Friday, July 31, 2009

Bandit Bankers and Mrs. Madoff's Money

You may have already heard about the lawsuit against Bernie Madoff's wife by a trustee which attempts to recover nearly $50 million of the funds Madoff swindled from investors in what many call the greatest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.

According to her attorney, Mrs. Madoff has already given up virtually all of the assets Irving H. Picard, the plaintiff in the suit, has named. According to the New York Times , these assets include a penthouse on the Upper East Side, a house in Montauk, and some property in the South of France.

While counsel for the Madoffs, and family friends, might argue that this is Mrs. Madoff's money, reportedly "tens of millions of dollars" were being funneled from her husband's investment firm making it ultimately his money.

We are not without outrage when contemplating how Mr. Madoff stole millions of dollars from clients, money which in many cases was slated for their retirement, and used it to build a Palm Beach estate, or to buy mink coats and Steinway Grands for his wives, but where is our outrage when, as a report just released by N.Y. State attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, confirms that as many as 5,000 top Wall Street bankers and traders have been awarded as much as $1 million bonus each even as their employers had their hands out for taxpayer bailout bucks?

As the Times also reports, some of Wall Street's largest, and most troubled, banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, and Bank of America made sure, whether they showed profit or not, to pass along huge bonuses and pay packages to their executives. The bonuses, by and large, were not performance based, nor did they correlate with company profit.

In 2008, at one major bank alone, banker compensation was nearly ten times that of company profits.

Given what we now know, thanks to the efforts of Andrew Cuomo, one might well ask: are all scams created equally, or are some scams more equal than others?

Again, at a time when heads of Wall Street's largest banks sat before Congressional committees, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, crying about their company's fortunes, they were setting it up so that their highest achievers and, in some cases, bandit bankers could be buying yachts, Mercedes, and Russian sable coats for their wives. Oh, vanity of vanities. All is vanity, and vexation of Mastercard?

Nobody can say we don't have equal oppportunity in this country: equal opportunity to swindle, but the question is, what role did government play in what can only be called the greatest Wall Street Ponzi scheme in history?

By Michael Winship

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television:

Pay-to-Play Is Washington's Sport of Kings

By Michael Winship

As we marvel over the depths of hypocrisy and greed currently plumbed in the health care reform debate, it may help to remember that even Honest Abe Lincoln had his share of tainted colleagues, one of the most notorious of whom was his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron.

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," when Lincoln asked radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens how corrupt Cameron was, Stevens paused and replied, "I don't think he would steal a red hot stove." When Cameron objected, Stevens allowed that maybe he was wrong -- implying that the cabinet secretary would steal a hot stove.

Cameron resigned after less than a year in office, plagued by allegations of war profiteering and overall ineptitude. He's largely forgotten now, but something he supposedly said is immortalized in the lexicon of famous sayings about money and government.

"An honest politician," he declared, "is one who when he is bought, stays bought."

The giants of the health care industry fighting legitimate reform will soon discover whether all the money they're spent on lobbying has worked yet again and which of the politicians they have showered with campaign contributions will toe the line and stay bought, thwarting the desires of the majority of the American people.

This week, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that in the second quarter of this year alone, the pharmaceuticals and health product industries spent $67,959,095 on lobbying, and the insurance industry $39,760,477. Another $25,552,088 were spent by lobbyists for hospitals and nursing homes. That's a total of $133,271,660 in just
three months, and that's not even counting the lobbying money spent to fight health care reform by professional associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Just to further roil your ire comes news from McAllen, Texas, reported in the July 30 New York Times: "One of the largest sources of campaign contributions to Senate Democrats during this year's health care debate is a physician-owned hospital in one of the country's poorest regions that has sought to soften measures that could choke its rapid growth.

"The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee collected nearly $500,000 at a reception here on March 30, mostly from physicians and others affiliated with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, financial disclosure records show."

A June article in The New Yorker magazine painted a devastating portrait of the sky high costs of physician-owned hospitals in the McAllen area and President Obama has cited it often. But money talks, and the Times notes that, "Thus far, physician-owned hospitals have been insulated from some of the most onerous potential restrictions in the health care legislation moving through Congress."

Business as usual amongst the dough-driven denizens of Washington, DC, where they may as well replace the national anthem with Randy Newman's "It's Money that I Love," and Pay-to-Play is the sport of kings. Anything and anybody are up for sale in the capital. You'll recall the story in early July about the intimate dinner party Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth was planning. Her soiree would have broughtmthe paper's reporters and editors covering health care reform together
with officials from the White House and members of Congress.

But she also invited CEO's and lobbyists - at $25,000 a pop, or a quarter of a million if they wanted to underwrite a series of these intimate salons. The invitation offered, "An exclusive opportunity to participate in the health care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done."

The dinner was scrapped when the Washington Post invitation leaked to the press. But such exclusive events where the elite meet to eat - for a price - are standard operating procedure in DC. The Economist magazine and The Wall Street Journal have hosted intimate salons. Atlantic Media, publisher of The Atlantic magazine and National Journal, among other publications, has been holding off-the-record, get-togethers for the last six years, with such corporate sponsors as Microsoft, General
Electric, Citigroup, Allstate Insurance and the healthcare giant AstraZeneca.

Atlantic Media is now taking it one step further, moving their exclusive party to the Internet, where National Journal has announced a new, "policy-oriented" Web site called 3121, named after the phone extension for the U.S. Capitol switchboard. It's exclusively for members of Congress and their staffs. Well, almost exclusively.

I can't log onto it - and neither can you, assuming you're not a senator, representative or somebody who works for one. But guess what? If you're a lobbyist, you can buy your way in. The Web site's marketing kit promises that you'll be able to "build connections and start amvaluable conversation with a targeted group of some of the most powerful people in the political world."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for a mere $295,000, you can be 3121's "Premier Promotional" sponsor. That means you get, quote, "exclusive rights to all advertising on 3121 from site launch in September" through the end of the year. You'll also be invited to the Web site's launch party and what they're calling "Innovation Happy Hours," so order your hats and noisemakers now.

What's that you say? You can't afford nearly $300,000? Tell you what I'm
gonna do. For a mere $95,000 you can buy what they're calling a
"Research and Education" package that gives you a sneak preview of 3121
and access to Capitol Hill insiders helping out with the Web design and
learning how to use it.

At least if you buy into 3121 you know the Web site stays bought, like Simon Cameron's definition of an honest politician. For sheer, unmitigated chutzpah, I give you the American Conservative Union (ACU), prostituting its vaunted philosophical purity in pursuit of filthy lucre.

It seems FedEx, the package delivery megacorporation, is facing a change in law that may hurt its competitive advantage over United Parcel Service. Legislation pending in Congress would level the playing field.

As columnist Thomas Frank explained in The Wall Street Journal, "Employees of UPS are covered by one labor law - the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) - while employees of FedEx are governed by a different one, a law that makes it much harder for them to organize a union. Lots of UPS's employees are organized; few of FedEx's are."

As Frank wrote, the idea that Congress might give FedEx employees "more of a chance to have a say about work conditions" ruffled the company's feathers. Enter the American Conservative Union - which seeks to be "the conservative voice in Washington," according to its Web site - and which said it would back FedEx's opposition to the legislation with direct mail, e-mail and phone campaigns, radio ads and the creation of op-edand other articles by ACU president David Keene and members of itsboard.

The ACU said it would only charge FedEx, oh, say, somewhere between twoand three million dollars, maybe up to $3.4 million, for its services.FedEx refused to sign for the package. So without batting an eye, the ACU switched its allegiance to UPS, accusing FedEx of fighting dirty. How brave, how principled. How corrupt.

Summer is no time to be in Washington, the sun and humidity so oppressive that someone once described the sensation as akin to living inside the mouth of a very large dog. But it's not the heat creating the rancid aroma rising from the city.

It's the panting exhaust created by the pursuit of money, regardless of country or party or philosophy. It's money that they love, and nothing will change until we disable the ka-ching of the giant Washington cash register and use the money to buy the Pay-to-Players a one way bus ticket out of town.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

Monday, July 27, 2009

Quand Meme

Just the Same

I embrace you
under the skin
like fiction
before the fall
your face still warm
how quickly you tire of
angels and
merchants how quickly
you tire of
the street
where silence follows
you like a
sheet of rain
we walk among
shadows two soldiers lost in eternity
just the same
I embrace you
under the skin

en francais

Quand Meme

Je t'embrasse
sous la peau
comme fiction
avant la chute
votre visage chaud encore
à quel rythme vous lasser de
des anges et des
marchands à quel rythme tu pneus
de la rue
ou silence suit
vous comme un
fiche de pluie
nous marchons parmi les
ombres deux soldats ont perdu dans l’eternite
quand meme
je t'embrasse
sous la peau

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

from "Riding with Destiny"

Friday, July 24, 2009

From Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Obama's Health Care Struggle - Waterloo or Water Down?

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Push finally came to shove in Washington this week as the battle for health care escalated from scattered sniper fire into all-out combat. If it all seems to be getting more and more confusing, join the club. It's hard to see what's happening through all the gun smoke.

The Republicans have more than health care reform in their bombsights -they want a loss for Obama so crushing it will bring the administration to its knees and restore GOP control of Congress after next year's elections. In the words of Republican Senator Jim DeMint, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

The "Waterloo" of DeMint's metaphor, of course, is not the 1974 Abba hit but the battle in 1815 that ended Napoleon Bonaparte's rule as Emperor of France - a humiliating defeat and a turning point in European history. Right wingers like Glenn Beck see Obama as Napoleon incarnate, a popular emperor who must be stopped.

Here's what Beck said on his television show Monday, July 20: "I'm
telling you, this guy is dangerous. He's never lost before. He won't understand... like, 'Who are you to question me?' I mean, this guy is practically an imperial President now. When he starts to lose and people start to question him and push him back against the wall, he's not gonna know how to react."

The Republican strategy is almost identical to the way they turned health care into Waterloo for Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993. Back then, one of their chief propagandists, William Kristol, urged his party to block any health care plan for fear that Democrats would be seen as "the generous protector of middle class interests." Now he's telling the GOP to "go for the kill... throw the kitchen sink... drive a stake through its heart... We need to start over."

So in lockstep are the Republicans that when strategist Alex Castellanos issued a memo outlining their battle plan, party chairman Michael Steele parroted large sections of it word for word in a speech at Washington's National Press Club. Asked a health care-related question that took him off script, Steele replied, "I don't do policy."

As the Republicans fired away, big business stepped up the attack, too, their lobbying and advertising guns blazing. The Chamber of Commerce, for one, announced a major campaign of rallies and print and Internet ads to crush the White House plan for a competitive public option allowing consumers to choose between a government plan and private health insurance. In key states where members of Congress remain on the fence, the airwaves are vibrating with television commercials aimed at shifting hearts and minds away from any change that might threaten profits.

President Obama rejected the Republicans' Waterloo metaphor and mounted a massive media counteroffensive of his own. But the President has already run into booby traps of his own making and minefields laid by members of his own party, exacerbated when the Congressional Budget Office reported that reform plans, instead of controlling costs, would send the national debt further into the stratosphere.

Meanwhile, supporters who want to scrap the present system for fundamental change are staring glumly though the fog of war at a battlefield in total disarray. They fear that in the White House's desire to get a bill - any bill - passed by Congress, it will have been so compromised, so bent to favor the big interests, that it will be less Waterloo than water down, a steady diluting of the change they had hoped
for and that America needs.

The big drug companies are already so pleased with what they've been promised that they've brought back Harry and Louise - the make-believe couple who starred in TV ads that helped torpedo the Clinton health care plan - but this time they're in favor of reform.

According to the Associated Press, the drug industry's trade group PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) and the drug company Pfizer "reported spending more money than other health care organizations on lobbying in the second quarter of this year" - $6.2 million from PhRMA, $5.6 million from Pfizer.

"Including its latest report, PhRMA has now spent $13.1 million lobbying so far this year. Pfizer has reported $11.7 million in lobbying expenses for 2009."

This is part of the reason, as Alicia Mundy and Laura Meckler recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, that "the pharmaceuticals industry, which President Barack Obama promised to 'take on' during his campaign, is winning most of what it wants in the health-care overhaul."

Their story describes "a string of victories" plucked from the Senate Finance Committee by drug company lobbyists, including no cost-cutting steps, no cheaper drugs to be allowed across the border from Canada, and no direct Federal government negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies to lower Medicare drug prices.

And that's not all. The Senate Health Committee is giving the biotech industry monopoly protection against competition from generic drugs for 12 years after they go on the market. No wonder the cost of reform keeps going up and up and up. Could it be that Harry and Louise are happier because, this time, they're in on the

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of
the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday
night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at
Research provided by editorial producer Rebecca Wharton.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Some Clarification Needed....

Okay, I admit, I've had a lot on my plate lately, and haven't given the debate on health coverage the kind of attention it deserves. My bad. So, after watching the president's press conference, I'm left with a few questions:

1) What does "affordable" mean? Clearly, the term is a relative one. What is affordable to one person may not be affordable to another. When President Obama talks about every American having access to affordable health insurance, what does the term mean -- exactly.

2) When did the president's campaign pledge for "universal health coverage" morph into mandated medical insurance a la Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney?

3) Specifically, how will the proposed change impact those who are not insured. What is the difference between the so-called "public option" and single payer care in terms of access to treatment?

4) For those whose benefits are taken out of their paycheck, like me, and whose employers pick up a percentage of the costs, how much can we expect our out of pocket expenses to decrease under the president's plan?

5) How can the government ensure that employers are transparent about the costs that employees incur to insure themselves, and their families?

And, most importantly, may we expect to have a cognate system with that of the automobile industry such that there will be a two-tiers of coverage, a "public option," or liability insurance, and more comprehensive coverage?

We need to entertain a healthy dose of skepticism about any health care reform proposal that meets with the approval of the HMOs, and the pharmaceutical companies, as the Obama plan does, but we also need to recognize, as the president suggests, that the escalating cost of health care has contributed to a nearly $2 trillion deficit in the past year alone. How can we be assured that the people who will benefit the most from what amounts to mandated health coverage aren't the HMOs, and pharmaceutical companies who, along with big oil, made record profits last year?

While I agree with President Obama in principle that we must tax the rich, those who make millions each year, to subsidize the program, and while I applaud the decision to deny funds for the F-20 weapons yesterday, I also think he needs to honor his pledge to rethink the $10 billion a month we are currently spending on the war in Iraq, and spend it instead not on a so-called public option, but on a single payer program.

Down the road, the single payer plan proposed by Dennis Kucinich will prove to be the only one that has longterm benefits, and that doesn't lead to a binary system whereby the privileged continue to get to go to the Mayo Clinic while the rest of us end up at the local clinic.

Quote of the Day

"The default position is inertia."

President Barack Obama

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Gen. McChrystal and His "Retail War"

When, in June, Stanley McChrystal found himself on the brink of taking over as general in Afghanistan, he declared the Afghan war to be "winnable." Now that he's at the helm, he's not so sure. The enemy is starting to morph, and demonstrate what he calls greater resiliency. The battlefield looms larger, and the entire scenario has, not surprisingly, a been there, done that feel to it.

Just one month into McChrystal's command, and NATO forces have suffered their deadliest month. The general is quickly coming to see the word "surge" in counterinsurgency. He now contends that the 68,000 troops expected to be in place by year's end will not be nearly enough to win the war. Is this any different than what we heard in the lead-up to the six year, and ongoing, occupation of Iraq?

The general says he wants to win back the trust of what he calls the "population," and put an end to civilian casualties, but he has yet to distinguish between civilian and insurgent. He asserts that the insurgents are a stubborn bunch, and that any hope for a quick exit may be put to be put to rest.

"I think we're talking months for this to play out," McChrystal told a group of reporters including one from The New York Times, and that the "key" to any success in the region is "Afghan responsibility to the fight." Again, one has this been there, done that feeling.

There are times when names like "Taliban" and "Al Qaeda" are almost indistinguishable from one another.. This is daunting, and troublesome, as is the fact that in one region, in,particular, Helmand province, the number of marines outnumber that of Afghani soldiers by a margin of nearly eight to one.

Oh, yes, and you might wish to consider, too, that Helmand province is an area renowned for poppy farmers where the Taliban, bandits, and Kandahar police are equally invested in the opium trade.. The farmers pay poppy taxes to the Taliban, and the government also profits.

Opium is big business, and 92% of the opium in the world comes from Afghanistan, but the real dividends come from international smuggling. "The opium was taken to laboratories in the east on the border with Pakistan, refined, and made into heroin," according to The Guardian, UK., and 90%of the heroin sold on British streets comes from Afghanistan. Reportedly, too, something like 80% of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan which may explain why it seems to be taking so long for U.S. forces to hunt down, and capture, Osama bin Laden on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Didn't we declare it game over when we supposedly toppled the Taliban regime back in 2001? Yet, now we have a new president who seems to think we can do business with what he calls "moderate Taliban." If the Taliban are "terrorists," is it possible to be a moderate terrorist? Is this not an oxymoron? Or, is what Obama calls "moderate" those who work with Afghan police in Kandahar and elsewhere to collect taxes on the opium farms?

But, then, who are the insurgents? The Taliban who want to protect equity in their cash crop? If we're going to label the Taliban in the Helmand valley "terrorists," then we might as well label the government that works with them to collect taxes from poppy farmers insurgents. So, then, we're fighting the Afghan government in Afghanistan not just the Taliban which, in the end, makes us the same as any other garden variety occupying force like Great Britain or the Soviets.

According to an article, back in 2004, in Global Research, "In the wake of the 2001 US bombing of Afghanistan, the British government of Tony Blair was entrusted by the G-8 Group of leading industrial nations to carry out a drug eradication program." And, instead of eliminating the crop, cultivation of opium poppy has skyrocketed. What's more, "One of the 'hidden' goals of the war was to restore the CIA sponsored drug trade to its historical levels and exert direct control over the drug routes."

No matter how you slice, it, it defies logic that the so-called insurgency, and Taliban extremists, are so firmly embedded that not even the 82nd Airborne can take them out of their caves on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan? Are we to believe that more than 20,000 U.S. servicemen can't eradicate what amounts to a small tribe of terrorists, who probably can't even get a signal, or can it be, instead, that the U.S. government is distracted by Afghanistan's greatest asset of all, heroin? When a former vice president, Dick Cheney, has to resort to mob tactics, is it really too far a stretch to think that mob booty might also be involved?

Arguably, in any war, it's easy to lose track of why we're there. This particular military exploit is no exception. Some might say we're taking the war on drugs to a whole new level.

Still, others might insist it's not like the U.S. is the first country to invade Afghanistan. It's not like it was virgin territory, The British tried three times to control the region between 1839 and 1919, and failed except, of course, that 90% of the heroin on the streets in England comes from the region. And, then came the Soviets, in 1979, and they, too, left without booty.

By now, it should be abundantly clear what our objective was in invading, and occupying, Iraq, and who made the greatest profit==big oil, even former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan, cops to it. Likewise, it should be equally obvious what brought us to Afghanistan and the Helmand province, in 2001. This is a war not about oil, or empire building, per se, about controlling the world's greatest supply of heroin. Some wars make heroes, others make heroin.

Obviously,, we can no more expect to hear the truth about our Afghanistan offensive from an Obama White House than we did about the massacre of 2,000 Afghanis under another president, George W. Bush. The truth is not a cash crop.

Generations from now, people will look back at this era, wince, and think we may not have succeeded at capitalism, but we did a hell of a good job at covering up.

We can count on a general, Stanley McChrystal who, during the period when he steered the military's Joint Special Operations Command, earned praise for terrorist hunting at broadband speed, but given his desire for a speedy surge, the operation in Afghanistan may someday come to be known as "McChrystal meth."

But, we must concern ourselves more with McChrystal's math, especially given his talk about growing the Afghan army to nearly 50% more than the number of troops LBJ committed to Vietnam. In all likelihood, U.S. troops, not Afghanis, will be the ones to tip the scale at more than 100,000.

And in this, the heaviest month of allied casualties when the commander in the region, General McChrystal, asserts we are in the region to protect the population from being "coerced at midnight by an armed man who shows up and threatens them," we must ask whose uniform that armed man is wearing---odds are eight to one, it's more likely to be that of an American marine.

Finally, we must look warily at any general who refers to a bloody battlefield as "a retail war;" a term like that is eerily reminiscent of another chilling phrase "collateral damage." We must also ask what it is that is being retailed, and who the other collateral damage is. Indeed, every youngster who overdoses on heroin, both here and the UK, is a fatality of this war.

Moreover, the mercantile, and banking, images don't begin to obscure the fact that, ultimately, the difference between a retail war and a wholesale war is that a retail war is far more expensive, both in terms of monetary and human resources.

For, in the end, it isn't Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but human greed that is the enemy.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Oysters for Health Care"

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

This is a story of health care and two Americans; a tale of two citizens, if you will.

This week, Regina Benjamin was nominated by President Obama as our next surgeon general, charged with educating Americans on medical issues and overseeing the United States Public Health Service. She was the first African American woman to head a state medical society, a member of the board of trustees of the American Medical Association and last year was named the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius award.

But more important, she's a country doctor, a family physician along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, serving the poor and uninsured - white, black and Asian. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed her clinic - the second time a hurricane had done so - she mortgaged her own home to rebuild it. The day it was to reopen, a fire burned the clinic to the ground. Moving to a trailer, Dr. Benjamin and her staff never missed a day of work.

Stan Wright, the tobacco-chewing mayor of Bayou La Batre, the small shrimp-fishing community in which Dr. Benjamin practices, told National Public Radio, "She'll do whatever she's gotta do to make sure everyone's taken care of."

Benjamin will no doubt bring that same ethic to the fight for health care reform. When President Obama announced her nomination in a Rose Garden ceremony Monday, Dr. Benjamin said, "These are trying times in the health care field, and as a nation, we have reached a sobering realization. Our health care system simply cannot continue on the path that we're on. Millions of Americans can't afford health insurance or they don't have the basic health services available where they live."

Although the clinic has not been able to give Dr. Benjamin a salary for years - Mayor Wright says she's owed over $300,000 - she buys medicine for her patients out of her own pocket.

In fact, many of the folks in Regina Benjamin's bayou town are so poor that sometimes she's paid with a pint of oysters or a couple of fish. She's fine with that. And she makes house calls.

Now meet H. Edward Hanway, the chairman and CEO of CIGNA, the country's fourth largest insurance company. At the beginning of the year, CIGNA blamed hard economic times when it announced the layoff of 1100 employees, but it reported first quarter profits of $208 million on revenues of nearly $5 billion. Mr. Hanway has announced his retirementat the end of the year, and the living will be easy, financially at
least. He made $11.4 million in 2008, according to the Associated Press,
and some years more than that.

That's a lot of oysters, although he lags behind Ron Williams, the CEO of Aetna Insurance, who made $17.4 million last year, or John Hammergren, the head of McKesson, the biggest health care company in the world. His compensation was $29.7 million.

Here's the difference. To Dr. Regina Benjamin, health care is a public service, helping people in need with grace and compassion. To Ed Hanway and his highly paid friends, it's big business, a commodity to be sold to those who can afford it. And woe to anyone who gets between them and the profits they reap from sick people.

That's what Wendell Potter, the former CIGNA executive turned health xare reform advocate, told us on last week's edition of Bill Moyers Journal.

"Just about every time there has been significant legislation before Congress, the industry has been able to kill it," he said. "Yeah, the status quo works for them. They don't like to have any regulation forced on them or laws forced on them. They don't want to have any competition from the federal government, or any additional regulation from the federal government. They say they will accept it. But the behavior is that they will not."

As we reported last week, that behavior includes spending nearly a million and a half a day to make sure health care reform comes out their way. Over the years they've lavished millions on the politicians who are writing and voting on health care reform. Now it's payback time.

Proposed legislation finally is coming out of House and Senate committees, and Thursday's Los Angeles Times reported "signs that the debate was moving into a more bruising phase in which insurance companies, hospitals and others fight to shape the details of legislative provisions that affect them."

It's going to get ugly, especially now that some Democrats, according to ABC News, are contemplating new taxes on health insurance and phamaceutical companies to help pay for reform, perhaps as much as $100 billion worth.

In other words, no more Mister Nice Guy. Those TV commericials you've been seeing from the health care companies about their generosity and miracles of modern medicine are about to change, as the opposition shifts gears from charm to alarm. It's the war against the Clinton health care plan all over again.

This time, don't let them scare you. "It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients," Dr. Regina Benjamin said when she was nominated this week. "It shouldn't be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country."

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior
writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which
airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers
Blog at

Research provided by producer Gail Ablow and associate producer Julia

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What to do with the enablers?

Senator Feinstein was right when she told Fox News, on Sunday, that we have a "problem" with a vice president who orders the head of the Central Intelligence Agency not to disclose details of a secret "counterterrorism" program in violation of federal law. Yes, indeed we do, but the larger problem is what to do with those who enabled Dick Cheney, and continue to do so.

Say, for the sake of argument, that an indictment is issued against Dick Cheney and he gets to have his day in court and, say that the former vice president is convicted. This still doesn't solve the problem of what to do with those in the Bush administration who aided and abetted such egregious acts as torture, and warrantless eavesdropping, as well as the destruction of 5 million White House e-mails in violation of the Presidential Records Act

The Obama administration can guarantee one new job for someone who would just keep track of all the laws that were bent, or outright broken, under George W. Bush starting with FISA, the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment, the Geneva Conventions, the 1947 national security provisions which required that Congress be briefed, and that's just for starters.

But, even if Dick Cheney gets to join the likes of Bernie Madoff, and spend what's left of his life in jail, we're still going to have to live with the aftershocks of the Bush years, the USA Patriot Act which, you'll recall, was finalized with Bush's reelection in 2004, as was the understated, but everpresent, police state we now consider the "new normal." Government hit squads a la Cheney, waterboarding, and indefinite detention are practices that have been outed, but only the most naive among us would believe they've been ruled out. One newspaper has already been made to recant a story it published, and that same newspaper's publisher just hosted a networking mixer for 350 former elected officials who have been outsourced as lobbyists for the private health care industry.

Yes, the enablers are alive and well when environmental activists from Greenpeace can be chained and handcuffed for hanging a banner warning about climate change on Mount Everest. The enablers are thriving when an Iraq veteran has his flag taken down by Wisconsin police for the simple act of hanging it upside down as a lawful means of protest. Whose dog ate the First Amendment?

In the end, it's not only about what commands the vice president gave to the CIA about what not to tell Congress in the Bush years, it's about what commands are being given now.

We must also look at those who suited up, at a hefty hourly rate, to defend Mr. Cheney in his egregious skirting, defying, and sodomizing of the Constitution and international law at taxpayer's expense.

Vigilance is required for President Obama, too, when he colludes with state secrets defense, jockeys to validate Bush's refusal to turn over hundreds of thousands of White House e-mails which miraculously reappeared. Vigilance is required when he aids and abets a legal black hole of limitless incarceration for those we detain on an ever expanding field of battle. These policies must come under the same scrutiny as those of Dick Cheney or, in the end, the enablers will prevail, and Dick Cheney will get a perennial get out of jail card.

I join those who call for accountability and justice. But, we must also work to ensure that the name on the door to the Oval Office isn't the only thing that has changed, and that Mr. Cheney's enablers have, once and for all, left town.


It must be hard not to
fall in
love with
yourself in
that mirror
the one you
hide under a rock
is deranged as
a thief
caught in
the act
the glare itself
is unbearable
and watching only
confirms the
impossible can

by Jayne Lyn Stahl

from "Riding with Destiny"

all rights reserved.

Left for dead, and hung out to dry...

by the Alternative Mainstream Media:

Okay, it's not like I don't have better things to do now than belly wail. I sure can use a shower, but there's something I need to get off my chest.

When I was having a hard time getting an article I wrote, "Remember Guantanamo: for Daniel Pearl," published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other mainstream media newspapers, a friend of mine suggested I try blogging. "Oh," I said, "that sounds onanistic. Besides, no serious writer would be caught dead writing for free," and quickly dismissed the idea.

Then, a funny thing happened when I spent that summer looking for new digs, trying to move back to L.A. for the umpteenth time from the Ventura area. I found myself writing about what I witnessed while staying at a ramshackle hotel, on Burbank Blvd., a few miles from North Hollywood. One of the major blogs published it, and I had my first cyberspace orgasm miraculously watching something I write instantly appear on my computer screen. I've always been a sucker for immediate gratification.

I tested the water and it was fine, so I jumped in, and became a bona fide blogger (actually, a serious writer with an immediate gratification jones).

One thing I did notice, and that was that not all Web sites are created equally. I wasn't able to penetrate the glass ceiling which, by the way, still exists at places like Truthdig, and Truthout, neither of whom will return my e-mails, but happily find myself, and my work, appreciated at The Huffington Post. No one makes a dime off selling advertising space on my articles---I'm not a celebrity blogger, so I'm especially grateful to those places like HuffPost, and the Atlantic Free Press, who appreciate and publish what I write, but I also want to say how hugely disappointing it is to find the same infrastructure of exclusion, and exclusivity, a hierarchy (again, mostly male) of writers who one sees over and over again, with no room for a new face, and no more appetite for taking risks than the MSM that suffered a major collapse for its lack of imagination.

Funny thing about glass ceilings, if you look closer, they're really mirrors, and what they reflect about the social innovations of our day is that we have largely recycled the same old elitism in different packaging.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Whenever I want to
write about
I step in
dog shit.
Whenever I
want to strip
to the last
I swallow a solitary
vowel like
thunder on
the roof. Still,
I want to
write about
love, but
think of
Frank O'Hara
and get
hungry only

By Jayne Lyn Stahl

all rights reserved

Friday, July 10, 2009


George W. Bush will be remembered as the president who changed legal briefs into boxers.

From Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Some Choice Words for "The Select Few"

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

If you want to know what really matters in Washington, don't go to Capitol Hill for one of those hearings, or pay attention to those staged White House "town meetings."

They're just for show. What really happens - the serious business of Washington - happens in the shadows, out of sight, off the record. Only occasionally - and usually only because someone high up stumbles -- do we get a glimpse of just how pervasive the corruption has become.

Case in point: Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post - one of the most powerful people in DC - invited top officials from the White House, the Cabinet and Congress to her home for an intimate, off-the-record dinner to discuss health care reform with some of her reporters and editors covering the story.

But CEO's and lobbyists from the health care industry were invited, too, provided they forked over $25,000 a head - or up to a quarter of a million if they want to sponsor a whole series of these cozy get-togethers. And what is the inducement offered? Nothing less, the invitation read, than "an exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will get it done."

The invitation reminds the CEO's and lobbyists that they will be buying access to "those powerful few in business and policy making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues...

"Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No." The invitation promises this private, intimate and off-the-record dinner is an extension "of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard."

Let that sink in. In this case, the "stakeholders" in health care reform do not include the rabble - the folks across the country who actually need quality health care but can't afford it. If any of them showed up at the kitchen door on the night of this little soiree, the bouncer would drop kick them beyond the Beltway.

No, before you can cross the threshold to reach "the select few who will actually get it done," you must first cross the palm of some outstretched hand. The Washington Post dinner was canceled after a copy of the invite was leaked to the Web site, by a health care lobbyist, of all people. The paper said it was a misunderstanding - the document was a draft that had been mailed out prematurely by its marketing department. There's noblesse oblige for you - blame it on the hired help.

In any case, it was enough to give us a glimpse into how things really work in Washington - a clear insight into why there is such a great disconnect between democracy and government today, between Washington and the rest of the country.

According to one poll after another, a majority of Americans not only want a public option in health care, they also think that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power over policy, that money in politics is the root of all evil, that working families and poor communities need and deserve public support if the market system fails to generate shared prosperity.

But when the insiders in Washington have finished tearing worthy intentions apart and devouring flesh from bone, none of these reforms happen. "Oh," they say, "it's all about compromise. All in the nature of the give-and-take-negotiating of a representative democracy."

That, people, is bull - the basic nutrient of Washington's high and mighty.

It's not about compromise. It's not about what the public wants. It's about money - the golden ticket to "the select few who actually get it done."

When Congress passed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, "the select few" made sure it no longer contained the cramdown provision that would have allowed judges to readjust mortgages. The one provision that would have helped homeowners the most was removed in favor of an industry that pours hundreds of millions into political campaigns.

So, too, with a bill designed to protect us from terrorist attacks on chemical plants. With "the select few" dictating marching orders, hundreds of factories are being exempted from measures that would make them spend money to prevent the release of toxic clouds that could kill hundreds of thousands.

Everyone knows the credit ratings agencies were co-conspirators with Wall Street in the shameful wilding that brought on the financial meltdown. But when the Obama administration came up with new reforms to prevent another crisis, the credit ratings agencies were given a pass. They'd been excused by "the select few who actually get it done."

And by the time an energy bill emerged from the House of Representatives the other day, "the select few who actually get it done" had given away billions of dollars worth of emission permits and offsets. As The New York Times reported, while the legislation worked its way to the House floor, "it grew fat with compromises, carve-outs, concessions and out-and-out gifts," expanding from 648 pages to 1400 as it spread its largesse among big oil and gas, utility companies and agribusiness.

This week, the public interest groups Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that, "According to lobby disclosure reports, 34 energy companies registered in the first quarter of 2009 to lobby Congress around the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. This group of companies spent a total of $23.7 million - or $260,000 a day - lobbying members of Congress in January, February and March.

"Many of these same companies also made large contributions to the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation and held a hearing this week on the proposed 'cap and trade' system energy companies are fighting. Data shows oil and gas companies, mining companies and electric utilities combined have given more than $2 million just to the 19 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since 2007, the start of the last full election cycle."

It's happening to health care as well. Even the pro-business magazine The Economist says America has the worst system in the developed world, controlled by executives who are not held to account and investors whose primary goal is raising share price and increasing profit - while wasting $450 billion dollars in redundant administrative costs and leaving nearly 50 million uninsured.

Enter "the select few who actually get it done." Three out of four of the big health care firms lobbying on Capitol Hill have former members of Congress or government staff members on the payroll - more than 350 of them - and they're all fighting hard to prevent a public plan, at a rate in excess of $1.4 million a day.

Health care policy has become insider heaven. Even Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House health reform director, served on the boards of several major health care corporations.

President Obama has pushed hard for a public option but many fear he's wavering, and just this week his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel - the insider del tutti insiders - indicated that a public plan just might be negotiable, ready for reengineering, no doubt, by "the select few who actually get it done."

That's how it works. And it works that way because we let it. The game goes on and the insiders keep dealing themselves winning hands. Nothing will change - nothing - until the money lenders are tossed out of the temple, the ATM's are wrested from the marble halls, and we tear down the sign they've placed on government - the one that reads, "For Sale."

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

The Feet of Moloch

Once upon a've heard that line before, and I'm not one to take a trip down memory lane, but something just happened that not only makes me wince, but makes me damn angry. A fellow poet told me I can contribute to him, and that my contributions are "tax-deductible." Why does this make my blood boil?

Well, I started writing at age 9. At first, I wrote plays which I also directed, acted in, and had friends play different roles. My desire was to be an actress, and I didn't know that others had written plays before me, so I thought I had to invent the material also. My career as a theatrical producer came to a crashing halt when the star of a play I wrote, directed, and in which I had a major part, was a no-show on the night of performance.

So, as one who was always intrigued by poetry, and loved Walt Whitman, at age 12 I took up writing poetry. Granted, it was difficult work for me. Dialogue flowed naturally, and all I had to do was write it down, but I loved the process of writing poetry, too, and by my 17th birthday, a poem I wrote for Garcia Lorca was published and translated into Spanish. It was the first poem I ever sent out. Since then, my work has appeared in mopre than 20 journals, anthologies, and been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese.

At about 19, I met, and became friends with poet Paul Blackburn who invited me to participate in poetry readings at the Basement Coffee House which never happened because I was dilatory and, sadly, because Paul Blackburn passed of throat cancer.

I was a big fan of Allen Ginsberg, went to several of his readings, sent him my poetry; "nice Rimbaud phrase" he wrote on a postcard about one of my poems to which I replied "some phase: it's lasted over a hundred years." This was back in 1968.

Gregory Corso and I met on a blind date, of all things, when I was a student at SUNY Buffalo. He wanted to make love, of course, and I said "that would be incest." I wanted him to take me seriously as a poet---which he did, so seriously that he even collaborated with me on a few poems (which I've since lost). Allen Ginsberg and I spoke on more than one occasion about Gregory. I was very concerned about him. Allen said "dig yourself." Good advice----Florence Nightingale I'm wasn't, nor am I now.

I hung out with Jack Micheline, and Jack Hirschman, and Andrei Codrescu in the 1970's in San Francisco. Micheline was a big fan of my work----he'd come to every poetry reading I gave.

In the mid-1980's, I moved to Los Angeles for work, mostly, and when I made the mistake of coming back to San Francisco in the early 2000's to do an event that spoke out against the USA Patriot Act, and tried to make it an issue in the 2004 campaign, I underwent the most devastating experience of my life. I became a complete pariah----nobody attended my poetry readings, and I was virtually driven out of town. Jack Hirschman said "I don't like what you became since you moved to L.A." The Poet Laureate of San Francisco decided I was no longer a poet.

Well, I thought, there's always the oven, but I didn't think I was quite ready yet to pull a Sylvia Plath which is why I decided writing essays---political essays. I wrote "political" poetry---whatever that is. I wrote poetry that dealt with the issues of our times, but when life hands you a lemon, you make lemonade.

It's been five years now, and I've never spoken publicly until now. Why? I don't want to embarrass myself or anyone else. I also don't want to cry. I did a lot of crying. This morning, when I got that e-mail from a "friend" who addressed me as a reader of his magazine, one that has published my poetry more than once in the past, and when he said he thanks me for his "support," and would accept a "tax deductible contribution," I blew my top.

From childhood, I thought of myself as a poet. I never thought anyone, or anything, would be strong enough to destroy the impulse to write poetry in me.

I still write poetry and, like Rimbaud, will continue to do so until my dying day, but I no longer identify myself as a poet, read publicly, nor will I try to have a book of my poetry published. I invite you to look at my poetry. It's as good, or better, than anything that has ever come out of San Francisco.

Congratulations to the poetry establishment in San Francisco-----you destroyed what J.M. Coetzee has called "one of the freshest voices in modern American poetry." You sure know how to silence the competition, and prove that poets go where wise men fear to roam.

Bitterness abides not. Vision is about overcoming, not wallowing in the half-emptied vanity of others.

As Allen Ginsberg would say, poet tasters still kiss the feet of Moloch, now more than ever. Still, as Allen might say, the forces of light will overcome those of darkness, and we are all poet rainbows in the face of eternity.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A bit Roman?

Is it just me, or does the image of scores of fans and entertainers regaling the casket of Michael Jackson in the Staples Center strike you, too, as a bit Roman like something out of "Satiricon?"

All I mean is, it's ludicrous that a city like Los Angeles would spend $4 million on this memorial service when California is sending IOUs to all its contractors, laying off its teachers, and no longer able to process rape kits.

Monday, July 06, 2009

N. Korea: A Question of Sovereignty?

After what has been touted as a highly successful meeting between the world’s two superpowers on Monday, in Russia, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev have drafted an agreement that would reduce their combined nuclear arsenal by as much as one third. President Obama said: “We must lead by example,” and this is clearly an excellent start.

But, given North Korea’s launch of seven missiles to commemorate America’s Independence Day, the symbolism is inescapable that, despite what we, in the west, prefer to see as his mad antics, Kim Jong-Il’s concerns may have something to do with his nation’s independence from foreign manipulation. And, given his own failing health, Kim Jong-Il may be justified in stopping what he may see as the inevitable absorption of N. Korea by its neighbor to the south upon his death. The several nuclear tests we’ve witnessed over the past two months might someday be regarded as Kim Jong-Il’s swan song, or last efforts to stop the annexation of Pyongyang by Seoul.

Clearly, nothing the White House is doing is putting North Korea’s mind at rest. In a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, mid-June, President Obama reportedly gifted South Korea with continued, public assurances that the so-called “nuclear umbrella” over Seoul would prevail. But, the real question is what assurances were delivered behind closed doors, and whether or not Myung-Bak came away with a first-of-its-kind written guarantee that the U.S. will put their money where their mouth is where backing S. Korea with nuclear weapons is concerned.

So, on the one hand, we have a president, in his infancy, trying to forge new, and improved, relations with his Russian counterpart, as well as impress the world with the prospect that the two greatest proliferators of nuclear energy are now ready to pursue substantial downsizing. Yet, on the other hand, the president promises to provide nuclear weapons to S. Korea to protect that country from the sabre rattling in Pyongyang. Doublespeak? Yes, but clearly not precedent-setting.

For example, while the White House expresses alarm about Iran, where is the public outrage over Israel’s nuclear warheads, and long range missiles? Similarly, whenever the subject of social unrest in Pakistan comes up, the first thing one hears about is their nuclear arsenal while, at the same time, a former president, George W. Bush, was content to bend the rules a bit when it came to India’s efforts at uranium enrichment. Also, what does it tell the world about our genuine attempts at diarmament given that the U.S. is still not willing to sign a treaty banning the manufacture of cluster bombs when 90 other countries have already done so?

Still, the larger question is–how can we continue to offer a nuclear shield for Seoul and, simultaneously, expect the international community to commit to arresting the nuclear development of Pyongyang? . Is nuclear proliferation by some countries acceptable, but not by others, and what happens when the leader of a country, like North Korea, asserts that their build-up is in self-defense, and to protect their territorial autonomy? Surely, all countries must honor U.N. Security Council resolutions just as no country deserves an exemption from Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties–in theory, that is, but in practice we see those treaties broken all the time, and with impunity.

The magnitude of Monday’s announced rollback in the expansion of nuclear warfare is a positive, and dramatic break from the star wars defense programs of the Reagan years, but any substantive change in foreign policy will involve approaching the heads of foreign states with respect, and acknowledging them as partners. President Obama has taken a first step in that direction when he announced that there is a “path to peace” available to North Korea, and without question the development of a nuclear arsenal in that country poses a threat to the entire world. But, by what kind of inverse logic can we consider providing nuclear coverage to the south a way to avoid nuclear proliferation in the north?

Moreover, who knows what would happen if, as a change of pace, the president were to reassure Kim Jong-Il that no one wants to threaten North Korea’s right to exist? Maybe that’s what was behind all his nuclear launches–a promise of nonintervention by the U.S. and South Korea upon his demise.

If, in fact, as Obama suggests “we must lead by example,” then we can begin by respecting the sovereignty of other countries, even those with which we disagree.


Is "reckless disregard for the truth" a crime? Sarah Palin's lawyer, and Fox News, think so, and Palin's counsel wants to go after the blogger who speculated on a federal indictment.

But, ultimately, if "reckless disregard for the truth" is a crime, then why didn't Fox go after George W. Bush for that?

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Who needs nicotine when you have social networking?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Walking Under the Influence?

Like many Americans, I decided to stay local today, and use this Independence Day to catch up on errands, and much-needed housekeeping.

As one who has scrupulously avoided getting behind the wheel on holidays like July 4th, and Christmas, to avoid getting pulled over by law enforcement, and cited for one minor infraction or another, and as one who has developed the habit of walking for exercise, over the past several years, I thought I'd enjoy the mild temperatures, and walk to the local mall.

To my amazement, the traffic was heavy, or heavier than on any work day, and the street I walk on is an alternate for a major highway, so it was as busy as any weekday.

After commenting to the clerk at the video store about what a wise move it was for me to walk, given all the cars on the road, I began my one mile trek home.

When I crossed the street, I saw a black and white, his lights flashing furiously, pull over an older model Honda Civic, no doubt for a routine traffic violation. I was busy yakking away on my cell phone with a friend in Ventura, making a valiant attempt to ignore the police car, brave the 30 plus mph wind, and not curse out the sharkish drivers who insist on taking their divine right on red, thereby forcing me into submission.

Right after the late model Civic took off, the officer hung up his cell phone, and looked right at me: "Can I talk to you a minute?," he asked with unctuous courtesy. I said "Sure," and told my friend I'd call him back. I thought maybe he wanted to ask me for directions.

"What's up?," I asked "Well," he said, "I had reports that you were weaving back and forth while walking down the street, and I'm concerned for your welfare. Have you had anything to drink?"

"Why, officer, heartfelt thanks for your concern," I said, "of course not. I don't drink." "What about prescription drugs?" "Look into my eyes," I insisted. "Are my pupils dilated?" He asked to see my license, which I promptly gave him. "By all means," I said, handing him my driver's license.

"Where are you off to now?" he asked, "Roble Road, the place listed on my license." I was struck by how polite he was, and his impeccable uniform---probably a rookie, I thought. Give him a few years, and he'll be arrogant, and choleric.

"Well, you were talking on your cell phone which may have been while you were swaying back and forth," he said smiling sweetly. Oh my gawd, I'm thinking, I must be under the influence, I'm getting turned on by this cop.

"Yes," I added, "and I am only 98 lbs., so in a 40 mph, I suppose I was getting blown about a bit." There is something called gravity, I wanted to add, but decided it was best to leave it at that.

He called in my license number, and when he hung up, he appeared somewhat apologetic. "We were just concerned for your welfare, you understand," he said.

"Funny thing, officer," I said laughing. "I have a car. I deliberately didn't drive today, and stayed off the road because I was paranoid I'd get stopped, and ticketed, for one minor infraction or another. Who would have guessed that I'd get pulled over for being under the influence while walking?"

Was it my hat? or maybe the way I dress? I sure look different than the folks around here who, for the most part, dress like they're going bowling. What would I get a ticket for---breathing while different? Forget the notion of diversity which has completely evaporated We've become one big monotheistic, monosyllabic mess. And, "oh, the horror, the horror."

Could it be that he thought I was homeless? After all, there are lots of homeless people in the Bay Area, and many sleep in their cars near the train station half a mile from my house. And, what if I were? Was I not exercising my rights by walking down the street in broad daylight?

What would have happened if I didn't have a valid driver's license, and/or proof of residency? Where would I have ended up? What happens when Mr. and Mrs. Middle America think they see some displaced person walking down Main Street, and call local law enforcement because they're "concerned ." How quaint! You'd have a hard time convincing me that this was about concern for my welfare.

Happy Independence Day everybody, especially to those who, over the past few decades, have screamed the loudest about America becoming a welfare state, and who sit back quietly as America becomes a police state.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

By Michael Winship

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television:

"My State Legislature's Crazier than Yours. Oh Yeah?"

By Michael Winship

California should just be done with it and rename the entire state "Neverland Ranch."

This serves several useful purposes. It would be the ultimate tribute to Michael Jackson, pleasing his most ardent and bereft fans. Further validate the state's Cloud Cuckoo, fairy tale reputation, thus probably promoting additional, revenue-generating tourism. Stand as an accurate metaphor for the state government's airheaded inability to cope with its current financial disaster.

On Wednesday, Governor Schwarzenegger announced that California's deficit has grown to $26.3 billion and proposed billions of additional cuts to education. He declared a fiscal emergency, triggering an automatic 45-day deadline for the state legislature to come up with a plan to cover the shortfall and balance the budget. If that fails, they're banned from considering any other legislation until they come up with a solution.

Arnold also signed an executive order forcing the state's 220,000 employees to take a third, unpaid furlough day every month. This, after weeks of failed proposals, threatened vetoes, political contortionism, suspended social programs - a fiscal train wreck of such proportions that on Thursday the state planned on starting to pay its bills with IOU's instead of cash.

It's "an institutional breakdown," according to State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat. Lockyer has called for professional mediation to unjam talks between legislators and Governor Terminator, and even a two-tiered budget system that would raise taxes and allot resources differently for different parts of the state.

That may sound crazy, but this is California. Besides, we in New York State are in no position to cast stones. Our State Senate has degenerated into a slaphappy free-for-all that resembles a drunken demolition derby more than anything remotely like a deliberative body.

On June 8, two Democratic state senators, both of whom are under investigation on an assortment of charges, defected to the other side of the aisle, giving the Republicans a 32-30 majority. Then one of the Democrats changed what was left of his mind and went back, creating a 31-31 split and deadlock.

Under normal circumstances, the lieutenant governor, who also serves as Senate president, could break a tie. But currently, we don't have one of those. David Paterson had the job until he was elevated to the top spot when Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught engaged in commercialized bedhopping and resigned.

Last month's legislative coup has led to name-calling, accusations, general inertia and circumstances under which, among other assorted wackiness, the guy who the Republicans say is the current Senate president has claimed that because there is no lieutenant governor, he should have two votes.

Because neither side can come up with the requisite 32 members for a quorum, the Senate disintegrated into a series of alternating, one-party sessions during which nothing could be accomplished. Although on Tuesday, when Democrats spotted Republican member Frank Padavan walking through the rear of the chamber, they seized on the moment, claiming a quorum, and started ramming through legislation, which the Republicans say was illegal. Padavan says he was just taking a shortcut for a cup of

Imagine West Side Story meets Duck Soup, with the Marx Brothers playing the Sharks and Jets, using whoopee cushions instead of switchblades, and you get the general idea. With the backing of a court order, Governor Paterson is trying to force all 62 members into the chamber for daily "extraordinary" sessions at which he hopes a deal can be cut that will get the Senate up and running again. He says he'll keep them coming right through the Fourth of July weekend. Some are refusing
to attend. Watch this space.

Because, despite all the foolishness, as in California, this is serious stuff with potentially dire consequences. As The New York Times reports, June 30 "was the expiration date of more than a dozen statutes that authorize local governments to carry out their everyday duties, from planning budgets to collecting taxes. And as Democrats and Republicans in the Senate continued... to argue fruitlessly over who controlled the chamber, officials around the state were left to ponder contingency plans that they never thought they would need."

What's also infuriating is the way certain enabled individuals consciously are helping stymie any possible breakthrough. In California, it's Governor Schwarzenegger, whose veto threats, blocking of short-term loans, and refusal to raise any tax or virtually any fee have thrown additional wooden shoes into the works. In New York, it's not the governor, who has tried to break gridlock but whose efficacy is virtually nil and popularity is south of "get lost." It's upstate
billionaire businessman Tom Golisano, a gadfly who, according to the Times, helped broker the defection of the two NY Senate Democrats that precipitated the current mess. Apparently, he did so out of pique over proposed tax hikes on the wealthy.

It's all a nasty game that puts cronyism, partisan bickering, and corrupt, despicable self-interest above the needs of increasingly desperate citizens. Especially abhorrent as we celebrate the country's independence and commemorate that long ago struggle against abuses of power.

At least Brooklyn Democratic Senator John Sampson, when asked this week if he was embarrassed about the situation, had the grace to reply, "Embarrassed? That's an understatement. We're ashamed."


Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at