Friday, February 13, 2009

Politics as usual

The New York State Senate has an operating budget of $100 MILLION. $100 MILLION.

Cars, staffers with six-figure salaries, a secret TV studio, even a "Brunomobile" -- a specially equipped $50,000 van that was used to shuttle disgraced -- and recently indicted -- former majority leader Joe Bruno around after Eliot Spitzer (himself a gleaming paragon of morality) yanked Bruno's helicopter privileges. The story is mind-boggling.

And that $100 million doesn't include earmarks -- hundreds of millions more in tax dollars doled out by politicians to curry favor with constituents and special interest groups.

Nor does it include the private little slush funds these pols have in campaign accounts that they barely have to tap into for legitimate campaign purposes, because once elected and entrenched, they're basically elected for life.

How can these hypocrites talk about cutting school aid and food stamps, and continue to fund this kind of nonsense with our tax dollars?

Will Senate Democrats be very different now that they're in control? Somehow, I doubt it. I'd love to know what kind of similar exceses have been perpetrated in the other chamber of the NY State Legislature at the hands of the other party. This kind of thing, unfortunately, is not limited to one party.

We need TERM LIMITS and we need them NOW.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No time for same old, same old

There have been few surprises coming out of Washington, D.C., during the first few weeks of the Obama administration.

Our new president is a refreshing change in oh so many ways. He exudes intelligence. He can articulate his thoughts clearly. He's a thinker. And he is clearly willing to think outside the box. That's a good thing, because he's facing unprecedented challenges as president. And with the nation perhaps facing unprecedented challenges, it's good to know that the president is smart enough, astute enough and shrewd enough to deal with them.

He's not perfect and he will, of course, make mistakes. He will even suffer some disappointments. He already has. But he's already shown he's got the mettle to admit it when he does "screw up."

Unfortunately, none of this may matter much. The occupant of the Oval Office may change, but the permanent government doesn't change much. For members of Congress, their staffers, lobbyists and bureaucrats, it's business as usual, more or less. The bitter partisan divide, the pigs lined up at the trough, the intransigence. These things don't change. Washington, D.C., is its own little universe.

That helps explain why Congress is so willing to sign a blank check to bail out Wall Street investment firms and banks, with almost no accountability for how almost a trillion dollars is spent. But when it comes to helping average people -- people who are suffering largely because of the mess created by the investment firms and banks -- it's time for the same old protracted debate over the relative merits of tax cuts versus spending.

The president's "stimulus" plan proposes to do what we should have been doing all along: reinvesting in America. Produce alternative energy. Modernize our infrastructure. Improve existing mass transit systems and build new ones where none exist. Make our homes energy efficient. Computerize medical records. Equip schools and colleges with computers and modern labs and libraries. Expand broadband Internet access. Invest in science, research and technology. These are investments in our future. These are investments we can't afford not to make -- and shame on us for failing to make them all along.

Instead, we chose to invest in the bottom line of monolithic multinational corporations in the false hope (or on the false promise) that their prosperity would be good for the rest of us, that their wealth would "trickle down" to us little people. Cut taxes. Let the free market operate with as little government interference (read: regulation) as possible. What's good for the barons of Wall Street and the titans of Texas and the sheiks of the Middle East will be good for you and me.

But that doesn't work. It got us where we are today. Moreover, government's hands-off approach to industry and business allowed mortgages to be "securitized" and sold in bundles of tiny pieces. It allowed financial statements to hide risks. It allowed ratings agencies to be complicit in the bill of goods sold to investors -- the triple A-rated funds consisting of funds of bundled, soon-to-be-worthless mortgage-backed securities. It allowed the Bernie Madoffs, the Enrons and the WorldComs, the revolving doors of government that allow industry representatives to oversee "regulation" of their industries and then return to industry to reap the benefits of their (lax) oversight.

Yet in spite of all the evidence that we have gotten it wrong, dead wrong, these past three decades, the talking points of people like Sean Hannity still appeal to the average American. "What historically has worked is capitalism, giving people in this country more of their hard-earned money back," Hannity said the other night, accusing the president of "fear-mongering" by saying this is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Yeah! Don't tread on us! Let us keep our money and get government off our backs and we'll be just fine. All things being equal, that could work out. But all things are not equal. We don't have a seat at the same table as the people who are carving up the American pie. I'm not sure we're even in the same room anymore.

Hannity's vision of "capitalism" is what brought us to the brink of disaster. Left to their own devices, Hannity's "capitalists" outsourced American industry and jobs, ravaged our financial system, made health care unaffordable and inaccessible, weakened consumer protection, blocked environmental protection and sucked billions out of our economy, leaving it in utter shambles. Who can reasonably believe that the remedy for what ails us is more of the same?

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.