Little Guy, What Now?


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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 President 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.


"Each 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.


Meanwhile, 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!


Twin Powers


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 agencies."


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.


A Dick


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.


"Yeah, 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.


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