Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stop the gag order. Lobbyists are protected by the First Amendment.

Free speech would be easy if it only applied to popular people saying popular things. But that's not the case. Our First Amendment protections are most urgent and fragile when they apply to the unpopular, the dissident, and the public villain of the day. Which brings me to lobbyists.

It's easy to dislike lobbyists. (Full disclosure: I happen to be one. Here's a link to my public registration.) Politicians vilify them, blame them for lots that is wrong in Washington, many times justified. Crooks like Jack Abramoff and the occasional bribe-taking Congressman smear the profession. The public hates inside influence-peddling, sees the potential for abuse, and insists on limits. So, as a lobbyist, I am happy to be regulated, and I'm ready to comply with all the disclosures of clients, contacts, and interests, and don't even mind the political pokes.

But the latest missive from President Obama's White House, a Memorandum dated March 20, 2009 on "Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds," is a literal gag order to be carried out by Federal agency officials. It truly crosses the line.

Let's be clear. Lobbying is not a social evil. It is a public good protected by the First Amendment -- both as "freedom of speech" and as the right of the people "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." By recent count, there are over 50,000 registered lobbyists representing a dizzying range of causes and interests, from good government and safe drugs to individual corporations and local governments. Bad actors aside (see Joseph Keppler's classic view, "The Bosses of the Senate," above), they keep Congress informed, give groups around the country an effective voice, and engage in public discourse essential to decision-making in a democracy.

In modern Washington, a competent lobbyist is as essential to navigating the complex maze of bureaucracy and politics as a competent lawyer or accountant is to any individual trying to run a business, buy a home, or file their taxes. Denying people access to a lobbyist amounts to stripping them of their voice.

And that's precisely what the new Obama memo does. In so many words, it requres agency officials, in any meeting or phone call regarding the Stimulus Package, to tell any lobbyist in the room or on the call to get out, hang up, or shut up -- "the lobbyist may not attend [the meeting] or participate in the telephonic or in-person contact, but may submit a communication in writing." (See Section 3(b))

Message to the public? When it comes to seeking Stimulus Package funds, you are on your own. You are denied representation. You have no right to have someone speak for you. The impact? Big corporations, with high-paid, experienced advocates on their payrolls as officers or in-house staff (not subject to any rules on lobbying), will easily roll over any small business that gets in the way.

This is overkill, taking a popular concept and extending it to a destructive conclusion. I hope the Obama White House will re-think it. To my mind, even speaking as a lobbyist, change is still good.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thanks to Mel Brooks for historical preservation

Famed comedian and film maker Mel Brooks has taken on the worthy cause of saving the word "Schmuck," which is quickly disappearng from American usage. Do you know what the work actually means? Click here to see the background on Mel Brooks's campaign. Please check it out and send a contribution.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

An AIG contest: How do you spell LYNCH MOB?

For any legal eagles out there today (especially any like me who are kicking yourself for not getting your NCAA tournament office pool bracket card in on time), here's a contest putting your fine skills to the test:

Just answer the following question: How many reasons can you find to argue that the attached bill, which passed the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., today by a vote of 328 to 93, is UNconstitutional? You get extra credit for violations of the Bill of Rights in particular.

The bill is called: "A Bill to Impose an Additional Tax on Bonuses Received from Certain TARP Recipients." Here's the link: Click Here for the text and Here for the official summary. It's just five short pages, but with lots to pick from. The bill was introduced by Congressman Charles Rangel, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee joined by a long list of co-sponsors, proud patriots all. It's aimed at an insurance company called AIG that's taken lots of money from the government during the past few months. Maybe you've heard of them?

Have fun. I'll post some of the best entries that come in over the next few days. (And, yes, anonymous is fine. Send to me at kackerman@cox.net.)

All the best. --KenA

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Beltway Unbuckled

Be sure to tune in to The Beltway Unbuckled, a new History Channel documentary premiering this week. You'll see me as a Talk Head during the segment on J. Edgar Hoover.

Here's the writeup from History.com:

"Sex has played a role throughout America's history. Did you know an extramarital affair was one of the causes of the Civil War? Or that one of the things that made George Washington so appealing as a presidential choice was his sterility? This special takes a serious but highly entertaining look at the fascinating ways the sex lives of our nation's leaders have impacted American history and shaped the country we live in today. Some of the stories uncovered: how J. Edgar Hoover used his secret sex files to become one of the most powerful figures in Washington; although Woodrow Wilson may have won World War I, his wife Edith may have caused World War II; why FDR's dreams for the post World War II world were contained in the long lost diary of one of the women who was with him when he died; and how JFK's fling with an East German beauty nearly ended his administration. "

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Economic Stimulus? Bring back Boss Tweed

Don't misunderstand. Stealing is wrong. Graft is bad.

Still, watching today's politicians in Washington tripping over themselves trying to figure out ways to stimulate the economy, I get nostalgic for the master. Bring back Boss Tweed.

William Magear Tweed, Boss of New York's Tammany Hall machine in the 1860s and 70s, controlled mayors, governors, newspapers, and companies. He kept his power by stealing elections. He used his power to steal from the city and county -- for an astounding estimated $100 million (billions of dollars in modern money) during his relatively brief time at the pinnacle.

But Tweed also used his power to build. Talk about infrastructure? Tweed and his Tammany crowd did more to modernize New York and bring immigrants and the working poor into the social mainstream than anyone else in his generation. Tweed didn't need a "Stimulus Package" to grease the economy. He used the direct way -- graft. He spent the city into a $100 million deficit, mostly borrowed from investors in Europe who had no idea they were being bilked. Most of the cash went to pay politicians and hire legions of laborers. But along the way, it helped spark an economic boom.

Boss Tweed knew how to spread the wealth around. The rich, the poor, all prospered. Stock prices and property values both soared. Taxes stayed low. His system collapsed only when the New York Times got its hands on a purloined copy of the Tweed Ring's secret account books and exposed them on its front pages -- the journalistic Scoup of the Nineteenth Century. By then, Tweed had been humiliated by the cartoon satires of Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly (see cartoon above), making him an easy mark for a politically ambitious prosecutor like Samuel Tilden.

A year after Tweed's fall from power, in 1873, a financial panic threw New York and the country into the worst economic depression ever expeirienced till that time.

Graft aside, Tweed's regime left the city and country wonderfully enriched: Their fingerprints are on every major NY creation of the Gilded Age: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tweed Courthouse, new widened streets and sidewalks, the New York Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mount Sinai Hospital, and dozens of charities. The list is almost endless. And they left a tradition of political inclusion, a "wide tent" approach as similiar to Barack Obama and John McCain as the stories of foul play.

But for the stealing -- which, to be clear, was wrong -- he was a great man.

Tweed would know how to get the country moving again in today's financial mess. Just don't watch too closely. "Transparency" certainly was never part of his approach. Tweed's methods were not for the squeamish.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

We're all socialists now? If so, then where is our Eugene Debs?

OK, Guerrilla Historians, let's be clear. Do we really live in a new age of Americn socialism?

If so, then here's my question: Where is our Eugene Debs?

Yes, after months of government bailouts of banks, investment firms, insurance giants, car companies, and all the rest, it sure looks a lot like public control of the means of production. But that kind of talk is European socialism. Don't forget, in America, we had our own home-grown brand, articulated by the likes of Big Bill Haywood (founder of the radical Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), Emma Goldman (who perferred being called Anarchist and was highly disillisioned by Lenin's Bolsheviks), and its clearest, most articulate voice of all, Eugene Debs.

Debs ran for president five times as a socialist, winning almost a million votes -- six percent of the total popular count -- both in 1912 and 1920 (even though in 1920 he ran from a Federal prison cell). Debs avoided esoteric theory. He defined his socialism in terms of justice, community, solidarity, and self-reliance, stemming from Jefferson and Lincoln as much as Marx or Engels. That's why he was so popular, not in universities, but in the American heartland and in working and immigrant neighborhoods.

To Debs, the evil of capitalism was no abstraction. Debs formed his peculiar view of socialism after leading the epic Pullman Palace Car strike of 1894, started as strictly non-violent and ultimately crushed by vigilantees, detectives, and Federal troops. Debs himself was jailed in the affair for violating an injunction, and that was where we first read Karl Marx. Debs would go to prison again, in 1918, convicted under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the draft and suppression of free speech during World War I.

This was the age of sweat shops and worse, long before basic health and safety rules, pensions, or worker rights. Resisters like Debs risked being blacklisted, jailed, or lynched. The rise of labor back then was the great civil rights / human rights struggle of the age.

Our society in 2009 has changed dramatically from Eugene Debs's America a century ago. But if we all now have to become socialists to get through the current economic collapse, then I at least want a leader like Debs, a socialist not ashamed of the name, willing to fight as an underdog, prepared to sacrifice personal freedom for principle, and able, through his speeches, to inspire his followers to march cheerfully to the barricades.

If you think I'm a fan, I can't deny the obvious. Here are two great recent books about Debs that might win you over too:

--Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg and
-- Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, by Nick Salvatore.
-- Hear his voice on YouTube.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Thomas Nast on Wall Street

This week, in honor of the Dow Jones Average hitting its lowest point in twelve years, I though it fitting to pull out Thomas Nast's famous 1869 cartoon tribute to Wall Street following that year's front-page financial debacle. It was in September 1869 that young Jay Gould and James Fisk Jr. perpetrated perhaps the single most audatious financial play in American history, their attempt to corner the national gold supply.
Gould and Fisk almost pulled it off after bribing dozens of government officials and buying over $100 million in gold calls. The bubble burst on Black Friday, September 24, when gold prices collapsed from 160 to 130 in about ten minutes. The result was a cascade of ruin, dozens of bankruptcies, panic in the stock market, frozen trade and credit, and the first major scandal for the new administration of President Ulysses Grant.
Of course, when Fisk and Gould attempted their corner back in 1869, it was decades before the invention of our modern system of financial regulation. There was no SEC, no CFTC, no Federal Reserve, no effective bank regulators, no honest court system (Boss Tweed still ran tings in NYC), and the rest.
Today, 140 years later, what's our excuse?
Read more about the Fisk-Gould corner in my book THE GOLD RING.
Meanwhile, I hope your money (or whateverr part of it you have left) is safe. --KenA