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June 11, 2010

Michael Winship: The Supreme Court Says NO to the People - Again

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

"The Supreme Court Says NO to the People - Again"
By Michael Winship

At a dinner party, an ever-so-proper aristocrat who had been at the British evacuation of Dunkirk 60 years ago, remained tightlipped despite intense questioning from the other guests about what he had seen there.

Finally, he shuddered at the memory and exclaimed, "The noise, my dear, and the people!"

An apocryphal story, perhaps, but the high-falutin' Supreme Court of the United States has the same attitude toward America - this would be such a great country if it wasn't for all the noise and people.

Bad enough that last week the court narrowly redefined Miranda rights in such a way that seems to say that if one of those aforementioned people is arrested and remains silent about their right to remain silent, anything you do say, if you say something, can and will be held against you. An interpretation as worthy of Lewis Carroll as it is George Orwell.

Continue reading "Michael Winship: The Supreme Court Says NO to the People - Again" »

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?

  • March 26, 2010

    Can Washington Rein In Wall Street?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with financial journalist Gretchen Morgenson about the financial reform legislation that lawmakers are crafting in Washington.

    Morgenson said that the proposals she's seen have been insufficient to rein in many of the Wall Street abuses that helped bring on the economic meltdown.

    "I think that the bills we have seen have been so half-baked and really do not address some of the crucial elements of reform that are needed if we want to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again... We are nowhere closer to any kind of technique [or] strategy to prevent that kind of behemoth from growing again... I myself have been stunned watching the brazenness with which [the bankers] are willing to operate now - just swaggering about town, throwing money at their problem, throwing money at legislators to make sure they don't have to face a formidable regulatory framework... They take the gains when their stock is rising, when their companies are profitable, but when they get into trouble, you socialize the losses. The taxpayer has to pay them. We have rewarded this kind of dysfunctional behavior... It wasn't that we needed more regulation. We needed regulators with an appetite to regulate. We had plenty of regulations on the books about mortgages, products, practices, [but] no one was enforcing it."

    What do you think?

  • Do you believe that Washington lawmakers will create legislation that seriously tackles financial abuses from Wall Street?

  • What specifically would you like the legislation to address?

  • How can citizens take action to encourage regulators to actually regulate?

  • February 5, 2010

    Can Democracy Withstand The Power of Big Money?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with libertarian journalist Nick Gillespie and progressive legal scholar Lawrence Lessig about the impact of last month's controversial Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds from their general treasuries on political communications in periods shortly before elections and primaries.

    While many have argued that the Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission affirms free speech and the First Amendment, others have expressed grave concern that the ruling may open the floodgates of corporate money into America's elections and undermine the voices and trust of ordinary citizens.

    Criticizing the Court's ruling as a blow to citizens' faith in government, Lessig said:

    "I think it's an ominous sign about the future of this Court and any kind of reform. Because though I support free speech, and even free speech for corporations, what this means is increasingly people are going to believe their government is controlled by the funders and not by the people... Congress has lost the respect of the people, and it's only going to get much, much worse... Increasingly, members are thinking not about what makes sense... They think about what's going to make it easier for the lobbyists to help channel money into their campaigns. They've produced the fundraising Congress, where their obsession is, 'how do I make the people who will fund my campaigns happier?'... The problem that I see is that when speech gets read by the ordinary American people as just another way in which Congress is focusing on the funders rather than focusing on the people, it erodes the trust in this government."

    Gillespie defended the Court's decision and suggested that shrinking the scope of government is the best way to drain money from politics:

    "I think it was a victory for free speech, in the end. If anything, it didn't go far enough. Campaign finance regulation is always a suppression of speech... What I would argue is that we have too many campaign finance reforms. They do stifle free speech - that's what they're designed to do - particularly political speech... Who are the corrupt politicians? Name names, because that's what this is about. Who are the people who are dancing to the tune of their corporate masters?... We have seen an explosion of corporate lobbying after Obama went into office. This past year has been the biggest bumper year for lobbyists ever. What I would argue is it has nothing to do with patrolling speech or even elections - what it has to do with is the fact that the budget that's on the table now is $3.8 trillion. As long as the government is shoveling that kind of cash around, people are going to be sniffing out ways to get their share."

    What do you think?

  • What's your perspective on the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case?

  • Do you believe that a system of campaign finance laws is capable of limiting the influence of money, or do you agree with Gillespie that lobbying and corruption are inevitable with a large federal budget?

  • Do you agree with Lessig that Congress has lost the people's respect? What reforms would increase your faith in Washington?

  • 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?

  • February 15, 2008

    Where Does (And Should) The Money Go?

    In the JOURNAL this week, WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO? authors and budget scrutinizers Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson contend that Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility is propelling America toward troubled times.

    Scott Bittle said:

    “Eventually, if nothing is done, by 2040 every dollar the federal government has will be taken in by Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the money we’ve already borrowed... Right now, one of the few areas of bipartisanship in Washington is the willingness not to deal with the problem... The war is certainly making our financial problems worse. But it’s not the sole cause and it’s not the sole answer."

    Jean Johnson said:

    “People don’t realize that the country has been in the red 31 out of the last 35 years, in good times and bad... There is no way to solve this problem without either raising taxes or cutting programs, or doing some of both. Right now that is a political death sentence, and we have to change that... We’re all gonna have to give a little and we’re all gonna have to live with some things that are not our first choice, but not doing anything is so much worse.”

    What do you think?

  • How, if at all, do you suggest the tax code be altered to ease the government’s fiscal crunch?
  • What, if any, programs should be reduced or cut to balance the budget?
  • What other suggestions do you have to bring the federal budget into the black?

  • January 18, 2008

    Leveling The Playing Field?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Conversing with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, investigative reporter David Cay Johnston said:

    "Get rich by working hard, working smarter, coming up with a better mouse-trap. Don’t get rich by getting the government to pass a law that sticks the government’s hand into my pocket, takes money out of it, and gives it to you. That’s not right. That’s not a fair playing field. Adam Smith warned again and again that it is the nature and tendency of business people to want to put their thumb on the scale and, even better, to get the government to put the thumb on the scale for their benefit... You need entrepreneurs to have a good society. I don’t have any problem with entrepreneurs. But we need to have a system that also fairly distributes... When we have people who make billon-dollar-a-year incomes and pay 15 percent taxes and janitors who pay the same tax rate and school teachers who pay a 25 percent tax rate, something’s amiss."

    What do you think?

  • Is America’s present tax system unfair? If so, what do you suggest?

  • Does government have the responsibility to pursue redistribution of wealth? If so, what are reasonable expectations for such a policy?

  • December 7, 2007

    Update: Lobbies' Role In Middle East Peace

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In his conversation with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, Israel Policy Forum analyst M.J. Rosenberg had the following to say about U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians:

    “There are lots of right-wingers, hard-liners in the Jewish community, within the Jewish lobby, that are not comfortable with a Palestinian state or with the United States promoting a Palestinian state... they're involved in politics in both parties... hard-liners in the Jewish community give campaign contributions based on that issue… If you’re virulently anti-Palestinian, you’re anti-Israel, because there’s no peace for Israel, no security for Israel unless there’s security and statehood for the Palestinians. So when people get up there and say ‘no Palestinian state, the Palestinians are terrorists, the Muslims are a terrible threat to us all,’ that jeopardizes Israel’s future.”

    What do you think? Do you agree with Rosenberg’s analysis?

  • What policy should the U.S. adopt towards Israel and the Palestinians?

  • To what extent do you think lobbies like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Christians United For Israel (CUFI) influence government policy in the Middle East?

  • How do candidates’ relationships with these lobbies and positions regarding Israel and the Palestinians affect your voting decisions?

    *** UPDATE: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler weighs in at ***

  • June 29, 2007

    Moyers on Murdoch

    Watch the videoIf Rupert Murdoch were the Angel Gabriel, you still wouldn’t want him owning the sun, the moon, and the stars. That’s too much prime real estate for even the pure in heart.

    But Rupert Murdoch is no saint; he is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity. When it comes to money and power he’s carnivorous: all appetite and no taste. He’ll eat anything in his path. Politicians become little clay pigeons to be picked off with flattering headlines, generous air time, a book contract or the old-fashioned black jack that never misses: campaign cash. He hires lobbyists the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes, and stacks them in his cavernous closet, along with his conscience; this is the man, remember, who famously kowtowed to the Communist overlords of China, oppressors of their own people, to protect his investments there.

    Continue reading "Moyers on Murdoch" »

    June 27, 2007

    Story Updates

    More Capitol Crimes...
    Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle sentenced J. Steven Griles to 10 months in prison for obstructing an investigation into the Jack Abramoff scandal. As you probably remember, Griles is the former energy lobbyist that became the Deputy Secretary of the Interior in 2001, until he resigned the post in 2004 to set up his own lobbing firm. From a recent WASHINGTON POST story:

    Griles asked Abramoff for favors for the women in his life, prosecutors said, and in exchange helped Abramoff's clients with their government business. One of Griles's girlfriends, Italia Federici, got $500,000 for her nonprofit from Abramoff's Indian tribes.

    "I concealed the nature and extent of my true relationship with Italia Federici," Griles confessed to the judge yesterday in a statement interrupted by stifled sobs. Choking out the words, a burly, red-faced Griles told Huvelle that "this has been the most difficult time in my life. My guilty plea has brought me great shame and embarrassment."

    Capitol Crimes, the recent Moyers report about Jack Abramoff and the dark side of American politics, can be viewed online in its entirety here. Also, for information about Griles and the revolving door, check out this story from NOW with Bill Moyers from May 30, 2003.

    Continue reading "Story Updates" »

    May 30, 2007

    Preview: Cleaning House

    Watch the video

    Friday, June 1 at 9pm on Bill Moyers Journal, one of Washington's most influential public advocates, Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, talks about what is at stake in the ethical reforms under consideration in Congress.

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