The United States Senate has always experienced its own bizarre form of corruption. The loyalty of 100 individuals, forced by constitutional circumstance into close quarters over a long period of time, becomes skewed away from constituents. A strange sense of family dominates what is said to be the most exclusive club in the world.
The bonding that results from a shared privilege is part of it. I recall my own student semester decades ago, watching the institution at work. Security was less of a byword in those days. It was not at all uncommon to bump into important people in the halls or even on elevators. Senators had their own reserved elevators, but some would occasionally take the public one, I suppose to show a sort of democratic spirit. That was the exception.
It was impressive to see the sort of efficient isolation at work. Even walking from one location to another, a Senator would be surrounded by a sort of traveling office. Staff members managed a paper flow as documents went into and out of Senatorial hands, augmenting discussions. Senators never opened doors. The traveling office handled that. If something needed signing, no stride was broken. A surface would appear, a pen would be produced, used by the Senator, and re-pocketed by an aide. The isolation was broken by the only regular association Senators experienced, that of each other.
The filibuster was one way the deliberative body stayed deliberate. Civil Rights legislation stayed bottled up as one or two Senators held up business by talking endlessly. The sole purpose was to take up time. The tactic was seldom used, partly because of the harm to the nation of extended stalling, but mostly because of the frailty of the human condition. Over time, Senatorial courtesy became exemplified in an overpowering sympathy for elderly colleagues pushing themselves to stand and talk for hours. A new practice refined the old tradition of filibuster. Now Senators may simply register an intent to talk forever, and the Senate adopts a polite fiction, holding up business as if they are indeed talking.
The loyalty of the tradition bound body extends to avoiding even bringing up matters that might embarrass fellow members. Al Franken introduced legislation supporting a teenage rape victim against the management of a military supplier who tried to prevent her from reporting the rape. Most Republicans backed management against the young woman. They were furious, but not at the rapists or the corporation in question. In their view, the real outrage was that their Senate colleague actually brought the issue to a vote. Senate tradition should have kept Franken from embarrassing them.
Republicans have become less idealistic, wishing aloud that death might overtake colleagues from the other side of the aisle. With the exception of newcomer Franken, the tradition lives mainly with nostalgic Democrats, longing for good old days among the good old boys. With the largest majority in generations, they are fleeced by flinty eyed opponents. Tradition lives.
The Founding Fathers would be appalled to learn that the framework they labored so valiantly to construct had been perverted by the filibuster.
- - Elliot L. Richardson, 2005
Let's say you're a huge investment company that is considering a series of stock purchases that are pretty big and kind of risky. That's classic capitalism in its modern form. People take risks. If they lose, they take a loss. If they win, we cheer their good fortune. We cheer because people play the game honestly, and we cheer because they win while obeying the rules.
But we also cheer because measured risk taking promotes growth. Goods and services are produced because of investment. Warehouses are filled because someone decided that anticipatory production was a worthwhile risk. People who could have faced severe financial hardship are employed because someone took a chance on the future of the American economy.
So, as a huge investment company, you carefully read the key indicators on each purchase. You survey the economy for whatever growth can be reasonably anticipated. You look at the prospects of the portions of the market that applies to each corporation you want to invest in. How realistic is the risk? What is the return if things play out well? You perform due diligence because either you or your clientele will be winning or losing real money on the basis of your judgment. You are willing to make educated guesses, but you won't take blind chances.
Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, but you hope that with vigorous homework, years of experience, and luck, you will win more often than you lose. The faith is that you or your investors will come out ahead in the aggregate. But there are no guarantees.
But if, instead of an investment house, you are a bank, you still risk your own money and that of investors. But you also have access to deposits. There are some restrictions, but not too many.
You'll still perform every aspect of due diligence, of course. You'll look over key indicators. You'll survey the economy. You'll analyze the market. But you now have freedom that goes way beyond that of the typical investment firm. You can take risks you would never have taken with your own funds.
Because if you win, you will have all the rewards that classic capitalism can offer. And if you lose, the money you risked belonged to depositors. As long as their deposits are below regulatory thresholds, they can't lose either. Their deposits are guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Only taxpayers can lose and, of course, they don't count.
It's called proprietary trading. That's when banks can use insured deposits to bankroll their own risky bets.
President Obama has proposed a new regulation limiting the risks banks can take with money belonging to depositors and insured by the government. Republicans are skeptical. They are holding things up in the Senate. After all, Republican theology teaches that regulation is an instrument of Satan.
The details on the reform are sketchy, but the abolishment of proprietary trading would be a major blow to banks' profitability. Goldman derives about 10% of its revenue from trading for its own books.
- - David MacDougall, writing for TheStreet.com, January 25, 2010
Arguing that Banks should be allowed to gamble with FDIC insured
deposits for their own profits
Nuggets of internet gold:
Jack Jodell, friend of the working blogger, has an angry piece at THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON POST about the wordless Republican response to the State of the Union.
Ned, poor Ned. You were doing so well.
- David Everitt-Carlson of The Wild Wild East Dailies in Munich turns out to look a lot like David Bowie. Lucky him. I look like the illegitimate offspring of Kojak and Uncle Fester's sister. Beware automatic music on your PC speakers.
Have a safe weekend. Pray for those who suffer. Be careful out there.
This political ad is actually being run in New Orleans by a convicted tax felon now running for coroner.
Basis: The Coroner's office was once allowed by law to permit hospitals to claim bodies for organ donation in cases in which no next of kin was found. The coroner's office was not paid for this. The law was changed years ago.
Power corrupts, begins the old saying. But an alternate temptation, I think, is associated with ideology. The quest for victory carries its own siren call. Over the years, I slowly developed a grudging empathy with the Watergate criminals. I completely agree with the condemnation by such luminaries as the late Stewart Alsop, who contrasted that Republican dirty tricks campaign with the OSS, and declared it to be outside the realm of politics. "They were making war, special kind of war," he wrote. "The kind of war they were making has been made between nations for a long time now, but it has not before been made within a nation, certainly not within this nation."
The special form of warfare waged by OSS against Adolf Hitler was morally justified by the moral necessity to destroy Nazism...(but in) the internal American political process...Any person proven to have used these techniques should not only be punished by the law; he should be banned forever from participation in American politics.
Yet I could see how an ambitious, committed individual could be tempted. More than that, I could see myself drawn in, if the circumstances were right. My thoughts were reinforced in the final months of the Reagan Presidency, as Oliver North testified, defending his own criminality. Add a North type charisma to the mix, and I would have been doomed. Following that fellow to the dark side of the moral universe would have been hard to resist.
So it is hard for me to work up the passion to equal that of others at the arrest of James O'Keefe, who until Monday was a folk hero to conservatives. O'Keefe was the undercover dirty trickster who, hidden camera in hand, tried to convince employees of ACORN that he needed money to expand a prostitution ring. One employee ordered him out. But he would not give up. Another listened, then, after he left, called the police. Eventually, O'Keefe put together enough material to make it look, with some creative editing, as if ACORN was encouraging pimps to apply for federal funding. Conservatives were thrilled. An organization that not only helps poor people, but encourages them to vote, was discredited.
O'Keefe, a young and impressionable man, was apparently so intoxicated by his newly adoring fans, he needed more. He has been arrested and charged with federal criminality for, depending on the source, attempting to wiretap or sabotage the phones in the offices of a United States Senator. Fox News, which gave hours of coverage to the ACORN video, now seems to have forgotten their initial fascination with O'Keefe. They have accumulated 4 minutes and a few seconds so far.
We are human. We are sinners. Many of us can rejoice at having escaped the soul robbing temptations sponsored by the darkest forces of American political life.
... Watergate has been an attempt to alter the very nature of the ancient American political system. Politicians have played tricks on each other since politics was invented. But this is not politics, this is war.
- - Stewart Alsop, conservative Republican columnist, September 1973
Don't Ask Don't Tell seemed like a good compromise at the time. It is an idea whose time never was. President Obama is right to want its demise. Opposition to gays has been emotional, often hate filled, and almost always irrational. It is difficult to reason with those whose position is not based on logic, evidence, or common sense, but rather on cultural disapproval.
The court debate over the California anti-gay-marriage initiative has not been a showcase of constitutional reasoning. Instead, myth and superstition have been introduced as if factual. Opponents have unwittingly revealed themselves to be ignorant of even the most basic factual truths.
Recently Richard Socarides, a one time adviser to President Clinton on gay issues, wrote about evolving attitudes toward gays. “People understand that our military needs every talented American it can get, and that excluding gays from the military detracts from our ability to win wars.”
Most people also understand that we are long past the point where our military personnel need to be reminded about appropriate behavior on duty, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Men and women serve side by side today in combat, as do gay and straight service members, without incident.
Comparison of the plight of gay people with that of other historically oppressed groups sometimes draws ire. Occasionally, a commentator will object to the comparison of people who were enslaved several generations back with a sexual life style. The obvious answer is that human rights should not require winning the oppression Olympics. What is identical is not the degree of suffering, but rather the quality of the arguments of bigots.
But the most prominent argument against Mr. Socarides comparison takes a different turn. Conservative activist Elaine Donnelly first dismissed Socarides opinion on this basis: "Well, Richard Socarides, the author who is open and professed as a gay person, seems to think that the LGBT faction rules the world." She then attacked the idea of women in the military. They were the cause of the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, along the same lines that Eve was responsible for Adam's eating the forbidden fruit. "It started out as misconduct between men and women and then it steadily deteriorated into abuse of prisoners," she said. "...Once you break down discipline, good order and discipline and morale, everything that’s required for unit cohesion, you undermine the culture and the strength of the armed forces. This man obviously doesn’t get that." So much for women in the military.
The interviewer, Frank Gaffney, did not let Ms. Donnelly's argument go without comment. "Which they perceive, Elaine Donnelly, if I’m not mistaken as a vehicle for, sort of a backdoor way, imposing it on the rest of society." Hard hitting, that Gaffney! Such is the quality of opposition to gay equality.
One should no more deplore homosexuality than left-handedness.
- - London Yearly Meeting. Home Service Committee, 1963
Towards a Quaker view of sex : an essay by a group of Friends
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about being trapped in a flash flood with an elderly friend as I drove her to church. The car was lost, and we were rescued by workers at a nearby gas station. "My friend complained bitterly at the damage to her expensive shoes and the loss of her umbrella," I wrote. "Folks in pain do not want to hear that it could have been worse. Desperate people are outraged by even the best excuses."
My friend was obsessed by trivial concerns, only dimly aware of the fate we had been spared. I had not intended to trivialize the panic experienced by folks who lose their jobs, or the hardship that awaits many. But a fair minded reader could easily have read that implication into my comparison.
A few months ago, I defended Representative Nathan Deal (R-GA) after he made an unfortunate reference to "ghetto grandmothers." The context was the key. He was proposing that proof be required of citizenship for medical care. It reflected a harshness toward immigrants. But he was expressing concern for the elderly poor who might lack such documentation. There was no intentional offense. My vote was to give him a pass.
A Republican Congressional representative a while back told a cheering crowd that the country needed a new Great White Hope to defeat President Obama. A spokesperson later said she had not been thinking of race, but rather about the bright luminaries within the GOP. She had no history of race baiting. So I suggested we take her at her word.
Some episodes do grate. Every few weeks some major figure in the GOP makes headlines with a racial slur, or a broadly racist joke. The First Lady has been compared with a gorilla, the President has been portrayed as a half clothed witchdoctor, and the Obama children have been targets.
Andre Bauer, the Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, came under some criticism recently. He compared poor people to stray animals. "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals," he recalled fondly. "You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."
Time constraints, impulse, or (in my case) limitations of space, can cause us to abbreviate our thoughts, with unintended verbal consequence. People get offended, and rightly so. That is why heartfelt apologies should be accepted at face value whenever they are reasonably plausible.
Lieutenant Governor Bauer has also apologized. "I never intended to tie people to animals," he says. He talks fondly of taking in a stray cat, feeding it, loving it. He points out that he has raised money to protect animals. He is "not against animals," he says. As with others, we can take his regret as genuine. He does seem sorry at having offended any four legged creatures.
"Hunger can be a positive motivator. What is wrong with the idea of getting a job so you can get better meals?"
- - State Representative Cynthia Davis (R-MO), June 4, 2009
On why school children in poverty will do better if they are not fed
The most pernicious practice of insurance companies, the greatest single source of abuse, is the practice of denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Stories abound of absurd applications of the policy.
The entire concept of denial of coverage because of some previous illness seems so outrageously unfair that elimination of the practice is more widely popular than any other aspect of health care reform. Over 70% support banning denial of coverage over pre-existing conditions. Why should anyone be penalized because they were ill sometime in the past?
Suppose that you are an insurance executive who really wants to be fair. So you eliminate pre-existing conditions as a consideration of coverage. The obvious consequence is that nobody buys coverage with your company unless they get sick. There is no point to paying premiums until you are really ill since health coverage is easy to get when you are sick. This is called adverse selection, and insurance companies generally avoid it, since it would mean going bankrupt pretty quickly.
As an executive, you could raise rates to compensate, but that would absolutely guarantee the people who are not seriously ill would go to cheaper companies, the ones who deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
Okay, you want to be fair. You are willing to provide coverage to anyone willing to pay a fair price for it if you can keep from losing your shirt doing it. So you call your congressional representative. That person is agreeable. We'll require all insurance companies to give the same deal. No denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
Except that puts every company in the same boat. Why buy coverage before you need it, if coverage is guaranteed? Every insurance company would go out of business and nobody would have coverage. So you make a counter-proposal. You'll accept everyone who wants coverage if every insurance company is required to do the same, AND every person, sick or not, is required to buy insurance. There! No more adverse selection.
But not everyone can afford to be covered. So Congress would have to help people who can't afford coverage with some sort of alternative. Maybe some government help or maybe a public option.
And that's how you get the Obama proposal. And that's how, unless reform is passed, you get insurance companies acting like heartless jerks. They have no choice.
Don't hate the players.
Hate the game.
Then change the rules.
What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes.
- - Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), August 31, 2009
On defeating Health Care Reform
By way of conservative blogger Ned Williams, we have a recommendation by Thomas Sowell on how Republicans can start getting significantly greater support from black voters. Sowell is often quoted to me by conservative friends in a some-of-my-best-friends sort of way, since he is black. Alan Keyes used to be the example of choice, but Sowell is thought to have more credibility by virtue of not being widely considered as insane. The one redeeming characteristic I find in Sowell's writings is that he is not afraid to refer to the "Democratic party" or the "Democratic agenda" or even "Democratic candidates." Such is the current state of my search for good things to say about Republicans. My apologies.
Ned has no discernible racial prejudices, his public bigotry being confined to his reaction to gay people. He presents Sowell's thoughts in his usual straightforward manner. Sowell believes that conservatives should revive a proposal they have kept in hibernation for the last several years. If black voters were presented with school voucher proposals, Republicans would still not get a majority of black voters, but might get a large enough share to create major problems for the Democratic party.
Over time, conservatives have accumulated a considerable body of evidence that kids in private or semi-private schools, like charter schools, end up with better academic records. Ignored is the fact that cherry picking has an effect. Schools that are allowed to accept, reject, or expel students at will are likely to bounce children with learning problems.
Liberals reject vouchers as a back door to using taxpayer funds for religious education. I like the idea of religiously based education. The church I attend runs tutoring programs, one specifically targeting disadvantaged students. They are staffed by volunteers. I would think it bizarre if government took them over or funded them.
Sowell's, and presumably Ned's, political argument has three main flaws.
Enthusiasm by black voters might not be as great as hoped. Vouchers first obtained significant support as a reaction to integrated schools. Whites-only "academies" wanted government funding. So history, properly presented, might dampen black support for an idea that is historically racist.
Republicans won't back it. White support drops off significantly, particularly conservative white support, for voucher programs that significantly affect black students. Lack of white support is a major factor in the dropping of the issue as a significant thrust by the GOP.
Even if Republicans back it and black people become enthusiastic, it won't result in black support for a political party whose officials regard disadvantaged folks as akin to stray animals. "They don't know any better," says South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor. Odd as it may seem, voters of any color or economic status demand respect.