Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Enemy Within

With the shape our country is in, I can't help but think we've been pretty lousy stewards of the rich inheritance we were given by those who came before us. What we are fixing to pass on to my 9-year-old son's generation is not the America I want him to inherit. It is damaged goods.

We all should have known better. It's been 30 years, but I still remember sitting in economics classes in college and on more than one occasion listening to professors say with a straight face that America's economy was depression-proof because of monetary and fiscal policy tools and regulatory protections that didn't exist when the country descended into the Great Depression.

Seemed to make sense at the time. But now their instruction seems flimsier with each passing day.

Those professors failed to account for the possibility that bought-and-paid-for politicians might one day tear down the post-Depression-era walls between banking, investment and insurance companies. And they seriously erred in placing such faith in the infallibility of the Fed and the public-spiritedness of the Congress and White House.

College professors aren't the only ones who should have known better. That goes for all of us.

We should have gotten to know Charles Ponzi better so we could recognize him when he came our way again. We didn't. He did return, this time by the name of Bernard Madoff. Despite 10 years' worth of warnings, Ponzi wasn't noticed until after Madoff made off with tens of billions of dollars of our money.

Hollywood warned us 20-some years ago with Gordon Gekko. Real life warned us with the likes of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. The warnings went unheeded.

We should have learned the lessons of Vietnam. Instead we idly watched most all the same mistakes repeated in Iraq. And then some.

Even the best and brightest among us – from college professors and high-ranking public officials to captains of industry and the media intelligentsia – are living proof of what a comic strip told us about ourselves over 35 years ago.

Extremely difficult days lie ahead. Yes, to a sometimes substantial degree we are victims of forces beyond our control. But we also are largely to blame for our fate.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Will Doyle Give The Money Back Now?

Embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's top campaign fundraiser, adviser and close friend Christopher Kelly made a $10,000 donation to Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle back in June 2006. It was well known at the time that Kelly was under federal investigation. Still, Doyle accepted the contribution. Even after Kelly was indicted last December on tax fraud charges, Doyle kept the money. When it was reported in February that Kelly received a loan from an Iraqi billionaire who had been convicted of fraud in France, Doyle still held on tight to Kelly's donation.

It was reported yesterday that a court filing shows Kelly is set to plead guilty in his federal corruption case.

Now that Kelly will be convicted of a federal crime, will Governor Doyle finally part company with this tainted cash?

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Real Scandal

Wisconsin has been frequently visited by political scandal in recent years, and that's one good reason to take the advice the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gave the other day and not get too smug about what's happening in Illinois.

Besides, the political crime ring that brought federal prosecutors to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's doorstep has tentacles that reach into Wisconsin. Nick Hurtgen, a former top aide to Tommy Thompson, is a central figure in the Illinois drama. He was indicted for his alleged role in a kickback scheme, then a judge dropped him from the case before he was reindicted late last year. Hurtgen has remained active in Wisconsin, making sizable donations to Mark Green's failed bid to become governor and maintaining close ties to another Republican known to covet the governor's office, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. But Hurtgen played both sides in Wisconsin, having helped organize a 2002 fundraiser in Chicago for Jim Doyle.

A check of the Democracy Campaign's database of campaign donors shows that another lead actor in the Illinois corruption scandal and indicted Friend of Rod, Blagojevich's close adviser and top fundraiser Christopher Kelly, gave Doyle $10,000 in June 2006. It was public knowledge that Kelly was under federal investigation at the time he made the donation. Even after he was indicted, Doyle kept the money. For more on Kelly, go here, here and here.

Such links alone ought to be enough to keep in check any superiority complex Wisconsin might have. But the biggest reason we cannot afford to be smug is that the real scandal is so much more vast than what the U.S. Attorney's office has on Rod Blagojevich.

The real scandal is what's perfectly legal in our political system.

It was perfectly legal for the investment bankers and insurance execs and real estate tycoons to spend over $430 million buying federal office holders in the 2008 election cycle alone. These interests have spent well over $2 billion to sew up Washington since 1990. What they bought was lax oversight and the freedom to roll the dice with other people's life savings. And a bailout when it all went sour. Even as tanking companies like AIG and Freddie Mac and Ford Motor Company were fixing to ask the feds to rescue them from themselves, they were showering money on both major parties to pick up the tab for the national conventions.

The same thing is perfectly legal at the state level in Wisconsin, albeit on a proportionately smaller scale.

That's why we cannot afford to be complacent. And why we cannot allow reform to be a scandal-driven undertaking.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A No-Tax Pledge That Costs Too Much

Politicians are fond of saying that taxpayers don't want their money used to pay for political campaigns. Actually, they do.

A national bipartisan poll done by two top D.C.-area political polling firms – one that caters almost exclusively to Republicans and corporate interests and the other that works primarily for Democrats, labor unions and progressive advocacy groups – shows strong public support for publicly financed elections. Support for taxpayer-funded elections is high in every region of the country, and actually is slightly higher in the conservative South than it is in the more liberal Northeast and Midwest. Support cuts across gender and age lines, not to mention political party affiliation. More than two-thirds of Democrats back public financing, but an even higher percentage of Republicans do too.

Over two-thirds of voters (69%) believe we need changes to the way elections are financed, and the polling provides a strong clue as to why. An overwhelming majority of voters make the connection between large campaign donations and the lack of progress in dealing with the nation's most pressing problems. A supermajority (77%) of those surveyed agreed with the statement “I am worried that large political contributions will prevent Congress from tackling the important issues facing America today, like the economic crisis, rising energy costs, reforming health care, and global warming.”

And a large majority see big campaign contributions as a major cause of the economic meltdown. Over two-thirds (70%) of voters agree with the statement “Large campaign contributions from the banking industry to members of Congress have resulted in lax oversight and have been a major factor in causing the current financial crisis on Wall Street.”

In the weeks and months to come, we'll undoubtedly hear politicians of just about every stripe claim that we can't afford public financing of election campaigns in these tough economic times. The people these politicians are supposed to be representing have a distinctly different view, as this latest poll shows. From coast to coast, from young to old, from left to right, Americans have reached the conclusion that we cannot afford the way political campaigns are financed today. The cost to our country is far too high.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Gladstonewalling Justice

Former state Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen was originally charged with felony misconduct in public office on October 18, 2002. More than six years now have passed – 2,234 days to be exact – and Jensen's legal fate still has not been decided.

Jensen went on trial once already and was convicted. That was back in March 2006. He appealed his conviction and was granted a new trial on a legal technicality. That was in November 2007. A date for the new trial still has not been set.

One-time British prime minister William Gladstone died in 1898, but nevertheless knew all you need to know about the Jensen case.