Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O' how the mighty have fallen

Over this week and weekend there have been several stories breaking in the news, which I have to admit have brought me some small self-righteous feelings of satisfaction. First, on Monday or Tuesday came the announcement that the Governor of Illinois had been indicted by the federal prosecutor for blatantly conspiring to "auction off" the Illinois Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president. Interestingly, there is going to be some collateral damage among a few wide-eyed politicians, including Jesse Jackson, Jr., whose team has been aggressively "fund-raising" to pay the governor's demanded fee-- the press is calling it "pay to play." I have no reason to doubt Mr. Jackson's integrity (aside from the fact he's a second generation politician in the country's most corrupt city), but the man's "who, me?" protestations of innocence, along with his staff's pointed, goal-oriented fund-raising (they were already in the process of raising a couple of million!) are, you have to admit, a little amusing. And Governor Rod Blagojevich has proven himself to be a corrupt low-life who was destroyed by greed. It will remain to be seen how many other officials he brings down with him.

And speaking of greed, how about the New York attorney, Marc Dreier? Arrested this week on extensive and quite spectacular fraud charges, and allegations he defrauded clients out of as much as 350 million dollars, and possibly much more. He was caught trying to impersonate the lawyer for a teachers pension organization in Canada trying to sell phony securities, and he was right in the building of the pension fund when he did that. And even after he was taken into custody, he managed to call his comptroller (the money person at his large, and formerly reputable law firm), and while the comptroller wouldn't agree to transfer 30 million dollars out of an escrow account into Mr. Dreier's own account, he did agree to transfer the call to the firm's banker, and the banker agreed to make the transfer. (That makes me think of the time I tried to withdraw $600 of my own money from my account at an ATM machine. Yeah, right.) The first thing I read about the case was the headline that the judge had refused bail in the case, since Mr. Dreier was a major flight risk. I can imagine that problem will probably go away since I assume one good lawyer would also hire a good lawyer. And when the fallout ends, I expect Mr. Dreier will probably do some hard jail time. Stealing from the rich is frowned upon in the courts.

And finally this weekend, speaking of stealing from the rich, there's Bernard Madoff, one-time chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange, who spun off an investment fund from his successful brokerage house, and proceeded to create an estimated 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme, by taking in new investments and using the funds to pay dividends on older funds. He'd done this for many years, and was good enough at it to have persuaded small investors to become bigger investors, and for some fairly large funds to also invest, based on his cool and calculated reputation, as well as his fund's stated returns. This is another case where greed turned a basically honest, hard-working man's life into a walking-talking financial disaster, and taking the hard work, dreams, aspirations, and life-savings of hundreds or thousands with it. The man is seventy years old and could possibly spend the rest of his life in jail.

One possibly interesting angle on all three of these stories is there were some early warnings that things could be amiss, but the warnings were ignored by regulators or investigators or anyone else with oversight or authority. People don't like to appear to be impolite to plutocrats-- not even federal securities regulators! And who's going to sue the well-heeled and flamboyant head of a large, successful law firm? It had better be an even bigger fish (or the federal government).

Which brings us to the current outgoing presidential administration. If there was ever an advertisement for the downside of reducing regulation and promoting the interests of the wealthy over those of ordinary citizens, these three are the poster children for that. Just like the falllout after the fall of the Reagan administration, we're seeing the greediest and most rapacious being picked up and hauled off in handcuffs. And I have to say, with all the 401K's and pension funds and homeowner's savings being wiped out right and left by the mortgage scandals, I guess I am glad to see at least a little of the middle class misery being spread up the ladder. Snoop around some more-- I know there are more bad guys!

Royal Family

A story in today's LA Times, Caroline Kennedy launches Senate campaign reads for all the world like coverage of the British royal families. Read the article but imagine it's about Britain rather than the US. it's alarming.

I have always thought very highly of Caroline Kennedy, ever since those days of seeing her on TV holding her little brother's hand during the televised funeral of her father. She is a bright, able, attractive, principled, charismatic, and one must assume capable woman. She's likely to make a good senator (are you listening Larry Craig, who has none of those qualities?). I am uncomfortable, however, with the thought she can appear out of nowhere on the scene in Washington to take up willy-nilly one of the most powerful offices in the land. No apprenticeship. No working her way up through the ranks. Everyone seems to assume she's qualified, because of her name!

It is my understanding one of the biggest fears of the founding fathers of this nation was the establishment of an entrenched aristocracy such as the one that existed in England at the time of the colonies. Kennedy, and Bush, and Cuomo as mentioned in the article, have become the names of our ersatz aristocracy. This is a bad precedent.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hats (err, I mean shoes) off to expressive Iraqi journalist

Hats off to Muntazer al-Zaidi, the 28 year-old Iraqi journalist who managed to express what so many others around the world would love to say, which is that US president George W. Bush is a despicable dog who has caused untold suffering with his incredibly stupid and self-serving actions. He still doesn't recognize that he's disgraced the country and the office of the president. He's promoted the convenient (to him and his ilk) lie that it doesn't take intelligence to run an organization. The result of that attitude shows in FEMA and Bear Stearns and the Department of Homeland Security and Freddie Mac and Sarah Palin.

Mr. al-Zaidi is an Iraqi journalist who managed to be in a room where Bush was giving an ad hoc news conference, lauding the Iraqi people's committment to "fray-dumb" and basically filling up his time until he's finally ushered out of Washington in a couple of weeks. Expressing a reaction which I dare say is shared by a huge swath of people from Asia to Zurich to Little Rock, he threw first one shoe (which Bush had to duck to avoid being beaned by) and then removed and threw the other one (which was off the mark).

Thanks, Mr. Bush, for eight years of service during which the American people were sold out-- their values and their money-- and disgraced around the world. It may take fifty years to undo the damage you've done. It may take a hundred. Please go away so we can get on with it. And free al-Zaidi. He was just saying-- in the most expressive way allowed him-- what a majority in the entire world think.