Friday, February 08, 2002

More news from Boston: One of the local dog tracks has ads on the radio advertising their Valentine's day getaways.

Come on guys. The opera-singing dogs were clever. But this is stupid.

One thing about the Enron collapse --- it's certainly shining light on the character of some of the principals.

Jeff Skilling, "savvy and detail-oriented" when running Enron, was forgetful and ignorant before Congress. Ken Lay tried to cancel his appearance before Congress entirely when it became clear to him that he'd get tough questions. (How could he ever have doubted it?) Before that, his wife showed up on teevee, claiming in a well rehearsed performance that the family was broke, and all their houses were up for sale to generate a little spare cash. Strangely, no local real estate agents seem to know about that.

But then again, we're talking about Enron executives. Their company is in Chapter 11, and they're traveling to bankruptcy hearings on its corporate jets --- which they're still even using on private business, to go to a funeral. (Those jets are also supposed to be on the block, but again, they haven't been sold yet. The market for corporate jets is terrible these days, don't you know. Terrible).

Nor has the bankruptcy kept them from continuing to pay for their luxury suites and box seats at the baseball stadium still known as Enron field. And, in the process, keeping their name on the stadium, for whatever that's worth --- they payments are part of their naming rights deal, which the team is desperate to ditch. (It's certainly not worth much in monetary terms, as the naming rights are not transferable, and the last thing Enron needs right now is more publicity).

They built a business on lies, hugely overstating the revenues, and sweeping hundreds of millions of dollars in debt under the rug in phony partnership deals --- which were, incidentally, arranged to divert millions of dollars from Enron's corporate treasury directly to them. They filled it with high-tech gadgetry and toys and gadgets which are currently choking Ebay. Some of it, they didn't even seem to have a use for --- at one point, secretaries were put behind unstaffed trading desks and told to look busy as management put on a show for visiting Wall Street analysts. And when the deals started to unravel, they dumped stock while telling employees and shareholders that everything was fine.

You could try to write some of this off as the apotheosis of greed, or something like that, but that, by itself, doesn't explain the ludicrous evasions and denials, the obsession with toys --- jets, baseball suites --- and the flashy arrogance. Where have we seen this before?

How about Ivy league colleges which seem at times to put an impregnable barrier between the spawn of the elite and the consequences of their actions? Like Harvard, for instance, where two officers of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, an annual drag show that has been kicking around since before the civil war, are now under indictment for stealing $100,000 from the organization, having apparently made little effort to disguise the theft. And Jordana Lewis, writing in the Harvard Crimson, thinks it unlikely they thought a year of drugs, hot parties, and slick clothes were worth another ten in the clink. Quoth she:

The more obvious explanation is an audacious cockiness that they wouldn't go to jail, that Harvard (or at least the Harvard name) would bail them out, and that it would all make for an interesting chapter in their soon-to-be-written tell-all. Most of that arrogance probably has to do with the mind-boggling breaks we get at this school. If we don't study for a class, the professor punishes us with a Gentleman's C. If we are caught drinking underage, the Ad Board disciplines us with a firmly-stated, flimsily-followed admonishment. If we rape another student, we are penalized with a one or two-year vacation from school, subject to review.

Harvard is completely without serious consequences and its students can do no wrong, or so it seems. Regardless how much students slack, shirk or steal, the University eventually tosses a diploma in their direction and they stride into the real world having been coddled by academics and protected from the harsh realities of the real world. Sheltered by brick, ivy and egos, we are taught to feel impervious to everyone else's rules, according to which people go to jail and ruin their lives for mistakes they made when they were, yes, just 22.

The overgrown college student theory may seem simplistic, but it has a few merits; it certainly explains the way the names of the "partnerships" that Enron executives used to loot the company seem to have been plucked off the wall of some freshman's dorm room: JEDI. Raptor. Chewco (from Chewbacca).

If that explanation appeals to you, then you might want to consider in that light the career of another overgrown collegian. The one whose father let Ken Lay overnight in the White House, and appointed Lay to a trusteeship on his presidential library. The one whose own presidential campaign traveled on Enron's corporate jets (you know, the ones they haven't sold yet). The present resident of the White House, George W. Bush.

Dubya's enough in tune with the general fratboy weltanshauung that he once told a female Yale graduate that "something had been lost" when the school, his own alma mater, had begun to admit women. And he certainly seems into aggressive accounting.

His political party nearly turned Arkansas upside down looking for shady deals by Clinton's former associates --- the theory apparently being that those would somehow shed light on Clinton's own character. Perhaps there was something to that...

The Boston Globe reports:

For the second time in five days, the Boston Archdiocese late yesterday announced it had discovered more allegations of sexual abuse of children by active clergymen, and removed six additional priests from their assignments.

Last month, Cardinal Bernard Law twice assured the public that the archdiocese had removed all priests known to have sexually molested minors from any assignments.

In addition, of the six priests ousted from their positions yesterday, the Globe has learned that at least four had previous sexual abuse claims against them settled by the archdiocese.

This isn't real life imitating The Onion. The Onion has better taste.

Thursday, February 07, 2002

I thought Bush's policy on Executive Privilege was simple and straightforward: stuff that makes the administration look good gets maximum publicity, and stuff that makes the administration look bad is covered by executive privilege.

It turns out there's another exception: stuff that makes Clinton look bad.

For instance, last summer, the Bush White House declassified and released carefully edited transcripts of private conversations between Clinton and Barak concerning Mark Rich. But when Clinton's former counsel sought to have the entire conversation about Rich placed on the public record, the Dubya drones declined that request: the stuff that might make Clinton look good is still classified.

(This is Talking Points' Joshua Marshall, writing a rare not-for-fee article in Salon).

Wednesday, February 06, 2002

The latest from Boston: the New England Patriots can't dance. Reviewers of their performance at the Superbowl victory rally were unanimous in suggesting that the players, coaches, and the team's owner, Bob Kraft, should stick to their day jobs.

Speaking of which, on Monday, the Rams had to announce that the victory parade was cancelled.

What I want to know is, what happened to the souvenirs? Someone must have a use for all those t-shirts.

George Bush continues to nominate candidates for important government jobs who have truly remarkable records. One of the latest, Charles Pickering, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Quoth the Detroit Free Press:

As a Mississippi legislator, Pickering fought implementation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even co-sponsoring a resolution for its repeal. He supported the notorious and secretive Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded agency established to oppose integration efforts after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The commission had close ties to the racist White Citizens Council and spied on civil rights and labor activists.

As a District Court judge, Pickering consistently criticized and opposed the one-person-one-vote doctrine and majority black voting districts.

He wrote an article in the Mississippi Law Journal in 1959 calling for legislation -- enacted shortly thereafter -- strengthening a Mississippi law banning interracial marriages.

His career also is characterized by a relentless hostility toward abortion rights, as well as the rights of habeas corpus and due process.

That's George Bush --- defending American values. He's not like the last occupant of the White House, that's for sure...

Monday, February 04, 2002

So, I'm going through the Superbowl ads. (There was this distracting material between them which rather captured my attention yesterday evening).

Let me see if I've figured out the Britney Spears Pepsi spots.

These were period pieces with period jingles, designed to look exactly like real Pepsi commercials from the past fifty years or so, with Britney Spears' perky, twenty-year-old self inserted seamlessly into each one.

The message is to warn the public that Britney doesn't age, like a vampire (and a particularly strong one who can stand prolonged exposure to sunlight), and should be approached with caution and garlic, or preferably avoided entirely.

Have I got that right?

A while ago Jim Henley put a piece up on why he is not a liberal. And while Jim apparently had the good taste to buy off my banner ad, I still have trouble buying his argument --- or, for that matter, this other argument, to the same end, by Iain Murray.

(Update: Iain thinks I misunderstood him; he's not a libertarian, and his defense of them was meant to be qualified).

Here's the nub of Jim's piece, at least as I read it, discussing the trouble with legal solutions to social problems:

Behind every law is a weapon. That goes for all the nice regulatory laws too. Sure, it's only "civil proceedings," but try telling them to tie a tail and a string to their civil proceedings and run into a headwind and its the sherrifs and marshalls who come round to uphold "the majesty of the law." Which ends up in the same place the criminal law does - jail or, if you take the armed fugitive route, death. "Contempt of Court" - dissing da judge - is the thing that judges will lock you up for indefinitely, and on their own say-so, and try checking and balancing that if you don't like it. They don't ask you to go politely, either. It's sherrifs and marshalls time again.

But you could say the exact same things about private contractual arrangements. The covenant restrictions common in gated communities, for instance, which restrict everything from the color of the house paint to the choice of plants in the garden and the height of the grass, are at least as restrictive as most towns' zoning ordinances. Borland recently tried to impose software licenses which required you to let its agents access your computers to verify compliance with the license terms. And anyone who thinks that government bureaucracies are uniquely ill-mannered, obstructive, and incompetent, has never gotten into a serious tussle with an HMO.

Violate these private contractual arrangements, and where do you wind up? Civil proceedings, in court. And, lest there be confusion, enforcement of private contracts is sherrifs and marshalls time even when the agreements in question are simply software licenses.

Ah, the libertarians will reply, but you had the private choice as to whether to enter into those private contractual arrangements in the first place, and you don't have that choice with respect to laws.


How many people are working with computers these days who can really afford not to go anywhere near a Microsoft license agreement?

And how much choice do any of us have about our listings in the credit bureaus, à la Equifax? These are huge, unaccountable bureaucracies, which keep tabs on just about everyone in the United States. When they screw up, innocent people can find it difficult, if not impossible, to buy a house or a car, to enroll at schools, due to student loan difficulties, or even to get a credit card (and have you tried to travel recently without one?). Their databases are notoriously unreliable and insecure. Plain errors can take months to correct, even if the corrections don't get mysteriously undone later when the source of the bogus data resubmits it. This sounds like a libertarian horror story about intrusive government and insensitive government bureaucracies, but it's entirely in the private sector; government has nothing to do with it. And the finance industry's lobbyists are paid princely sums to make sure that it stays that way, and that the credit bureaus don't become subject to anything like European privacy laws.

(Regarding privacy laws, by the way, libertopian fantasies sometimes have private certification agencies serving this sort of regulatory function. With regard to privacy, at least, there's a cautionary tale available on the net --- TrustE, which was started as an experiment in private-sector regulation by the folks at the EFF, and has to be counted as an egregious failure; all it does is certify that a site has a privacy policy, and when major players like Microsoft and RealAudio have been caught by others in flat violation of their stated security policies, TrustE's response has generally been to help them find ways to wriggle out of their difficulties, as it were, "on a technicality". TrustE seems terminally mired in the fundamental conflict of interest that comes from being funded by the very companies that it is supposed to regulate).

Or consider health insurance. I've actually had libertarians try to explain to me at great length that the problems with our health care system stem from excessive regulation, and if government would just get out of the way, the magic of the market would summon insurance providers from the air, to suit every need and preference. But one of the real problems with private insurance is that the providers tend, whenever they can, to engage in "cherry-picking" healthy clients. In a truly free market, why would anyone offer health insurance at affordable rates to a forty-five year old with a heart arhythmia and hereditary risk for brain cancer?

And, as I've noted before, libertarians also seem not to recognize that a lot of the regulatory structure we have was a response to massive private-sector failures of the past.

So, that's what confuses me about libertarians. They seem to combine a pathological fear of government power --- any use of government power --- with a willful blindness towards abuses of corporate power, and towards flaws in private sector "solutions", even when those flaws stem from ineluctable conflicts of interest. In fact, that's the nub of Iain Murray's argument --- that the limited lifespan of monopolies in the marketplace makes them less of a long-term threat than tyrannous governments. But I can think of quite a few monopolies that were only broken up by government action, and many that lasted longer than the average 20th-century European military dictatorship. And no one believes the limited lifespans of those dictatorships are somehow grounds for ignoring their other abuses. Which were more severe than corporate abuse, to be sure --- but that doesn't justify giving corporate abuse a free pass.

Abuse of corporate power is real. It exists. There are solutions, sometimes, in government. And while abusive governments also exist, the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA don't look much like tyranny to me, not even by Iain's definition, "the systematic deprivation of protection from arbitrary rule". What that sounds like, to me, is Equifax.

Laws are weapons, sure --- never doubt it. But I thought it was the liberals who were supposed to be in favor blindly stripping people of their weapons...

Sunday, February 03, 2002

Brian Linse points out this article by John Dean, comparing Cheney's stonewalling on Enron to Nixon's on Watergate. But it seems Mr. Dean may be another conservative (or so I gather from his service to Nixon) who's getting disproportionately obsessed with Enron.

There are a couple of things about this piece that I found disturbing. The first was the banner ad with the dancing monkey that said "SHOCK THE MONKEY... with gorgeous FindLaw apparel!" But the ads are in a rotation, so you, gentle reader, may be spared.

The second was this quote:

In fact, not since Richard Nixon stiffed the Congress during Watergate has a White House so openly, and arrogantly, defied Congress's investigative authority.

This is where Dean goes overboard. In fact, this very administration has been more open and arrogant about defying Congressional authority. For instance, they invoked executive privilege to keep Congress from learning why the FBI let an innocent man rot in jail for 30 years on a murder rap. (This story just keeps getting worse, by the way; according to a recent 60 Minutes story on the case, the star witness at the trial was a mobster who the FBI knew to be the real killer, and memos bluntly describing the whole affair were sent directly to J. Edgar Hoover).

And the administration's open defiance of the Presidential Records act (to cite another of my hobbyhorses) is at least on a par.

Still, Dean's piece is worth reading, for two things. One is to learn how thin and insubstantial Cheney's legal arguments actually are. The other is his discussion of the consequences for checks and balances if the lawless Supreme Court majority that decided Bush v. Gore chose again to side with the Bush administration...