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February 27, 2009

To Nationalize or Not To Nationalize...

In this week’s edition of the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with economist Robert Johnson about the precarious state of many banks in the U.S. and across the world. Johnson suggested that President Obama should take tough action on failing banks:

"People talk about nationalization – I just call it restructuring. Restructuring is part of capitalism. That’s how the airlines get restructured when they go through bankruptcy, or how you deal with the auto industry, how you deal with venture capital projects. Do the same thing with the banks... I think the notion of ‘nationalization’ has been a little bit of a PR spin. Restructuring is what you do in capitalist economies to maintain function and continuity. Nationalization evokes the specter of the state seizing the means of production, like Che Guevera is about to take over or something... The government just becomes the stockholder until such time that they sell the stock back to the market and get paid back a little bit for all the lost support that they’re creating for these banks."

William M. Isaac was head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation during the banking crisis of the 1980s, when it nationalized Continental Illinois Bank, which was then the nation’s seventh-largest. In a column for the WALL STREET JOURNAL, Isaac argued against nationalization:

"Any bank we nationalize will be forced, both by regulators and the marketplace, to shrink dramatically... What’s more, we won’t be able to stop at nationalizing one or two banks. If we start down that path, the short sellers and other speculators that the Securities and Exchange Commission still refuses to re-regulate will target for destruction one after another of our largest banks... For nationalization to work there needs to be a reasonable exit strategy... Today, who has the wherewithal, legal authority, and desire to purchase our largest banks? No one comes to mind, particularly if we rule out foreign powers, which I suspect would not pass muster due to national security concerns about ceding that much power over our economy to foreign powers... Who will run these companies when we dismiss the existing senior managers and board members? We had significant difficulties attracting quality people to Continental even without today’s limits on compensation."

What do you think? Should the Obama administration nationalize America’s failing banks? Why or why not?

Can Americans Speak Frankly about Race?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with scholar John McWhorter about the state of racial discourse in America and his thoughts on Attorney General Eric Holder’s controversial speech last week calling the U.S. a “nation of cowards” with regard to racial matters.

Holder said:

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

McWhorter argued that the "conversation about race" called for by Holder excludes the frank opinions of many white people:

"Over about the last 20 years, saying that we need to have a ‘conversation about race’ is coded... Having the conversation about race – what is generally meant by most people who are saying that – means black people have something to teach white people if white people would just sit and listen. It is not a conversation in the strict sense, it’s not an exchange. In an exchange there would also be room for white people to say ‘Here’s why we think you need to get over racism, here’s why we’re not as racist as you might think, here’s why we’re offended by this or we’re weary of this.’ What most people mean by the conversation would have much, much less room for that than for the teaching that black people are supposed to do."

What do you think?

  • In America, can people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds speak their minds about race with equal frankness? Why or why not?

  • Do members of some racial groups have more insight into racial matters than members of other groups, as McWhorter interprets Holder to mean? Explain.

  • What do you think can be done to help improve racial relations and discourse in America?

  • Michael Winship: So Much Depends...

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    So Much Depends...
    By Michael Winship

    In 9th grade high school English, we read that famous William Carlos Williams poem:

    so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white

    Beyond its bucolic and haiku-like simplicity, the poem always makes me think of chance and circumstance, of moments and things, animate and other, brought together in seeming random fashion, often to unintended, unexpected effect.

    The words came to mind two weeks ago when that Continental Airlines commuter plane fell from the sky outside Buffalo, New York, not far from where my father was born and less than 70 miles west of the upstate town where I grew up.

    Fifty people died, one in the house the plane struck as it hit the ground. The 49 on board had flown from Newark airport in New Jersey, just outside New York City. It was a very windy, icy day. Flights were delayed for hours and many decided not to fly – the media was filled with stories of the lucky few who opted out or missed the flight. The friend of a friend here in Manhattan had chosen to drive instead. So much depends…

    And then the realization of the impact just fifty lives can have, fifty people brought together randomly with the single common thread of the passengers’ need to fly to a place little more than an hour or so away; on business, a brief getaway, to see family and friends.

    The night after, we attended a small reception at the home of my friend Tom Fontana, television writer and producer. It was for a new writing program he and others have started up at Buffalo State College, his alma mater. Much talk of the fatal crash – people who knew people who knew people...

    Beverly Eckert was killed on the Continental flight. Tom had been there the night she and her husband Sean Rooney met at a Buffalo high school dance. Sean had died on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower and she had had become a dedicated member of the bereaved families fighting for a 9/11 commission and counterterrorism reforms. “My husband’s life was priceless, and I will not let his life be meaningless,” she wrote.

    Eckert had been heading for Buffalo to mark her husband’s 58th birthday with a return to his high school, which has established a scholarship in Sean Rooney’s name. She had spoken to Tom a couple of days before the crash, excited after a White House meeting the families had with President Obama. “Beverly didn’t really change as a person after 9/11,” Tom recalled. “But her evolution seemed to accelerate. She suddenly saw the world in a much larger context than ever before and her commitment to make it a better place consumed her.”

    When we got home from Tom’s reception, word that musician Gerry Niewood had been on board, too, flying to a performance with Chuck Mangione and the Buffalo Philharmonic. I knew the accomplished jazz woodwind player only slightly from working on music shows here in New York, but my younger brother and sister had played with him when he and Chuck’s brother Gap came to our high school for concerts and “music lab” workshops with the kids.

    They both recalled Niewood’s Afro-style hairdo in those days, a mighty halo of curly red hair, striking under the spotlights, although my brother Tim, a trombonist then, said, “I mostly remember being scared and in completely over my head when actually performing” with Niewood and the other pros.

    A couple of years later, Tim attended a concert Gerry and the Mangione brothers performed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. They were playing “alongside these very staid, tuxedo-clad musicians. [The orchestra] wore a collective expression of consternation as they struggled to keep up with the jazz musicians… I remember thinking, ‘I know exactly how you guys feel...’”

    A few days after the crash, my colleague Bill Moyers came into the office with a full page obituary from THE ECONOMIST magazine. Another killed in the accident, Alison Des Forges was senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. She was one of the first from the outside world to sound the alarm about the genocide in Rwanda that began in 1994. Her calls for international intervention went largely unheeded – the Pentagon would not even jam the signals of Rwandan radio stations directing the murderers to their victims.

    Half a million people died in that slaughter, and while much of the world still looked away, Alison Des Forges went to Rwanda, investigated the genocide and produced an 800-page definitive account called “Leave None to Tell the Story” that helped put many of the guilty behind bars. “She took extraordinary risks,” THE ECONOMIST reported, “rushing to the scenes of massacres and questioning killers when their blades were barely dry.”

    Attention must be paid. Alison Des Forges, Gerry Niewood, Beverly Eckert. In bad times, we do well to remember good lives. So much depends on them.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    February 20, 2009

    Lobbyists, Big Money, and Big Government

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with veteran reporter Robert Kaiser of the WASHINGTON POST about the rise of lobbyists – and what they’re up to – on Capitol Hill.

    In telling the story of the first modern earmark – a nutrition research center at Tufts University – Kaiser noted that, contrary to popular opinion, lobbyists often promote projects that are in the public interest. Problems emerge, he suggested, because the lobbying process prevents fair competition for scarce public funding.

    “The essence of the earmark system [is] the Congressman gets the credit, because the fix is in. The lobbyist gets the money, because he got the fix in. It’s a wonderful system, it pleases everybody, but it doesn’t create a fair, competitive, open system.”

    Bill Moyers asked if big money lobbying is inherently part of America’s large federal government.

    “What about the fact that some people who defend the system, or explain the system, say that it was when liberal government arose in the New Deal, and Washington began throwing money at so many problems, that it became just a fact of life that there was money to be made by trying to help connect people who needed money with government money that was available?”

    Kaiser said:

    “When the government spends so much money, we have to be ready to see the potential recipients of that money troop to town and look for their share... There’s no avoiding this, you know? And it’s important to say that lobbying is protected in the same First Amendment to the Constitution that you and I like for journalistic implications. The right to petition the government for redress of grievances is right there in the First Amendment, and that’s lobbying. That’s true that the big government means big spending, means big opportunities, means business for lobbyists, so it’s inevitable.”

    What do you think?

  • Is lobbying a good or bad thing?

  • Is big money lobbying inherently part of having a large, centralized federal government? Why or why not?

  • Do you think a policy should be devised to try to limit the influence of Washington lobbyists? If so, what means would you suggest?

  • Finding Wholeness in Tough Times

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, about the challenge of remaining positive and spiritually whole in difficult times.

    “I think the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of reality because illusion never leaves us ultimately happy, and I think the opportunity now is for us to get real. And I think that’s going to make us, in the long run, more happy... A new habit of the heart would allow us to take the broken hearted experience in a new direction, not towards shattering into a million pieces but towards a heart that grows larger, more capacious, more open to hold both the suffering and the pain of the world... Whether we’re Democrats or Republicans or independents, we have to learn to hang together or we’re gonna hang separately. We have to learn a new set of habits of the heart, and I think that can happen.”

    What do you think?

  • Is Palmer right that facing reality is a key element of true happiness? Explain.

  • Does learning “new habits of the heart” have the potential to make the world a better place? Why or why not?

  • In challenging times, what inspires you and helps you keep it together?

  • Bill Moyers on Sending More Troops to Afghanistan

    Concluding this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers delivered the following commentary on President Barack Obama's decision to send nearly 50% more troops to Afghanistan.
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    For more JOURNAL coverage of the situation in Afghanistan, you may wish to explore Bill Moyers' recent conversations with former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes and experts Pierre Sprey and Marilyn B. Young.

    We invite you to respond in the space below.

    Michael Winship: On Capitol Hill, Money Is the Root of All Hypocrisy

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    On Capitol Hill, Money Is the Root of All Hypocrisy
    By Michael Winship

    The great movie comic and professional curmudgeon W.C. Fields once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time – and that’s enough to make a decent living.” Watching the news from Washington unfold this week, the truth of the late comedian’s words never seemed more right.

    The antics of the august members of the House and Senate remind us once again that money is the root of all hypocrisy – especially in politics.

    Take United States Senator Roland Burris, appointed by former Illinois governor and clown prince Rod Blagojevich to fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama. Testifying before the impeachment committee investigating Blagojevich, Senator Burris claimed he had no conversations with anyone from the governor’s clan of cronies prior to his appointment. Now he says, oops, I just remembered – the governor’s brother asked me to raise $10,000. Or was it $15,000?

    Luckily, Senator Burris still has some space in Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery on that spiffy mausoleum he had built with a list of all his accomplishments. Like some ancient Egyptian pharaoh ordering up the hieroglyphics for his made-to-order pyramid, the senator has room to have inscribed there one final act of public service. “Resignation” would seem to fit rather neatly.

    Then there are Republican congressmen John Mica of Florida and Don Young of Alaska. As the McClatchy News Service reported, both stood with their party – good and true, cool conservative men – voting against President Obama’s economic stimulus. So did every other GOP House member. Twice.

    But then, eager to ride a gravy train with a popular President at the throttle, each of them had the chutzpah to issue press releases praising aspects of the stimulus package – while never mentioning they’d actually voted “nay.” This was followed by the spectacle of several other Republican House and Senate members who voted against the stimulus going back home during the President’s Day recess and touting the money the bill will provide their constituents.

    But the prize of the week – the ever-loving, loving cup – goes to the multitude of Congress members – both Democrats and Republicans – who enjoyed balmy Caribbean breezes and substantial campaign contributions thanks to the largesse of financier Robert Allen Stanford, now accused of bilking investors of some $9 billion and, like W.C. Fields, making a decent living at it.

    Stanford prefers being called “Sir Allen,” as befits a Texas charlatan. He was knighted by the governor-general of the West Indies island of Antigua, off-shore headquarters for his alleged con game. He bankrolled “fact-finding” missions to Antigua and other Caribbean ports-of-call for several members of Congress, including Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and New York Democrat Charlie Rangel, chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

    Stanford Financial Group was a main sponsor of last month’s Texas state pre-inaugural ball in DC and his political action committee gave $10,000 to help cover the costs of last year’s Congressional baseball game (the Republicans won, for the eighth year in a row, 11-10). “Sir Allen” partied with Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last summer. And when Tom Delay was still House majority leader, he flew the friendly skies in Stanford’s private jet 16 times in three years – including a trip to Houston for Delay’s arraignment on money-laundering charges.

    Stanford showered millions on political campaigns, much of it from 2001-2002, the very time Congress was debating a bill to curb financial fraud with a computer network linking regulatory data bases. Two of the biggest recipients were Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida – who at the time was chairing the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, another big beneficiary of Stanford love – and Republican Senator John McCain. Three key Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee – then Chair Paul Sarbanes, Charles Schumer and Christopher Dodd received checks, too. The reform bill never got out of the Senate.

    According to the non-partisan and indispensable Center for Responsive Politics, over the last decade, Robert Allen Stanford spent nearly $5 million lobbying the Senate and House, on top of $2.4 million in campaign contributions to Federal candidates. Now that he has been tracked down by the FBI and charged with “massive, ongoing fraud,” many politicians are rushing to give the money back to charity, including President Obama, whose campaign received $4600.

    Altogether, however, Stanford’s contributions were a spit in the bucket of what he’s alleged to have swindled, and just a tiny slice of the multibillion-dollar pie the lobbying business has become in Washington. Already, lobbyists are jumping all over President Obama’s economic stimulus, so much so the WASHINGTON D.C. EXAMINER newspaper renamed the bill “The Lobbyist Enrichment Act” and reported that, “In the first weeks of this year, about 50 companies, trade associations, municipalities or non-profits retained new lobbyists explicitly to lobby on the stimulus bill.”

    According to WASHINGTON POST associate editor Robert G. Kaiser, the lobby industry “has helped moneyed interests protect their status and privileges, undermined government regulation of business and turned our elected officials into chronic money-chasers.”
    Kaiser, an intrepid, longtime reporter and native Washingtonian has a new book out titled, SO DAMN MUCH MONEY: THE TRIUMPH OF LOBBYING AND THE CORROSION OF AMERICAN GOVERNMENT. He appeared as a guest on the current edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on public television.

    The fix is in, he told my colleague Moyers, eliminating a fair competitive system. We should ask for more transparency, Kaiser suggests. And campaign finance reform would go a long way to making a difference, but he doesn’t think it likely anytime soon.

    The “everybody does it” syndrome took over in Washington a long time ago and, in general, an indifferent, cynical public seems unmotivated to do anything about it. “They do not expect Congress to do the right thing,” Kaiser said, “They do not expect high ethical standards. On the contrary.”

    So why should the lobbyists and the government stop their profitable roundelay if we fail to do anything to stop the music and fall for the “everybody does it” meme? Do we deserve what we get? The way lobbyists, special interests and politicians regard the citizenry brings to mind another W.C. Fields aphorism, the title of one of his movies: “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    February 19, 2009

    Guest Blogger: GlobalPost's Tom Mucha on the Global Economic Crisis

    We'd like to thank Thomas Mucha, managing editor and commerce columnist at GlobalPost, for sharing his thoughts on the global nature of the economic crisis.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Thomas Mucha are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    Lost fingers and a world of trouble
    by Thomas Mucha, GlobalPost

    You are, no doubt, paying close attention to the nightmarish U.S. economy, Wall Street's woes and the bitter back-and-forth over President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, now signed into life.

    The interest in what's happening here is no surprise. After all, the great 18th century thinker Adam Smith made this shocking observation about the odd relationship between human trouble and proximity:

    "Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many tranquility concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own."

    That's right: you'd rather see China disappear than lose your own little finger.

    But maybe Adam Smith—the progenitor of modern economics who dreamed up the division of labor, supply and demand and the invisible hand of the market—had it wrong.

    In today's interconnected world the economic pain sweeping though China, Japan, India, Russia, Germany, Ghana and just about every other place can't be good for any American. While this economic crisis has its roots in the U.S., that fact is now irrelevant. What matters now is that, for better or worse, we are all connected.

    Chinese factory workers, and their relatively low wages, make many of the products you buy more affordable. Japanese designers make your flat screen TVs flatter. Korean engineers churn out most of your computer chips. Brazilian farmers put food on your table. South African miners dig out the platinum that goes into your car's catalytic converter.

    These multiculti connections go on and on, and inform everything from the movies you watch (Slumdog Millionaire), to the authors you read (Khaled Hosseini, Jumpha Lahiri, J.K. Rowling), to the music you download (on your Chinese-manufactured iPod) and then listen to (on your Sony headphones).

    So as you fret about losing your job, or making your house payment, or whether you'll ever have enough money to send your kids to college—spare a thought for the 1.6 million Japanese living on welfare (the highest number since 1965). Or the 20 million migrant workers in China, suddenly out of work. Or the one in three Brazilian households that have suffered a job loss in the past six months. Or the millions of Indonesians substituting chicken for cheaper fried tempe, or all the Koreans drowning their sorrows in inexpensive Soju.

    Because, my fellow Americans, you need them. And they need you. And we all have fingers.

    Thomas Mucha is managing editor and commerce columnist at GlobalPost. Previously, he was a global economics columnist, writer and producer for Business 2.0 magazine, Crain's Chicago Business, and CNN International. His most recent editorial project, A World of Trouble, details how the global economic crisis is affecting 20 countries around the world.

    We invite you to respond in the space below.

    February 17, 2009

    Bill Moyers Answers Viewer Questions

    Last week, Bill Moyers answered questions in a live chat on PBS.ORG. Click here to read a transcript of the discussion. Below, he answers more questions from the chat and the MOYERS BLOG.

    Q. Dear Mr. Moyers, other than voting and writing to their congress people, what can citizens do to have influence over Washington policy?
    Eva Marie Willis

    Q. What can we as concerned citizens do to ensure that the necessary reforms in media, the economy, etc. that you've long advocated are actually enacted?
    Suzanne Reymer

    A. Find one group close by that needs your help. One organization, one cause. Affordable housing. Advocating the cleanup of a toxic site. Agitating for transparency in local government. Seek a chapter with national links — Common Cause, Public Citizen, Institute for America's Future. Study the example of Beverly Eckert, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/ll and who herself died in the Continental crash near Buffalo last week. After 9/ll she and other relatives of the victims organized the 9/11 Family Steering Committee and kept the pressure on until they got some answers — including standing down Henry Kissinger after it was announced he would head the 9/ll Commission. See her obituary in the NYT of Saturday February 14. There are many, many such groups, causes, and needs. Find one, join it, serve it, and stay with it.

    As for media reform, check out the site freepress.net.

    Q. What is the selection process for deciding which guests to feature on your program?

    A. My staff and I follow the news trying to assess which voices can add a dimension to it that you won't find elsewhere. We read books looking for people who know something unique on a subject. Magazines, too — on science, nature, history, the arts — and scores of online sites. We're looking for people who usually wouldn't have a mainstream venue, who add a fresh take on a subject, and who don't have a cause or ideology to push but instead are trying to tell the truth as they see it. It's a constant process that calls on our collective journalistic instincts. At some point, after much to-ing and fro-ing, I'll make the call. There are always far more possibilities than we have time to feature.

    Q. Did you ever consider entering politics, and, what would you be if you were not a journalist?
    Mary M.

    A. When I left the White House in January 1967 to publish NEWSDAY, I made my choice about journalism and never looked back, even when people urged me to run. The two don't mix, and if I had pursued journalism with an eye toward political office, I couldn't have trusted myself, much less earn the trust of the people who followed my journalism. Three times I turned down opportunities for appointed positions in Washington that came my way through no effort of my own; it was easy to say no, on the grounds that I belong on this, the journalistic, side of the fence.

    Q. Do you think through a rigid recitation of facts journalists can convey the absolute truth of a story? Can journalists fulfill their duty to their community by only reporting verifiable facts or must they go further? If they go further how do they know they are pursuing something truthful and not just their own personal viewpoint?
    Kelly Stephens

    A. I'm not sure what you mean by a "rigid recitation of facts" or even the "absolute truth of a story." We're not meant to be stenographers -- simply transcribing what officials tell us — but there is always more information about just about any story than we can gather in a limited time and with limited resources. Our job as journalists is to gather as much as we can, weigh it (what appears to be more significant than others), organize what we can verify, and present it as our best-effort account. The "truth of the matter" usually lies beyond the mere presentation of facts, but without the facts, the truth can't be grounded. I see our work as trying to ground our conclusions in solid fact-gathering.

    Q. As I admire you and your extraordinary (and desperately needed) work greatly, I was wondering if you could share with us the people that you admire and learn from. I would be very interested to hear what historical and contemporary journalists, political figures, and especially, knowing of your interest in the arts, artists (literary, visual, or musical) you admire.
    Chris Ulrich

    A. I wish I had more time for this one. I've learned from almost all the people whom I have interviewed over the years. We journalists are licensed, so to speak, to explain things we don't understand. That means talking to as many people as we can, because we don't on our own know very much. I honestly don't have favorites — any more than I favor one of my three children or five grandchildren — but some had more impact than others. Obviously the series with Joseph Campbell on THE POWER OF MYTH. My WORLD OF IDEAS interviews in l988 (see the book.) THE WISDOM OF FAITH with Huston Smith. And the interviews in FAITH AND REASON in 2006. On the other hand, I found last week's interviews on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL with Simon Johnson and Nikki Giovanni remarkably revealing. And on it goes.

    Q. Have you read Howard Zinn's book, A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES? If you have, I would appreciate your comments. I would also enjoy seeing him on your program, if he accepts public invitations.
    Thank you for your program. I look forward to it every Friday on my local PBS station.
    Stephanie Rogstad

    I have read it — at least twice. And I interviewed him on my series NOW WITH BILL MOYERS a few years back. You can check it out online here.

    Thanks for watching and writing.

    -Bill Moyers

    February 13, 2009

    Does the U.S. Government Truly Represent the American People?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with former International Monetary Fund chief economist and MIT professor Simon Johnson about the Federal government’s response to the world’s economic maladies. Johnson suggested that the U.S. government's policies -- including recent efforts at economic stimulus -- are designed by and for a small class of wealthy elites:

    “The situation we find ourselves in at this moment, this week, is very strongly reminiscent of the situations we've seen many times in other places. But they're places we don't like to think of ourselves as being similar to. They're emerging markets. It's Russia or Indonesia or a Thailand type situation, or Korea... I have this feeling in my stomach that I felt in much poorer countries, countries that were headed into a really difficult economic situation, when there’s a small group of people who got you into a disaster, who were still powerful, and disaster made them more powerful... Don’t get me wrong – these are fine upstanding citizens who have a certain perspective and a certain kind of interest, and they see the world a certain way... That web of interest is not my interest or your interest or the interest of the taxpayer. It’s the interest, first and foremost, of the financial industry in this country.”

    For more of Simon Johnson’s thoughts, visit his blog at baselinescenario.com.

    What do you think?

  • Does the U.S. Congress truly represent the American people? Does the Obama administration? Explain.

  • What is the proper political balance between totally democratic decision-making and elite management of policy?

  • Bicycles and Symbols

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s edition of the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers asked poet Nikki Giovanni why she chose to title her new collection BICYCLES. Giovanni said:

    “I just thought 'I've got to rethink it, and then I've got to find an object'... Well, tragedy and trauma are wheels. And they're always with us, aren't they? They're always spinning around. That’s the parameters of life, these tragedies. They just spin around and spin around. And so what you're trying to do is bring them together. And when you bring them together you've got the bar, so you have a vehicle, right? When I grew up you learned to ride a bicycle by getting on a bicycle, which means you're gonna fall off. And love and life and bicycles are about trust and balance. It's about riding it and believing that this thing, that doesn't make sense for you to be on, can move... We do that in our relationships. It's the same bike. We are continuing relationships through trust and balance.”

    What do you think?

  • Is the bicycle a good symbol for life? Why or why not?

  • What object would you choose to poetically symbolize life?

  • Michael Winship: The Oligarchy's Bailout Ball

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    The Oligarchy's Bailout Ball
    By Michael Winship

    You know what they say – half a million dollars just doesn’t go as far as it used to. News from the White House that $500,000 was the cap the government wants to put on executive salaries at the banks receiving bailout cash had some on Wall Street and along the plush corridors of Manhattan’s swank Upper East Side hollering “Unfair!” (But without those unsightly street demonstrations and picket lines, of course.)

    “You Try to Live on 500K in This Town” was the tongue-in-cheek headline in last Sunday’s NEW YORK TIMES. Just add up private school tuition, mortgage payments, maintenance fees and wages for the nanny and you’re already up to more than $250,000 a year – and that’s pre-taxes, assuming you’re paying any. Then tote up payments and upkeep on vacation and weekend homes, charity balls, car and driver – pretty soon you’re maxing out your American Express Black Card.

    But they work hard for their multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses, perks and solid gold benefits, complained some of the financiers. Besides, executive headhunters say, the money giants just can’t get good help for anything less. Good help? Spare us the kind of moguls who helped us straight into the current deep, dirty hole we’re trying to climb out of.

    “Like spoiled, petulant children,” is how WASHINGTON POST columnist Steven Pearlstein described them. “These guys won't be happy until the government agrees to relieve them of every last one of their lousy loans and investments at inflated prices, recapitalize every major bank and brokerage and insurance company on sweetheart terms and restore them to the glory days, so they can once again earn inflated profits and obscene pay packages by screwing over their customers and their shareholders.”

    Pearlstein was reacting after the five percent dive that stock prices took following freshly minted Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s announcement of the Obama Administration’s Financial Stability Plan. It’s the latest iteration of the bank bailout plan intended to go hand-in-hand with the economic stimulus package. Combined, as much as three trillion dollars may be at stake.
    The plan immediately was attacked by many as too vague and ineffective. Part of the trouble, critics say, is that Geithner isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem – former head of the Federal Reserve in New York and a protégé of Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who last month retired as senior counselor at Citigroup. That’s the bank the government agreed to insure against projected losses of $306 billion, on top of bailouts totaling $45 billion. In other words, Geithner’s a player.

    The NEW YORK TIMES reported that in preparing the Financial Stability Plan, Geithner opposed tougher conditions on investment firms sought by others in the White House. Geithner, the TIMES wrote, “successfully fought against more severe limits on executive pay for companies receiving government aid… resisted those who wanted to dictate how banks would spend their rescue money. And he prevailed over top administration aides who wanted to replace bank executives…”

    This week, on The Baseline Scenario, a blog he co-founded, MIT professor of global economics and management and former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson wrote, “There comes a time in every economic crisis, or more specifically, in every struggle to recover from a crisis, when someone steps up to the podium to promise the policies that – they say – will deliver you back to growth. The person has political support, a strong track record, and every incentive to enter the history books. But one nagging question remains. Can this person, your new economic strategist, really break with the vested elites that got you into this much trouble?”

    That question caught the attention of my colleague Bill Moyers, who interviewed Johnson on the current edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on public television.

    The problem, Johnson told him, is that via millions spent for political contributions and lobbying efforts, the revolving door that sees elites shuttle between jobs in government and business, and by creating a situation in which technical knowledge is limited to a privileged few, the banking and financial services industry has become a kind of ruling oligarchy that stifles attempts to shake up the status quo and make the real change necessary to get us out of the current crisis. “Either you break the power,” Johnson said, “or we’re stuck for a long time with this arrangement…

    “The policy that we seem to be pursuing, of being nice to the banks, is a mistake. Both from a technical/economic point of view, and from a deeper political point of view… [The banks] think that we’re going to pay out ten or 20 percent of GDP to basically make them whole. It’s astonishing.”

    Johnson has written on The Baseline Scenario blog what he thinks needs to be done: "Reboot the financial system. Find out immediately which banks are insolvent using market prices. Allow private owners to fully recapitalize, if they can. Have the FDIC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, take over all banks that cannot raise enough private capital, and try to re-privatize those banks quickly, while making sure the taxpayer has strong participation in the upside."

    Unfortunately, Johnson fears the oligarchy will prevail. “My intuition is that this is going to get a lot worse,” he told Moyers. “It’s going to cost us a lot more money. And we are going down a long, dark, blind alley…

    “Eventually, of course, the economy will turn around. Things will get better. The banks will be worth a lot of money and they will cash out…. We and our children will be paying higher taxes so those people could have those bonuses. That’s not fair. It’s not acceptable. It’s not even good economics.”

    Johnson doubts the political will exists to do what needs to be done. According to Tuesday’s BOSTON HERALD, last August, another former Treasury Secretary and Rubin pal, Lawrence Summers, now chairman of the of the National Economic Council, hitched a ride back from the Democratic National Convention on board a Citigroup corporate jet – “the same type that… Citigroup infamously wanted to replace last month with a new $50 million French jet.”
    Summers didn’t pay for the trip, but Citi said it has paid the appropriate taxes. The Herald reported that the plane “was the same one former City chief executive Sandy Will took on vacation to Mexico last month, it reportedly includes a full bar, crystal stemware and ‘pillows made from Hermès scarves.’”

    When you’ve got it, flaunt it, Larry. Why go to hell in a handbasket when you can fly there executive class, leaning back on a French silk pillow? It’s good to be part of an oligarchy.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    POLL: Do You Support President Obama's Stimulus Plan?

    Last week on THE JOURNAL, Bill Moyers mentioned some recent polling that suggests public support for President Obama’s economic stimulus plan has been eroding:

    “Support for the economic recovery plan working its way through Congress has fallen again this week. For the first time, a plurality of voters nationwide oppose the $800-billion-plus plan. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 37% favor the legislation, 43% are opposed, and 20% are not sure. Two weeks ago, 45% supported the plan. Last week, 42% supported it. Opposition has grown from 34% two weeks ago to 39% last week and 43% today... Related survey data shows that half the nation’s voters say the plan that finally emerges from Congress may end up doing more harm than good.

    What do you think? Take our poll and respond in the space below.

    February 10, 2009

    Ask Bill Moyers

    If you didn't get a chance to get your question answered during the live chat with Bill Moyers, post it here. He will answer some of the questions in coming days.

    You can read a transcript of the chat at pbs.org

    February 6, 2009

    Politics, the Press, and the Public

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with prominent bloggers Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald about the role of the establishment press in America’s dysfunctional political system.

    Rosen suggested that members of the press may have a variety of preconceived notions through which they filter their reporting:

    “If you're a career Washington reporter, how do you know that your knowledge is always going to be relevant throughout your career? Well, if politics is just an inside game, then you're always on top of it. If all of a sudden, a new dynamic enters it, you may not have the knowledge you need to be the expert, to be the authority. And I think there's a tendency for Washington journalists to see everything converging towards the political game that they are themselves masters of.”

    Greenwald argued that the establishment media may be an impediment to political change:

    “If you were to say to normal Americans... that members of Congress leave office and make millions of dollars doing nothing other than essentially peddling influence to wealthy individuals who can have their way with Congress, most people consider that to be corruption. That's what Barack Obama called it when he ran. Yet, to members of the media, who have spent their lives in Washington, who are friends and colleagues of the people who are engorging themselves on this corrupt system, that is just the way of life. It's like breathing air or drinking water. It's not anything that's noteworthy, let alone controversial... What's going to have to happen is his supporters, on whom he relies for his political power, are going to have to be the ones holding him accountable, by being angry and dissatisfied when he seems to be off the course that he promised he would stay on.”

    On the other hand, many observers perceived that the establishment press supported Barack Obama, who campaigned as and was widely considered the candidate of change. Michael S. Malone of ABC accused the press of “shameless support” for Democrats, while Mark Halperin of TIME cited “extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage” during election season.

    What do you think?

  • Is the establishment press an impediment to or an agent for bringing change to Washington? Why or why not?

  • What role should journalists play in our democracy? Explain.

  • Who was America's Greatest President?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with historian Eric Foner about the life, legacy, and legend of Abraham Lincoln. Foner said:

    “The greatness of Lincoln, I think, is his capacity to grow and change and evolve. Lincoln’s ideas when he dies are quite different from what they were earlier in his life... Sometimes people are president who may have great characteristics, but they’re president in very quiet, calm times and they never have an occasion to demonstrate their greatness. Lincoln’s greatness comes in his response to the unparalleled crisis of the Union and of slavery... The characteristic that I find most interesting in Lincoln is this self-confidence, the ability to think for yourself, coupled with open-mindedness and willingness to listen to criticism... It’s that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him to greatness.”

    Although Lincoln is widely considered one of America’s better presidents, a revisionist minority maintains that his reputation is based on generations of propaganda. Libertarian scholar Thomas DiLorenzo wrote:

    “[Lincoln historians] routinely refer to him as "Father Abraham" and compare him to Jesus or Moses. They do this because their agenda is not only the deification of Lincoln, but of executive power and nationalism in general... And when some of his more dastardly deeds, such as micromanaging the waging of war on fellow citizens, are mentioned they are always obscured by a mountain of hollow excuses, rationales, cover-ups, and justifications... Lincoln’s (and the Republican Party’s) "real agenda" was the old Hamilton/Clay mercantilist agenda of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, central banking, the creation of a giant political patronage machine, and the pursuit of an empire that would rival the British empire.”

    What do you think?

  • Who do you think was America’s greatest President? Explain.

  • Could someone look at the same historical facts and justifiably conclude that the President you chose was among America’s worst? Why or why not?

  • Michael Winship: Get Away from those Spinning Doors

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Get Away from those Spinning Doors
    By Michael Winship

    Not even three weeks in office and President Barack Obama is discovering that being in charge is no bed of roses, even when you have a garden of them just outside your Oval Office windows. February’s frost has bitten a bit of the bloom off the new President’s aspirations as the swamp of hypocrisy and partisan inertia that is Beltway Washington took its toll.

    Weighed down by tax return problems and charges of DC influence peddling, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle pulled out as President Obama’s candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services – just as the President was trying to accelerate momentum for Senate passage of his economic stimulus plan, and the Republicans were equally trying to slam on the brakes.

    Daschle’s withdrawal, coupled with the same day, tax-inflicted stepping down of Nancy Killefer, who was to be the White House’s chief performance officer, forced President Obama to use a lightning round of network interviews he’d intended as stimulus promotion to defend himself against charges that his oratorical hopes of cleaning up government and solving all its problems had hit a speed bump.

    The resulting “I screwed up” mea culpas were refreshing in a town where shifting blame to the other guy is the standard modus operandi. But whether contrition for the cameras, combined with President Obama’s continued high popularity, can translate into forward-moving action remains unknown. By week’s end, President Obama had dropped his conciliatory tone of bipartisanship and gone on the attack to try to rescue the stimulus package.

    But one thing the Daschle affair and the problems with other Obama appointments makes clear is that while new administrations come and go, what hasn’t changed – yet – is the phenomenon of the revolving door, the back-and-forth fandango of lobbyists moving into government jobs at the same time that officials out of power parlay their resumes into suites on K Street. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives – all are guilty.

    A recent report from the non-partisan organization CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that of 24 men and women who served as cabinet members during the Bush Administration, seventeen of them left office and raced to private sector jobs with some 119 companies. Sixty-five of those businesses spend money lobbying the United States government – and 40 are directly hitting up government agencies the former cabinet secretary was in charge of.

    Former Attorney General John Ashcroft started his own lobbying firm. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham joined the board of Occidental Petroleum. Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, is well-known for his involvement with companies profiting from the fear of terrorist attack or natural disaster, including Lucent Technologies and Home Depot, where duct tape is king.

    But the poster boy seems to be former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who CREW says has worked for 42 different companies since he left the Bush cabinet in 2005. They include Centene Corporation, which runs Medicaid plans in seven states; the pharmaceutical company Novartis; and even an operation called Whey Cool Health Foods. Logistics Health, a medical readiness company of which Thompson is president, saw its federal contracts go from $19.9 million in 2003 to $104.8 million in 2007. The company claims Thompson never contacted folks at Health and Human Services on its behalf, but Logistics’ founder and chairman told a Wisconsin newspaper, “Tommy really is able to get us in to see the right people.”

    Maybe you thought the in-and-out revolving door would shudder to a halt with a new President who vowed to clean up Dodge and campaigned on the promise that no lobbyist would find job security in the White House. The day after his swearing-in, President Obama signed an executive order barring former lobbyists in government positions from overseeing anything related to their past business interests.

    Apparently, that presidential executive order comes with an asterisk: no lobbyists in charge – except when they are. Take Deputy Secretary of Defense designate William J. Lynn III, former executive and lobbyist with Raytheon, world’s largest manufacturer of guided missiles, including the Patriot missile. Raytheon received more than ten billion dollars in defense contracts last year. Lynn says he lobbied for “only a handful” – missiles, destroyers, warheads, a radar system, a spy satellite. Some handful. But because both the President and Defense Secretary Robert Gates insist he’s the only man for the job, Lynn’s been given a waiver.

    Also please give a big welcome to anti-tobacco lobbyist William Corr, the newly designated number two at Health and Human Services. He insists he’ll stay out of any HHS business that has to do with tobacco, won’t even yell at anyone smoking in the elevator. We’ll see.

    According to THE WASHINGTON TIMES, nearly two dozen of President Obama’s executive level appointments have worked as registered lobbyists. “Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions.” That was the explanation of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. True, there’s an argument to be made for bringing in people with expertise and experience in maneuvering the mazelike intricacies of big government. But with so much money at stake, so much power too easily corrupted, the perpetual revolving door remains a big problem.

    Ah, sigh the jaded cynics and opportunists who spawn along the shores of the Potomac, the more things stay the same, so what can you do? What you can do is speak up, and, as the late Molly Ivins would say, keep raising hell. Otherwise, that breeze you’ll feel blowing out of Washington will never be the winds of change; just a fetid gust generated by Beltway blusters of hot air and the endless spin of those damned revolving doors.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

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