Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Your Government Failed You

(title credit: Richard Clarke)

Despite what was said a few weeks ago, I think the decade just ended tonight. This decade will go down as the one where the government of the United States showed it is currently incapable of addressing the challenges of this era. Let us quickly run down all that happened in the last ten years:
  1. On November 12, 1999, by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act repeals the Glass-Steagall Act, paving the way for mega-banks like CitiGroup to be formed. Phil Gramm goes on to represent UBS, another massive bank, which is revealed to have provided illegal tax shelters for the uber rich.
  2. 2000: stock market crashes due to insane belief by mega-banks that market will continue to go up
  3. 2000: The U.S. Supreme Court overturns Florida Supreme Court interpreting its own constitution, case law, and statues, resulting in George W. Bush becoming the 43rd President of the United States.
  4. 2001: using the budget reconciliation process, the Republican majority in the Senate, combined with a handful of conservative Democrats, pass a $1.35 trillion tax cut, that due to the reconciliation rules, expires in 2011.
  5. 2001: 9/11...I don't need to tell you what happened.
  6. 2001-present: the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates near zero and for a large portion of this time, decline to regulate derivatives market.
  7. 2002: Bush begins drawing down in Afghanistan in order to ramp up for war with Iraq and after bungled Operation Anaconda allows bin Laden to escape into the Pakistani side of the Tora Borra Mountains.
  8. 2002-03: The Congress Authorizes President Bush to go to war with Iraq for reasons unknown. Those who voted for the authorization do not spend sufficient amount of time reading the classified intelligence report which contains numerous holes. Later, it is revealed that even this intelligence was grossly overstated and "stovepipped" by Vice President Cheney. Major media outlet, excited by ratings, promote those seeking to go to war, and fail to examine the claims of weapons of mass destruction.
  9. 2001-08: believing that increased homeownership and stock ownership will result in a permanent Republican majority (and help privatize Social Security), President Bush pushes for policies to deregulate and expand mortgage and financial instruments as part of his "ownership society."
  10. Thanks to large donations to both parties, mega-banks and other financial institutions like AIG continue to be largely unregulated for their largest "profit" making sectors: derivatives like CDOs, CLOs, Credit, Default Swaps.
  11. Thanks to large donations to both parties, the pharmaceutical industry continues to make its profits on the backs of Americans, while every other industrialized nation manages to reign in spending on drugs.
  12. 2008: the stock market collapsed after mega-banks' balance sheets are exposed by derivatives such as CDOs, CLOs, mortgage-backed securities.
  13. Bernie Madoff admits to his sons that the whole multi-billion dollar fund was a giant Ponzi sceme. Several individuals complained to the SEC of Madoff's suspicious activities, yet the agency failed to act.
  14. 2006-08: After a series of corruption scandals, an unnecessary war that lasting too long and costing too many lives and dollars, and a necessary war poorly managed, a massive collapse in the economy voters give Democrats a series of landlide electoral victories, handing the Congress, and then the Presidency to Democrats in overwhelming numbers.
  15. 2009-10: Not wanting to lose their new majority, Democrats decide to attempt to compromise with Republicans, who unify behind opposing practically every major Democratic policy proposal, and not use the reconciliation process for their most important piece of legislation: health care reform. Other major policy proposals wither on the vine as conservative Democrats, faced with near universal Republican opposition, do not wish to risk losing re-election by supporting something wholeheartedly.
  16. 2009: Martha Coakley is nominated to replace the late Ted Kennedy, whose "cause of [his] life" was health care reform. She proceeds to take a vacation and not campaign or run tracking polls.
  17. 2010: Suddenly realizing the 60th senate seat was at risk (made necessary by the refusal to use reconciliation), Democrats and their union allies attempt a last minute GOTV and ads for Coakley. It fails and Republicans gain 41st seat. Health Care Reform has not passed both chambers in a form that President Obama can sign. He may never get anything to sign.
Our institutions cannot function due to hyperpartisanship, massive campaign donations, intrenched special interests with lobbyists, incompetency, ideology that refused to bend to reality, petty vengeance, political self-interest, and anti-majoritarian rules in the Senate.

The result is 10% unemployment nationally, trillions of dollars spent on tax breaks for billionaires and multi-millionaires, the Iraq war and bailing out the mega-banks, 54 million uninsured, thousands dying daily because they cannot afford the necessary medicine or medical treatment, hundreds of thousands more filing for bankruptcy because of medical costs, global climate change without global will to try and stop it, along with Al Qaeda morphing into a new organization with bin Laden still at its helm (or dead by natural causes).

Richard Clarke was right in 2004. Our government failed us. But not just in failing to prevent 9/11, but in failing to prevent the economic collapse of 2008, failing to catch Bernie Madoff, failing to pass meaningful and necessary reforms.

This last decade has been ten years of the mighty making their own right: from bankers to baseball players. All of us were expected to grovel at the feet of the CEOs, the intelligence agencies, the major media outlets, the syndicated newspaper columnists, and the professional athletes for their purported omnipotence and wisdom. It turned out they were incompetent, had no idea what they were looking at, were in love with having powerful people talk to them, were in love with hearing themselves talk on the TV, and pumping themselves full of drugs when they are not committing various other crimes.

The only good thing to come out of this period has been the internet's blossoming. Now I can instantly find out exactly how full of it a politician, talking head, lobbyist, CEO, or jock is and why. Now I don't need to subscribe to the New York Times and listen to the drivel of Thomas Friedman to know what is happening the world. I don't need to read press releases or speeches, or watch cable television for news.

One can get depressed by all this. Or use it as a cause for action. Voters thought they were getting change in 2008. Turned out, the establishment and the system is really good at fighting the will of the majority and keeping things the same.

We need to dramatically reform the Senate. No more anonymous holds or any other need for "unanimous consent" to pass or do anything. No more painless filibusters. You have to talk the whole time to stall legislation, not block it indefinitely. If senators repeatedly ignore the will of their state's voters, let them be recalled.

We need to reform Congress. No more districts drawn by politicians to help themselves and their friends. No more privately funded campaigns. No more hiring of relatives of members of congress to lobby any branch of the government.

We need to reform the Executive. Congress needs to take back control of many of the things its delegated to the executive (creating the alphabet soup of agencies and administrative law). And if Congress wants to go to war, it should Declare War, which it hasn't done since 1941. The president should not be able to start war on a bare majority of Congress, or without congress. No more "state secrets" doctrine; have an in chambers hearing proving that the evidence really is a matter of national security and then the evidence is excluded, not that the case is dismissed. No more Gitmo or secret prisons or warrantless wiretaps or National Security more PATRIOT Act.

We need to reform the judiciary. Cameras should be allowed in federal court rooms in civil bench trials where the parties don't have a compelling reason to object (like witness intimidation or tampering). Supreme Court Justices should retire after they hit their 80s and decisions they make regarding their own conflicts of interest should be reviewable.

Newspapers are slowly being killed off, but cable news needs to change dramatically too. No more hours of hacks blabbing, more hours of investigative reports. No more softball interviews of politicians, executives, or athletes. Maybe then the fourth estate can serve as the intended check that the First Amendment provides, and not a refuge for the powerful to spout their propaganda.

If only a handful of proposed changes happened, the world would be a much better place for it.