Friday, January 28, 2011

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's Report--Good Job, Snow Job, or Blow Job?

Yesterday, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission published its report. After a year-and-a-half of delays, internal bickering, and staff changes, everyone is wondering if we really do know who to blame for the worst recession since the 1930's. It seems that the answer to that question depends upon who one believes, for there are two distinct opinions. [Note to those readers who might be contemplating writing a who-done-it novel: Split guilt or alternate endings do not sell well. People like some certainty when it comes to villainy.]

The 6-member majority, led by Phil Angelides, former California state treasurer, and five other Democratic-appointees (a group that was "not particularly ideological", according to USA Today) spread the blame with a broad brush: Wall Street, the federal government, the Federal Reserve, mortgagors, financial firms, and derivative-traders all came in for a little finger-pointing.

The four Republicans dissented, finding fault, not with Wall Street but with Pennsylvania Avenue, Main Street, and that insidious, amorphous entity known as the "Housing Bubble". Yes, if only Clinton and Bush II had not wanted to encourage expanded home ownership, thereby prompting mortgage lenders to peddle very low-interest rate products, and if home buyers hadn't been stupid or dishonest enough to believe the lies that their mortgage bankers were telling them, this whole disaster might have been avoided. But, you might ask, what about the Merrill Lynch's and Goldman Sachs's of Wall Street? Well, according to the minority, they were victims, merely trying to second-guess the housing market and applying free market principles. They were merely catching a ride on the housing bubble, trying to make a buck here and there. When the bubble burst, they were as surprised as anybody (though they hardly fell as hard as most).

The four members of the minority suffer from an ideological aversion to regulation. This is part-and-parcel with their failure to blame unfettered capitalism for any part of the crisis, a view subsumed from American Enterprise Institute fellow, Peter Wallison (see USA Today editorial linked above). I strongly recommend checking out the Wikipedia article on the AEI. Their ties to the Bush II administration are truly Cephalopodic.

Is there a dot here anywhere? I believe there is. Here's how USA Today put it:

"These dissents raise valid points, which are acknowledged in the majority report. But they glaringly omit the many failures of U.S. regulators to spot the growing credit bubble and to take actions to mitigate it. That, unfortunately, seems to be the point. Last year, Congress passed a sweeping banking reform law, and various agencies will craft rules to implement it. The dissenters seem intent on avoiding any conclusion that would argue for tough standards."

When an investigative commission, with the power to subpoena witnesses, conducts an 18 month investigation and issues a report, I, as a concerned citizen and the millions of others in this country whose very livelihoods have been put at risk, would like to think that we will be told the truth about where the fault lies, so that we can do something to head off such calamities in the future. When the report finally emerges from that closeted investigation, I would like to think that every member would sign up to conclusions that point the way to solutions, not down a road that circles back to the slippery slope that we are trying to get out of. As USA Today opines:

"In fact, the commission seems to have become a microcosm of dysfunctional American politics. The panel's four Republicans refused to go along with Democrats, then divided among themselves. Sound familiar?"

Yes, all too familiar. It is yet another example--perhaps the most tragic example--of the fact that Republicans absolutely cannot be trusted to govern America. For they are more interested in defending their ideology than they are in solving problems--even the ones upon which the very future of our republic depends.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Who are the real "job-creators"?

Republicans are fond of claiming that legislation that helps working people and the poor are "job-killing" measures--most notably, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They claim that it is the business tycoons, hedge fund managers, Wall Street credit default swappers, and insurance company CEOs that create jobs. Therefore, they say, any regulations that slow down the profit-generating machinations of business are bad for the economy.

In the real world, however, it is not the wealthiest Americans who create jobs. This can be understood from the fact that Bush II's tax cuts for the wealthy created only a few hundred thousand jobs over his eight years in office. Since 2000, the U.S. has lost 10% of its middle-class jobs. Today, businesses are holding billions of dollars in their vaults rather than using that money to hire workers. Why? Because they are waiting until the market shows more evidence of spending by consumers. When consumers spend, businesses hire. Therefore, it is in reality the American people who create the jobs through their demand for goods and services.

Why is this an important distinction? Because it means that our government would be much more effective in putting people back to work if they were to put more money directly into the pockets of the people who are now jobless (such as through extending unemployment benefits) or are working but not spending (such as by cutting middle class tax rates), rather than cutting tax rates for the rich in half (as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., proposes to do) or choking off regulations that protect our environment (which we hold in trust for our children and grandchildren) and the purity of our food supply.

If you need further evidence that the Republicans are not serious about creating jobs, look no further than Rep. Ryan's latest "deficit-reduction" budget. It would mandate a 15% cut in the number of federal employees, as if that would not add to the unemployment problem. The current crop of Republicans are either idiots or are lying to us. (Feel free to pick the least "uncivil" option.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Fertile ground" or just a pile of manure?

In an article titled "House GOP investigator to scrutinize major Obama legislation", Mark Paoletta, a lawyer who helped run investigations for the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the Republicans last were in control prior to the 1996 elections, is quoted as saying, "These will be very fertile grounds to find waste, fraud and abuse. It will be a gold mine that goes to the heart of some of Obama's signature legislative issues." Well, I wish them luck. I suspect that the ground that they will be treading over will not be a fertile as, for example, the issue of the missing billions of U.S. dollars unaccounted for in Iraq. But, nevertheless, it could be fertile enough that the investigators might want to watch where they are stepping.

It's not the mentality, it's the metality

In an article discussing the likelihood that the recent horrors in Tucson will result in any meaningful change in the rancorous political dialogue in the U.S., Roy Peter Clark, a leading journalism expert at the Poynter Institute is quoted as believing that "the shootings represent a broken mental-health system that continues to be largely ignored even while spree killers with serious mental illnesses strike with harrowing regularity".

While I agree that our mental health system is in dire need of reform, Mr. Clark is barking up the wrong tree. America's world class murder rate is not the result of having more mentally ill people than other countries. It is the result of having more very lethal guns. Passing laws that would prevent mentally ill people from getting their hands on semiautomatic weapons and massive ammo clips would cost far more and take decades longer to achieve than for the Supreme Court to admit that the section of the Second Amendment to the Constitution that reads, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." is not there merely as an anachronistic place-holder. How is it that the so-called "strict constructionists", such as Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito seem to turn all squishy when it comes to the right to bear arms?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"When everyone is carrying a firearm...

...nobody is going to be a victim." So says Arizona Republican state Rep. Jack Harper, sponsor of legislation that would allow college faculty members to carry firearms in the classroom. Harper also blamed Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik for the tragedy. "If he would have done his job, maybe this doesn't happen", he reportedly said.

Rep. Harper has a beef with Sheriff Dupnik for having said, in the aftermath of Saturday's mayhem, "We're the Tombstone of the United States of America. I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in the state carry weapons wherever they are. That's almost where we are. That's the ridiculous state to where we have become."

I think it's time that the Old Saw about the solution to mass slaughter at the hands of an armed madman being to arm everyone in the vicinity be laid to rest for good. Imagine that all of those two dozen or so people standing around their congresswoman last Saturday morning had been carrying Glock 19s of their own. Suddenly, one of their number pulls out his firearm and puts a bullet in the head of Congresswoman Giffords and then starts shooting at anybody and everybody in close proximity. A witness to that shooting pulls out his weapon and starts firing back in desperation. Another person draws his or her weapon and wants to shoot but may not at this point be certain at whom to direct the fire. Was it shooter number 1 or number 2? A dozen other citizens have drawn their loaded weapons by this juncture, anxious to be the hero of the day. Some people have dropped to the ground. Have they been shot or are they simply taking a defensive position? Two other people are struggling over an ammunition clip. Which one is trying to reload? Not a pretty picture to contemplate. In fact, it's pure insanity and could only be the solution of someone who values gun ownership over protecting lives.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Great American Gun Divide

Two stories in today's news make, once more, an oft-repeated-but-seldom-heeded case for greater gun control. The first involved a 10-year-old boy in Big Prairie, OH, who shot his mother in the head--fatally--with a .22-caliber rifle after she demanded that he bring some firewood inside to heat their house in bone-chilling cold weather. It turns out the the boy not only had several guns in a rack in his bedroom but ammunition as well. In addition, he was prone to violence, once hitting the principle at his school for children with behavioral problems in the face with a dust pan. His mother should be so lucky. Perhaps she sent him to his room until he settled down, not suspecting that he might emerge, guns blazing. According to the story in the Denver Post, attributed to Meghan Barr of the AP, the boy's mother had protested against having guns in his room but the father, recently estranged from her, had insisted they be allowed to remain. She would have been better off if she had kept him and tossed out the guns.

The second story involved the shootings yesterday at the Safeway market in Tucson, AZ. In this one, another apparently angry and deranged young man--age 22 and presumably more mature--took his Glock 19 semi-automatic and at least four clips holding at total of about 90 rounds as he went shopping for politicians and their groupies. By the time he stopped shooting, six people were dead, including a nine-year-old girl who was born on Sep. 11, 2001, and the Chief Judge of the Federal District Court in Arizona. At least 12 people were hurt, most notably the Democratic Congresswoman from the Arizona 8th Congressional District, which included Tucson. The shooter appears to be another weird loner who confounded and bemused his high school peers, disturbed the administration at Pima Community College who suspended him from enrollment, and the U.S. Army recruiter enough to reject him. Yet, such a troubled man is allowed to access--we don't know yet how--enough firepower to forever change the lives of nearly two dozen people within a few seconds.

In the United States of America, we are becoming inured of a lot of nuttiness lately. Hotheads and quacks can be found from Main Street to Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. Guns are so common in rural America that the neighbor of the dead mother in Ohio was quoted as saying, "Out here, if you don't hear a gunshot in a day's time, then something's wrong".

I'll tell you what's wrong with America. It's initials are NRA. It's the organization that turns its back on cases such as these as the "price we have to pay" for their twisted idea of the meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The only reason to want to own a gun, other than for sport, is fear. Fear of "those others" who lurk across the border, around the block, downtown, in dark alleys, and--worst case--outside their bedroom window. If they feared more their own son "borrowing" their gun out of curiosity and then accidentally killing himself or his friend or sibling; if they feared more that someone might use that hunting rifle to kill his mother or the kid next door out of juvenile rage; if they feared more that their "worthless" or "different" son might use their means of self-defense to blast into oblivion the hopes of dozens of innocent strangers; then--and only then--might we become more deserving of taking our place among the great civilizations of the world.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

GOP Hitting the Poor When They're "Up"

No sooner did the Republican's intention to reduce the size of our government at the expense of schoolchildren, sick people, the elderly, crime victims, travelers, and the poor become apparent than we learn that the Census Bureau has revealed that revised figures for 2009 place the number of poor people in the U.S. at 15.7% or nearly 48 million. The poverty rate for those over age 65 is even higher--16.1%. So, in the richest nation on earth, almost 1 out of every 6 people is mired in deep poverty (in the Western states, it's 1 out of 5). According to the Census Bureau's analysis, had true comprehensive medical care for all been enacted prior to 2009, it would have kept 10 million people out of poverty. (The Bureau estimated that the poverty rate would have been only 12.4% but for out-of-pocket medical expenses.)

And what do those champions of the Common Man, the true-blue, red-blooded American electorate plan to do about poverty? Well, judging by their announced intent to slash $100 billion from six months of government spending without touching defense, the military, veterans, or national security, I would say they, should they get their way, will do their best to "grow" poverty. This will create massive numbers of jobs in the health care, burial, and social worker industries. This is the price we pay for caring more about repealing the "job-killing, death-panel-creating Obamacare" bill than we do about lives shortened by poverty.

If Jesus met a battered Republican on the road to Damascus (or Detroit) would he stop to administer aid?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Parable for Our Times

Once upon a time, there lived in the land of Free Enterprise, a boy named Geoffrey O. Pretentious. Despite having come into the world without so much as shirt on his back, Geoffrey soon became accustomed to having everything he wanted. He would ask his prosperous parents for something and they would comply, asking only that he remember their generosity when he was powerful and famous. One year, they got him a pit bull, which he named Liberty.

Next door to Geoffrey's house was an orphanage. His parents tried to keep the orphanage out of their neighborhood but, due to governmental regulations, they were unsuccessful. Geoffrey's dad used to complain that, because the orphans were willing to cut the Pretentious' lawn for less than the local landscaper, they were depriving deserving Free Enterprisers of jobs.

"See what happens to the job market when government interferes?", Geoffrey's dad used to bellow.

"See that boy there?", he would sometimes say, pointing his thick finger for the benefit of Geoffrey. "He can barely push the lawnmower through our plush grass. They ought to feed him better. And look at his skin. It looks kinda dark to me. I'm going to have one of my employees check into his immigration status."

Geoffrey, naturally wanting to please his daddy and benefactor, tried to come up with a means to discourage the owners of the orphanage from staying in their location next door. At first, he would leave his toys in the orphanage's driveway, so the adults couldn't drive their cars into the garage without moving them. Later, he would let the air out of their tires or shut off the power to the house when they weren't looking. He would collect all of Liberty's poop and save it 'til it was time to mow the grass, then scatter it all over the lawn, so that the brown-skinned boy would step in it. [Note: Geoffrey didn't have to worry about stepping in the poop because he owned a Playstation 4 and seldom stepped outside.]

As Geoffrey "matured", his pranks became more and more demoralizing to his neighbors. If they attempted to conserve heat by replacing the old, drafty windows with new Thermopanes, he would shoot at them with his BB gun, although always from a direction that would not cast suspicion on him. When the orphanage replaced their blacktopped driveway with a new concrete one, Geoffrey sneaked out in the dead of night and wrote in big letters on the still-soft surface, "No amnesty for illegal alien orphans or those who coddle them. Signed, Compassionate Conservative". To do this, Geoffrey used the Big Stick that his daddy used to carry around while Talking Softly.

After several years of this kind of treatment, the orphanage moved to another neighborhood. Geoffrey's parents threw a block Tea Party, at which time they announced that they had bought the lot where the orphanage had stood and were going to tear it down and let the ground go fallow. Next year, they would allow their wealthy neighbors to mow the hay for the feeding of their thoroughbred horses and use the money saved on taxes to turn their lawn into a miniature golf course and tennis emporium.