted the growing gap between corporate CEOs and ordinary workers. Could you expound on the particular things that you think have been ignored?

JONATHAN TASINI: Well, we sort of know about the greed now. It’s almost commonplace. I think people are almost immune to seeing the next article on the Goldman Sachs CEOs that are making tens of millions of dollars in compensation.

What I think — one of the things that is ignored is that the real riches for the corporate CEOs is in the pensions, that when they go home and they retire after having already made tons of money, they make even more in pensions that they take away, at the same time that regular workers almost don’t have pensions. You know, we were saddled with this notion that Americans should not expect real pensions anymore. They’re going to rely on the 401(k)s. I think a year ago we realized that that’s not much of a foundation to base your retirement on, when trillions of dollars evaporated. So that’s a huge piece of the greed and the divide between rich and poor that we see in the CEO suites.

But I want to point out that in my book, in The Audacity of Greed, the robbery and the division between the rich and poor is not just about CEO greed; it’s about the fact that we have not had real wage inflation for thirty years. So people have been working, if you’ll pardon the expression, their butts off for thirty years, productivity has been skyrocketing, and wages have been flat. That’s the real story of what I think has been the greed in America, that workers have not received their fair share.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the issue of where all that money went, one of the things that struck me about your book was that you didn’t just concentrate on the CEOs, but you concentrated on the big hedge fund owners and managers, who are — really dwarf the CEOs, in terms of their — the money they made, many of them betting on this financial collapse, right?

JONATHAN TASINI: That’s correct. I mean, the beauty — and I say that ironically — of their business is that they don’t — they like when things collapse, because if they made the correct bet against a currency dropping or something happening that’s bad in the economy, against the — they bet that the housing crisis would happen —- they actually make a lot of money. And that’s, to me, moral obscenity.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And who are some of these folks?

JONATHAN TASINI: Well, if you look back at the guys who ran some of the big hedge funds, the Vanguards and the folks who are out there, and they’re still out there, they were really at the core of that kind of collapse, that they were betting against the housing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You even mention George Soros still is benefiting from -—

JONATHAN TASINI: Yes, George Soros, who funds many liberal causes. Actually, he goes back to having bet against the English pound, and he made a huge amount of money on currency trading and betting that a currency would drop. And you make an enormous amount of profit if you get the bet right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jonathan Tasini. The headlines today on the issue of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the chair publicly challenged the Obama administration’s plan to regulate the practices of major financial firms. Sheila Bair said that the proposal, a council of regulators, “lacks sufficient authority” to prevent another financial meltdown. Your comments?

JONATHAN TASINI: What’s happening in — almost behind the scenes, and I think we’re not paying attention to it as much because we’re focused, rightly so, on jobs and on the “recession,” quote-unquote, is that there’s an enormous attack coming from the same financial interests that created the crisis in trying to prevent this again. One of the things that the Obama and his administration, I think, did right was trying to create this Consumer Financial Protection Agency. There’s a tremendous amount of money now flowing from the banking interests and financial interests to undercut that agency, which is designed to protect the consumers, so that these people who, both from their — from greed and because of their incompetence, aren’t allowed to do this again. And already, one of the proposals is that 98 percent of the banks will be exempted from this new regulation, and they’re slowly but surely eating away in that — at that.

The second broader thing — and I think you’ve discussed this on this program many times before — is that one of the reasons this is happening is that the same people who created the crisis and the same ideology that created the crisis are in charge still, not only running companies, but the highest levels of the administration. We have what I call the Rubinites, the people who I think should not only be fired, but never have any kind of high policy-making job in any administration, certainly not Democratic administration, because it’s their ideology — the notion of, you know, leverage, the notion of the so-called free market — that got us to where we are now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you’re not only analyzing these problems, but now you’ve jumped into the fray yourself as a candidate for the Senate seat that Kirsten Gillibrand has currently, and that there will be a special election coming up next year. Why are you running, given the fact that, for instance, the Obama administration has pushed out anyone who has thought of even running for the seat, including the last being US Representative Carolyn Maloney. They’ve made it clear they don’t want anyone challenging Kirsten Gillibrand for the Senate seat.

JONATHAN TASINI: Well, let me not tangle with the Obama administration about what intentions they have or not. Let me tell you why I’m running. It’s not even about Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed by a governor, has never faced the election by the voters, was a big advocate of the National Rifle Association, advocated for big tobacco, is awash in corporate money. It’s not even really about her, because she’s besides the point.

This is a moment in time when we can change the country. And I still am a very — very optimistic about our ability to change the country, and it’s in light of the crisis that we just went through. For the first time in my adult life, or certainly in the last twenty-five years, I think people’s ears are open across the political spectrum to the notion that we have to change the rules of the economy to get to a fair society. And I believe we can do that. I think we know what the problem is. And the problem is that we oftentimes, in government, don’t have those people looking out. On a bipartisan basis, I say this. We don’t have our elected representatives looking out for the people.

I believe I can win this race. The so-called incumbent, a person who’s never faced the voters, is extremely vulnerable. But most importantly, I think people are looking for something to rise up and take charge of the economy. In New York state, this should be a state where we have a real progressive senator. And I’m running — one of my political heroes was Paul Wellstone, and I’m running in that same mold, because I think one of the things that Paul Wellstone — asides from what he stood for, he was able to go even to people that didn’t agree with him and say, “These are my principles. You may not agree with me, but this is what I’ve stood for.”

AMY GOODMAN: You also ran against Hillary Clinton when she ran for Senate. Now Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State. She’s going to be meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, this weekend. You have put out a press release around attending the J Street conference. Explain what J Street is, its significance, and your personal involvement with the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

JONATHAN TASINI: Sure. Let me start with my personal connection to this. I am a Jew. My father was born in what was then Palestine and fought in the underground, the Haganah. I lived in Israel for seven years. Half my family was from there. I have family members who have been killed, both in wars and in, if you will, terrorism, in civilian attacks in that conflict. And for that reason, I have — and I was involved in the — then the peace movement in Israel in the 1970s, which was then very, very small. And for that reason, I have been a very, very strong supporter of a two-state solution. We have to have — the Palestinians must have justice, and it is good for Israel to have a strong Palestinian state that is secure, that is independent and that is thriving.

J Street was started because, for too long, American policy has been influenced by AIPAC, and legislators across the political spectrum have been forced to, I think, see a one-sided solution to that. And J Street, I think, is — will be effective. Its notion is that — its goal is to bring about a two-state solution. And I’m very optimistic. It was huge energy in that room. There were over 1,500 people that came from all across the country. There was a lot of excitement that finally there will be a voice that will contest that — what I think is a wrong and very small-minded approach to the solution in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being there. You attended, and Gillibrand did not?

JONATHAN TASINI: That’s right. Both Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer withdrew from the conference because of pressure from the right wing and from AIPAC. That is just one reason why I think that electing me as the United States senator from New York will change the position at least on the Middle East, but certainly on the economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Tasini, we want to thank you for being with us. We hope to have Kirsten Gillibrand on, as well as Chuck Schumer, to ask them about this and other issues. Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of the Labor Research Association. He’s challenging Kirsten Gillibrand’s Senate seat in a special 2010 election. His new book is called The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves, and the Looting of America. He runs the blog

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