Saturday, January 30, 2010

Torches, pitchforks and America’s coming elections

This is a copy of Star Tangled Banner, a column I write occasionally for The Badger newspaper in Saskatchewan, Canada:

Remember those old horror movies where the townspeople decide to storm the evil castle, forming a mob in the street waving pitchforks and glutting torches?

I’m betting it won’t be long before you see the glow of those torches when you look south down toward the States. But this time the monster is not at Count Dracula’s castle or in Baron von Frankenstein’s laboratory. It’s on Wall Street.

The biggest factor in American politics today concerns the gap between an angry public and the disconnected politicians who claim to represent them. As we could tell from the relative emphasis economic issues received in President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, folks in Washington are starting to awaken, but I think a lot of them are too late.

Discontent about flagging personal fortunes—things like high unemployment, decreasing home values, foreclosures and union busting—have now been mixed with high-octane disgust about the way bankers and money traders on Wall Street have avoided the damage and shrugged off even modest efforts to reform their rules. This is a highly combustable mixture and plenty of people are more than willing to strike a match.

Reaction amongst the monied class has been spectacularly tone deaf. Like Marie Antoinette suggesting cake or California land barons burning copies of The Grapes of Wrath, mortgage bankers whose companies and jobs were saved by a massive taxpayer bailout have started awarding themselves obscene bonuses. (Honestly, I try not to be overly judgmental here, but calling these bonuses obscene is just telling the truth).

 Frank Rich in the New York Times presciently identified the movie Up In the Air as  a contemporary morality tale that connects perfectly with the way real people are feeling. It’s worth seeing, and I don’t want to give too much away, but this much won’t hurt: the star, George Clooney, plays a hired-gun consultant who flies all over the country firing people that the corporate bosses he calls “pussies” doesn’t want to handle themselves.

Clooney’s own boss sums up how he feels in a way that reminds us of Wall Street: “Retailers are down 20 percent. Auto industry is in the dump. Housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.”

At least Clooney-the-hired-vulture is doing something to earn the money he makes off other peoples’ misfortune. Wall Street didn’t do squat.

Well, that’s wrong. They did a lot, but almost all of it was bad, reckless and self-serving. When it looked like the market might catch up to them at last—shares of once-mighty investment banks were trading for pennies—George Bush’s government stepped in with several hundred billion dollars of taxpayer money to save their bacon. A couple of months later, Obama did pretty much the same thing.

No doubt, as just about every economist assures us, this was unavoidable. The whole economy was teetering, and those big Wall Street failures would have taken us all down—harder, faster, deeper—if they had been left alone to fail. In other words, things would even worse.

So they got rescued, but here’s the truly infuriating part: they immediately started acting like they hadn’t done anything wrong. There was not a moment of apparent reflection or remorse before they started arranging business trips to play golf in Scotland and sending their managers on retreats at fancy resorts. Worse by far, after they made a lot of money cleaning up their own mess, they awarded one another huge bonus payments and laughed all the way to the Mercedes dealer.

The loss of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s once invulnerable Massachusetts senate seat in a special election has sobered some Democrats and invigorated some Republicans, all of whom are now talking the talk of populism. The problem is, nobody’s walking the walk. Republicans, for instance, have united solidly against a health care package that would drastically reform insurance industry practices most voters want. Neither party has been willing to cut its ties to lobbyists and other special interest pleaders, and last week the Supreme Court turned Big Business loose to spend as much as it wants to buy the Congressmen it likes.

One-third of all U.S. Senate seats and all of them in the House of Representatives are up for grabs in mid-term elections this fall. This is where the torches and pitchforks come in, because the only time voters’ voices get heard at all is at election time. To my mind, President Obama has really been the only one in Washington acting like a grown-up, and I’m willing to predict he will rally enough support to keep Democrats in charge of both houses. But there will be a lot of politicians’ bodies strewn along the roadway before we get there.


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