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April 30, 2010

Make That Change

(Photo by Robin Holland)

In this week's special finale to the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers introduced people who are working to make the world a better place.

Moyers spoke with author Barry Lopez, who discussed his craft and his belief that no one has what he calls a "walk-on part" in the theater of life. He said:

"Who is it that says one person has a 'walk-on part?' That's a political question. Who is it that's standing there saying that person, this person, those [people] are walk-on parts, and this person here will be the star of the show? I don't like that. I don't like to hear it. What happens if a person speaks imperfect English in a culture like ours, is not articulate, but can dance in a way that makes you shiver? Why is that a walk-on part? When it comes to a political statement, you can turn on the television and see people who claim expertise that they don't possess. The kind of expertise we need is not a facile grasp of policy, but a love of humanity. That's what we need."

The JOURNAL profiled the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, who refuse to accept "walk-on parts" and are organizing to make their voices heard. One of them, John Blasingame, said:

"Sometimes you have to raise a fuss, as Rosa Parks did: raised a fuss, got things changed. Rosa Parks didn't just say 'no, you can't have my seat.' She actually said 'no, I will no longer participate with you in my own exploitation.' It was because of people who stood up, who refused to back down, who refused to be quiet, who refused to be put off, who suffered the shootings and the bombings and the water cannons and the police dogs and everything else, who got out of the back of the bus. And we, the working class, the common people in this country, need to look at that because where are we? We are in the back of the bus. And what really angers me is we own the bus. It's our bus, not theirs. Our bus."

Populist activist Jim Hightower talked about the importance of building people's movements to work on solutions for daunting problems in our nation:

"It's one thing to be mad, but it's another thing to get organized and find your way around it. My mama told me that two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do. That's what we have to do. We have to figure a way around these blockages of Wall Street today, of the corporate interests that are squeezing out small business, of the blockages in the marketplaces... It's not enough to whine...We can battle back against the powers, but it's not going to a rally and shouting. It's organizing and it's thinking, and reaching out to others, and building a real people's movement... One big difference between real populism and what the Tea Party thing is is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of the corporations. You can't say 'let's get rid of government.' You need to be saying 'let's take over government.'"

What do you think?

  • Barry Lopez said that no one need have a "walk-on part" in life. Do you agree? Why or why not?

  • Are you involved in a people's movement to improve your community and/or our nation? What issues concern you, and how are you working to make the world a better place?

  • Michael Winship: The Lowdown from Hightower

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

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

    "The Lowdown from Hightower"
    By Michael Winship

    I first became aware of Jim Hightower more than 20 years ago, during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. The Democrats were nominating Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis to run for president against Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, and at the time Dukakis looked like he had a pretty good chance at the White House.

    This was before a series of events did him in, including the notorious Willie Horton ad that attacked Dukakis for a Massachusetts weekend furlough prison program that allowed a convicted murderer back on the street, where he robbed and raped.

    And it was before Dukakis bobbled a harsh debate question about what he would do if his own wife Kitty was raped and murdered. And it was before he was photographed atop an Abrams tank wearing a helmet that made him look like he was starring in "Snoopy III: This Time It's Personal."

    All of that misery lay ahead. The Democrats were still in giddy spirits during the convention and had a high old time poking fun at Bush, Sr. That was when the late Ann Richards, then the Texas state treasurer, famously lamented, "Poor George! He can't help it - he was born with a silver foot in his mouth!"

    But it was the convention speech by Hightower that I especially remember. He was the Texas agriculture commissioner in those days - an important job in the Lone Star State - and described Bush as a "toothache of a man," a cruel but remarkable metaphor. And he said that Bush behaved like someone who was "born on third base and thought he hit a triple... He is threatening to lead this country from tweedle-dum to tweedle-dumber."

    Maybe Hightower didn't originate those lines (as Milton Berle used to say, "When you steal from me, you steal twice"), but he delivered them with a gusto akin to genuine authorship and over the years has come up with enough original material of his own to absolve him - mostly - from the sin of occasional joke-filching.

    Now others steal from him. It was Jim, I believe, who came up with the notion that all elected officials be required to wear brightly colored, NASCAR-like jumpsuits with the corporate logos of their biggest campaign contributors, an idea I've heard appropriated by several others without proper attribution. And I think it was Jim who first said of George W. Bush, "If ignorance ever reaches $40 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to his head." (On hearing that another politician was learning Spanish, Hightower is supposed to have remarked, "Oh good. Now he'll be bi-ignorant.")

    These days, Jim Hightower broadcasts daily radio commentaries and edits "The Hightower Lowdown," an invaluable monthly newsletter. With the passing of both Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, he has became the funniest person in Texas politics - intentionally, that is. But it is his steadfast advocacy of progressive politics, his unyielding embrace of the old time gospel of populism, that made him an especially appropriate guest on the final edition of the PBS series, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    "Here's what populism is not," he told my colleague Bill Moyers. "It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial tea party effort [was], and as most of it is still today -- though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is just a determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government.

    "...One big difference between real populism and... the tea party thing is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can't say, 'Let's get rid of government.' You need to be saying, 'Let's take over government.'"

    As Hightower's fond of saying, the water won't clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek. "I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power," he reiterated. "Overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they're the top dogs, and we're a bunch of fire hydrants, you know?"

    Of President Obama he said, "It's odd to me that we've got a president who ran from the outside and won, and now is trying to govern from the inside. You can't do progressive government from the inside. You have to rally those outsiders and make them a force... Our heavyweight is the people themselves. They've got the fat cats, but we've got the alley cats..."

    This weekend, Jim is being honored at Texas State University-San Marcos with an exhibition celebrating his life's work as a populist journalist, historian and advocate. They're calling the event "Swim Against the Current" because, as Moyers says, "That's what he does."

    In fact, "Swim Against the Current" also is the title of Hightower's most recent book, subtitled, "Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow." He comes from a long history of flow resisters, a critical, American political tradition. "I go all the way back to Thomas Paine," he said. "I mean, that was kind of the ultimate rebellion, when the media tool was a pamphlet." The men who wrote the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence "didn't create democracy. [They] made democracy possible.

    "What created democracy was Thomas Paine and Shays Rebellion, the suffragists and the abolitionists and on down through the populists and the labor movement, including the Wobblies. Tough, in your face people... Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie... Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez. And now it's down to us.

    "These are agitators. They extended democracy decade after decade. You know, sometimes we get in the midst of these fights. We think we're making no progress. But... you look back, we've made a lot of progress... The agitator after all is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out. So, we need a lot more agitation....

    "We can battle back against the powers. But it's not just going to a rally and shouting. It's organizing and it's thinking. And reaching out to others. And building a real people's movement."


    With this week's edition, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL goes off the air. But we'll be continuing the conversation via our Web site at PBS.org/moyers. These weekly columns will be continuing for the foreseeable as well. It has been a delight and honor collaborating with Bill - and the entire production team - so intensely over the last two years. I am always improved in their presence and thank them all, especially Bill and executive editor Judith Davidson Moyers, executive producers Judy Doctoroff and Sally Roy and Diane Domondon and Jesse Adams, the two of whom every week have made sure these scratchings make it out alive, with alacrity and accuracy.

    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.

    April 23, 2010

    Will Lawmakers Avert The Next Financial Collapse?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with veteran regulator William K. Black about the proposed new financial reform legislation and the systemic problems that led to the economic collapse in 2008.

    Black expressed disappointment with President Obama's speech on financial regulation this week, and said that the pervasive influence of Wall Street money and ideology has created what he calls a "criminogenic" environment:

    "I was disappointed that [President Obama] wasn't willing to be blunt. He used a number of euphemisms, but he was unwilling to use the 'F word,' which is fraud in this. It's the word that explains why we have these recurrent, intensifying crises... A criminogenic environment is a steal from pathology - a pathogenic environment [is] one that spreads disease. In this case, it's an environment that spreads fraud... [The SEC] could have acted at any time to regulate all of these securities bankers to the extent that their problems had to do with mortgages, and they overwhelmingly caused by mortgages. They refused. They [and] the Fed refused to use that authority... There wasn't going to be significant reform or significant crackdowns in the financial sphere because the leading source of contributions to the Obama candidacy and the McCain candidacy was the financial industry... It's deeply criminogenic. And this ideology that both parties are dominated by says 'No, big corporations wouldn't cheat. Fraud can't happen. The market's automatically excluded.' It's insane. It's been falsified for 25 years by event after event here and abroad."

    What do you think?

  • Black says that both Republicans and Democrats subscribe to an ideology that encourages financial fraud. Do you agree? Why or why not?

  • If government officials did not enforce regulation that was already on the books, do you think the new regulations being proposed in Washington will help prevent further economic disasters?

  • Do you expect lawmakers to act responsibly to prevent the next collapse? How are you working to encourage them?

  • Should the Federal Government Fund Journalism?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps about his perspective on net neutrality and the future of journalism in the digital age.

    Copps, who believes that the government should play a role in regulating and promoting Internet access, suggested that government also has a role to play in funding and encouraging investigative journalism. He said:

    "I think newspapers are going to survive, and I think broadcast is going to come back. What I'm not convinced of is that newspapers in their new survival mode are going to be able, unaided, to support the kind of in-depth journalism that we need to have, and get those reporters back. I think they can get by with that slimmed down newsroom, or the closed-down newsroom. That doesn't help the country very much though... We're talking about educating a country and keeping a country informed. I think at some point we have to get off the defensive and start talking about public support for public media. In the United States, we spend $1.35 per capita per annum supporting public media - public broadcasting, public radio. Lots of other countries are spending $50, $75, $100 or more, and you kind of get what you pay for. It's not interfering with the democracy of Denmark or Finland or Great Britain or places like that... The news has gone down the drain, investigative journalism is on the endangered list, [so] maybe there's an argument to be made for doing a little bit more."

    Recent polling from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests that many in the industry have reservations about accepting government funding:

    "As they look forward, news executives have concerns about some of the funding ideas being discussed for journalism... [There was] overarching concern about accepting government money. Fully 75% of all news executives surveyed--and 88% of newspaper executives--said they had "serious reservations," or the highest level of concern, about direct subsidies from the government. And about half (46%) have that level of concern over tax credits for news organizations... Even in these dire economic times, only 19% would welcome such funding... 'If the government becomes the 'money bags' for journalism, journalism will become the ''bag man'' for the government,' wrote a member of [Radio Television Digital News Association]. 'This would be an assault to the first amendment of the constitution.' 'We must keep our independence or perception of independence and accepting government subsidies ties you to the government we are meant to watch,' explained an [American Society of News Editors] member, 'The lines become too blurred if we begin taking donations and subsidies. Even if we remain aggressive in coverage why would readers believe we are independent?'"

    What do you think?

  • Should the government fund journalism? Why or why not?

  • Do you trust government-funded journalism to remain independent? Explain.

  • Do you believe that government funding has affected the independence of state-funded news outlets like the BBC?

  • Michael Winship - Goldman Sachs: What Hath Fraud Wrought?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

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

    "Goldman Sachs: What Hath Fraud Wrought?"
    By Michael Winship

    Goldman Sachs is the Blackwater of finance, the latest in a long line of companies you love to hate, like AIG and the Dallas Cowboys.

    Or, as ROLLING STONE's Matt Taibbi infamously characterized it last year, the financial behemoth is "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." Honestly, Matt has to cut down on his couch time watching The Discovery Channel.

    Nevertheless, hit "refresh" on any financial news Web site and you're likely to get yet another revelation of the firm's colossal and impressively varied shenanigans. On Friday, Susan Pulliam reported on the front page of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL that, "A Goldman Sachs Group Inc. director tipped off a hedge-fund billionaire about a $5 billion investment in Goldman by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. before a public announcement of the deal at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, a person close to the situation says."

    As the JOURNAL notes, the Buffet deal came at a key point in the Wall Street collapse, restoring confidence in the markets and lifting Goldman's stock from a 40 percent slide to a 45 percent surge. The hedge-fund billionaire in question is Raj Rajaratnam, whose Galleon Group currently is embroiled in one of the biggest insider trading scandals in history: 21, including Rajaratnam, have been charged; 11 already have pled guilty.

    The same day's FINANCIAL TIMES reports a potential conflict of interest surrounding Goldman's role in the refinancing of Lloyds Banking Group, 41 percent of which is owned by the British government - an arrangement made to rescue Lloyd's from the financial meltdown.

    Goldman Sachs was both an investor and underwriter in the Lloyds refinancing. According to the FT's sources, Goldman got last minute changes made that increased interest on bonds being exchanged in the deal and was involved in discussions determining which bonds would receive highest priority in the exchange. Top ranked was a bond in which Goldman had invested, perhaps, one source said, buying as much as half of the issue. Goldman insisted its position was "not substantial."

    All of this, of course, a week after the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs with committing a highly sophisticated fraud, making big profits on the backs of struggling home owners, packaging their soaring mortgage debt as exotic investments some at Goldman knew would fail.

    Already, foes of Wall Street reform are picking away at the SEC charges, and whether or not the accusations will ultimately stick remains to be seen - it's a very complex and nuanced case. The WASHINGTON POST reports that the two Republican members of the commission questioned the strength of the case and voted against bringing the complaint, expressing skepticism "that the evidence showed that Goldman had misled its clients because the investors were big, sophisticated firms who should have known what they were doing."

    But the Democratic commissioners and SEC chair Mary Schapiro "argued that Goldman should not escape accountability simply because its clients were big firms. They said the evidence showed that Goldman did not give clients crucial information about the investment that likely would have made them think again about placing a bet."

    Others claim that investments like the one in the Goldman case, a swirl of so-called "synthetic CDO's" (collateralized debt obligations) is so newfangled and complicated, very few of even the most knowledgeable financiers actually understand it. And those who do are not in a position to offer an objective opinion to investors because they're already working for companies like Goldman.

    The GOP opposition to the SEC's complaint came just days before federal campaign finance filings were released on Tuesday. In March alone, Goldman Sach's political action committee donated $167,500 to Republican candidates and fundraising groups and $123,000 to the Democrats. As per the Web site Politico.com, "That March total alone - coming ahead of a major Wall Street reform bill - is more than the firm donated to political campaigns in the previous year."

    A pox on all their houses. So thinks Bill Black, the one time federal regulator who cracked down on banking during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980's, pursuing the guilty with the tenacity of Inspector Javert in LES MISERABLES. He now teaches law and economics at the University of Missouri/Kansas City and wrote the book THE BEST WAY TO ROB A BANK IS TO OWN ONE.

    Black spoke with my colleague Bill Moyers on the current edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on PBS. He questions whether the SEC and the Obama White House - don't forget, Goldman Sachs was Obama's largest corporate campaign contributor -- will fully push for answers in the Goldman fraud case or any others. "Is this administration, which still has some Bush holdovers in it, and now has a lot of Goldman people in it, is this administration going to be able to pass judgment on Goldman Sachs?" he asked.

    "... They haven't kicked into gear fully, or they'd be naming [Goldman CEO and Chairman Lloyd] Blankfein and other senior leaders of Goldman. And they've only gone after a junior person... If they were really in gear, there would be criminal charges here. And if they were really in gear, there'd be a broad investigation, not just of Goldman, but of all of these major entities."

    But, he added, if you're sitting in Congress or the White House, "Do you want to look at these seemingly respectable, huge financial institutions, which are your leading political contributors, as crooks?"

    If Black had his way, he'd enforce a three-strike policy. "Three strike laws, you go to prison for life, if you have three felonies," he said. "How many of these major corporations would still be allowed to exist, if we were to use the three strike laws, given what they've been convicted of in the past?"

    That will never happen until the corporate clout of cash is removed from the American way of governance. Bill Black recalled a slogan he and his colleagues invoked during the savings and loan crisis: "The highest return on assets is always a political contribution."

    Maybe that new $100 bill should read, "In Fraud We Trust."

    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.

    April 21, 2010

    Bill Moyers on Retiring from the JOURNAL

    Thanks to all of you who wrote to express your disappointment and dismay at hearing me say last week that the JOURNAL will be coming to an end with the April 30th broadcast. My team and I were touched by your messages, but I want to disabuse those of you who fear that we are being pushed off the air by higher-ups at PBS pointing to the door and demanding that we go. Not so. PBS doesn't fund the JOURNAL; our support comes from foundations and our sole corporate funder, Mutual of America. Together they've given me an independence rare for broadcast journalists. Our reporting and analysis trigger controversy from many quarters, as any strong journalism will, but not one - not one! - of my funders has ever mentioned to me the complaints directed their way. They would continue their support if I were to stick around.

    I'm leaving for one reason alone: It's time to go. I'll be 76 in a few weeks, and while I don't consider myself old (my father lived into his 80s, my mother into her 90s) there are some things left to do that the deadlines and demands of a weekly broadcast don't permit. At 76, it's now or never. I actually informed my friends at PBS of my decision over a year ago, and planned to leave at the end of last December. But they asked me to continue another four more months while they prepare a new series for Friday night broadcast. I agreed, but said at the time - April 30 and not a week longer.

    It wasn't easy deciding to close the JOURNAL. I like what I do, I cherish my colleagues, and my viewers remain loyal and engaged. I will miss the virtual community that has grown up around the broadcast - kindred spirits across the country whose unseen but felt presence reminds me of why I have kept at this work so long. But it has indeed been a long time (almost 40 years since I launched the original JOURNAL in 1971), and that's why I can assure you that my departure is entirely voluntary. "Time brings everything," an ancient wise man said. Including new beginnings.

    But I still have two weeks before signing off. This Friday night my guests include Michael Copps, the FCC commissioner who later this year will hold public hearings around the country to get your views on net neutrality. In his nine years on the FCC Mike Copps has opposed the concentration of media ownership and advocated for an open Internet. He says the recent federal court decision restricting the Commission's authority over the net shouldn't be a deterrent to the FCC's pressing forward on assuring access for all to the Web. [Check out Bill Moyers' 2006 documentary on net neutrality, NET AT RISK.]

    My second guest this Friday is another staunch public interest advocate, whose anger at the predatory tactics of Wall Street approaches the intensity of the Iceland volcano. As a federal regulator many years ago Bill Black helped put in jail a lot of culprits involved in the costly savings and loan scandal of the 1980s. His book about that experience - THE BEST WAY TO ROB A BANK IS TO OWN ONE - is one of my favorites. You first saw him on the JOURNAL a year ago when he voiced his suspicion that it was more than incompetence that brought down the financial sector in 2008 and plunged the economy into recession - it was greed. When it comes to financial shenanigans, Black is the modern equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. He's been on the trail of "liars' loans" - loans issued without verifying income. He'll have more to say about "liars' loans" on the JOURNAL Friday. But in the meantime, you can check out his testimony before Congress yesterday on the fall of Lehman. He has a lot more to say on the JOURNAL Friday night - for you Tweeters, his 140-character message is simple: "Lock-em up!"

    See you Friday.

    Bill Moyers

    Staying In Touch With Bill Moyers

    The JOURNAL on-air will be coming to an end on April 30th but the conversation continues online and on our blog.

    We'll be posting commentary, features and selections from the Moyers Digital Archive. Stay in touch even after we're off the air at this address and through RSS feeds, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and our newsletter.

    Sign up at our links! We look forward to hearing from you.

    April 16, 2010

    Financial Regulation & Regulatory Capture

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with financial experts Simon Johnson and James Kwak about Wall Street's influence in Washington and their support for new financial regulation that might reduce the banks' power.

    James Kwak explained why he and Johnson advocate for more financial regulation, including breaking up America's largest banks:

    "It used to be maybe eight or nine banks. But what's happened over the last two years is that these banks have gotten bigger, because they've bought each other. They've become more powerful. And they have an even stronger market position in some key markets like credit cards, mortgages, equity underwriting, and derivatives. And when we talk about the problem, when we talk about the need to break up these banks, we're really just talking about six banks, which are pretty undebatably too big to fail and therefore have an enormous amount of leverage over the government... What we learned in 2008 were certain institutions are so big and so interconnected that if they were to fail, they would cause systemic shocks throughout the economy. That's essentially what happened in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed... Almost two years later, nothing has changed. Or the only change is that these banks have gotten larger, more powerful, both economically and politically. And they've been flexing their muscles in Washington for the last year and a half."

    Bill Moyers asked why new financial regulations would work when past efforts at reform have ultimately failed:

    "Over the course of my lifetime, and my working career as a journalist, I've seen one regulatory agency after another taken over by the very industries they were supposed to regulate. Regulation requires a President who is committed to tough regulation. If you get a free market President like George W. Bush, you get regulation serving the industry... If you get a Democratic Party that's been compromised by its concessions and capitulations and contributions from Wall Street, you get a regulatory system that is a joke, and that's what we have. What's to ensure that the next regulatory system won't be a joke?"

    Simon Johnson replied:

    "The person who nailed this intellectually a long time ago was from the University of Chicago. George Stigler, not a man of the left, got a Nobel Prize [for concluding that] all industries end up with the industry capturing the regulators. What's happened to us is exactly what Stigler warned against, on a massive scale. The Administration still argues that we should delegate responsibility, going forward, for lots of things around finance - like how much capital you should have - delegate that to the regulators... Now that's crazy. That's not acceptable. That's not what they should do, particularly because any Democrat should say 'well, wait a minute, the next free market president who doesn't believe in regulation [that] comes in will gut the system.' And any person from the right who's read Stigler should say 'well, those regulators are just gonna get captured.' You've got to put it in legislation. You've got to design the legislation. You've got to go after the things that can be legislated. Congress must not abdicate this responsibility."

    What do you think?

  • Can the government set up a regulatory system that won't end up controlled by Wall Street? Why or why not?

  • How can ordinary citizens take action to retake our democracy from the clutches of Big Finance?

  • How Much Is Your Community Spending on America's Wars?

    At the Cost of War, a Web site sponsored by the National Priorities Project, you can find out how much money your community has spent - and continues to spend - on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Tell us how much money your community has contributed to the wars.

    Do you believe the wars are the best use of your tax dollars? If not, what do you think would have been a better use of your money?

    Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Crocodile Tears on Wall Street

    With all due respect, we can only wish those Tea Party activists who gathered in Washington and other cities this week weren't so single-minded about just who's responsible for all their troubles, real and imagined. They're up in arms, so to speak, against Big Government, especially the Obama administration.

    If they thought this through, they'd be joining forces with other grassroots Americans who in the coming weeks will be demonstrating in Washington and other cities against High Finance, taking on Wall Street and the country's biggest banks.

    The original Tea Party, remember, wasn't directed just against the British redcoats. Colonial patriots also took aim at the East India Company. That was the joint-stock enterprise originally chartered by the first Queen Elizabeth. Over the years, the government granted them special rights and privileges, which the owners turned into a monopoly over trade, including tea.

    It may seem a bit of a stretch from tea to credit default swaps, but the principle is the same: when enormous private wealth goes unchecked, regular folks get hurt - badly. That's what happened in 2008 when the monied interests led us up the garden path to the great collapse.

    So the Tea Party crowd should be demanding accountability from Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and scores of hedge funds and private equity firms that constitute what we loosely call Wall Street.

    But are the culprits taking responsibility for devastating the lives of millions of ordinary Americans? Don't kid yourself. If you've been watching them appear before congressional committees and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission - the independent inquiry that's supposed to find out what really happened - you've no doubt been reaching for the Pepto-Bismol.

    Here's Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary and director of Citigroup, testifying last week. "Almost all of us involved in the financial system, including financial firms, regulators, ratings agencies, analysts and commentators missed the powerful combination of forces at work and the serious possibility of a massive crisis," he said. "We all bear responsibility for not recognizing this, and I deeply regret that."

    Okay, maybe you didn't have a crystal ball. But what about good, old-fashioned business sense? How could you make so much money and not know the score? "You are talking about a level of granularity no board will ever have," Rubin claimed. Citi paid you $120 million as a senior advisor and rainmaker and you're not responsible for knowing what's happening below you? You didn't bother to assess the risk you were peddling to clients?

    The committee heard a similar alibi from Chuck Prince, who served as CEO of Citigroup during its meltdown: "Let me start by saying I'm sorry. I'm sorry that the financial crisis has had such a devastating impact on our country... And I'm sorry that our management team, starting with me, like so many others, could not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us."

    Commission Chairman Phil Angelides, the former state treasurer of California, wasn't buying it. "The two of you, in charge of this organization, did not seem to have a grip on what was happening," he said, and to Rubin, "I don't know that you can have it two ways: you were either pulling the levers or asleep at the switch."

    Nonetheless, the financiers wail, it was all an enormous accident, a once in a century calamity, an act of God. But of course that's not true. Lots of people saw it coming and made a bundle, taking off with the loot at the expense of the millions who lost their jobs, homes and savings. There's no longer any question that many bankers continued to game the system after the collapse - still paying themselves exorbitant salaries and bonuses while hitting everyday people with usurious same day paycheck loans, credit card fees and other charges - and refusing to help small and medium-sized businesses that could be creating employment.

    The Tea Party gang really should have dropped by those Senate hearings this week looking into the failure of Washington Mutual, the bank that went belly up during the meltdown in September 2008 - the largest such failure in American history.

    As an 18-month Senate investigation revealed, WaMu made subprime loans that its executives knew were rotten, then packaged them as mortgage securities and pawned them off on unsuspecting investors. Loan officers were paid by the number of mortgages they sold, and ran up the numbers by lying to customers and falsifying data so they could make bigger bucks and win trips to Maui and the Caribbean. At one Washington Mutual office in Montebello, California, 83 percent of the housing loans contained bogus information.

    Then there's Lehman Brothers. Their misfortune, apart from some chicanery only now coming to light, was being small enough to fail. During those black September days two years ago, the Feds decided it was expendable and let it go, leading to America's biggest bankruptcy ever. In an admirable job of journalism this week, The NEW YORK TIMES reported that Lehman secretly controlled a company called Hudson Castle. Critics say it was used by Lehman to borrow money and to hide bad investments in commercial real estate and subprime mortgages.

    But the week's award for sheer gall goes to a Chicago area hedge fund called Magnetar, named after a kind of neutron star that spews deadly radiation across the galaxies. Thanks to the teamwork of the investigative reporting Web site ProPublica, as well as public radio's Planet Money project and "This American Life," we learned that Magnetar worked with Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and other investment banks to create toxic CDO's - collateralized debt obligations - securities backed by subprime mortgages that management knew were bad. Then Magnetar took that knowledge and bet against the very same investments they had recommended to buyers, selling short and making a fortune.

    To simply call all of this "creative accounting" is to do it an injustice. This is corruption, cynicism and greed on a scale that would make the Roman Emperor Caligula cringe. Or rather, the Emperor Nero. He didn't just poison the citizens of Rome; legend has it that he burned the place down, fiddling around in the ashes just like our Wall Street tycoons.

    But since we know all this, why is it so hard to hold Wall Street accountable? Which brings us to what the Tea Party people should have been complaining about this week. The banking industry and corporate America are fighting against proposed financial reform with all the money and influence at their disposal, attempting to preserve a system that would enable them to ransack the country once again.

    Look at Eric Lichtblau's report this week, also in the NEW YORK TIMES, under the headline: "Lawmakers Regulate Banks, Then Flock to Them." The financial services industry has hired more than 125 former members of Congress and congressional staffers from both parties to help them fight off accountability.

    No wonder, too, that this headline appeared in the TIMES this week: "GOP Takes Aim at Plans to Curb Finance Industry." That's not surprising. Earlier this year Republican politicians told Wall Street: Give us the scratch and we'll scrap reform.

    The GOP's SWAT team - also known as the United States Chamber of Commerce - has already spent three million dollars to try to kill or cripple a key part of reform - the proposed new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. With the Chamber as their front, corporations have bankrolled ads that make it seem like the Red Army is at our doorsteps.

    Advocates for reform have countered with ads of their own, but Democrats are deeply in hock to Wall Street, too. Remember the hedge fund Magnetar that bet against its own products? The owners covered their bets with ample campaign contributions to Rahm Emanuel. Yep, the same - President Obama's White House chief of staff. At the time he was an Illinois congressman and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which collected millions of dollars from the financial services industry.

    In fact, the Web site Politico.com reports that "the nation's ten richest hedge fund managers have dumped nearly one million dollars into campaign accounts over the past several years... consumer advocates and critics from other financial sectors say hedge funds would get off pretty easily" under the Senate reform bill.

    Bottom line: "The Wall Street banks are the new American oligarchy - a group that gains political power because of its economic power, and then uses that political power for its own benefit." So write Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund; and James Kwak, former management consultant and software entrepreneur, in their important new book, 13 BANKERS: THE WALL STREET TAKEOVER AND THE NEXT FINANCIAL MELTDOWN.

    Their words of warning and the past year and a half make you realize that as usual, Thomas Jefferson, whose birthday we celebrate this week, had it right. Back in 1816, he wrote, "I sincerely believe... that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies."

    April 9, 2010

    Can the U.S. Military Achieve Victory in Afghanistan?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers sat down with historian, retired Colonel, and military expert Andrew Bacevich to discuss America's "long war" in Afghanistan, which is now in its ninth year.

    On a recent trip to Afghanistan, President Obama said in a speech to U.S. troops that the war is a "vital mission" and that he is determined to achieve victory:

    "Your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America's safety and security... If this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake... You will be backed up by a clear mission and the right strategy to finish the job, to get the job done. And I am confident all of you are going to get the job done right here in Afghanistan... That's why I ordered more troops and civilians here into Afghanistan shortly after taking office. That's why we took a hard look and forged a new strategy and committed more resources in December... Our broad mission is clear: We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies... There's going to be setbacks. We face a determined enemy. But we also know this: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don't quit, the American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail."

    Bacevich suggested U.S. military leadership has largely given up on the hope of a traditional military victory and that armed nation-building in Afghanistan is not an appropriate task for our troops:

    "One of the most interesting and perplexing things that's happened in the past three, four years is that in many respects, the officer corps itself has given up on the idea of military victory... they say that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, that we will not win a military victory, that the only solution to be gained - if there is one - is through bringing to success this project of armed nation-building. What makes that interesting to a military historian of my Vietnam generation is that the collective purpose of the officer corps after Vietnam, this humiliation that we had experienced, was to demonstrate that war works, that war could be purposeful, that out of collision on the battlefield would come decision [and] victory... The officer corps has, I think, unwittingly forfeited its claim to providing a unique and important service to American society. Why, if indeed the purpose of the exercise in Afghanistan is - to put it crudely - drag this country into the modern world, why put a four-star general in charge of that? Why not put a successful mayor of a big city? Why not put a legion of social reformers? Because the war in Afghanistan is not a war as the American military traditionally conceives of war."

    What do you think?

  • Do you believe that U.S. troops can achieve military victory in Afghanistan? Why or why not?

  • What objectives in Afghanistan are attainable and how should the U.S. work to achieve them?

  • Language and Culture

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with acclaimed author Louise Erdrich about her writing and her Native American heritage.

    Erdrich described the significance of her Ojibwe language and culture:

    "Native American people puzzle other people. Why is [their culture] so strong with them? Why don't they just become like the rest of us? What is it that's so important in their culture that they cling to it so? I think it has to do with the belongingness and the sense of peace that I feel among other native people, this sense of community - you're in the comfort of a very funny, grounded people who are related to everything that's around them, who don't feel this estrangement that people feel so often. That's why being Ojibwe or Anishinabe is so important to me... Even learning the amount of Ojibwe that one can at my age is a life-altering experience. You see the world in a different way. I for instance was astounded when I realized early on that Ojibwe doesn't see the world in terms of gender. You're working in a language in which there is a spirit behind this language. Everything is interrelated and participates in a level of spiritual interaction."

    What do you think?

  • Do you speak multiple languages? If so, how does each help you see the world differently?

  • Tell us about your cultural heritage. How does it contribute to your unique perspective?

  • In West Virginia, Coal Miners' Slaughter

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

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

    "In West Virginia, Coal Miners' Slaughter"
    By Michael Winship

    The high cost of energy in America was paid in human lives this week, with the deaths of more than two dozen miners in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. It's the worst mine disaster in a quarter of a century.

    Upper Big Branch is owned by Massey Energy Company, which operates 47 mines in central Appalachia. According to the Los Angeles Times, it employs nearly 6,000 and in 2009 reported revenues of $2.3 billion, with a net income of $104.4 million.

    At the center of this week's catastrophe is Massey's president and CEO Don Blankenship, a man so reviled nowadays he had to be escorted away by police when he and other company officials tried to address a group of distraught family and friends outside the Upper Big Branch mine in the early morning hours after the explosion. The crowd hurled invective - and a chair.

    Blankenship hates unions (Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine), thinks global warming is a figment of our imaginations and that those who do believe in climate change are crazy; supports destructive, mountain-top-removal mining; serves on the board of the conservative, free market U.S. Chamber of Commerce and now, lucky us, shares his pearls of right-wing wisdom via Twitter. "America doesn't need Green jobs," he tweeted pithily last month, "but Red, White, & Blue ones."

    David Roberts of the environmental magazine GRIST described him as "the scariest polluter in the U.S. ...The guy is evil and I don't use that word lightly."

    Just one example of Massey Energy's earlier history of environmental malfeasance was described in a May 2003 issue of FORBES MAGAZINE: "In October 2000 the floor of a 72-acre wastewater reservoir built above an abandoned mine in Kentucky collapsed, sending black sludge through the mine and out into a tributary of the Big Sandy River. The sludge killed fish and plants for 36 miles downstream. Water supplies were shut down in several towns for a month. In total, 230 million gallons spilled out, 20 times the volume of the crude oil from the Exxon Valdez. Lawns nearby were covered in as much as 7 feet of muck...

    "... The reservoir had shown signs of leaking right before the accident and Massey failed to report that fact to regulators as required, according to the U.S. Mine Safety & Health Administration. The cleanup has cost $58 million so far."

    This week's Upper Big Branch mine disaster is the latest in a string of environmental and safety-related calamities linked to Massey and Blankenship. In 2008, the company paid a $20 million fine to the Environmental Protection Agency, and that same year, a Massey subsidiary, the Aracoma Coal Company, pled guilty to safety violations and agreed to $4.2 million in civil penalties and criminal fines connected to the 2006 deaths of two miners in a fire.

    According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, "After the fire broke out, the two miners found themselves unable to escape, partly because the company had removed some ventilation controls inside the mine. The workers died of suffocation. Federal prosecutors at the time called it the largest such settlement in the history of the coal industry."

    The Upper Big Branch mine has a long history of violations. Last month alone it was cited by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for 53 safety violations, many of them for inadequate venting of dust and methane and improperly maintained escape passages. Last year, the TIMES reports, "the number of citations against the mine more than doubled, to over 500, from 2008, and the penalties proposed against the mine more than tripled, to $897,325." So far, only $168,393 of those fines have been paid.

    Blankenship's response? "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process," he told a radio interviewer. West Virginia and federal laws were toughened after the Sago mine disaster in 2006 that killed 12 men. But as the number of safety citations has increased, so, too, has the number of appeals by the mining companies, and while that long bureaucratic process unfolds, it's business as usual.

    Blankenship and Massey Energy play our political system like a country fiddle, a system corrupted by money and influence. A certified public accountant (he's actually in the national CPA hall of fame - I'm not kidding), Blankenship apparently sees the world as one big balance sheet, with human life an expendable commodity and - especially if they're judges or other officials - something to be bought and sold.

    The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics says that since 1990, those associated with Massey and its political action committee have given more than $300,000 in campaign contributions to federal candidates. And in 2006, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Blankenship spent more than $100,000 trying to elect pro-business candidates to the West Virginia state legislature.

    But it's in the courthouse that Blankenship has really tried to spread the wealth. In 2008, photos were published of him wining and dining West Virginia Supreme Court Justice "Spike" Maynard along the Riviera. They were popping corks in Monaco as Massey Energy was before the court appealing a $50 million judgment that had been won by smaller mining companies charging Massey with fraud. Subsequently, Maynard recused himself from the case and was defeated for re-election. Now he's running for Congress.

    Blankenship had better luck when he went on the offensive against West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw, creating a PAC called "And for the Sake of the Kids." He contributed $3 million and created campaign ads described by USA TODAY as "venomous." They made particular hay with a case in which Justice McGraw was part of a majority that voted to free a mentally disturbed child molester, who got a job as a school janitor.

    McGraw was defeated by Blankenship's candidate, Brent Benjamin. When the appeal of the $50 million came before the court, ABC News reports, "Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case and twice provided the deciding vote in Massey's favor. The jury verdict against Massey was overturned."

    So egregious were Benjamin's actions that even the current United States Supreme Court, so heavily pro-business in its recent decision-making, was appalled. It ruled that the judge and Blankenship were out of line. Even so - and even with Benjamin finally recusing himself - on a third vote, Massey again won its appeal.

    When you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. Meanwhile, miners working for Massey Energy and Blankenship continue to risk their lives deep below the earth, digging out the fuel that helps keep our lights burning at the price of never knowing if the tiniest of sparks will ignite the next fatal explosion.

    April 7, 2010

    Bill Moyers Rewind: Sherman Alexie (2002)

    Recently, Native American author Sherman Alexie won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for his short story collection WAR DANCES.

    In 2002, Alexie appeared on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS. Click below to watch video of that segment.

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    April 2, 2010

    Towards a More Just Society?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with social justice advocates Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander about the persistence of systemic racial inequalities in American society and Dr. Martin Luther King's vision of a more just society.

    Michelle Alexander described her view of a criminal justice system that she sees as discriminatory against minority groups:

    "Individual black achievement today masks a disturbing underlying racial reality. To a significant extent, affirmative action - seeing African Americans go to Harvard and Yale and become CEOs and corporate lawyers - causes us all to marvel what a long way we have come. But much of the data indicates that African Americans today as a group are not much better off than they were back in 1968... Just a couple of decades after the collapse of the old Jim Crow system, a new system of racial control emerged in the United States. Today, people of color are targeted by law enforcement for relatively minor, nonviolent, often drug-related offenses - the types of crimes that occur all the time on college campuses, where drug use is open and notorious, that occur in middle class suburban communities without much notice... [They are] arrested, branded felons, and then ushered into a parallel social universe in which they can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in many of the ways in which African Americans were discriminated against during the Jim Crow era."

    Bryan Stevenson argued that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations and is fundamentally incompatible with the core American value of equal justice:

    "There are structures and systems that have created poverty and have made that poverty so permanent that, until we think in a more just way about how to deal with poverty in this country, we're never going to make the progress that Dr. King envisioned... We have a criminal justice system that's very wealth-sensitive. Our system treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent... If we keep ignoring the poor, I think we not only undermine Dr. King's vision, but we corrupt our values. The observant said you judge the character of a society not by how you treat the rich and the privileged and the celebrated. You judge the character of a society by how you treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated... We've got to find ways to inspire people, to challenge people, to confront people to recognize that a commitment to justice cannot be reconciled with a commitment to mass incarceration. A commitment to fairness cannot be reconciled with the conditions and demographics that we now see in poor and urban communities."

    African American economist Thomas Sowell has suggested that some groups are more likely to have values that are conducive to success in American society than others and, thus, that a level playing field conflicts with the desire for all groups to achieve roughly equal outcomes. In a recent column, he argued that society lacks the ability to compel different groups to achieve the same results:

    "Most of us want to be fair, in the sense of treating everyone equally. We want laws to be applied the same to everyone... Whether any human being has ever had the omniscience to determine and undo the many differences among people born into different families and cultures -- with different priorities, attitudes and behavior -- is a very big question. And to concentrate the vast amount of power needed to carry out that sweeping agenda is a dangerous gamble... There is no question that the accident of birth is a huge factor in the fate of people. What is a very serious question is how much anyone can do about that without creating other, and often worse, problems. Providing free public education, scholarships to colleges and other opportunities for achievement are fine as far as they go, but there should be no illusion that they can undo all the differences in priorities, attitudes and efforts among different individuals and groups."

    What do you think?

  • Michelle Alexander compares today's struggle to the Jim Crow era. Do you agree? How do you think the quest for a more economically and racially just society has changed over time?

  • In your view, what would constitute a just society? What measures could move the country in that direction?

  • How are you mobilizing to work towards a more just America?

  • Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Dr. King's Economic Dream Deferred

    Forty-two years ago, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. To those of us who were alive then, the images are etched in painful memory: One day, Dr. King is standing with colleagues, including Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel; the next, he's lying there mortally wounded, his aides pointing in the direction of the rifle shot.
    Then we remember the crowds of mourners slowly moving through the streets of Atlanta on a hot sunny day, surrounding King's casket as it was carried on a mule-drawn farm wagon; and the riots that burned across the nation in the wake of his death; a stinging, misbegotten rebuke to his gospel of non-violence.

    We sanctify his memory now, name streets and schools after him, made his birthday a national holiday. But in April 1968, as Dr. King walked out on that motel balcony, his reputation was under assault. The glory days of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington were behind him, his Nobel Peace Prize already in the past.

    A year before, at Riverside Church in New York, he had spoken out - eloquently - against the war in Vietnam. King said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," a position that angered President Lyndon Johnson, many of King's fellow civil rights leaders and influential newspapers. The WASHINGTON POST charged that King had, "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."

    With his popularity in decline, an exhausted, stressed and depressed Martin Luther King, Jr., turned his attention to economic injustice. He reminded the country that his March on Washington five years earlier had not been for civil rights alone but "a campaign for jobs and income, because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people and poor people, generally, were confronting." Now, King was building what he called the Poor People's Campaign to confront nationwide inequalities in jobs, pay and housing.

    But he had to prove that he could still be an effective leader, and so he came to Memphis, in support of a strike by that city's African-American garbage men. Eleven hundred sanitation workers had walked off the job after two had died in a tragic accident, crushed by a garbage truck's compactor. The garbage men were fed up - treated with contempt as they performed a filthy and unrewarding job, paid so badly that 40 percent of them were on welfare, called "boy" by white supervisors. Their picket signs were simple and eloquent: "I AM A MAN."

    A few weeks into their strike, which had been met with opposition and violence, Dr. King arrived for meetings and addressed a rally. Ten days later, he returned to lead a march through the streets of Memphis that ended in smashed windows, gunshots and tear gas.

    Upset by the violence, he came back to the city one more time to try to put things right. The night before his death, King made his famous "Mountaintop" speech, prophetically telling an audience, "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

    The next night he was dead. Twelve days later, the strike was settled, the garbage men's union was recognized and the city of Memphis begrudgingly agreed to increase their pay, at first by a dime an hour, and later, an extra nickel.

    That paltry sum would also be prophetic. All these decades later, little has changed when it comes to economic equality. If anything, the recent economic meltdown and recession have made the injustice of poverty even more profound, especially in a society where the top percentile enjoys undreamed of prosperity.

    Unemployment among African-Americans is nearly double that of whites, according to the National Urban League's latest State of Black America report. Black men and women in this country make 62 cents on the dollar earned by whites. Less than half of black and Hispanic families own homes and they are three times more likely to live below the poverty line.

    The non-partisan group United for a Fair Economy has issued a report that features Martin Luther King, Jr., on the cover with the title, "State of the Dream 2010: Drained." Dr. King's dream is in jeopardy, the report's authors write, "The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income."

    Nor will a recovery ameliorate the crisis. "A rising tide does not lift all boats," United for a Fair Economy's report goes on to say, "because the public policies, economic structures, and unwritten rules of racism form mountains and ridgelines, and hills and valleys that shape our economic landscape. As a result, a rising economic tide fills the rivers and reservoirs of some, while leaving others dry and parched."

    This is a perilous moment. The individualist, greed-driven free-market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about. Popular support for either party has struck bottom, as more and more agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics has corrupted our system, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity - its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.

    It is hard to overstate the consequences of choosing more of the same - the very policies that have sundered our social contract. But hear the judgment of Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and martyrdom. "The vast inequalities of income weaken a society's sense of mutual concern," Arrow said. "...The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization."

    A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

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