Friday, March 20, 2009

Congressional Kabuki and the Constitution

Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley's call for AGI bonus recipients to, " . . .follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things — resign, or go commit suicide" was so over the top and insane that it reminded me of a Japanese Kabuki Theater plot.

Kabuki is classical ancient Japanese folk theater performed broadly and loudly for the general public. I became familiar with it when I lived in Tokyo years ago. Kabuki on the Potomac this week fit Kabuki's theatrical definition with lawmakers wailing loudly, uttering angry threats, and rhythmically pounding podiums in a performance of mangled metaphors and fantasy.

Though none of our elected officials actually got made up in classical white face, their outraged and out sized exaggerations, both facial and verbal would have qualified them for a Kabuki casting call in Tokyo. But they were playing to Americans . . . American voters. Let's review this week's performances.

A Treasury Department decision to not risk lawsuits and to allow payment of last year's Bush-approved retention contract bonuses by failing insurance giant AIG, set off a firestorm of anger and self-righteous rhetoric. The specter of AIG employees receiving bonuses while AIG is propped up by billions in taxpayer money opened the floodgates of rhetorical rage.

It also inadvertently created a bizarre moment of bipartisan participation on both sides of the aisle as the House reacted to steamed emails from their districts. It was time to affix blame. Names and faces were needed as a focus for threats and epithets

The populist Kabuki's first act centered upon Edward Liddy, who has been untangling AIG's myriad problems as a government appointed CEO of AIG. Liddy, former CEO of Allstate Insurance, who is working for a dollar a year, became a carnival punching bag as he testified before the House Capital Markets, Insurance and Government Sponsored Enterprises subcommittee last Wednesday.

Liddy quickly defused rumors and misinformation about the "bonuses" making it clear that after earlier executive housecleaning of AIG's top management, no performance bonuses were being paid at all to anyone. But, clearly going over the heads of many sub-intelligent members of the subcommittee, was his explanation of "retention bonuses" and how they worked.

The retention bonuses were contractual arrangements made with market specialists to defuse toxic financial bombs in AIG's failed 'Financial Products' division. "Wind down," it the term used. But while being neutralized to get them off AIG books, the potentially explosive complex credit default swap securities were still being actively traded. De-fusing the complicated potential bombs requires experts intimately familiar with how they worked. Mishandled or ignored, the securities could blow up and cause further potentially ruinous damage to AIG if not carefully and slowly sold off and neutralized. Picture McGuyver locating the red wire on the bomb's timer.

Firing the AIG FP division specialists and not paying them for the work they were legally contracted to do could invite disaster for AIG. Folks seemed to think managers were being paid huge bonuses to keep them as employees. In fact, it seems the promise of a bonus after they completed specific difficult contracted tasks was what "retained" them to complete the complex and difficult work . . . then they were free to go.

Highway contractors routinely contract to get a new bridge built as quickly as possible, and they accept promises of so many millions as a bonus if it is finished on time and even more if it is finished ahead of time. After the evil lords of AIG's Financial Products Division were fired and sent packing with no bonuses, AIG's remaining Financial Products specialists stayed on, working long hours to get the toxic trades off the books, and had money coming when they got the bad stuff off the books for good. That was the deal. This is essential for AIG to quickly return profitability and pay back the federal money propping it up. But no one wanted to hear all this. Folks back home wanted a pound of flesh, not clear reason. It was time to be mad and indignant!

The red faced representatives heard only the word BONUS in Liddy's explanation. And each used up his or her five minutes for the folks back home who were watching on TV to let the rude, accusing rhetoric fly at Mr. Liddy.

Subcommittee member, Judy Biggert, R-IL, was typical of the befuddled, yet angry, representatives to have a go at Mr. Liddy. Biggert, represents Illinois 13th district, and since her election in 1999, she has sponsored 92 bills of which 81 haven't made it out of committee and 2 were successfully enacted. She looked disheveled and confused, and after Mr. Liddy's complete explanation of the bonus situation he inherited, she, nonetheless, read from her rambling prepared remarks anyway. The general, simplistic image of bonuses and rich executives slurping umbrella drinks on their private jets was just too big a target.

"Give me three good reasons why the taxpayers should be paying, umm, . . . all those bonuses, with, you know, that taxpayer money . . . .?" Had she been listening, and not simply waiting to grandstand with her pre-prepared anger, she could have answered all three of her own questions from Mr. Liddy's explanation. Biggert's own net worth in 2007 was estimated at just under $7 million from her financial disclosure statements, so she should be able to explain what rich folks do to her unemployed constituents back home.

Democratic Congressman, Barney Frank, came on stage as an early plot changer, and in sputtering rage demanded the names of all those getting bonuses. A Kabuki Western where the sheriff sends out a posse for a possible mass trial of those pre-judged as guilty. And if Black Hat Liddy didn't cough them up, Frantic Frank would issue subpoenas! Never mind New York Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo had already made such a request.

Mr. Liddy exhibited impressive control and just let the madness about him rage while responding quickly and politely in the face of rude and shameless behaviour by his inquisitors. When Barney ended his threats and demand for names and addresses, Liddy read him a typical email from those being whipped up by misinformation and fear over the failing economy. The threatening email called for AIG employees to be garroted by piano wire. Liddy suggested that Mr. Frank might want to reconsider his demand simply based upon personal security reasons for his fellow Americans.

Just like in Kabuki theatre, those in the audience came and went. There was an intermission, during which MSNBC afternoon news reader, Nora O'Donnell, perhaps better known for co-hosting the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade than her on air news work, warmed up. "Liddy is really getting bombarded," she snarled, and then shoving aside any journalistic credentials she may possess, she joined in the outrage demanding, "Why?" "When?" "Who?" instead of applying the journalistic challenge of finding answers to those basic questions herself as the reporter she is supposed to be.

As the weekend approaches, all this theater and angst has but one central schwerpunkt. The House frantically cobbled together a bill to "get back our taxpayer money." They voted 328-93 to impose a 90% tax on any bonuses paid by AIG. This populist mob, responding to impulse and mass hysteria, mostly caused within their own ranks, are supposed to be lawmakers. Legislators.

Over the weekend, hopefully both our esteemed Congressmen and Senators will drop by for a thoughtful look over the Constitution of the United States of America. Wiser heads, going back to the days of English King, James II, have stepped in to restore law and prevent mob rule such as has been proposed in this week's Kabuki theater at the Nation's Capitol.

They can even simply drop by WikipediA and type in "Bill of attainder." Their bill instituting a 90% tax on AIG bonuses should never even be considered in the Senate. You can't pass a law like they have just passed in the House. And you cannot ratify it in the Senate. The proposed law is against the law. Ex post facto.

Here it is plain and simple:

"A bill of attainder (also known as an act or writ of attainder) is an act of legislature declaring a person or group of persons guilty of some crime and punishing them without benefit of a trial.

Bills of attainder are forbidden by Article I, section 9, clause 3 of the United States Constitution."

Period. Curtain closed.

Next act: Less hysterical and more responsible legislators go the the real root of the problem and reinstate governmental financial regulatory oversight removed by Regan, which has allowed AIG, and dozens of other big players to run rampant during the recent Bush administration. Madly chasing horses already out of the barn will do nothing at all to fix the terribly broken world of high finance and banking.

graphic by Larry Ray

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Hammering of "Jabber the Nut"

Rush Limbaugh, during his brief and disastrous run as a TV talk show host in 1990, was hammered by his audience on one show to a point that he was forced to halt taping. Less than a minute after he started, his audience became so outraged at his mean spirited attacks on women that he literally couldn't get a word in edgewise. Audience members repeatedly got in his face, refusing to be be intimidated by his bluster. Taping was stopped after the shouting, jeering audience ultimately reduced Rush to a red-faced mumbling wimp. Show producers finally were forced to clear the studio in order for Rush to be able to finish the segment.

With Rush challenging President Obama to debate him, the video clip below of a much younger Rush Limbaugh, shows how he actually holds up when he is not totally alone, unopposed, shouting into a microphone in his radio studio.

After the corpulent, "Jabber the Nut" shook like a ton of jelly speaking before the Conservative Political Action Committee a couple of weeks ago, it is delightful to see him hooted off his own stage before a real audience.

From the video archives, the "Hammering of Jabber the Nut" is presented below for your viewing pleasure . . . he makes it almost exactly one minute before the attack begins.

Graphic by Larry Ray with apologies to Jabba and friends

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sen. Jim Bunning: A Shameful Show

New Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner was subjected to an unconscionably mean, sarcastic and possibly pathological verbal lashing by Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning in a televised senate hearing today.

Secretary Geithner was questioned by members of the Senate Budget Committee with Republican Senators particularly putting on quite a show, peppering Geithner with rhetorical verbal lashings that served not so much to educe useful answers as to vent frustrations and to grandstand for the voters back home.

Televised hearings, instead of being orderly proceedings seeking to find solid solutions, are unfortunately being used as free political advertising by disorderly and disgraceful public officials like Senator Jim Bunning.

Secretary Geithner has barely had time to move into his office. Yet he has spent more time appearing before hearings than he has using his expertise and experience to craft details of his bailout budget plan. Today's petty viciousness did not serve America in any way. Instead of budget committee members asking rational questions and attempting to help craft a plan with positive ideas and input, the hearing was more like something from the Spanish Inquisition.

Secretary Geithner showed his mettle and maturity as he weathered the rude rantings and abrupt cavalier treatment, the worst of which came from aging Republican Senator Jim Bunning. In case the name doesn't roll off your tongue immediately, Bunning is the snappish buffoon who has a history of ugly, mindless and mean spirited comments for which he has repeatedly been forced to apologize. He made Time magazine's list of the worst senators, and refused to return to Kentucky to debate his opponent, instead doing it from Washington, where it was later learned he had used a teleprompter for the debate.

His most recent gaffe was made at a Hardin County (Ky.) Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner. In a headline grabbing comment about approaching vacancies on the Supreme Court he predicted that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead by year's end.

Justice Ginsburg returned to work just two weeks after her surgery for pancreatic cancer. Bunning issued an apology, but his press release reportedly misspelled Justice Ginsburg's name.

While many senators were terse and faulted Geithner for not having a detailed bailout plan in hand, Senator Bunning was coarse, mean spirited and imperious. After asking Geithner, "Where is your plan to rescue the United States system? We've been waiting for that." he would not allow Geithner to even respond, shouting over him with more ranting questions.

Bunning's tirade was what one might expect to see from an an enraged worker who has lost his job, all his savings and his home having a rude rant at George Bush. Yet here is a disgraced Republican Senator whipping up on a member of President Obama's cabinet.

Fearful of losing his seat as junior senator from Kentucky, Bunning, just a few weeks ago threatened to sue the National Republican Senatorial Committee if it tries to recruit a GOP candidate to challenge him. He went on wildly, claiming Kentucky Senate President David Williams "owes him $30,000" and questioned the honesty of NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas.

To his credit, Secty. Geithner kept his cool, and strongly defended his budget plan and even after being rudely interrupted by Bunning who waived a memo and hissed, "Where is the bottom line to the taxpayer dollar-wise?" Geithner defended the $160 billion AIG bailout, offering measured, rational reasoning.

Sadly, his fellow senators allowed Bunning to berate and verbally lash the Treasury Secretary like he was an unprepared schoolboy. Finally, following the firestorm, Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. attempted a half-hearted try at extending an olive branch, saying to Geithner, "Thank you for taking the job, I know it is tough." It was too little too late. But Geithner remained poised, restrained and certainly much more professional than the gathered Senators.

Bunning is clearly old, cranky and may be exhibiting early senile dementia. He also may still be living in some reverie from his days as a major league baseball pitcher dating back to the 1950's. But even back then the only good thing many baseball fans remember Jim Bunning ever did was blowing the 1964 pennant for the Phillies, so the Cardinals could come from 6 games back and win. But finding a way to halt America's worsening economy is no game, and Senator Bunning's time at bat today showed him swinging wildly and striking out.

Like the old horses from his state of Kentucky, he needs to be put out to pasture. It is no secret that many of his colleagues would like that.

graphic by Larry Ray with apologies to the horse

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Porno and Politics : Mapping America

"Three of the five red Republican states top the list of states with the highest number of people who subscribe to online pornography sites."

Political party advantage shifted strongly toward the Democratic party in a large-sample Gallup poll released at the end of January, 2009. Gallup pollsters tell us, "One would have to go back to 1983, when Democrats held a decisive 19-point advantage in party identification (43% to 24%), to find a significantly better showing for the Democratic Party in any Gallup polling."

The map above tells an interesting story. Solidly Democratic states are in light blue, dark blue indicates states leaning Democratic, the neutral gray states are considered "competitive," the dark red state, Nebraska leans Republican, and the remaining four states are Solidly Republican.

Those few bright red states are also at the center of another study making headlines in today's newspapers. Three of the five red Republican states top the list of states with the highest number of people who subscribe to online pornography sites. The study, “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Entertainment?” is the work of Harvard professor, Benjamin Edelman, Ph.D, whose scientific study from 2006 to 2008 utilized information from a top 10 seller of adult entertainment.

Mormon-dominated Utah tops the list as the number one state for porno surfing. Sarah Palin's Alaska is a close second, followed in third place by Former Republican National Committee Chairman, Governor Haley Barbour's Mississippi. Alaska and Mississippi also make the top of Gallup poll's list of "highly religious" states.

There seems to be several reasons for the penchant for porno. Anonymity and ease of high speed broadband internet is one possibility. Census numbers indicate Utah and Alaska are in the top 10 in percentage of households with high-speed Internet access, but Mississippi ranks near the bottom. Mississippi frequently ranks near or at the bottom of lists, but they make it almost to the top of this one. With a will there is a way.

I had to wonder what religion's role may be in this commonality for lusty sexual voyeurism. Forbidden fruit versus God-given sexual drive? Could very conservative political views also be linked to these jarring findings? These outwardly very religious and Republican states have clearly repressed desires that even Rush Limbaugh can not satisfy. Is this an hypocrisy of horniness?

Pornography has deviled religion for a very long time. From Pompeii to Provo, the faithful who partake of varying versions of Debbie doing Dallas are condemned as sinners. The Southern Baptists never miss an opportunity to use even the very word pornography as an attack weapon.

Confirmation of Obama Department of Justice nominee David Ogden, whose previous representation of pornographers as an attorney, has pro-family religious groups up in arms. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told "Baptist Press" regarding Ogden’s defense. “… A person’s views on pornography are a window to a person’s worldview."

So, using Brother Land's reasoning, professional defense attorneys defending serial murderer, Jeffery Dahmer, would have held positive views on chopping up street hustlers if we looked into their worldview window. Actually, Brother Land has other real world worries right outside his window.

"The Christian Post" reports, "Half of males who apply to serve as a missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention's international mission agency are turned down, according to a Baptist pastor. The primary reason is the use of internet porn."

And right up there with internet porn is the way one prays. "The Christian Post" continues, "Both pornography and a private prayer language are treated as activities from which a person must repent in order to serve as a Southern Baptist missionary."

It took a little research to get a handle on 'private prayer language' but it is Southern Baptist code-speak for glossolalia, the speaking in tongues when the holy spirit takes over some folks, like we have seen in the videos from Sarah Palin's little church in Wasilla, Alaska.

As far as Utah's Mormons topping the list of internet porno subscribers, there are some real conflicts going on there. Pillars of the Mormon Church and top tithers, the Marriott hotel family, are an example of that conflict. In 2007, "Morality in Media" blasted then CEO Bill Marriott for their in-room pay-TV "Adults Only" offerings like "XXX Fantasies" and "Sophomore Sluts" which reportedly produce hundreds of millions of dollars yearly for the hotel chain.

Nonetheless, all the Marriott family hotel magnates are listed as "Famous Mormons in Business" by the church. Time Magazine declared in their cover story on Mormons, “The church's material triumphs rival even its evangelical advances.

Whether Mitt Romney, Glen Beck and Orrin Hatch's magic underwear acts as a Mormon porno shield, I just won't hazard a guess. However, sanctimonious, bible thumping right wing conservative pietists who rail against godless, irresponsible liberals day and night on cable TV would better first lecture their own.

Graphic - Gallup Poll

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Yowling Conservatives: Preferring to Defy Definition?

The cable channels are choked with yowling, contumacious conservatives who rail against President Obama's emergency stimulus bill and a federal bailout of failed financial institutions. What makes them "conservative?" Defining "Conservative" as it applies to today's obstreperous orators is not an easy thing to do.

The shaping and molding of today's conservatives has taken a twisting path over past decades. From the Whigs of the 1830's to the early twentieth century when Teddy Roosevelt's governing style was more as a Progressive than a Conservative, on to the promises of Herbert Hoover that prosperity was just "on the horizon," defining conservatives has been but a series of redefinitions.

Other evolutionary benchmarks include William F. Buckley, Jr's founding of The National Review in 1955. It was a magazine where writers could express their disagreements with liberal views and leadership. Buckley attracted the strident anti-communist, Robert W. Welch, Jr., who founded the John Birch Society and helped bankroll the new right wing magazine. The anti-left, anti-liberal movement picked up steam in the 1970's with Irving Kristol's attacks upon those whom he saw as "soft on communism." Kristol is credited with starting the neoconservative movement which ultimately produced the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and most of the top players in the eight years of the George W.Bush administration.

But, in a few words, what do conservatives believe today? What do they want from government? The conservative family tree is a murky genealogy. It ranges from Whigs to Libertarians to the influence of Russian immigrant and popular author, Ayn Rand, whose "Atlas Shrugged" is still a top seller on Amazon. Rand, to me, was like the oracle Sibyl, because her populist political pronouncements are interpreted so broadly from opposing poles.

It has been noted that, "On the left, linguist and analytic philosopher Noam Chomsky considered Rand "one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history." On the right, conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. declared: "Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn."

More recently, Social scientists at UCBerkeley undertook a detailed non-judgmental study of "consistent underlying motivations of politically conservative agendas." It basically boils down some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism which include:
  • Fear and aggression
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Need for cognitive closure
  • Terror management
Prof. Jack Glazer of the University of California explains, "Conservatives don't feel the need to jump through complex, intellectual hoops in order to understand or justify some of their positions. They are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white in ways that would make liberals squirm."

That certainly seems to apply to the flat statements of present day conservatives like Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and certainly John McCain. "Our plan would create 6 million jobs," is a common claim they present. However no one has ever bothered to explain their "plan" and how it would create jobs. Conservatives seem to believe, just as they believe they are going to heaven, that if we only granted tax cuts, tax credits and tax-rebates without actually spending any money, we would create 6 million jobs and overcome a recession. They also call for "Victory in Iraq" which is equally undefined, and undefinable.

So, what is left of the so-called conservative-base today are at each others throats. Radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh, exploits their discord, whipping up a frenzy. It seems so difficult for conservatives to admit they may be wrong. It is equally hard to admit that Limbaugh is playing them all like a cheap guitar while he rakes in millions from his outrageous radio show.

Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University, asks, "Why, then, do right wing partisans ignore this evidence and continue to support policies that are patently dysfunctional? I believe it is because, having stated a position, based on either their own family values or those dictated by their religion, they are loathe to change their minds and declare that they have been wrong."

British Economist, John Maynard Keynes' economic policies basically state: "The modern capitalist economy does not automatically work at top efficiency, but can be raised to that level by the intervention and influence of the government." Such governmental control is anathema to conservatives. Today, they refuse to admit that their gradual removal of the Keynesian oversight of banks and Wall Street largely brought about the mess we are in today.

Keynes himself noted, appropriately, "I do not know which makes a man more conservative -- to know nothing but the present, or nothing but the past."

Stuck in a time warp of denial and obstinacy, it seems that conservatives today continue to thrash about as harsh reality bangs hard against their deep seated belief in some sort of fiscal tooth fairy.

Rush Limbaugh this afternoon reached new heights of megalomania when he invited President Obama to come to his studio and debate him. Regarding the invitation, Mr. Obama will certainly apply his understanding that, "If one finds oneself in an argument with a fool, make sure he is not similarly occupied."

graphic by Larry Ray