What Great Recession? Wall Street Remains Unoccupied By Ethics (May 23, 2015)

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Nearly seven years after the American economy foundered under the worst global recession since World War II, it seems nothing much has changed with regard to the behavior of those that brought us collectively to the brink. While the nation’s bankers and mortgage lenders were certainly assisted in their shenanigans by the middle and working class-looting policies of George W. Bush, which resulted in a 35 percent decline in median household wealth, Bush 43 has long since been shuffled into retirement. Meanwhile according to report this week fromThe New York Times writer Andrew Ross Sorkin, Wall Street malfeasance is alive and well.

In Many on Wall Street Say It Remains Untamed, Sorkin mines new data from a joint survey conducted by The University of Notre Dame and Labaton Sucharow LLP. The project, entitled The Street, The Bull and The Crisis: A Survey of the US & UK Financial Services Industry, engaged “1,200 traders, portfolio managers, investment bankers and hedge fund professionals both in the United States and Britain” in an effort to find out how the culture has changed in the wake of the Great Recession.

The results, for the overwhelming majority of us who would like to avoid such painful, debilitating economic calamities in the future, are not encouraging. Ross summarizes the Notre Dame/Labaton report as follows, “Rather than indicating that Wall Street has cleaned itself up, it suggests that many of the lessons of the crisis still haven’t been learned. And the mind-boggling settlement numbers, as well as stringent new rules, like the of Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul in 2010, appear to have had little deterrent effect.”

Among the data highlights of the survey:

  • A third of Wall Street workers who earn more than $500,000 annually self-report that they “have witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.”
  • “Nearly one in five respondents feel financial service professionals must sometimes engage in unethical or illegal activity to be successful in the current financial environment.”
  • Almost half of the over $500,000 crowd shared that law enforcement and regulatory bodies are ineffective “in detecting, investigating and prosecuting securities violations.”
  • A third of respondents “believe compensation structures or bonus plans in place at their company could incentivize employees to compromise ethics or violate the law.”

Though America has voted itself a much more competent and empathetic POTUS in Barack Obama versus the reckless mismanagement of “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush, the data from the study makes clear that the conditions are ripe for a crisis similar to the subprime mortgage scandal to occur. It’s only a matter of time. The unchastened criminals, having suffered nothing personally as a result of their misbehavior, are going about business as usual. As Sorkin writes, “Wall Street is…risk-taking and those who seemingly do it most successfully find that edge of the line and get as close to it as possible without crossing it.”

But as we know, the experts have crossed that line and in a culture where power, money and recklessness have a sexy image, in a regulatory climate where repercussions rarely go beyond a light wrist slap, there is little reason to reform.

But perhaps all hope is not lost. After all, thanks to Bernie Sanders, the 2016 Presidential campaign conversation includes ideas for balancing the “all gimme while the working man suffers” imbalance between Wall Street and the proletariat. Our own Jason Easley wrote Bernie Sanders Plans To Make College Free By Raising Taxes On Wall Street this week. She quotes Sanders as saying, “At a time when the wealthiest people in this country have made huge amounts of money from risky derivative transactions and the soaring value of the stock market, this legislation would impose a Wall Street speculation fee on Wall Street investment houses and hedge funds.”

Wall Street looted the country by operating in the shadows, conducting transactions so complex and murky that most lay people couldn’t understand them. Meanwhile, the Republican political establishment of the Bush II years was all too happy to look the other way. Discourse and study are not synonymous with action of course. But they offer an enormous advantage versus the willful ignorance of the early aughts.

Stand Your Ground Is Unsound: The Data Speaks (May 14, 2015)

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Earlier this month, Robert J. Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland, and author of the new book Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights, wrote a guest Op-Ed for The New York Times. Entitled “Stand Your Ground Makes No Sense,” Spitzer leverages a variety of hard data to put forth what is to most sensible people, a fairly logical conclusion: “Not only have these laws failed to increase public safety, they have also turned the clock back to the mythologized mayhem of the Wild West.”

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre famously said at aDecember 2012 press conference, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” No matter how many times I hearken back to the statement’s context – the aftermath of the tragic Newtown, Connecticut school shooting – it remains as cynical and jarring as ever. Using the death of small children as an opportunity to advance the NRA’s mission to militarize every corner of the country, LaPierre called for an initiative to “put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.”

But what happens when overly permissive gun laws benefit the bad guys? What do we do when presented with solid proof that our regulations codify murder, racial profiling and render all of us less safe? What if instead of “thwart[ing] these monsters,” as LaPierre insists is the result of laxer laws, we are instead empowering them?

Well that’s precisely the argument Spitzer offers, using metrics and research put forth by such disparate entities as The Tampa Bay Times, The Wall Street Journal, Texas A&M University, the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Urban Institute. In specifically evaluating the various state Stand Your Ground laws that achieved cultural ubiquity with the February 2012 killing of the young, black and unarmed Trayvon Martin by self-styled vigilante George Zimmerman, the conclusion is clear as daylight. Per Spitzer, “Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims when a person was killed had been arrested at least once before; a third of those had been accused of violent crimes in the past; over a third had illegally carried guns in the past or had threatened others with them.”

In short, the guys and girls amped up on NRA propaganda, armed to the teeth and ready to shoot, are themselves most often the danger. Spitzer writes, “In 79 percent of the [Stand Your Ground] cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation. In 68 percent, the person killed was unarmed.”

And what’s more, though we need to do little more than turn on the cable news to confirm the trend, “In Stand Your Ground states, justifiable shooting results ranged from 3 to 15 percent…When the shooter was white and the victim black, 36 percent were ruled justified.” Legal rulings notwithstanding, the numbers are clear. In Stand Your Ground territory, the victim is more likely to be a person of color when the shooter is white.

The mass slaughter of private citizens, including children. The legitimacy of race-based hunting. The genocide of unarmed men and women. Say ye what you like Second Amendment zealots, but this IS NOT what the Bill of Rights intended. Once more with pure academic spirit, let’s revisit the literal wording of the Constitutional revision:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

There’s nothing “well regulated” about an angry white mob of uncoordinated, often untrained, sometimes criminally convicted civilians off firing away at the “other.” What Second Amendment fanatics often forget (by choice) is that Stand Your Ground laws deprive others of the unalienable rights asserted in theDeclaration of Independence. Remember “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?” And before you even start right wing trolls, I am not advocating for a complete suppression of gun culture. Whether or not I’m a fan (not), I respect our differences. But Stand Your Ground Laws are a proven cover for unjustified murder. The data is there. These laws need to go. Now.

Dark Red Oklahoma Angers Big Oil And Gas: Energy Practices Causing State’s Earthquakes (April 22, 2015)

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As the nation commemorates Earth Day 2015 this week with a variety of observances, activities and awareness campaigns, it’s the perfect time to renew calls for bipartisan cooperation to address climate change. And I’m also pleased to report a welcome anomaly among hard-core red states that should set an example for other Republican-led governments to follow.

On Tuesday, writer Michael Wines of The New York Timespublished a piece entitled Oklahoma Recognizes Role of Drilling in Earthquakes. The lead, pardon the pun, was rather seismic:

“Abandoning years of official skepticism, Oklahoma’s government on Tuesday embraced a scientific consensus that earthquakes rocking the state are largely caused by the underground disposal of billions of barrels of wastewater from oil and gas wells.”

Although we should not fall all over ourselves commending overdue common sense, the change is significant for two major reasons.

Oklahoma is a Red State – capital “R,” capital “S.” How Red is it? On January 25 of this year, Randy Krehbiel of the Tulsa Worldwrote, “Republicans will hold 112 of 149 seats in the Legislature that begins a week from Monday, plus every elected statewide office and the entire congressional delegation. And good luck to the Democrat who tries to make the two-party argument.”

With over 75 percent of the state’s lawmakers leaning to the hard right, it is kind of amazing that leadership would adopt a policy position that stands in direct contrast to the national party’s official platform on Natural Resources. Just for fun, here is the section related to Protecting Our Environment verbatim:

“The environment is getting cleaner and healthier. The nation’s air and waterways, as a whole, are much healthier than they were just a few decades ago. Efforts to reduce pollution, encourage recycling, educate the public, and avoid ecological degradation have been a success. To ensure their continued support by the American people, however, we need a dramatic change in the attitude of officials in Washington, a shift from a job-killing punitive mentality to a spirit of cooperation with producers, landowners, and the public. An important factor is full transparency in development of the data and modeling that drive regulations. Legislation to restore the authority of States in environmental protection is essential. We encourage the use of agricultural best management practices among the States to reduce pollution.”

I suppose the GOP forgot to forward this memo to the 97 percent of climate scientists who agree that our planet is not, in fact, “getting cleaner and healthier.” Maybe the total falsehood of the assertion is part of the problem.

In light of the party’s mandate that the federal government illustrate “a spirit of cooperation with producers [Big Energy], landowners [the landed gentry], and the public [afterthought peons],” Oklahoma is committing a real act of partisan treason. With its new position that oil and gas conglomerates are the direct cause of the state’s devastating earthquakes, up to two 3.0 magnitude tremors per day, cue the dissatisfaction of energy interests. After Republican Governor Mary Fallin’s office issued the new guidance this week, Wines writes:

“[The] actions met a mixed response from the oil and gas industry and the Governor’s critics. The Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association disputed the Geological Survey’s conclusions, saying in a statement that further study of the state’s quakes remained necessary.”

Uh huh. However, Democrats are welcoming the new, fact-based approach. Wines observes, “One of the most prominent advocates of stronger action on the earthquake issue, State Representative Cory Williams, a Democrat, said he had been pleasantly surprised by the change in what he called the state’s ‘head in the sand’ approach to the quake problem.

Climate change is one of the issues where it’s always better to act late than never. It remains to be seen if the practices of oil and gas companies can be altered to reverse the ecological damage done in the State of Oklahoma, and party leaders deserve continued rebuke for a failure to impose a moratorium sooner. In fact, they may never get around to imposing it at all. But if words are powerful and can change the constituent conversation (which they can, as it took years of disingenuous proselytizing from Republicans to talk the EPA-creating party of Nixon back into the dark ages), then Oklahoma may have just taken a great leap forward in saving itself.

Even His Home State of New Jersey Believes Chris Christie Should Not Be President (April 15, 2015)

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The 2016 Presidential election news cycle has been consumed this week by Democratic juggernaut Hillary Clinton’s official entry into the contest, as well as Republican junior Senator Marco Rubio’s Monday evening announcement. The narrative, such as Rubio would have it, pits tomorrow (himself) against yesterday (Clinton). Meanwhile the former Secretary of State cools her heels waiting to find out when and if any real competition is going to show up.

Whatever Rubio’s fitness level, or lack thereof, for becoming the next Leader of the Free World, it is doubtless that he can count on a goodly amount of support from his home state, should he survive the primaries. A recent report from The Hill puts Rubio’s approval rating at 40 percent in Florida, a figure that might be higher if the Senator had stuck to his immigration reform guns. The Sunshine State’s 24 percent Latino demographic would certainly have rewarded the lawmaker’s relative gumption.

But I digress. You know who from the potential Republican field can’t depend upon love from his home turf? That would be New Jersey Governor and Bridgegate star Chris Christie. According to an April 15 release from Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics:

“An increasing number of New Jersey registered voters think Christie would not make a good President, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Just 24 percent think Christie would be a good President, while 69 percent say he would not, a 10-point increase in negativity since a February poll.”

The summation is damning enough, but a further drill down of the report gleaned from interviewing 860 registered adults puts the situation more starkly. David Redlawsk, Director of Public Interest Polling at the Eagleton Center observes:

“Voters who know Governor Christie best simply do not see him as President… New Jerseyans have watched him in good times and bad. While his strengths were on display after the Sandy disaster, he was seen as just another politician after the Bridgegate scandal and the investigations it spawned, and he has never recovered.”

What is an overbearing, bullying, misogynist State chief to do? Although Capitol Hill talking heads are prone to over speculation, it seems conventional wisdom may have gotten it right in early 2014 in declaring Christie’s White House run over before it started. Last month Washington Examiner reporter T. Becket Adams wrote that the Governor “has seen his Presidential ambitions shrink to little more than a pipe dream.” Ouch.

Chris Christie is learning a humble, overdue lesson: do not mess with the people, especially the rush hour commute to their livelihoods, over petty personal politics. That said, it seems New Jersey voters are accustomed to Christie’s unique variety of hubris and fully expect him to run away – tarnished brand and lack of local support notwithstanding. The Eagleton report notes:

“Despite declining job ratings at home and his apparent status as an also-ran in national Republican polls, a majority of respondents – 58 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and

63 percent of Republicans – still expect Christie to run for President.”

Sometimes a good case can be made for predictability. But when it comes to the 1-2 combo of Governor’s Christie’s abrasive corruption mixed with delusions of grandeur, New Jersey voters encourage the nation to look elsewhere for our next POTUS.

 

Rahm Vs. Chuy: How Emanuel’s Divisive Racial Politics Could Clear A Path To Mayoral Victory (April 7, 2015)

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In September 2013, frustrated urban liberal populists experienced a jolt of genuine excitement with the New York City election of now-Mayor Bill De Blasio. All at once it seemed like the promise of the Occupy Wall Street movement had some real legs. After 12 years and three terms of the Father Knows Best leadership of one percenter Michael Bloomberg, the Big Apple proved it was serious about change.

Residents of “the Second City,” also known as Chicago, Illinois, are waiting with bated breath to find out if we’re having our own De Blasio moment this year. The polls are officially open, with local and national media eyes trained on the runoff Mayoral election between incumbent and former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, and his opponent, Jesus G. “Chuy” Garcia. Although technically a Democrat and a former top aide to President Obama, frustrated Windy City residents and political dissenters have grown increasingly vocal about Emanuel’s presumptive sovereignty in shuttering public schools, privatizing the city’s public transit system and a host of other issues.

After being outspent by a wide margin and making a late entry into the candidate field, conventional wisdom had Emanuel enjoying a comfortable re-election on February 24. As writerWhet Moser observed for Chicago magazine, “No one, outside of the Garcia camp, seemed to expect he’d survive to a runoff.” Although unions have been weakened by right-wing efforts in recent years, never bet against angry educators and parents when it comes to mobilization.

With Emanuel jolted and on the runoff defensive, Garcia found a big opening to capture the zeitgeist and hand Chicago a populist revolution. On March 3, the South Side Weekly anointed Chuy the “standard-bearer for a movement of Chicagoans deeply distrustful of the Mayor’s claims that he has improved lives over the past four years, [embracing] the notion that Emanuel’s administration embodies the worst of corporate excess that makes victims of ordinary Chicagoans.”

But as any lifelong resident of the Windy City will tell you, racial divides remain. Paradoxically it appears that the white, elitist Emanuel is having an easier time uniting his coalition of African-American supporters than Garcia, a candidate of Mexican descent. If the trend holds, Chicago’s 33 percent black population could play a critical role in handing Emanuel a second stint at City Hall.

On April 3, Julie Bosman of the New York Times wrote Candidate for Chicago Mayor Struggles to Unite Latinos and Blacks. And she wasn’t talking about Rahmbo. She assesses the Chuy problem as such:

“Mr. Garcia’s strategy was to build a coalition of white liberals, blacks and Latinos — angered by Mr. Emanuel’s closing of dozens of schools and supportive of a plan to shift development from its wealthy downtown to poorer neighborhoods.

But a Chicago Tribune poll released Tuesday showed Mr. Emanuel with a commanding lead. He not only has large margins among white voters, but a nearly two-to-one margin among black voters, 53 percent to 28 percent. Mr. Garcia has not been able to increase his share of the black vote.”

What could be driving Garcia’s alienation from the black community? In 1980, Chicago’s Hispanic population stood at 14 percent. 30 years later, it hovers close to 30 percent. Unfortunately what that amounts to is a lot of the same demographic fear and distrust playing out across the country every time the phrase “immigration reform” is dropped.

The Times piece quotes Martha Biondi, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Northwestern University as saying, “Unfortunately, African-American communities in Chicago are faced with extraordinarily high unemployment rates — there’s just an ongoing, really dire economic crisis…And instead of blaming employers or the leaders of the major parties, many people who are suffering will sometimes blame immigrants or working class rivals.”

It would be a real shame if Emanuel, one of the key architects in tilting Chicago’s economy toward the vested interests of the white one percent, ironically profits from his own machinations with a rubber stamp from Chicago’s black community.