Checks and Balances

October 23, 2008

Here is an interesting campaign strategy. Senator Elizabeth Dole presents a picture of Obama in the White House and a Democratic Congress. She argues that this threatens the constitutional system of checks and balances and that she, as a Republican, ought to be elected to avoid the excesses of a single party controlling the executive and legislative branches of government.

Throughout Bush’s presidency this of course was not a concern ever expressed to my knowledge by Senator Dole or any other Republican. Republican campaigns were asserting the opposite argument, claiming that this (a Republican majority in Congress) gave Republicans better access to the president and a far better opportunity to work together with the president to get things done.

Dole argument, however disingenuous, is probably closer to the truth. With a Republican Congress Bush has been able to implement a disastrous foreign policy and substantial remove domestic regulations of the financial industry and many others as well. While you would not know it from the 2007-08 Congress, a Democratic majority might have made a difference.

On the other hand the Democrats do not seem to band together as tightly as Republicans. Carter was unable to get his tax reforms through a Democratic Congress. In Washington State the Democrats seem to control everything and get remarkably little done. Part of my problem is that I cannot figure out what in fact it is the defines the Democratic Party. Is pragmatism a defining quality of a political party? If so, it leaves a person with little ability to predict what Democrats will do because we can’t tell with much certainty what will be expedient at the time a decision is required.

So, while I agree with Senator Dole in theory, it’s hard to imagine these Democrats doing very much in a coordinated manner.


Washington Mutual

September 18, 2008

Did you know that Washington Mutual began just after the Great Seattle Fire in 1889? Here is a thumbnail sketch of its history. It has been around over a century and it appears that now its days are numbered.

Washington Mutual appears to have gone the way of Seafirst Bank in the 1980’s. Seafirst was at the time the biggest, baddest bank in the region and its board of directors hankered for more. At that time national banks were getting fat on third world loans and energy loans. Remember that an asset for a bank is a performing loan.

So you make a loan and you have an asset until a few payments are missed, then it flips to the other side of the balance sheet. This makes banks which loan heavily in one sector quite vulnerable to slumps in that sector of the economy. If the sector slows down things can turn around fast for the bank.

Banks hedge their bets by selling portions of their loans to other banks, called “participations.” The problem is that this seems to encourage banks to dive much deeper into a given area, so that the advantage of selling off portions of the loan are lost by the sheer magnitude of the lending. Penn Square Bank, a little shopping center bank in Oklahoma City, started making oil loans by the billions and selling off participations to banks around the country. Seafirst invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these participations, as well as serving as the primary bank in many of the loans and became a big player as rapidly as Washington Mutual.

But the bubble burst and Penn Square Bank folded, sending the biggest banks in the country into insolvency. Seafirst, already strapped with nonperforming third world loans was purchased by BankAmerica.

Ten or fifteen  years later Washington Mutual decided to become a big player by riding the home lending boom. It succeeded and grew exponentially. With the bursting of that bubble, it too has I think reached the end of its days. It has probably not been bought out because of concerns about the market — home loans — into which it plunged. Financial institutions are not sure that the bottom has been reached and are reluctant to jump in even at fire sale prices.

There are only two major investment banks left standing and there are serious questions as to whether either one can survive.  With Barklay’s, a foreign bank, buying Lehman it appears that the pool of potential domestic buyers is reduced if not depleted.  It is at least questionable whether the federal government can afford to prop up Washington Mutual, but the country could ill afford to have a bank of its size fail.

Colossal mismanagement has put us in a situation where we are steeped in debt and watching our financial assets, so far only historic investment houses, taken over by foreign interests.


Walls

July 16, 2008

I just read that a group out of the University of Texas recently petitioned the Organizatin of American States to condemn the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It of course has already been condemned by Mexico and most of Latin America. While the wall can’t help but deter immigration, it’s overall utility is debatable. No one believes that the petition to the OAS will affect the building of the wall. Human rights considerations, and international law and opinion have not played a significant role in determining U.S. policy recently.

Our wall is to be 2000 miles long, as long as the low estimates of the length of the Great Wall of China. (Some estimate the other wall to be three times this length.)

Whatever your position is with respect to the wall, people agree that it is certainly symbolic of our era. It is a metaphor, a symbol, which for many replaces the Statue of Liberty. The welcoming beacon of freedom is replaced in the minds of many people with the blank expanse of the wall, like an extended palm signaling “halt.” For many people outside the United States our country is seen, not as a sanctuary, and champion, for the oppressed, but as a garrison, walled like a Medieval city-state.

Looking back, Bill Clinton’s euphoric descriptions of globalization (one of his favorite terms) seem naive and distant. The purpose of bridging cultures and identifying common interest has been replaced by phrases like “If you are not for us, you are against us,” “bring ’em on,” “we are on a crusade,” and the like. We have turned a blind eye to international opinion, like the balnk stare of the wall.

We have not just invested in walling our country, but in creating a honeycomb of walls within it. Political forces have converted the world’s melting pot into a fragmented society in which cultural identity is preserved in part for defensive purposes. We are becoming a society of gated communities which look out at others with distrust and fear.

Our government has a growing list of citizens identified a suspected terrorists. The number of people on the list has apparently passed one million. That’s about 5 for each thousand adults. If you go to BellSquare on a busy day, there should be maybe ten or twenty “suspected terrorists” among your fellow shoppers. We have built walls around airports, public buildings and public gathering places, access permitted by guards only after inspection.

These walls of course are not just metaphorical. We have by far the biggest prison population in the world. More people are in prison than there are in Phoenix, Arizona. A staggering number of our fellow citizens have been through the criminal justice system in one way or another.  Prison construction and management has been privatized to a large degree and has become a booming industry. It could become a college major in some schools like hotel and motel management.

These are the costs of security, as we see it. The cry of “security!” seems to be in the ascendancy. It’s good though to keep it in context.


Environmentalism and the Nazis

June 22, 2008

In the 1950’s communists were said to be infiltrating the government and the entertainment industry, as well as operating under several fronts. The McCarthy era ended when the demagoguery was challenged and the true charlatans were identified. While it lasted, though, it was a ticket to political prominence.

In the last few years some people have taken to identifying environmentalists as Nazis. This is actually done on national television and similar venues; we have almost grown to expect it in political campaigns. Such fear and hate mongering seems to be efficacious. You would think that it would backfire, but there must be more people swayed by it than repulsed.

On national media in 2006 Al Gore was compared to Nazi propagandist Goebbels and to Hitler for his success in publicising global warming. (It is a bit ironic that the people who diminish the Holocaust in this way tend to be Israel’s most zealous supporters.) On CNN Senator Inhofe actually described Gore’s testimony to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Utilities in that manner with the concurrence of Glenn Beck, the host.

In 2007 Fox News Radio continued the Gore/Hitler diatribe. CNN continued to transmit unbelievable comparisons to Hitler and Nazis. Glenn Beck recently said that Gore’s global warming campaign is like Hitler’s use of eugenics to justify exterminating 6 million European Jews.

With the new report on global warming just out, a report subscribed to about a dozen scientific groups associated with our government, doesn’t this treatment of science remind you of earlier, more primitive, periods of history?  Imagine: A world wide scientific conspiracy.  Really?

The hate and fear mongering diatribes are uniformly nothing more than name calling. There is no real rebuttal. Scientists picked “An Inconvenient Truth” apart pretty thoroughly finding some questionable facts and theatrics that suggested an unsupported conclusion. A UK judge found nine factual errors in the film.

But scientists and the British judiciary (one member anyway) agree that the film is rooted in good science and its overall message is supported by sound scientific theory and belief. This was known in 2007 and then Gore got a Nobel Peace Prize along with a U.N. panel of scientists investigating global warming. This, if anything, seemed to fan the flames of hate mongers.

This very odd discourse about environmentalism is probably the progeny of a pseudo-intellectual eddy in revisionist history. People are actually positing that environmentalism is a Nazi program, sort of like “Boys from Brazil.” This theory has been debunked by legitimate historians and even the people who are credited with originating this view disclaim any association with it.

A couple of years ago Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning” appeared. This book seemed to revitalize the “environmentalism is fascism” diatribe, although Goldberg claimed to have written nothing that was intended to suggest such a thing. The book sold well to mixed reviews. It was celebrated by conservative reviewers and panned by others.

The book’s thesis, behind all the pseudo-intellectual blather, is essentially Libertarian: Fascism means governmental regulation and liberalism means governmental regulation; therefore liberalism is fascist. Environmentalists want governmental regulation therefore they are fascists too. For proof just look at Nazi Germany where environmentalism was born. Nazis called themselves the national socialist party therefore socialists are fascists. Socialists are liberals. Very simple-minded stuff hiding in a lot of jargon.

This silly word parsing though unhinges people like those at the Building Industry Association of Washington who have made a habit of labeling anyone opposing their views as Nazis. In March their newsletter, in addition to more conventional name calling, called the Washington State Department of Ecology Nazis and lumped all environmentalists under that moniker.

This set off a local firestorm culminating in and Anti Defamation League demand for a retraction or apology. The B.I.A.W. of course refuses claiming the article (written by its storm drain columnist) is academically grounded. The B.I.A.W. is widely regarded as the Washington State Republican Party’s attack dog and neither the party nor any of its candidates has attempted to separate from this absurd propaganda machine.


Illegals In Washington

March 4, 2008

Some folks feel that people who reside in the U.S. without immigration papers should not have the rights and privileges of enjoyed by citizens. That seems easy enough.Here’s a little background. The Christian Science Monitor reported two years ago that there are between 7 million and 20 million, or more, illegal immigrants here. These people typically take up the bottom strata of jobs, filling the least desirable jobs, often for wages lower than would be acceptable for citizens. In the 1990’s this supply of cheap labor was viewed as a key component in avoiding inflation. For that reason and because many key businesses (and industries) relied on this cheap labor supply, the nation turned it’s back on this “problem.”

Paul Krugman, the liberal economist who writes for the New York Times, wrote some time ago that this situation was not a partisan issue. His analysis suggested that illegal immigration was a net economic loss for the country. While many businesses were profiting off this labor source, the country as a whole was paying a significant amount of money for public education, and health care. While many illegal immigrants were paying taxes, often through false social security numbers, many others were not paying taxes. These people accepted cash under the table from employers who were able to pay substandard wages and on top of that avoid paying withholding taxes. As we know, many politicians were found to have employed illegals this way as domestic help.

I don’t think that anyone disagrees that the deportation of illegals in mass would have a substantially disruptive effect on business here and a sharply inflationary effect. This seems to be the main reason that the “law and order” arm of the Republican Party cannot get anything done about the influx of undocumented immigrants, even with a Republican dominated legislative branch (until a couple of years ago), a Republican president and a Republican-heavy judicial branch. Our economy is rather delicately balanced in a presently mild recession and the disruption caused by massive deportation could have a strong negative effect.

Because we have only made largely token efforts to enforce our immigration laws and at least certain sectors of the economy have profited by the exploitation of illegals as cheap labor, you could very well say that the illegals are here at our sufferance — with a nod and a wink from business.

The economy has always played a role in attitudes toward immigrants, both legal and illegal. Chinese people were shipped here in mass to provide labor for the construction of the railroads in the nineteenth century. The transcontinental line reached Tacoma mid-century, then lines were built to Seattle from the south and from the east and between Seattle and Newcastle where there were extensive mining interests. When this was done hundreds of Chinese were left in the Seattle area. They found jobs in town and what would now be called a Chinese ghetto developed here. There was a regional economic downturn here in the 1860’s and vigilantes rounded up almost all the Chinese in town and marched them to the end of a pier where they waited for several days for a ship bound for San Francisco. Some were put on the first ship to arrive and the remainder went on the next one. The impetus for this was the view that the Chinese were taking jobs that whites should have in hard times.

In the 1880’s “exclusion laws” were passed by the federal government which rendered it illegal for anyone to come here from China. A federal law passed in 1882 limited U.S. citizenship “to aliens being free white persons and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” The Chinese who were already here were undocumented, denied any hope of citizenship and the subject of a great deal of abuse.

The Alaska gold rush and a disastrous fire in Tokyo created a local lumber boom which led to the importation of large numbers of Japanese laborers at the end of the nineteenth century. Many lived in company towns in Eastern King County, such as Sellick. The Japanese suffered much the same fate as the Chinese who were left stranded here. In fact the first graduating class from the University of Washington Law School (the class of 1902) included an immigrant from Japan, Takuji Yamashita. He was denied citizenship and denied admission to the bar after graduation. He was forced to work in restaurants until his internment forty years later. It wasn’t until 1968 that immigration laws that banned Asians or barred them from citizenship were entirely eliminated. Washington’s Senator Warren Magnuson led this fight on the national level.

Other controversial immigration policies include our refusal to allow Jews admission from Germany in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Many of those who came here were illegals. Our current refusal to admit displaced people from Iraq has caused mild controversy.

The division between people on the question of illegal immigrants is many faceted, but some people have a more sympathetic attitude because they see the illegal immigrants in a light something like the Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century and the Japanese in the late nineteenth century as being admitted here for the purpose of performing labor, then rebuked because of their status. For these sympathizers the purposefully lax enforcement of immigration laws and eager employment of people coming here without papers is a form of admission that carries with it responsibility.


Women’s Rights in the Washington Territory

February 29, 2008

The 4000 American residents of the Washington Territory were not a fearful lot. The territory seceded from the Oregon Territory to become its own territory on March 2, 1853, 155 years ago. In many ways the visions of this small group of people foreshadowed the Utopian aspirations that were to motivate many communities early in the state’s history.

Washington Territory was born during the tumultuous years before Civil War. Unlike Oregon Territory, Washington Territory permitted residency by blacks, a strong statement in its day. (Another example of Washington’s independence in this regard was the expulsion before World War I of the Washington Masons (a conservative group if there ever was one) from the international order of Masons for admitting a Masonic lodge created by black citizens.)

The territory was empowered to determine the voting rights of its residents and this was addressed with characteristic volatility at the first territorial convention. An influential group of men wanted to give the right to vote to women! At the time such thoughts were widely considered virtually anarchical. There was not a woman in America who had the right to vote and consideration of such things was not appropriate for serious discussion.

Nonetheless these early suffragists fought tooth and nail to give the women who had journeyed here the right to a voice in the government. They almost did it, losing by a single vote. But for a single vote these pioneers would have won a prominent place in the history of American civil rights. This vote occurred 15 years before the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the organization that led the women’s suffrage movement.

The convention’s vote got the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who was then just beginning her suffrage efforts. It surely inspired the people within the fledgling cause, as it was by far the closest any jurisdiction had come to recognizing women’s voting rights.

In 1871 Susan B. Anthony came out the the Washington Territory and became the first woman to address its legislature. Just before her arrival a bill had been introduced giving women the right to vote, but this time it was soundly defeated. Ms. Anthony gave stump speeches around the territory and organized the territorial women for the first time, forming the Washington Equal Suffrage Association.


Who is Your Local Hero?

February 8, 2008

The King County Council members in a twitch of creativity and display of personality chose to name each floor of the new Chinook Building, each member having a chance to name a floor after a favorite local person. While some element of authenticity may have been sacrificed for political correctness as the choices as a whole seem to be utterly diverse in every conceivable way, nonetheless the list of the floor names is an interesting one. I certainly was not familiar with all the names and enjoyed reading about them. The list of floors, recently published by the County, is here. Its kind of cool.

It was the first floor that caught my eye when I first read the list. The first floor is Ivan Doig. Ivan Doig? (As in basketball this year, I believe that Portland outshines Seattle in its accumulation of authors, so why call attention to it by picking Doig?) He is of course celebrated now local writer of western/adventure/coming of age stories. But they are set in Eastern Montana, where he was born and raised! Oh, there was Sea Runners, but that was Alaska. Winter Brothers was about settling in the Puget Sound area, but Plowing the Dark was set in Seattle and King County and Richard Powers actually won the National Book Award, not just honorable mention.

Doig lives in the County and taught or teaches at the U, so that’s a connection. But other authors live/lived here as well. How about Sherman Alexie, Timothy Egan, Mary McCarthy, Augie Wilson, Jonathan Raban, Tom Robbins (sort of a resident), Theodore Roethke (poetry is writing). And why a writer and not some other type of artist? In defense of his selection of a book writer, Bob Ferguson says that Doig wrote poems, memoirs and essays too. I guess that seals it. This tells us that Bob is either a little light on local history, a trifle callow in the literature department, or didn’t understand the assignment.