Friday, December 12, 2008

A Wire Tap on a Governors Phone?!?!?!

While I enjoyed this actually sort of humorous piece in the Trib the other day, I think it missed the over all point.
When news broke that Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly got busted on tape gabbing about various shakedown schemes, you had to wonder, hasn't he ever seen "The Sopranos"? How could he ignore the lessons of TV crime shows? Everybody knows:

1. Never talk "business" on your home or office phone. Ever. There was a reason Tony Soprano had his underlings use pay phones. And considering that the feds have been on his heels since 2003, perhaps the governor should have known better.
Okay as for point #1... very true.  Never talk business on the phone.  But Tony and company always worked under the assumption that they were being listened to by the Feds.  Blago had no reason to think this because, you know, getting a wire tap on a governor's phone is unheard of in this country.

I mean that's something that you only seen in bad summer blockbuster movies or the next John Grisham novel.  This never ever happens in real life--a wire tap on the governor's phone.  It still amazes me.

This Blago stuff is one of the most amazing stories, frankly, ever in American politics. Attempting to get writers fired from the Chicago Tribune, selling the Senate seat, shamlessly trying to extort money from a children's hospital... I mean, it's all stranger than fiction.  Disgusting... and absolutely hilarious in that 21st century ironic kind of way.

Oh and to Cliff Schecter of the Guaridan who asked "Where the hell is Eliot Ness when you need him?"  His name is Patrick Fitzgerald and he has been doing his job quite well.  

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Because it's fun to not know what you're talking about

Apparently Harold Meyerson had so much fun sounding like an idiot last week, that he did it again this week. What was the topic at hand? Why Chicago politics!! And if the inner Beltway doesn't know anything, it's Chicago politics. Thankfully for us/me, Mr. Meyerson started typing.

Chicago's Karma
by Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 10, 2008; Page A25

At moments like this, it's worth remembering that Illinois gave us both Abraham Lincoln and Al Capone.

It also gave us Ronald Reagan, Dwyane Wade, Miles Davis, Luis Farrakhan, Roger Ebert, and Vince Vaughn. But hey, I'm sure there is a reason why he picked Lincoln and Capone (both of whom were not born in Illinois).

Plainly, some sort of karmic balance controls the destiny of that heartland state. For every inspiring leader that Illinois produces, it must also turn out a scoundrel or two -- petty thieves in governmental office, egomaniacal monsters in corporate suites -- who share an indifference to the idea of a public trust.

He clearly doesn't know his Illinois history or politics. There have been a lot more bad than there has good. And oh yeah, Al Capone never held political office, but again, with Harold, that's just details.

On Monday, Sam Zell, the nation's only newspaper mogul who genuinely detests journalism, placed Chicago's signature Tribune Co. into bankruptcy -- effectively wiping out his employees' equity in the company and a share of their pensions, while still managing to come out pretty well himself.

If there is one thing journalists hate, it's Sam Zell and Harold seems to hate Zell more than most. You would think that Zell was a baby seal killer who kicked puppies while paving over a beach. God forbid someone different buy a newspaper. Has the Zell Era worked out? No, not really. But guess, what, neither is the Old Era.

Yesterday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted for allegedly trying to dispose of what had been Barack Obama's Senate seat in a private auction, with all proceeds to go to the care and feeding of Rod Blagojevich.

Just remember, Blagojevich's website in 2006 was We should have known then that anything was possible with Rod, he is a Cub fan after all. But why does Harold bring up Blago right after Zell? I wonder what they have in common.

At their core, however, the stories of Blagojevich and Zell tell essentially the same tale -- that of men in positions of great power who believed that their only real responsibility was to themselves.

WHAT?!?!?! Did he just compare a totally corrupt governor to a real estate mongul—granted with a big ego—who hasn't broken the law?

It's been a great week for resurrecting stereotypes: Not only does Blagojevich come off as machine pol straight out of "The Front Page," but Zell has more than a passing resemblance to the guy who gets hired this time of year to play Scrooge.

No, no it hasn't been a great week for stereotypes. Blago is a sick, disgusting human being (if guilty). Zell is a businessman whose recent business move didn't work out. Big difference Harold. Very big difference.

But Dickens never contemplated a Scrooge with so much power. Zell disparaged and to a considerable degree dismantled the staffs of the major newspapers he owned, one of them (the Los Angeles Times) a great national paper. He did so to pay down the debt he incurred when he bought Tribune last year -- debt he incurred by refusing to put much of his own money into the paper.

Should we tell Harold that the old owners of Tribune agreed to the deal? That they couldn't give away the Tribune Co. two years ago? That in a weird way, Zell saved the day, and then being the savvy businessman that he is, he didn't put much of his money on the line. Should we also tell Harold that most business deals go down this way? Or is that too much detail?

...Zell stands to recoup a decent share of his own $315 million investment because he structured it in such a way that a bankruptcy court must treat him as a creditor. Smart guy, that Zell. As for the multitude of reporters, editors and other laid-off employees who are still collecting their severance payments, Tribune has announced that their payments will come no more.

Harold got one thing right, Zell is smart. But guess what, he didn't bring down the Tribune or the L.A. Times! There are major cuts at non-Zell owned papers like the New York Times and Boston Globe! But hey, let's compare Zell to Blago because they're clearly on the same level on the horrible people scale.

Zell isn't the sole culpable party in the disgrace that is Tribune.

The board members who sold him the company could have sold it, in disaggregated parts, to buyers who were willing to put up their own money.

So now you admit that Zell isn't the problem? So everything you said about Sam is just you running your fingers? Make up your mind Harold! Important people may be reading! So let's get to the end where I'm sure you'll tie this all up and clearly lay out why you're comparing Sam Zell to Blago.

It's been a rough week for employees in Chicago. Last Wednesday, the workers at Republic Windows and Doors were informed that their factory would close last Friday and that they would not receive the 60 days' pay mandated by federal plant-closing statutes. Republic's workers occupied the plant, pledging to stay until either their employer -- which seems to have bought a lower-wage plant in Iowa -- or its lender, Bank of America, paid them what they were owed. Yesterday, Bank of America agreed to do just that.

Good for the sit-downers. Blagojevich may be a throwback to a cruder age, and Zell may be the boss from hell, but in their lack of responsibility to the people who vote or work for them, they are emblems of the same moral fecklessness that the Republic workers fought -- fecklessness that has depressed the prospects of ordinary Americans throughout the long age of Reagan that is now, one hopes, coming to an end. Barack Obama means to build a more equitable nation, but it would help him in that task if more workers sat down, or hauled the Sam Zells of the nation into court. It's not just Illinois' karma that could use some upward balancing.

To quote Bill Simmons, I will now light myself on fire. What happened to Capone and Lincoln? Why did the Republic Windows guys come into play? And once again, why is Harold comparing Blago to Zell? And why didn't the Washington Post editors:

1) Edit this

2) Kill this column?


Monday, December 8, 2008

The Most Popular Person In Washington, D.C.

It was always a long shot but it is now official. The Democrats will not have a filibuster proof 60/40 split in the Senate. Saxby Chambliss'* victory in Georgia on Tuesday night was the first 'official' sign that the Democrats weren't going to have the SUPER-MAJORITY needed and while things in Minnesota are still up in the air, it now appears that Norm Coleman^ will win in Minnesota. So what does this all mean... well now the Democrats need two Republicans to invoke cloture and thus bring a vote to the floor of the Senate (little know fact about the U.S. Senate, it actually operates at the SuperMajority level of 60 votes).

So who might these people be? 538 ran them down the other day and there are no major surprises:
59. Snowe (ME). Obama won Maine by 18 points, making it the bluest state to be home to a Republican senator -- and in fact, it has two of them. Per Voteview, Olympia Snowe is incrementally more liberal than Susan Collins; she's also up for re-election two years sooner. It will be very interesting to see how the two of them will legislate under an Obama administration.
60. Collins (ME). See above.
61. Specter (PA). Under re-election pressure in a state that Obama carried by double digits. Mitigating factor: possible that he'll be under pressure from the right too in the form of a primary challenge.
62. Lugar (IN). On good terms with Obama, who (barely) won his state. Voteview has him becoming slightly more liberal over the past several Congresses.
63. Voinovich (OH). Under serious re-election pressure. Has often been moderate -- or even slightly left of center -- on pocketbook issues, and increasingly so on other ones.
What does this mean? The state of Maine is going to be getting a ton of money over the next two years for pet projects. But I think it gets more complicated than that. With the Democrats so close to having a filibuster proof Senate, clever GOPers will position themselves so that they are that final swing vote. This will bring home the bacon for their constituents—so expect to hear Specter and Voinovich's names, along with Snowe and Collins, a lot in the next two years.

Also, I would expect Mary Landrieu and other conservative Democratic Senators to move to the right. That seems odd, but again, it puts them in a better position to bring pork projects for their state. This looks good to the constituents and helps in re-election campaigns.

Politics aside, the Democrats are in a fantastic position to get a lot of things done without consulting the Republicans. Since they're only going to need two votes to get whatever they want done, the Republicans have little chance of stopping them. Snowe, Collins, Specter, and Lugar are all better off ditching their party on most issues if it allows them to get money or projects for their home state.

* Doesn't sound like a very American name does it? Who names their child Saxby? Okay so his first name is Clarence. But Saxby... really?
^ If there was ever a 'Soter name, this is it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Harold Meyerson: Idiot

I've been saying for years that the most overrated newspaper in America is the Washington Post. Sure, they cover the political side of D.C. very well but they still get out scooped far too often when you consider they have homefield advantage. But their entertainment coverage is sub-par. They do a bad job with world news and they do a horrible job covering the metro area (note: I lived in D.C. for five years between 2000 and 2006).

But what I always found interesting about the Post was that their lack of good columnists. I've always enjoy Marc Fisher but their op-ed page and writers have always seemed more reactionary than at the forefront. And now I can see why, because when they try to be out there at the forefront of the news you get crap like this. So in honor of Fire Joe Morgan calling it quits, it's the policy equivalent of what Ken Tremendous et all used to do. Our subject today? Harold Meyerson.

As he prepares to move back to Texas, our 43rd president is the beneficiary of Bush fatigue. The nation has long since repudiated him. Americans are looking ahead to the promise of Barack Obama.

Good start. How can this possibly go wrong? An anti-Bush column is harder to mess up than the Bush Administrations handling of pretty much anything!

And it's lucky for George W. Bush that they are, because his handling of our plunging economy is Hooverian in both its substance and inadequacy.

Ummm, okay. What's happening here?

Herbert Hoover, we should recall, had a program for dealing with the Depression. It consisted of lending to banks but opposing fiscal stimulus or direct aid to individuals. Which is why Hank Paulson's frenzied endeavors to prop up the banking sector and Bush's dogged resistance to assisting anybody else amount to pure neo-Hooverism.

Harold, Harold. Did you forget that we already had a stimulus? And about those banks... oh wait a second... okay.

Under immense pressure to do something, in late 1931 Hoover asked Congress to establish the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to provide funds to banks it deemed creditworthy.

Yes! See this is the problem Harold! Hoover reacted TOO SLOWLY. It had been nearly two years, bank runs had taken place, Hoovers cash injection to banks happened at least 12 months too late. You can call W a lot of things, but he and his people did not wait too long to get money to the banks. They acted very quickly there, within weeks, but hey I'm going to guess you've never taken a history or economics class so this 'fact' is lost on you.

As breadlines lengthened, he vetoed a bill appropriating funds for public works on the grounds that it was inflationary and contained pork-barrel spending. Bankers would be saved; everyone else was effectively damned.

But see, this really didn't work out too well for FDR—the public spending that is. It actually didn't really help the American economy at all in the short run.

The Bush administration's approach to today's meltdown is to direct all its energies and largess to lending institutions. There is, as yet, no program to help floundering homeowners renegotiate the terms of their mortgages.

Yeah, but that's what they should have done. This is what the Swedes did in 1992 and what the Japanese didn't do in the 1990s. You're basically arguing that Bush should be more like Japan and Hoover (do nothing) and less like the Swedes (do something).

It's becoming increasingly clear, however, that while saving the banks may limit further calamities, it doesn't really save anybody else. Even with government-guaranteed lines of credit, financial institutions are refusing to lend money.

But it does! See if the banks don't have any money they won't lend it to anyone! Right now they have money and are hopefully just letting things sort out. Maybe Mr. Meyerson is calling for more bad loans from banks? I'm not sure... and yeah, I'm a little worried that banks aren't lending money right now, but you know what... maybe they're just getting their house in order. Figuring out what they own and who they owe money to. If banks are not lending money in six months, then yes, let's panic. But just because things haven't turned around in TWO MONTHS doesn't mean jack shit.

And this is the problem with the reporting of the Wall Street meltdown, credit crisis, and now the recession. Most of the media is expecting this to go away tomorrow. That just like this everything will be fixed. But it doesn't work that way. It takes time.

In a sense, Bush's inactivity is even less excusable than Hoover's. Unlike Hoover, Bush could learn from the successes of New Deal and World War II-era programs to revive the economy.

But he is doing something! Haven't you been paying attention? Bush and friends are giving billions (I mean trillions) of dollars away! Did you miss the bailout?

What's more, virtually every reputable conservative economist, from Martin Feldstein on down, now supports a government stimulus program.

True, but Congress needs to pass this and Congress is going to play politics, hold their breath for a few weeks, and let Obama sign that law.

So where's the outrage? Why aren't demonstrators besieging the White House? Where are the "Welcome to Bushville" signs in those neighborhoods where abandoned homes outnumber the occupied ones?

Well for starters 25% of Americans aren't unemployed and the farms haven't gone under and people's entire savings weren't wiped out... but that's details Harold. Details!

Yet in the hearts of his countrymen, Bush's place is already fixed. Even before the financial collapse, he was in the ninth circle of presidential hell, with Buchanan and Hoover.

Well at least you got one thing right.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama and Education

With Barack Obama now only a few weeks away from becoming the 44th President, let’s take a look at what he said during the campaign about education and what his education policy might look like. While education is probably about tenth on his list of things to do; some of Obama’s most interesting policy ideas during the campaign were in education.

First the facts about U.S. education—it ain’t fair and the Federal government has little to do with it. Less than 10% of total spending on schools comes from the Feds. That means the states and local governments come up with over 90% of all school funding. This reduces the Feds roll in education.

However, one of the few major domestic policies that George W. Bush was able to get done was No Child Left Behind. When this was passed at the beginning of Bush’s tenure, it was a bi-partisan effort and when completed everyone patted each other on the back. Sadly, NCLB looks much better on paper than when put into action.

It’s hard to criticize a policy where policymaker’s hearts were in the right place, but NCLB has been a minor disaster. It was poorly thought out, somewhat unjust, and gave the states far too much control for what was supposed to be a national policy. NCLB set national standards that schools had to meet, but the catch was that each state was allowed to design their own means of evaluation—most states crated easy standardized tests. The result is bizarre numbers like this: 90% of Mississippi 4th graders were declared proficient by the state, but only 22% met the national standard.

Can and will Obama bother fixing NCLB? It’s hard to say and nothing in his campaign rhetoric leads me to believe that he will. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, throwing more resources and money at NCLB probably would be a mistake.

So what can we look for Obama to do? Recent academic work has discovered that early intervention of “at risk children” or pre-school aged kids by non-profit services and/or educators has had promising results. Obama has mentioned pre-school programs and other programs that would involve early intervention a number of times on the campaign trail—I would expect this to be his pet project (and this is also a post for another day…)

Obama has suggested a $4,000 tax-credit for college fees noting fears that nearly 2 million Americans will not go to college between 2002 and 2010 because they can’t afford it. I find this somewhat hard to believe. There are plenty of options students have to pay for school—student loans are not that difficult to obtain—and while costly, they’re worth it. The lifetime earnings a college grad are much greater than those of a one with only a high school education. On the flip side college is very expensive for the middle class and there isn't a lot of money for them to help pay for university.

In September Obama announced that he would double federal funding for charter schools. This is exciting news as charter schools have, thus far, gotten great results in urban America.

Obama would also like to create a career ladder for teachers. A policy like this would create a pay structure for teachers based on classroom results and a clearer career path. This is actually ingenious—if it works. How do you measure results in the classroom? And setting out a career path for teachers—which has been ignored—could be a roaring success if done correctly.

All in all, some very interesting ideas coming out of the Obama camp in regard to education. Personally, I’m more than sold on the early childhood intervention and education and I would love to see work done there. Everything else is pretty sound and one would have to nit-pick at these proposals to find any problems with them. Outside of Obama’s rhetoric, his education ideas are probably the most exciting and most sound.