Little Guy, What Now?

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Agood measure
of whether an American president is running scared about a story is how much
of it he reveals to the public in the presence of foreign heads of state. The
traditional joint appearance to cap a state visit is the only public forum that
presidents absolutely cannot duck. When they’re hiding out, that’s
the only time you see them. That is why virtually all of what
Clinton told us about the Lewinsky affair came while he was standing alongside
either Yasir Arafat (in Washington for the very first days of the scandal),
Tony Blair, Boris Yeltsin, Vaclav Havel or Benjamin Netanyahu (in Jerusalem).
It doesn’t bode well that President Bush’s first answers to (or, rather,
dodges of) questions about Richard Cheney’s stint as CEO of the Halliburton
energy company came in the course of a joint appearance with Polish President
Aleksander Kwasniewski.

man kills the thing he loves," as Wilde told us, and our President may
be in the process of killing the crony capitalism to which he owes his rise.
We could hail this prospect as a Nixon-to-China accomplishment if there weren’t
such a risk that Bush will kill capitalism tout court.

Ralph Nader
wrote a column in last Thursday’s Washington Post in which he assailed
what he called corporate socialism–"the privatization of profit and
the socialization of risks and misconduct." No one can deny that he makes
some sense. Take last fall’s airline bailout (or "rescue plan,"
as it was called in the days after Sept. 11). We can stipulate that it would
have been a bad thing if the country’s airline industry had collapsed in
the aftermath of a terrorist attack. But the fact remains that the American
public has bought a huge block of airline stock, $15 billion worth to be exact,
and that it’s a very special kind of stock–the kind that offers no
voting rights, conveys no ownership and pays no dividends. Its purpose is to
shore up the stock values of those who already own a lot of airline stock.

Our problem,
though, goes beyond the traditional one of an oligarchy bullying the little
guy into assuming its risks. Because the "Little Guy," too, as surely
as any oligarch, has come to expect the upside bonanza without the downside
risk. In the past month, we’ve all read a dozen variations on the theme
of the couple who took early retirement and bought their dream home on the Maine
coast, and now have to go back to work because their portfolio has lost 40 percent
of its value. I haven’t read the article in which a guy says: Well,
I didn’t know the stock market from a flea market back in 1994–and
I probably shouldn’t have taken it for granted that my savings would keep
appreciating at 32 percent a year.
The great self-congratulatory syllogism
of 1990s America–since half of us own stock, and since stock is about risk-taking,
that means we’re bold, individualistic entrepreneur types–turns out
to be crap. The President is being way too generous in likening our current
state to a "hangover." Hangovers, from what I remember of them, are
marked by guilt and self-examination. The current American mood, by contrast,
is marked by entitlement and rage.

So politicians
are responding to it not by fixing the system but by enacting a ritual of vengeance
against corporate leadership. Their first instinct is to criminalize all sorts
of previously normal corporate behavior. Democrat Henry Waxman, who serves on
the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to deal with Dick Cheney’s
Halliburton controversy through show trials. "Did he do anything wrong
or criminal?" Waxman asked. "I don’t know the answer. But did
he deserve $30 million as the CEO of a company that suffered enormous reverses
right after he left the company…? I’d be hard put to say he deserved
it." Is that what Congress does now? Sets rules on whether or not employees
"deserve" their salaries? A measure that the President himself has
blessed–calling for CEOs to "personally vouch for" their earnings
reports–is no less Maoist.

the "corporate responsibility" bill that Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy
spearheaded, and that his Senate colleagues passed unanimously, has serious
problems. Michael Oxley of Ohio, the chairman of the House Financial Services
Committee, has pointed out that it is sloppy and vague. It will leave certain
corporate crimes tryable in multiple jurisdictions–not just by the SEC
but also by a new "independent accounting board." This will confront
would-be investors with Nicaraguan-style unpredictability; the only predictable
thing will be baleful economic consequences. No matter. By the end of last week,
rank-and-file House Republicans were begging their leadership to let
them pass the Senate version unamended. Worst of all, the House began talking
about upping the ante on the Senate bill’s surrealist criminal penalties–25-year
jail terms for certain corporate misdeeds, for instance. That’s likely
to give the non-stoner population its first taste of how the War on Drugs works.
Why not give ’em a million-bazillion-quillion years? That’ll show
the bastards!


When a Fox
News poll shows Americans approving of Tom Ridge’s job as Homeland Security
czar by a margin of 47-14, you know people aren’t paying much attention
to the President’s vision for Homeland Security. Too bad. Some sort of
reorganization is certainly called for, but there seems to be conscious effort
on the part of the administration–particularly on the part of its attorney
general, John Ashcroft–to misrepresent exactly what the problem is, and
to misrepresent our history in the process.

As Ashcroft
testified before a House committee two weeks ago, "In the late 70s, reforms
were enacted in our judicial system reflecting a cultural myth, a myth that
we could draw an artificial line at the border to differentiate between the
threats that we faced. In accordance with this myth, officials charged with
detecting and deterring those seeking to harm Americans were divided into separate
and isolated camps. Government created a culture of compartmentalization that
artificially segregated intelligence-gathering from law enforcement." He
continued, "Al Qaeda planned carefully and deliberately to exploit the
seams in our security, the seam between the international agencies and the domestic

This is
almost wall-to-wall nonsense. Ashcroft proposes there was once a kind of Platonic
harmony between foreign spy agencies and domestic law-enforcement ones, a harmony
that was cruelly rent, for no particular reason, in the late 70s. But, in fact,
the CIA and FBI have never had any close official contact. There has always
been a "seam" between domestic and foreign spying. It’s not an
"artificial segregation," as Ashcroft puts it, but a constitutional
one. (And note the way Ashcroft uses the word "segregation" when he
means "separation," just to make the concept sound bad to dumbos.)

Two things
happened in the 1970s. First, we lived through Vietnam. After it, Congress (not
our unelected "judicial system," as Ashcroft put it), following the
lead of a commission led by Idaho Sen. Frank Church, explicitly withdrew the
carte blanche that the CIA had enjoyed to assassinate foreign leaders and stage
coups. Second, J. Edgar Hoover died. The FBI was put on a much tighter leash,
to avoid its use for activities that ranged from blackmailing politicians to
tape-recording Martin Luther King Jr.’s trysts.

Both agencies
are weaker today–and the weakness of each of them individually did
contribute to Sept. 11. A robust FBI, untrammeled by racial profiling and other
civil rights concerns (concerns that Ashcroft professes to take to heart), would
probably have seen the pattern of unattached Arab youths enrolling in pilot
schools. A robust CIA, of the sort that existed before the Clinton administration
virtually defunded foreign espionage in the mid-90s, would have picked up Al
Qaeda’s plans abroad. But the working relationship that Ashcroft proposes
as the "natural" one has (at least on a legal level) never existed.
We may now want to establish some kind of domestic spy agency to work on counterterrorism.
I’ll go out on a limb and say we probably do. But let’s be honest
enough to admit that establishing one would be a departure from that history,
and not a return to any kind of American way. It is a calculated risk. Given
the sneakiness with which it’s being proposed, it’s quite possibly
a huge one.


The House
Committee of Standards of Official Conduct recommended last week that Jim Traficant
be kicked out of Congress, after his conviction on bribery charges in early
July. Bribery, it turns out, is against the Standards of Official Conduct.
So let me record a debt. Many people have lent a helping hand to me during my
years as a Washington journalist, but Jim Traficant is the only major Washington
figure ever to have taken any governmental interest in my genitals. It was in
October 1995, just months into the 104th Congress, when Democrats were defecting
to the GOP in droves. Louisiana Democrat Billy Tauzin had just switched, and
I was writing a short piece on who might be next to go. Gary Condit was at the
top of my list, but Traficant–who would later come to vote so regularly
with Republicans that he was barred from Democratic caucus meetings–was
a close second.

I’ll talk to ya," Traficant said, when I finally reached him. "But
if you misquote me, yer dick’s gonna fall off from some terminal disease."
It was a brief conversation, and we haven’t spoken since, but this turned
out to be sound advice. I did not misquote Traficant, and my member was still
attached the last time I looked, at about 5 o’clock yesterday evening.
That’s just the kind of guy he was. Another congressman would have stood
on ceremony. Another congressman would have thought it "inappropriate"
to talk that way to someone he’d known for all of 8 or 10 seconds. Another
congressman, in fact, would have been reluctant to illustrate how often the
adjective "colorful" is merely a Washington term of art for vulgar
and moronic.