Friday, May 8, 2009

Our Team Rules, Your Team Drools

I understand that there are fundamental differences between a liberal and a conservative perspective. Although I tend more towards the liberal side, I think the debate between the two perspectives is a healthy one, and provides useful checks and balances. When I think of a debate between, say, George McGovern and William F. Buckley over the relative merits of one camp versus another, I become nostalgic because it's the type of discourse that we just don't see anymore. What we have instead is the "us vs. them" paradigm..."our side" vs. "their side". In that sense, political discussions have begun to resemble discussions between fans of rival sports teams.

NY Giants fans loath the Philadelphia Eagles. Boston Red Sox fans despise the NY Yankees. Carl Edwards fans hate Kyle Busch. Jerry Lawler fans wanted Andy Kaufman's blood. They not only enjoy seeing their team beat the rival, but enjoy seeing anybody beat the rival. Back when the Cowboys were perennial champs, it was common to hear somebody say, "I root for my team and for whoever is playing the Cowboys." These fans delight at their rivals' misfortunes.

While all this is good fun and helps build hype for the big game\big race\big match, it's the actual contest that determines the outcome, not the opinions of the observers. The contest is not fought in the press or fan sites. Oh, if politics could be that simple.

It has become impossible for anybody on the Right to criticize a Republican, or praise a Democrat. Do so, and you risk the wrath of Boss Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, et. al. What's more, the bloggy right and conservative pundits look for increasingly vapid criticisms of the smallest details. Consider "Mustardgate". President Obama and Vice President Biden went to a local DC eatery this week for a photo op. Obama ordered a burger with Dijon mustard. The next day,
Crooks and Liars posted a roundup of right-wing pundits criticizing the president for his choice of condiments:
Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh Show guest host Mark Steyn criticized Obama as an elitist because he ordered a burger with "spicy mustard" or "Dijon mustard." Hannity claimed that Obama ordered a "fancy burger" with a "very special condiment," while Steyn asserted Obama is trying "to enlighten us" through his order. Ingraham asked of Obama: "What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?"

Wha? You're kidding, right? Of all the major issues we face, they jump on condiments? Oh well, another silly comment from one of the most partisan talking heads in broadcasting, no surprises. It's a silly issue that will die soon. Nope.

The next day in Huffington Post, Jason Linkins posted a roundup of wingnut Dijon detractors as well as a post spirited defense of burger mustard, including a link to David Frumm, who points out that mustard is the condiment of choice in Texas.

The state of political discourse has gotten ridiculous. My team is great. Everything they do is smart, right, just, and good for the country. Your team sucks. Everything they do (and I do mean EVERYTHING) is stupid, wrong, unjust, and bad for the country.

How are we going to fix our problems when we spend so much time on petty sniping?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Treason From The Right

Remember after the Iraq war started how right wing pundits like O'Reilly and Beck and Hannity would use the term "traitor" to describe anybody who criticized the Bush Administration during times of war? Ah, how an election can change things. We are still fighting those same two wars, but the Wingnut Trifecta now thinks it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the new President. Their hypocricy is nothing new, naturally. I just wonder if they ever watch clips of their own pronouncements.

I would be glad to just chalk it up to media whores looking to incite their mouth-breathing followers, but the rhetoric is starting to get dangerous. These pundits have got to understand the effect they are having on the fringe elements. I was hoping that Beck would tone down his rhetoric after Richard Andrew Poplawski, the man who killed 3 cops in Pittsburg. Recall he was an avid follower of Beck's show, and even posted a Beck video on the Aryan Nation web site. But Beck just shook that off and kept shoveling coal in the crazy train. Nightly he and Hannity admonish their followers that the Office of Homeland Security is labeling them a threat and wants to take away their guns. Beck et al have broken no laws, but I don't know how they can sleep knowing that gun nuts are killing cops because of the incendiary rhetoric.

If these pundits continue in the direction they are headed, I expect laws may soon be broken. First Glen Beck and now Sean Hannity have started to talk about revolt and revolution. It's hard to get a definitive statement from either of them. Hannity is slippery and Beck is insane. But they have to keep upping the ante each show.

They would be well advised to review US Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 115, Section 2385: Advocating Overthrow of Government. The first paragraph starts: "Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence..." That sure sounds like what Hannity and Beck are alluding to.

It's time to stop this nonsense. It would be funny were it not for three dead cops. These guys have no shame. I expect the government is handling this with kid gloves. In the land of freedom, you don't want to see the government arresting journalists (and, in the case of Fox's Three Stooges, I use that term VERY loosely). But you cannot have pundits advocating the overthrow of the legally elected government. I suspect the Secret Service is watching these guys very closely. Personally, I would love to see all three in handcuffs.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

More Shame from Abu Ghraib

Somehow, I had forgotten about Charles Graner and Lynndie England. Remember them? They were the poster children for the horrors of the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. The way prisoners were being treated there had been leaked. The pictures that came out horrified a nation and made us feel ashamed of our troops. Bad apples, our leaders said. Renegade troops, we were told. A total of 12 guards were convicted. Graner got ten years, England got three, and Al Queda got some great photos for their recruitment posters.

I remember being so mad at those guards. I had served in the military. I thought that the guards had betrayed everything our country stood for. The United States does not treat prisoners that way. It's what separates us from the bad guys. That was 2004.

Fast forward to 2009 and we find out that we most certainly DO treat prisoners that way. That way and worse. According to the recently released torture memos, pretty much all of the abuses at Abu Gharaib were devised at the highest levels of goverment. Now, as The London Times recently reported, the guards want new trials because the memos prove that they were just following orders.

It is hard to think of the guards as "innocent" when you look at those pictures from 2004. But when you review the tortured logic of the torture program, it's pretty easy to see what happened. Only four years after 9/11, sentiments would still be running high, and the demonization of the Abu Gharaib prisoners an easy accomplishment. Convinced that their prisoners were evil, and assured by their superiors that the techniques were legal, the guards abused the inmates repeatedly. When word of those abuses came out, the guards found themselves all alone to face the music.

During their trails, the Abu Ghraib guards claimed that they were just following orders.. Their superiors denied it. Now it appears that their superiors lied. Their superiors were involved in a coverup. as were thier superiors, and theirs, and theirs. This coverup went all the way to the White House, because that is where the torture parameters were set. The Bush Administration KNEW that the guards were following orders, but they allowed the guards to be convicted rather than shine a light on the secret torture program. The administration, the Pentagon, and the entire military chain of command threw the guards under a bus just to keep the truth from coming out. Criminal.

The cowardice of the Bush administration appears to have no bottom. I am no longer satisfied to only call for an investigation into the torture program. We need to investigate the lies that led to the conviction of these guards. The torture techniques were devised by some the strongest minds in the country, but executed by some of the weakest. When the spam hit the fan, those strong minds hid like cockroaches. It's time to shine a light on those disgusting insects.

Perjury was committed in those trials. Obstruction of justice was committed at the highest levels of the military and of the government. Our military men and women have been abused enough with endless tours of duty in two wars and inadaquate medical care at home. We cannot permit lives to be ruined with wrongful convictions and imprisonment. The guards need to be exhonerated. They need to be reinstated with full back pay, their records expunged, and appologies issued. Those who purjered themselves need to be punished. Of course, they will say that they, too were following orders. In that case, let's start unravelling this mess and see where it leads. I expect that trail of bread crumbs to lead straight to the Bush White House, probably to Dick Cheney's door. Regardless of where it leads, we need answers and we need accountability.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Fixing Democracy by Revamping Lobbying

To me the biggest problem in American politics is lobbying. Lobbying is legalized bribery. And I am not talking about Jack Abramoff - that was REAL bribery. Lobbyists have more say in legislation than voters possibly can under that system - unless the voters get their own lobby. Some do. AARP, NRA, AFLCIO are all examples of lobbies that represent a collection of voters. The more voters they get, the more clout they have. But grassroots organizations cannot pony up the bags of cash that entire industries can offer. The American Bankers Association, the National Association of Securities Dealers, and the Bond Market Association all represent entire industries with very, very deep pockets. If AARP goes up against, one of these giants they will most likely lose.

“Lobbying” is the attempt to influence public policy by petitioning government. Petitioning government is a cornerstone of democracy and appears in such diverse documents as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. But, none of those documents envisioned a future that included multi-national corporations who have more money than most countries. In Colonial times, individuals would petition the government by writing letters. But there are now too many citizens and politicians have too many complex issues to have ongoing contact with individual constituents (unless they are campaign donors). So the original concept of lobbying - to allow citizens to directly contact and influence legislators - has been bastardized. Now you get access and influence with money. The more money you have, the more access and influence. Bribery.

The bastardization of lobbying has led to a bastardization of the political landscape. It seems that all politicians care about anymore is getting reelected. As this paradigm grew, it created an "arms race" of campaign financing. Races used more radio and television, costing more money, needing more contributions. This need made lobbyists more important to the politicians, giving them more influence.

I have less of a beef with lobbying efforts from groups. AARP and the NRA have become powerful lobbies that get politicians' attention. But these groups have clout moreso because they can mobilize their members, not because of giant bags of cash. They can promote a politician and their members will donate to and vote for that candidate. I many not agree with the organization's agendas, but I agree that their lobbying efforts are a good example of democracy in action, and I think the founding fathers would agree.

I have more of a beef with corporate lobbying. Corporations are able to push though so much legislation that is good for them, but bad for the individual voters. For example, Democrats recently tried to push through legislation to further regulate the $40 Billion "payday lending" industry. These predators charge interest rates that, when annualized, amount to almost 400%. Not wanting to lose their loan shark businesses, the industry ponied up over $1Million to fight legislation that would limit the interest they could charge. When consumer groups condemned a bill as full of loopholes and favoring the industry, bill sponsor Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said, “While they may not be JP Morgan Chase or Bank of America, they’re very powerful. Their influence should not be underestimated.”

What? You cannot defend against them, Luis? Why not? The answer, of course, is that if he didn't do what he was told, the lobby would give their money to Gutierrez's opponent in the next election. That is when bribery becomes blackmail, and neither one is good for the country. This scenario plays itself out over and over. Play along, and the lobbyists are your best friends. Oppose them and they are your worst enemy.

Yesterday, the Senate failed to pass a bill that would have allowed judges to enable certain homeowners to renegotiate mortgages. Big banks didn't like this idea one bit. Of the 59 Democratic Senators (including new GOP turncoat Arlen Spector), only 45 voted for the bill. A leading supporter of the bill, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), concluded that banks "frankly own the place." How sad. He stood up and said that the banks owned the Senate. I guess that explains all that bailout money flying around without accountability.

So what do we do? I think the first thing is to stop giving corporations the same rights as individuals. Lobbying is considered a right, but it is a right of citizens. Corporations are not citizens, despite their protestations to the contrary. This idea is not new. Over 20 years ago the NY Times ran an editorial entitled Corporations Are Not Persons. The piece points out the example of tobacco companies arguing that advertising to children was their right under the first amendment. As the editorial points out: "Equality of constitutional rights plus an inequality of legislated and de facto powers leads inevitably to the supremacy of artificial over real persons."

As long as corporations have the same rights as individuals, they will own our political system. They have too much money and voters or voter PACs can't compete. The political system should belong to the people, the voters, the citizens. The NRA, made up of individual citizens, should have every right to fight against gun control. The gun manufacturers, should not. The citizens are fighting for thier rights, the manufacturers for their profits. It's our country, not the corporations.

Once it is established that corporations do not have the same rights as individuals, we can start to chip away at their influence. Lobbyists can be prevented from making donations on behalf of any corporations. Only individuals would be allowed to donate. If that would ever happen, Gucci Gulch would become a ghost town and politicians would have to think for themselves instead of do what they are told. We could return to the concept of "citizen legislators" rather than professional politicians.

There are few politicians in Washington who have the guts to take this on. Introduce a bill that denys corporations the same rights as citizens and you will see the mother of all lobbying efforts. I think President Obama just might take this on, if he can clean up some of the current messes taking up his time. My hope is that the GOP will continue to shoot itself in the foot, and the Democrats make even more gains in 2010. Then, armed with that super-majority in both houses and leveraging on his popularity, Obama takes it on. If and when that happens, it will require a massive grassroots campaign. Politicians still repond to voters if enough of them speak out. If it happens, jump in. Donate, volunteer, write, canvass, do whatever you can to help the cause. Our democracy just might depend on it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Curbing Corporate Evil

Corporations are evil. Corporations profit from war and make unsafe products, they spill oil and coal ash, they encourage children to smoke and deny heath care to the sick. They use third world child labor and pay them pennies, all the while claiming that the kids are better off. Even corporations whose motto is “don’t be evil,” do evil.

Consider this list…AIG, Merrill Lynch, Blackwater, Enron, Haliburton, Philip Morris, Wal-Mart, Dow, Pfiser, Diebold, Exxon…this group of companies has a history that includes fraud, unsafe products, dumping of toxic chemicals, deforestation, union busting and war profiteering. And those are just the easy ones…the low hanging fruit…the ones whose evil you really don’t need to explain. For each on this list there are hundreds of other corporations who are taking more from society than they give.

These corporations are not in the business of evil. They are in the business of profits. But the pursuit of profit without any other consideration sets the stage for some pretty evil stuff.

Corporate wrongdoing is a byproduct of greed. Greed is what makes capitalism work. I am a big believer in capitalism. I have not seen a better system, certainly not the communist model with their five year and ten year plans. Greed and the thirst for profits have led to the creation of some of my favorite possessions. Were it not for this greed, I would not have my cell phone, my laptop computer, my flat screen TV. Yay, profits. Yay, greed.

Not everyone is greedy for money alone. Some lust for power. We call those people politicians. They play a big part in enabling Corporate evil. Corporations lobby politicians. If the politicians vote for bills that aid the corporations, then the corporations give them bribes that they call “campaign contributions.” It’s a cozy relationship – great for the corporations, great for the politicians, but not so great for the citizens of the US…you know, the customers of the corporations and the constituents of the politicians. Politicians are fond of saying “get government off the backs of business.” They claim that aiding business aids the economy, which aids us all. In some cases that’s true. In many cases it is not.

Take, for example, the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. This act, signed at the height of the Great Depression, separated commercial and investment banking. Commercial banks tend to be very conservative while investment banks take on risk for higher returns. When Glass-Steagall was repealed, it eventually led to commercial banks taking on huge risks as well in pursuit of the kind of profits the investment banks were getting. The result was a global economic crisis that we still cannot see the end of. How could that repeal have been good for the country? The economy was doing well, so it’s not like we needed a boost. So it wasn’t driven by need, it was driven by greed. The financial industry wanted it and they had Phil Graham bought and paid for.

I’m not anti-corporation. Corporations provide needed jobs and tax revenues. We need corporations. And I don’t want to clip their wings like some bad passage from “Atlas Shrugged” (as if there is a good passage to that book). But our society exerts more control over stray dogs than we do over corporate malfeasance. What’s more, unchecked corporate evil comes with a future cost. Pollution costs. Global warming costs. And ask the millions and millions of unemployed around the world if there is a cost to the current economic crisis.

Proper regulation does not prevent corporations from making a profit, it prevents them for making a profit at the expense of the citizens. Make all the money you want, just don’t make a mess. Simple.

We need to rule over corporations, we cannot have them rule over us. And rule over us they have.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Can we put down the pitchforks now?

The New York Times today published an open resignation letter by Jake DeSantis, Executive VP at AIG. Since it's publication, many computer fonts have been spilled about it's portent. Too many of these comments are simply ill-informed. A typical example from the left is digby's from Hullabaloo. I am a fan of digby, and enjoy his blog. But too often I see liberals rant about business practices that they don't seem to understand, and this is a classic example.

First digby rolls his eyes at at an op-ed piece by Martin Feldstein, who claims that President Obama's proposal to limit the tax deductibility of charitable contributions will hurt charities. Without discussing the merits of Feldstein's argument, digby dismisses him because he is a member of AIG's board, and a member of their Finance Committee. Exactly how those facts makes Feldstein's argument moot, digby does not say. But consider this...would a bazillionaire donates $50 Million to a charity if there were no tax deduction? I think not. And I think Feldstein is correct that Obama's plan will disastrous for charities. But don't take my word for it, call the head of fundraising for your favorite national charity and ask for yourself.

Next digby moves on to DeSantis, describing his letter as a "petulant whine." He then goes on to say, "It's very hard to believe that this person knew nothing of the CDO business since it was the focus of the division in which he worked." He quotes MSNBC commentator Carlos who basically said the same thing: "I know and you know that when you're an executive in a large company you sit in those senior management meetings you hear what's going on in other parts of the business." Carlos and digby are simply wrong about this, and their comments lead me to believe they never worked for a large corporation. Busy managers focus on their own departments, and they don't have time to get detailed breakdowns of what others are doing.

MSNBC and digby show a lack of understanding of financial products and large financial organizations. DeSantis worked in commodities, and had nothing to do with CDOs. But digby assumes that every executive working for AIG is guilty by association. It doesn't take every employee to bring down a company. Remember Barings Bank? Barings was the oldest merchant bank in London until its collapse in 1995 after a single employee lost $1.4 billion speculating on futures contracts. One guy killed a 200 year old company.

Just because you worked for AIG does not make you evil or stupid. And we can debate whether anybody deserves to make a $750,000 bonus, but if other executives at other companies were getting similar bonuses (which they were) then AIG executives were not overpaid relatively speaking.

The AIG rhetoric is becoming shrill and is leaving logic behind. digby effectively says that we should not listen to anything that an AIG board member says. The board members deserve their share of blame for this mess. They were wrong about that, but that doesn't make them wrong about everything. DeSantis opened himself up to a lot of scorn by publishing his letter, but I saw it as frustration, not whining. He was angry that the CEO promised to fight for them, then did not. And he was angry that he and the vast majority of AIG employees did nothing wrong, but are being treated like lepers.

I'm not a pro-corporation apologist - far from it. But I think it is important to focus on real issues and not get tied up in witch hunts. Too much has been written about the AIG bonuses. Americans are frustrate at the mess we are in, and want to punish the guilty. I do as well. But a lynch mob is not the answer. Let's put down the pitchforks.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Robert Gates makes a bold move

The Boston Globe reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is going to do the unthinkable. He is going to end costly, high-tech military programs in an effort to cut Defense Department waste, and to shift focus from gadgets to boots on the ground. This is an extraordinary move, and may be the most potent assault on Eisenhower's "military industrial complex" since Ike left office.

The country is broke. We can't keeps spending like we did. But the Military loves their toys, and nobody wants to appear soft on defense. However, now it's pretty obvious that our current enemy is decidedly low tech. So there is no real use in spending money for new jets and destroyers. But I never expected to see a Secretary of Defense reach that conclusion, and I am very pleased that ours did.

Our Navy has not fought a sea battle since World War II. Our cruisers and destroyers have not fired a shot in anger for decades. Aircraft carriers can at least deliver fighters to a theater, but only if that war zone is near enough to an ocean. But if Iraq is any indication, "air cover" is less of an issue because there is nothing to bomb. Insurgents don't present a united front. They don't charge your fort like Indians in a John Wayne movie. The only aircraft that makes sense are helicopters that can swoop in and get your guys the hell out of there. Everybody in the military knows this. But for the Defense Secretary to actually shut down military projects is extraordinary.

Robert Gates took the world's worst job, at a time when it was guaranteed to get worse. He never grandstanded or engaged in subterfuge. When a new administration from the other party asked him to stay on, he did. He has done the best he could with the awful hand that was dealt him, and he has done it with class. But this latest decision is, I think, his bravest. Defense contractors have armies of lobbyists. The Spam has not yet hit the fan. But I think the time is right for this. And I think that the savings will help soften the blow of this, the worst financial year in many generation.

Thank you, Robert Gates, for doing the hard thing.