Pissing on an Imaginary Tree

It’s de rigueur for small government advocates to carp about government intrusion, over-regulation, or the wisdom of forcing laws down to local levels, sometimes at the risk of being inconsistent.

Inconsistency is bipartisan and a product of trying to solve difficult problems without context or tainted by personal economic preferences or moral beliefs that others don’t share.

Fair-Weather Libertarians
For example, gay marriage. Many fair-weather libertarians, Tea Partiers, and conservatives support the federal Defense of Marriage Act, despite its codifying government meddling in personal lives. The position creates a conflict between a personal moral decision and a fear of Big Brotherism. One can’t make a black and white argument for both. You either have to sacrifice a little personal morality or soften some iron-clad objections to government meddling.

So, let’s look at a new issue within the paradigm of small government, regulation, and personal freedom – the state of California requiring porn actors use condoms to cut STDs for professional pud-wielders and, by extension, the rest of us.

The decision’s already at a state level, so one point for the local decision crowd.

But, it should be a regulation bother for the strict, anti-regulation folks. More unsheathed boffing, more big bonuses for horny porny CEOs. Almost nothing is more profitable than porn in a free-market.

Schtuping for Hire
Yet, many with a pantload of self-proclaimed piety wouldn’t object if Big Brother and the Choking Company moved in and outlawed porn altogether, not withstanding government’s interference in schtuping for hire.

Most people would prefer a sharply delineated world where decisions are a binary yes or no. But, they also want exclusive moral notions of right or wrong, despite what that means to everyone else.

When they catch others in their inconsistency trap, they’re powerful anti-inconsistency wolverines scarfing up the carrion. When they catch their leg in the trap they’ll chew it off to explain their own inconsistencies with arguments as weak as an elementary school debate team’s.

News flash. The world is complex. The world is capricious. Big, small, or medium government isn’t the answer on its own. Neither is keeping everything we’re already swimming in. Sometimes yes is no and sometimes no is yes. Anyone who thinks the world should always be totally fair or consistent or based solely on their morals or ideology is a dog pissing on an imaginary tree.

And, it gets the rest of our shoes smelly and wet.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!


Common Corporate Sense

Half a world away, a tiny band of workers is trying to save their country from a nuclear meltdown. Closer to home, 11 people died and tens of thousands more lost their livelihoods when an oil rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico. Even closer, my local news carries daily accounts of how a gas line explosion that left 8 dead, 50 injured, and 40 families homeless could have been prevented.

All of these events have two things in common – they’re accidents. No one got out of bed one morning and said, “Gee, I think I’ll go out and kill someone today.”

The other is that with some common sense and honesty, all of them could have been prevented or at least their risk mitigated by prudent action – even when a tsunami rolls ashore.

Cutting Corners to Keep the Dividends
For years, all the companies involved told their governments and the public things were just peachy. “Safety is our top priority. We’re responsible citizens” as if by top priority you mean cutting corners so the dividends keep on rolling in. Their inability to follow the rules is ample proof.

It’s de rigueur these days to lament the crushing weight of regulations on business, a not wholly inaccurate charge. The popular refrain is that unnecessary regulations kill jobs and stymie innovation, progress, and plenty. However, fewer point out that a job isn’t much good if you, your family, or your neighbors end up in the morgue waiting to be identified by their dental work or the ash pile that is their DNA.

All of these events, like thousands before them, will generate new regulations. The throngs don’t take kindly to being blown up while watching American Idol and they’ll push their government to do something and do something now.

Score 1 for K St.
The gears of government will turn. There will be a cacophony over just how far the regulations should go. In the end, lobbyists will win out and the resulting regulations will, more often than not, benefit the companies and not control their stupidity. Score 1 for K St.

That doesn’t matter much anyway. Government won’t enforce the laws and will cut back on the agencies that are responsible for that because someone needs a tax cut. The companies will continue to have accidents and all will be right with the world until the next tiny band of workers is irradiated or killed for simply going to work at ones of those nifty jobs that were generated by the cutting of corners and ignoring of regulations – the same regulations that tried to legislate common sense into people who have none of their own.

In the end, these events aren’t about small government or big government. They aren’t about deregulation or over-regulation. They aren’t about the gulf between the haves and have nots. They are about the ultimate failure of holding companies responsible for what they do.

Just as CEO’s don’t get out of bed in the morning plotting on who to kill today, regulations don’t come about needlessly. They come about as the result of someone not doing something that should have.

Unfortunately, you can’t legislate common sense into a thick corporate skull. And, we’re all the worse off for it.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!



Small Government: One Small Fly in the Ointment

Conservatives – especially their tea partying faction – are yelling, “Hell no! We won’t grow!” in their quest for government with a microscopic “G”. Their biggest quibble with St. Ronnie of Reagan’s government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem mantra was that he didn’t lay off the entire government (except for a staggeringly expensive, ass-kicking military…and it’s associated contractors and arms makers) and outsource everything to the states, or preferably, India by way of multinational conglomerates.

I suspect they’ll be getting a rude awakening soon. They’ll find it next to impossible to fight the strong running political tide, agree on what needs to be shed, or even agree on what small government means.

For example, arch-conservative Michele Bachmann wanted to prohibit earmarks only to find that, oops, her state wouldn’t get any money either. Suddenly her perception of pork changed in the face of angry voters who saw that Michele’s financial acumen was roughly equivalent to a high school home economics course in buying canned hams at rock bottom prices.

One man’s crumbling highway is another’s canned ham. Let those drivers give up the ham. They need to be put on the fiscally conservative South Beach Minnesota Diet. Same for those homeless people too by golly. It’ll be good for their no account goldbricking asses.

Conservatives never met a regulation they liked – unless it benefits them or is written by lobbyists. And one of the biggest government expenditures of all is creating and enforcing regulations. The baggers and Republi-Goobs are of a similar mind that only the private sector is smart enough to do anything – apparently ignoring that whole financial derivatives thing. But who’s counting.

So here’s an idea.

Regulations and regulators are a huge chunk of the budget, right? The Tax and Spend It All on Me Crowd frequently reminds us, usually in high-pitched squeaky voices, that the private sector is where smart, upstanding CEOs can do anything. They even have big paychecks to prove it.

Since the Supreme Activist Court (SACOTUS) took it upon themselves to give corporations Constitutional rights far and away more important than the rights of all individual citizens combined, it makes sense that corporations would be the very picture of responsible citizens in thanks. And smart as whips too.

So, corporations are just terrific, and honest, and thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. We know this because Cryin’ John Boehner and the boys tell us so. So, how about we just trust them to do the right thing? No need to regulate when the free market unfailingly leads companies to the path of righteousness and honor.

We’d cut thousands of regulators in a jiffy. Legislators would have absolutely nothing to do except rubber stamp appropriations bills for the War du Jour. And lobbyists? Well, they’d become pro bono advisers to a micro-government that runs as smooth as BP oil rushing out of a broken wellhead. Yeah, THAT’S the ticket!

Um, only one small fly in the ointment on that one. Forget I mentioned anything.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!



Weekly Audit: Can Elizabeth Warren Save the Economy?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

President Barack Obama’s decision to appoint Elizabeth Warren to set up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

Over 44 million Americans were living in poverty last year. That’s the highest number on record. The Great Recession is taking a terrible toll on everyone outside the executive class, but policymakers have been reluctant to pursue an economic agenda that improves the lives of ordinary Americans.

The uniqueness of Warren’s new post raises plenty of questions, but it puts a fierce defender of the middle class in office at a time when the middle class most needs help.

So what exactly will Elizabeth Warren do?

As Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent, it’s not entirely clear what Warren’s new job will be or how long she will have it.

Consumer advocates have pushed hard to get Obama to name Warren the first director of the new CFPB. Obama, citing Senate confirmation hurdles, has instead charged Warren with setting up the agency as an adviser to both the Treasury Department and Obama himself. The post allows Warren to get to work setting up the agency, but not the power to start drafting regulations. It’s good to see her get a post on the Obama team, but we do not yet know how influential she will be.

Tim Fernholz sums up the pros and cons of Warren’s appointment in a piece for The American Prospect. There are very real drawbacks to the move. Confirming Warren for a permanent post as director of the CFPB will be harder next year—Democrats are likely to lose Senate seats in November.

It’s not impossible, but if confirmation was Obama’s chief worry, he’s only made it harder on himself by kicking the nomination down the road. This is true for whoever Obama picks—the bank lobby is going to scream about anybody other than a bank lobbyist, and Republicans are filibustering almost everybody Obama nominates to any post, including critical economic policy positions at the Federal Reserve.

Getting to work

But the new role also gets Warren on the economic policy team right away, and allows the agency to begin staffing up under her stewardship, even if it can’t draft regulations until a permanent director has been confirmed. There will finally be a strong voice on Obama’s economic team prioritizing household financial security above all else. That’s very good news.

Whatever the formal powers of Warren’s new post, we can be sure she’ll have a significant impact on policy making. Her current role as chair of the oversight panel for the Wall Street bailout was given almost no power at all by Congress, yet Warren has transformed it into the only real source of economic accountability in Washington, D.C. That’s no easy task, and we can expect similar courage and creativity from her as a member of Obama’s economic team.

What will the CFPB look like?

Warren herself seems to be pleased with the appointment. In a piece for AlterNet, Warren says that she “enthusiastically agreed” to take on the new position, and explains the vision for the CFPB:

“The new consumer bureau is based on a pretty simple idea: People ought to be able to read their credit card and mortgage contracts and know the deal. They shouldn’t learn about an unfair rule or practice only when it bites them — way too late for them to do anything about it. The new law creates a chance to put a tough cop on the beat and provide real accountability and oversight of the consumer credit market.”

Sea change

That sounds common-sense, but it’s exactly opposite to the past three decades of deregulation. Reversing the damage caused by that anti-regulatory fervor has been extremely difficult. The Obama administration needs Warren’s voice now more than ever. In the early days of his presidency, Obama pushed through a stimulus plan that has prevented the middle class from falling completely off the map. But those efforts are expiring, and they haven’t been enough to prevent millions of families from sinking into poverty.

Alarming poverty rate

In a harrowing piece for The Nation, Kai Wright notes that more people are now impoverished than at any time since the government began tracking poverty data. The poverty rate rose to 14.3 percent, with 44 million Americans—roughly one in seven—living in poverty. More than one-third of black and Latino children are growing up impoverished.

So it’s no surprise that income inequality is also at its most severe in decades. As Kevin Drum notes for Mother Jones—for the past thirty years, more and more American wealth has been concentrated among  the richest citizens. The richest 1 percent of U.S. earners are raking in 10 percent more of the national income today than they were at the start of the Reagan administration, while the poorest 95 percent have seen their share of the national income decline.

Numbers like these aren’t a fluke—they’re a direct result of policies that put the interests of Wall Street and other powerful corporate players ahead of the well-being of households. Nor were these policies adopted in a vacuum– Wall Street lobbied hard for the right to pillage our pocketbooks, and when it couldn’t rewrite the rules, it simply broke them while bank-friendly regulators looked the other way. Elizabeth Warren can’t fix all of this on her own, and she’ll surely face opposition from some members of Obama’s inner circle. But families couldn’t ask for a better advocate, and her appointment couldn’t come at a better time.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.



Financial reform clears Senate, heads to conference

The U.S. Senate passed the Wall Street reform bill today by a 59 to 39 vote (roll call here). The vote was mostly along party lines, but Democrats Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Maria Cantwell or Washington voted no, while Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Chuck Grassley of Iowa voted yes. Earlier today, a cloture motion to end debate on the bill passed 60 to 40. Only three Republicans voted for the cloture motion (Snowe, Collins and Brown). In other words, Grassley voted against letting the bill advance before he voted for it.

Grassley typically wouldn't be the only conservative Republican voting with a handful of New England moderates. Like Howie Klein, I wonder whether Grassley was concerned about this bill becoming an election issue. Democrat Roxanne Conlin's campaign blasted Grassley yesterday for joining the Republican filibuster of the bill.

The financial reform now goes to a formal conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions. Annie Lowrey discussed that process and some of the contentious issues here. I'm not hopeful about the final product.

Lots of amendments to more strongly regulate the financial industry bill didn't get a vote in the Senate, including Tom Harkin of Iowa's proposed limit on ATM fees. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Carl Levin of Michigan were unable to get a vote on their amendment to reinstate the "Volcker rule" (banning proprietary trading by banks). There was a small silver lining in that opposition to Merkley-Levin scuttled a horrible idea. Earlier this week Merkley and Levin attached their amendment to a terrible Republican amendment, which would "[exempt] auto dealers from new consumer protection laws, even though auto loans are the biggest instances of financial malfeasance against consumers, especially military personnel." Today Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas withdrew his auto dealer amendment in order to prevent Merkley-Levin from getting a vote.


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