January 15, 2003:  Well, Joe Lieberman has gone and declared his candidacy for the 2004 presidential election, having waited for Gore to announce he was not running.  According to Gallup, Lieberman immediately became the front-runner in the Democratic race, with John Kerry in the number two position.  Let's just remember that when it comes to Enronesque money, Lieberman is one of the dirtier Democrats in the Senate, and Kerry is clean.  Lieberman fought for years to protect the shady accounting practices that he is now lamenting and pointing fingers over.  He personally pulled the teeth of the Federal Accounting Standards Board when they tried to get companies to report their stock option payments honestly -- a move which some credit with launching the entire dot-com bubble, and inspiring the far more fanciful flights of imaginative earnings reports that followed.  Joe Lieberman's biggest campaign contributor is Citigroup, the bank that participated in Enron's fraud.  Some have said that his committee investigations into Enron tiptoed around Citigroup.

The third spot goes to Dick Gephardt, a party leader who, perhaps more than any other, is responsible for the ineffectual lap-dog role the party has played since Dubya took office.  It's because of people like Gephardt that we have had no opposition party.

Lieberman's first target for attack, at his announcement, was... Hollywood.  Between these three, the choice is clear, no matter what you think of Kerry voting to attack Iraq.

On that front, by the way, there are big peace marches happening in Europe today, and some in the US coming up on Saturday the 18th.  There was one in Los Angeles on the 13th, with a few thousand people.   Maybe this time I'll carry a "North Korea Has No Oil" sign.  I mean, if Saddam were in North Korea, Bush would probably be trying to get his weapons of mass destruction away from him by buying them.  Reportedly there are some in the White House who are advocating confiscation of Iraqi oil as "spoils" in order to pay for the cost of the war...

By the way, Dubya has an uncle, William H.T. "Bucky" Bush, who is on the board of a company that makes filtering and decontamination equipment used to protect people from chemical and biological attacks.  Engineered Support Systems, the outfit is called.  Their stock is jumping while most are slumping.

If you've ever suspected that the White House is inflating or exaggerating terror alerts in order to keep the public frenzied up and solidify political support, here are some FBI leaks that make such a charge.

Who is Bush picking to replace Henry Kissinger as head of the 9/11 investigating commission?  Thomas Kean, the former governor of New Jersey.  And guess what?  This guy is in a business partnership with Osama bin Laden's brother in law!  Khalid bin Mahfouz is not only the older brother of Mrs. Osama bin Laden, but is alleged to have given millions of dollars to Al Qaeda.  His family owns a large part of Delta Oil (a partner with Unocal in building that new pipeline across Afghanistan), and Thomas Kean is a shareholder and board member of Amerada Hess Corporation.  The two are linked by the Hess-Delta joint venture, formed in order to explore and develop oil fields in and around Azerbaijan.

The big domestic news lately is that Bush is going ahead with a plan to try to pass another major tax cut for the rich.  The plan is not selling very well, for obvious reasons.  His presidential approval rating just fell five percent, to the lowest level since 9/11, in large part because of this tax plan.  (Another reason cited was dropping confidence in his handling of international affairs.)  The centerpiece of Bush's plan this time is not a drop in the top bracket income tax rate, but to reduce taxes on stock dividends.  This would not benefit most middle-class stockholders, because if you own stock only through an IRA or 401(k), the taxes are deferred anyway.

Why dividends?  Is it because Wall Street is voting no confidence for the idea of further unbalancing the budget?  A tax cut directed straight at stock investors certainly has the potential to change a few minds there.  But even outgoing treasury secretary Paul O'Neill says it won't help the economy.  But Bill Frist, the new Senate majority leader, says the plan will pass.

The idea that an upper bracket tax cut creates jobs is, of course, extremely dubious.  Our country has already got tons of large corporations whose effective tax rate, especially during times of downturn, is maybe three percent after all the deductions they manage to apply.  There are many who manage to pay nothing and still get a refund.  Are they hiring like mad?  Of course not, they're laying people off just like everyone else.  Back in, say, 1997, they paid more taxes, and we had jobs.  Hell, back in the sixties, corporate income taxes were a quarter of the government's tax revenue, and jobs were plentiful and a family only needed one of them to have a good standard of living... now, corporate income taxes are only a tenth of revenue, and even during boom times like 1999, the buying power you get from your job is much lower.  No, I don't think even lower corporate and upper-bracket taxes are what helps jobs.

The General Accounting Office released a report saying that Bush's plan to add privatized personal investment accounts to the Social Security system would reduce benefits, or force a payroll tax increase to keep the same benefits.  Actually, even Bush's own commission that recommended Social Security privatization admitted that it would take propping up with extra tax revenue for at least the first thirty years.

And just to make all our lives more pleasant, Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is blocking funding for a national "do not call" list that would keep telemarketers from calling you back.  The policy is already in place at the Federal Trade Commission, but it won't do much without a budget.  Also, the GOP in the House has passed new ethics rules for itself, mainly making it easier for lobbyists to provide representatives with fancy meals and resort visits.

Some progress is being made in post-Enron reform.  The Financial Accounting Standards Board (not being held back by Joe Lieberman this time) just adopted new rules forbidding most Enronesque "off-balance-sheet" deals, saying that if there's a debt you have responsibility for, it has to be included in your balance sheet.  The rules take effect in two weeks.  The National Sentencing Commission has approved new guidelines for imposing longer prison terms on Enronical corporate criminals.  Note how little of the reform progress we have is coming from elected officials.

The IRS, meanwhile, is sending out a message to those who have used offshore banking tax shelters on an individual level, a service mainly available through major credit card companies.  If you come to the IRS and tell what you know and identify who helped set up your accounts, you'll be cleared of any legal wrongdoing and face no criminal investigation (though you still may have to pay some back taxes).  If not, you could wind up with fines or possibly even jail time if found guilty of tax evasion.  Bush is appointing a new IRS head, Mark W. Everson, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.  The previous head stepped down in November.

One of the biggest money losers in the Enron collapse was Florida's pension fund.  The fund invested heavily in Enron because of a decision by Alliance Capital Management, who contracted to manage the fund.  The state's Attorney General investigated Alliance on possible racketeering charges, but concluded there was no evidence the were crooks.  They're still being sued by the state for being fuckups, though.

A random little corruption item: The head of the Transportation Security Agency is blocking any attempts by airport security workers to unionize, saying that collective bargaining is incompatible with the war on terrorism.

For the last two years, Michael Powell (son of Colin) at the Federal Communications Commission has seemingly been greasing the skids for increased monopolization of the news media.  But now he's backpedaling.  He told Congress that he's "concerned" about concentrating ownership of the media, and that the FCC hopes to avoid seeing other media go the way of AM and FM radio, in which huge portions of the market are now controlled by a single company, Clear Channel Communications.  Hopefully the increasing public concern about the issue is starting to sink in up there.  Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) is introducing a bill to try to save what's left of diversity in the radio business; John McCain may join him, re-creating the team that got campaign finance reform passed.

(Michael Powell, by the way, got a TiVo for christmas and was so thrilled that he called it "God's machine".  Oy.)

In other nepotism news, here's a new charge against Janet Rehnquist, the Inspector General of Health and Human Services.  Some of her underlings are saying that when York Hospital in Pennsylvania got caught filing false Medicare claims, she pressured for a quick and sloppy settlement of the case, getting back only $270,000 from the hospital when it should have paid $726,000.  She was helped by three Republican congressmen, who told Secretary Tommy Thompson that the charges against York Hospital were "unwarranted and unfair".  Ms. Rehnquist is obviously on the way out, due to numerous previous bits of scandal... let's see who comes forward to proclaim her maligned innocence.

And Eugene Scalia is stepping down as Solicitor of the Department of Labor.  Unions are celebrating.

Some good news:  the fake oil-workers strike promoted by the owners of Venezuela's oil companies, in their attempt to oust Hugo Chávez from the presidency (with backing from the US right wing), appears to be collapsing.  Their main oil field is now resuming production.  Unfortunately, I just saw a report that the leaders of the coup effort, having failed by other means, are now offering a $100,000,000 reward for Chávez's assassination.  I hope this report is not true.  But Greg Palast warned us it would come to this...  Also, a Venezuelan air force officer who supported the coup is accusing Chávez of giving $1,000,000 to Al Qaeda after 9/11.  The National Review is playing up this story, neglecting to mention the officer's coup affiliation.  Other media have been ignoring it.

For those of you who thought that driving a giant SUV made you safer on the road: think again.  The National Transportation Safety Board just reported that SUVs are, in their opinion, unsafe enough that they may press for new safety requirements.  The main risk is that it's so easy to roll them over.  You're safer in a regular car, even if it's smaller.

On the carbon dioxide front, though, Joe Lieberman is doing something positive: he's promoting a plan to reduce US power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, along with John McCain (who really ought to seriously consider switching parties).

Another positive bit: the controversial rider on the Homeland Security Bill that protected Eli Lilly from liability if their vaccines were found to cause autism (which I previously reported as having been due to Dick Armey but which is now reported as having come from Dr. Bill Frist... in either case, the White House was probably the original source) is now being revoked.  This was so offensive that even many Republicans wouldn't stand for it.  Now, what about some of those other riders that got stuck to that bill?

I've mentioned a few items about the governor-elect of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.  Now when an administration changes to the other party, it's normal for many to lose their jobs, if they're at a high enough level to be considered political appointees.  My brother Roy, who is Maryland's outgoing Secretary of Planning, is one of those losing his job for this reason, as expected.  Ehrlich's team, however, is firing people beyond the normal circle of political appointees, and many of these extra firings are concentrated in departments concerned with the environment.  The Natural Resources Secretary, for instance, says the "top four women" in the department were fired, and "These are not political appointees."  They are now, I guess.  In another case, an environmental staffer named Robin Grove was fired, with a letter addressed to "Ms. Grove" despite Robin Grove being male -- and for that matter, Republican.  Apparently they simply never checked who they were firing.  Was a female-sounding name sufficient reason to get the boot?  The termination letters state that they are being booted "in order to begin implementing a new vision for the state of Maryland."

If he wants to undermine environmental protections (former governor Glendenning was considered strong on the environment), he'll certainly have friends in Washington.  Bush's EPA, for instance, is weighing a plan to strip Clean Water Act protection from up to two thirds of the nation's waterways, mostly the smaller ones which may be more important for wildlife than the big ones.  The rule change could basically make it open season for polluting these smaller rivers and streams, at least as far as federal law goes... even if they drain into rivers that are still protected!  States would still have some say, but as yet they aren't doing so much to protect these areas.  Basically, they're narrowing the interpretation of the Clean Water Act statute, so as to, for instance, exclude any creek that dries up in summer.  This would especially affect the West.

Here's a little tidbit:  Former president George H.W. Bush gave a taped address to the American Music Awards in praise of the band Alabama, and the crowed booed as soon as they saw his face... but they kept the boos out of the broadcast.

An old page I wrote that compared Clinton and Reagan on how they affected the economy has gotten some attention recently, because Bartcop, the widely read online magazine of Bush bashing news and humor, linked it.  A lot of people who wrote me objected to one line in that article, in which I described Bill Clinton as shamelessly pandering to interest groups.  Some of them laid out detailed history of how much real corruption took place in the Clinton administration, and showed that despite all the attempts by his enemies to taint him with sleaze, his administration was overall a remarkably clean one -- certainly cleaner than any Republican team in the White House since Eisenhower.  They pointed out how he sometimes stood up to corporate interests.  This is all true.  But nevertheless, I have to say that many of the Clinton administration's less publicized policies were remarkably similar to the way you'd expect a Bush to act.  As Michael Moore put it, "Clinton did many of the same things Bush is now doing -- he just didn't rub people's faces in it."  Over and over, when looking into these various tales of Bushian corruption that I try to publicize here, I find that the problem was not created under Bush II, only escalated or intensified.

Even such juicy tidbits as the revelation that FBI agents were told by higher-ups to avoid investigating the bin Laden family started under Clinton -- the whistleblowers say that the Bush administration only worsened the problem, by lengthening the list of prominent Saudis who were not to be investigated no matter what evidence pointed to them.  Even the distribution of taxpayer money to "faith-based" organizations began under Clinton.  It was Clinton who turned Colombia into another El Salvador, with government-backed death squads fighting a terror war with US money (again, this has escalated after Dubya took over).  It may have been Bush I who decided that the Desert Storm war should target Iraq's civilian water supply, so that sanctions forbidding water purification equipment would be certain to kill huge numbers of civilians, but it was under Clinton that most of those mass civilian casualties took place, killing 500,000 children according to UNICEF, and he never lifted a finger to adjust the murderous Bush policy in even the smallest way.  The fifth and sixth amendments were already tattered before the USA-PATRIOT* act was signed, thanks to Clinton's escalation of the war on drugs; we'll never know how many completely innocent people were mistakenly imprisoned, killed, or had their property seized without trial under those policies, but the abuses and carelessness that lead to such errors are so widespread, and the checks and balances so eroded, that I wouldn't be surprised if a good sized fraction of those today in prison on drug-related charges were never criminals at all.  One guy I know who spent some time in a big city jail reports that about one third of the people locked up there had simply been swept up by police more or less at random, because they were near a crime scene and the cops didn't care who they took.  (He says another third were people who could have been steered away from crime with a more constructive approach, and the remaining third were those who really needed to be locked up to protect the public.)

And Clinton was as guilty as any Bushoid when it came to the abuses of international globalization, through such institutions as NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO.  The very worst of these may be GATS, which is still being negotiated now, but which got its start under Clinton.  GATS is something that seeks to do for services what the WTO and GATT did for trade in material goods.  The kicker is, many of the services that it seeks to open to the corporate market are the ones traditionally provided by governments.  Services like supplying drinkable water.  Many in the corporate world are predicting that water will be an increasingly valuable commodity to control in the next century, to the point that wars will be fought over it.  There have been several incidences already of corporations trying to insert themselves into the water supply infrastructure of developing countries.  Sometimes, as in Bolivia, the results and the prices they charge end up provoking riots and mass protests, resulting in water service being returned to government institutions.  Under GATS, for a government to toss out the Bechtels and Enrons -- yes, Enron was in the third world water business for a while -- would be committing an illegal restraint of corporate trade and could be punished with sanctions, just as sometimes happens now under the rules of NAFTA when local governments pass environmental laws that block companies from selling pollutants.

In the view of some of the corporate extremists backing this kind of agreement, any service at all provided at taxpayer expense is seen as an unfair business practice.  Never mind that some government services, like urban water and sewage and roads and mass transit, have never in the modern era been made to work as competitive markets.  The only solutions that have come into actual use are either nonprofit government bodies, or monopolies.  What some are proposing is no less than using world economic sanctions to force countries to hand over their basic necessities of life to foreign corporations, which in most cases are likely to end up with monopoly control.  You'll be hearing more about GATS.

And the whole mess that got me started, Enron and everything connected to it, started under Clinton... or earlier.  Actually, many of the abuses of the stock market were essentially continuations of the corrupt and bubble-friendly stock market environment of Reagan's second term.  It was in that Reagan "recovery" that the techniques of stock inflation that powered Enron and its ilk, as well as the dot-com bubble, were developed and honed.  Enron was founded during Reagan's second term, in fact.  But only under Clinton did stock manipulation reach such an extreme that even the investors on Wall Street were no longer being served by the corporate boards and officers that carried out the maneuvering.  We may never know if Clinton was aware of how unsustainable this was, but he seemed to back 100% a policy of out-bubbling the Reagan bubble.  Fortunately, unlike Reagan, Clinton managed to use that economic engine to create real income growth in the lower tax brackets, as well as in the upper.

So if today's democrats are selling us out about as much as the Bush regime is, why do I spend so much time talking about mostly Republicans when reporting corruption?  I think the difference between the Ds and the Rs on corruption is that, when some special interest really wants a corrupt regime, the Republicans are reliable.  So they get the majority of the business -- about three quarters of the really bad-smelling political money, apparently -- because they've sold a better quality product to those buying influence.  The Dems are number two in this market, but what they sell is good enough to keep some customers coming back.

Someone gave me Joan Didion's book Political Fictions for Christmas.  Didion's knack is to see and describe what's right in front of us but most of us are ignoring.  In this case, what we're all ignoring is how little the political election process has to do with voting citizens, how much it's about a permanent political class of media manipulators maintaining their jobs by targeting a narrow, limited audience with artificially divisive issues, and how it's fine with them if the majority of voters are alienated and "apathetic" because their viewpoints and interests are never addressed.  She describes how the campaigners, with open enthusiasm, describe the affluent demographic of the typical voter, and how far it has diverged from that of the typical citizen.  Everybody in the major parties and in the punditocracy tried to paint the Florida recount debacle as something bizarre and exceptional (yet enlightening because it reminds us all that "every vote counts"), yet Didion sees it as a predictable extension of the way both parties have pursued electioneering: "the reduction of a national presidential election to a few hundred voters over which both parties could fight for thirty-six days was the logical imaginative representation of a process that had relentlessly worked, to the end of eliminating known risk factors, to restrict the contest to the smallest possible electorate."

No candidate is going to do much to reverse this problem.  Any candidate who works within the existing system is going to find, as those now in office have found, that representing your constituents' true interests is penalized, and screwing over the people who voted for you actually increases your chances of being re-elected.  Only voters can change this.  Especially, those who do not now bother to vote.  The single most effective thing we, as a society, could do to overthrow this fake pretense of public debate would be if all of us who normally don't vote were to go out and vote for third party candidates.  If a quarter of eligible voters -- this being roughly the number who are now not voting specifically because they are disgusted with the choices available, rather than because they don't care about politics -- were to show up at the polls and divide their votes among the Greens, Libertarians, socialists, professional wrestlers, and assorted oddballs running on the minor party tickets, a thousand Washington insiders would lose their jobs in the next week.  Two dozen fake issues promoted by campaign consultants would suddenly be back-burnered as candidates and pundits attempted to figure out what all those voters actually wanted.

Also, it would emphasize a strong need to institute instant-runoff balloting.  The reign of fake issues would never recover to anything like its current strength if we had instant-runoff balloting (either "preferential voting" or "approval voting"), and everyone could vote for who they really wanted to without fear of being a "spoiler", and nobody was stuck with the lesser of two evils.  Instant-runoff voting is also the cure for the bogus primary election system in which half of the states end up with no real influence.  Naturally, the professional political class is not going to like the instant-runoff idea, but any widespread defection to third parties would be even worse for them without it.

Perhaps I should digress for a moment to explain what I mean by fake issues.  These are the ones that are used to push the panic buttons of those on the left or the right, and provide an illusion of choice in the center, while keeping attention away from areas where both parties are selling out the citizenry.  Here are some examples:

I'm sure you can think of more.  There are a number of other issues which, though not fake at bottom, get used in a fake way, as a means of pushing buttons, in which the real questions in the issue don't get addressed.  One such issue is race relations, especially when the focus is on affirmative action.  (Bush just attacked a University of Michigan affirmative action plan.)  Another is social welfare spending -- when it isn't just treated as a sub-issue of race relations.  Gay rights is another such issue, for those voters for whom it isn't a personal matter.

What can you, as a voter, do about fake issues, besides voting for a third party if you're not satisfied with the two main candidates?  First, keep your head.  Don't let yourself be railroaded by people trying to push your panic buttons with grim-voiced TV ads.  Second, ask yourself what's most important to your everyday life, decide what questions the candidates and elected officials need to answer, and then get those questions to them.  Write letters.  If a few hundred people write to a candidate asking about a given issue, it becomes something they have to address.  (Less than one hundred letters to an elected official can, surprisingly often, be enough to get them to change their position on an issue.)  Third, if you want to get someone elected, do contribute money -- donating just $25 might, in the end, actually bring the candidate more votes than you will by arguing with your friends and co-workers.  Fourth, once someone's elected, watch what they actually do, and let them know you're not forgetting.

Of course, we also need some campaign finance reform, but such reforms will only succeed if the voting public keeps an eye on abuses and keeps asking the questions that count.

< Previous Next >