Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bailout Vote Followed The Money

Lost amidst all of the post-game punditry and Monday-morning quarterbacking following yesterday's vote in the House of Representatives on the financial bailout plan was any mention of the fact that House members from both parties who voted for the bailout have received a lot more money from the finance, insurance and real estate industries than those who voted against it.

So, was yesterday's rejection of the rescue plan evidence that House members heard loud and clear from rank-and-file voters that any bailout should be a good deal for average working folks and not just a sweet deal for Wall Street? Or was it just a fundraising ploy, a pointed message to the industries at the center of the financial collapse that they had better be a little more – OK, a lot more – generous to those House members who got less help with their elections in the past?

Much remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. It's hard to imagine yesterday's vote being the final word on the bailout. The high rollers at the heart of this mess have pumped $340 million into federal campaigns for the 2008 election alone and $2 billion since 1990. The big question is not whether they will get something approximating the $700 billion return on their "investment" that they are begging for, but rather what if any strings will be attached.

It's all about the strings now, if you ask me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

One Or The Other

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1916 to 1939

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Who Owns Whom In The Ownership Society

What's happening on Wall Street and what's about to happen to all of us taxpayers is more than the latest dramatic failure of our government to carry out its proper responsibilities. The extent of the negligence dwarfs even the before and after of Hurricane Katrina, which is really saying something. But this is more than another case of people in high places sleeping at the switch.

The turmoil in U.S. financial markets is more than an indictment of the criminal theology of deregulation and more deregulation. Yes, we have the economic anarchists to thank for all the collapsing financial institutions and the growing panic in the stock market. Who is more to blame, the majority in our society who bought unbridled greed as a governing philosophy, or those who made the sale? Does it really matter? There's been plenty of stupidity to go around.

And the reservoir is far from dry. The very people who peddled the snake oil now want a government bailout. The no-government-is-good-government crowd is allergic to paying taxes, but expects the taxpayer to rush to the rescue when things fall apart. Privatized profits and socialized losses. Sweet deal. What blows the mind is how quickly and easily such deals are consummated in Washington.

It is here the root of the crisis is found. What we have is not just an excess of greed or a lack of oversight. We have an absence of democracy.

The reason Wall Street was never reined in and now will be bailed out is that the officials who decide things in Washington are owned by those they are supposed to regulate. Need persuading? Follow the money.

The finance, insurance and real estate industries that are at the heart of the scandal have given nearly $340 million in campaign contributions at the national level in the 2008 election cycle alone. Half of it to Democrats and half to Republicans.

Washington insiders are fond of saying insurance giant AIG is "too big to fail" when justifying the company's bailout. Actually, its campaign donations are too large to ignore.

Look at the list of top all-time donors to federal campaigns. Weighing in at number four is none other than Goldman Sachs, one of Wall Street's most prestigious investment banks. Look at the so-called "bundlers" who raise the really big money for both presidential campaigns. The lists for both major party candidates are littered with investment bankers and bigwigs from the insurance and real estate industries.

And don't forget Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They've got millions invested in Washington's elite.

So this is what is meant when we're told they're building an "ownership society."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Our Very Own Katherine Harris

J.B. Van Hollen seems intent on becoming Katherine Harris. Unlike Harris's Florida, Wisconsin does not allow partisan officials to run our elections. We entrust that task to a politically independent agency under the direction of a nonpartisan board of retired judges.

That arrangement is obviously not to the liking of Van Hollen, who is the highest ranking elected Republican in the state and co-chairman of John McCain's presidential campaign in Wisconsin. He is suing the agency and the former judges who head it in an effort to get people kicked off the voter rolls. He insists it's necessary to protect us against voter fraud. He is undeterred by the fact that voter fraud is more rare than a financially stable investment bank. He is even less sensitive to the considerable collateral damage his crusade will do.

In his apparent zeal to emulate Katherine the Great, Van Hollen hardly waited for the ink on his lawsuit to dry before announcing that he is forming an "election fraud task force." It's hard to believe many voters will put much trust in a task force headed by someone so heavily invested in making sure John McCain is the next president.

Maybe Van Hollen doesn't care about that. Or maybe he's green with envy that Katherine Harris's deeds were the stuff of a made-for-HBO movie.

Who would play J.B. Van Hollen? I nominate Will Farrell.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Van Hollen's Lawsuit: A Pander Or A Hoax?

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's decision to pick nits in the name of upholding the Orwellian-named federal Help America Vote Act and sue the Government Accountability Board over the way the agency is implementing the state's new computerized voter registration system has been roundly and rightly panned by the media. But it was Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy who got to the root of the matter.

Murphy assumes Van Hollen is smart enough to know the lawsuit has no sound legal basis and is going nowhere. He concludes Van Hollen must have filed it just to shore up his political base.

That's certainly a plausible if not overly charitable theory. If Murphy's wrong and the lawsuit is not just political pandering, then it is a solution in search of a problem. If Van Hollen honestly believes his action has legal merit, then he is tipping his and his party's hand on what their favorite bugaboo – voter fraud – really amounts to.

Discrepancies between databases. Clerical and typographical errors. Missing middle initials. Oh. My. God.

Whether the attorney general's lawsuit was inspired by political vanity or some darker motive surely will be the subject of speculation for some time to come. But because of the inherent silliness of the action, Van Hollen has unwittingly made people like Anna Larson the face of the supposed problem of voter fraud. The white-haired Larson is 82 years old and can't remember failing to vote in an election.

You see, the computers say Anna Larson is registered to vote in both Madison and Waukesha. An act of voter fraud waiting to happen. The new system flagged Larson and she was knocked off the rolls.

It turns out another woman with the exact same name and same birth date, a rare coincidence to be sure, had just registered in Waukesha. The voter database that is the offspring of the Help America Vote Act merges registrants with the same name and birth date, and the person who stays on the rolls is the person who last registered. It wasn't much of a help to Anna Larson.

In the exceedingly unlikely event that Van Hollen's lawsuit is successful, two things will surely happen. It will become even more apparent that the problem of voter fraud is itself a fraud. And to learn what we already knew, there will have to be many more victims like Anna Larson.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Money For Nothing

Mike Ivey wrote an excellent piece this week about how Wisconsin is handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in business subsidies every year without bothering to check if they pay off. A 2005 Democracy Campaign review of over 5,100 state Commerce Department grants and subsidized loans found the same problem.

We found no evidence of site visits or audits by the state to determine if the state assistance was being used as promised or that the recipients had created or retained the number of jobs promised in their agreements. In four cases, recipients did not even file the required self-evaluations to show the progress of their projects. Five projects Commerce signed off on violated the department's own program guidelines requiring the assistance to be targeted to economically distressed areas, or where unemployment and poverty rates were higher than the statewide average.

To make matters even worse, the public is kept in the dark about the state's dealings with private business. Ivey cites a 2007 evaluation of state disclosure of business subsidies, procurement contracts and lobbying activities by the national watchdog group Good Jobs First. The group gave Wisconsin an "F" for disclosure of economic development subsidies and a "C+" for disclosure of state procurement contracts that businesses receive.

There was another dimension to our 2005 report that was not touched on in either Ivey's article or the Good Jobs First evaluation. We found that those who made campaign contributions received eight times more state assistance in the form of grants, subsidized loans and tax breaks than non-contributors. This finding mirrored what a University of Michigan researcher found in a January 2003 review of major state construction and road building contracts. The value of contracts awarded during the 1990s to contractors who contributed to then-Governor Tommy Thompson's campaign averaged $20 million while the average value of contracts awarded to non-contributors was $870,000.