Friday, October 03, 2008

The Banking Crisis of 1837 and more

This morning the House passed the Bill formerly known as the Bailout. I understand from the radio news moments ago that the President has signed the bill. Interestingly the markets have not responded by soaring upward with enthusiasm. One of the discussion points about this financial crisis in the past week or so has been the idea that we should never let this happen again and should "learn the lessons from what happened". Great concept. As someone who's actively involved in the "history business" I applaud the idea. However, I am a little cynical as well. The events of this crisis and its precursors are only the most recent in a string of American financial tumults. The banking crisis of 1837 has parallels which could have been instructive for us today as does the crash of the late 1920s and its fallout. The truth is, Americans and our governmental representatives also have a history, and frequently that history has been to ignore the lessons of history. Looking forward and treating today's opportunity as the chance to remake oneself (or the country) from whole cloth is a charming characteristic of the American character except when it isn't. The willful aversion to thinking through whether the hard lessons of the past are relevant or not is a terrible corollary trait. I keep hoping that maybe this time we'll act differently. The composition of the "bailout" bill and the dialogue around it does not make this seem likely today. We'll see.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bailout Bills and Earmarks- a puzzle

Yesterday's Senate vote on the $ 700 billion bill to bail the economy out may indeed have been what was needed to avert catastrophic meltdown of the overall national economy. On the other hand, it may not have. For me and the vast majority of Americans, it's hard to tell and some discussions about the bill arouse skepticism and concern. For example, an NPR report on the bill Wednesday evening included the commentator opening the 400 plus page document at random pages to see what they addressed. None of the pages he turned to seemed to clearly address the mortgage, financial system, foreclosure issues. Instead they addressed such arcane things as the tariff on arrows of a certain size and circumference. For us in the West, there was also the notation that the bill included the billion dollars sought to replace historic timber payments in Oregon and Washington, something wrangled over for the past couple of years. What appears to have happened is that the bailout bill has become an 'omnibus' or 'Christmas Tree' bill festooned with things that every interest group in Congress has wanted in order to get it passed. Strangely, both Senators Obama and McCain supported this bill which is a prime example of the kind of bill that has been decried, particularly by Senator McCain, for earmarks.
Which leads me to an aside. I am not against earmarks per se. I am against earmarks appended to a bill at one am without anyone having a chance to review them. I am against earmarks that are 'hidden' or that are attached to bills simply to sweeten bad legislation or to poison good legislation. The idea of earmarks is that many things the government should do don't fall neatly into federal agency budgets, either in their timing or in the particular character of the expenditure. The ability of congressional leaders to put forth a proposal to spend money on such projects, on paper, allows government to be more nimble and responsive and less bureaucratic. I can't see anything wrong with such strategies if they're done in the light of day with full concurrence of the each house.

The real problem is that they're often not used this way. And the bailout bill, loaded with such additions, is likely an object lesson in bad lawmaking. We are being admonished that there is a need for speed in order to shore up the entire national financial system. Haste, as my Father often said, makes waste. Without time to analyze clearly the contents of this suddenly gigantic document, we risk passing decisions that we will later regret, perhaps as much or more than the crisis on Wall Street. We elect leaders to Congress to "deliberate". What is happening here is not deliberation.

Am I for it or against it? Hard to know? But I am sure that the average American is looking askance at the rumored insertions in the bill as it stands, and feeling as well that the government is once again playing fast and loose with reality. Sad....and frightening


Monday, September 29, 2008

Obsession the propaganda movie. Where did it come from?

A sophisticated looking DVD movie arrived in my newspaper this Sunday.  Packaged in a slick blister pack it touted itself as explaining "radical Islam's war against the West".   This item was a long way from getting an AOL gazillion hours free disk which had been the ubiquitous standard in the past.   This was bannered with awards from Film Festivals though I didn't know anything about the ones listed.  And it was asserted that 20 million viewers worldwide had seen this on CNN and Fox News.   Michael Medved was quoted as praising it.   "Wow" I thought,  someone's put a heck of a lot of money behind this.   The blister pack also listed dozens of newspapers into which it was inserted.   

Anything that slick from a source I've never heard of raises my curiousity,  so I spent a little time looking into The Clarion Fund which was listed as the "source" of this.   Online,  the Clarion Fund website pops right up.   It lists itself as a 501(c)3 educational non-profit.   And Obsession and similar movies appear to be its educational subject.  Somewhat to my surprise, though,  there was none of the other usual content for a non-profit website.  No button led to a list of board members,  a mission statement,  a staff list,  a page delineating programs.   So I clicked over to Guidestar,   a resource for finding out the publicly reportable facts about non-profits.   The Clarion Fund was listed but little further information was available there.   The government status does require Clarion to file a 990 Report annually,  but none had been made available to Guidestar.  The NTEE code, a classification system said Clarion's program area was "Television".  That seemed consistent with the DVD production though not the DVD itself.   No information was available about Board Members, Staff or Volunteers.   The IRS listings didn't have any further information.

I haven't opened the blister pack yet.  But I'm still searching.   While I haven't had time to read them,  I've noticed that other blogs are posting on this subject.   Without knowing more,  I still find it unsettling to have a message from an unknown source,  produced by very sophisticated means,  arriving on people's doorsteps.   How many people will open the blister pack and pop the movie in their DVD,  without asking where it came from.   Scary.   Very scary.


Barack the "suspect"

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend of mine who's Republican about the election.  One of his reasons for opposing Barack Obama was Obama's "ties" to Bill Ayers.  I spent an hour or so today reading about Bill Ayers.  Once I read the articles about him, I remembered him quite well. I guess I parse the reason this was an issue into two pieces. The first is that Ayers is a political radical and, at least in some people's eyes, unrepentant for his Weather Underground actions. The second is that he's influenced Obama's political philosophy in a significant way.

Based on what I've read, Ayers is pretty public about his political positions. Nothing very underhanded. His educational ideas may foment disagreement, but then No Child Left Behind evokes ferocious disagreement. Regarding his 'repentance' about the Sixties, I found conflicting quotes about what he 'didn't regret'. Although Weather Underground members did bomb politically linked sites, I didn't see anyone saying that he did. I might have missed that. Admittedly he believed bombing political targets was acceptable back then. He's not advocating bombing anything today as far as I can tell. And ideas, even abhorrent ideas, are what creates dialogue in our culture.

So the more important question is what influence he had on Obama. Based on what is insinuated, for example that he sat on a board with Ayers, I think it's pretty cheesy.  I have had a member of my board for the past 14 years who's an absolute conservative Republican whose been at presidential events .   However, our serving on the board hasn't influenced my policies---except perhaps to make me more tolerant of differences. He hosted a coffee for Obama and made a modest donation to him years ago. He's not someone in Obama's advisory group---or at least there's no evidence presented that he is. I'd say this is an attempt at guilt by innuendo. If they live in the same neighborhood, are both liberal Democrats, and have served on committees and Boards from time to time in Chicago, they must be in cahoots.

That contention wouldn't hold water with anyone I know. I can think of dozens of liberal Democrats here in Portland that fit into those kinds of categories---doesn't even begin to imply they agree on politics. Or are 'conspiring'.  Based on what I could find from reputable sources,  this dog won't hunt.    And I note that it's very time consuming to try counter each allegation,  regardless of source.  


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