Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fraud By Any Other Name

In a recent speech, Noam Chomsky told his audience, "The level of anger and fear in the country (the United States) is like nothing I can recall in my lifetime [and] unfortunately, these attitudes are understandable."

For over 30 years, real incomes for the majority of the population have stagnated or declined, social indicators have steadily deteriorated since the mid 1970's after closely tracking growth in earlier years, work hours and insecurity have increased along with debt. Wealth has accumulated but into very few pockets, leading to probably record inequality. These are, in large part, consequences of the financialization of the economy since the 1970's and the corresponding hollowing out of domestic production.

Thus, when the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs with fraud last week, a collective cry of indignation was heard around the world. The SEC charges offered a vivid illustration of what Chomsky was talking about -- and the bluest chip on Wall Street became the target of international anger. It will be interesting to see if Goldman -- which has very deep pockets -- fights to the bitter end, or settles.

But there is another kind of anger stalking the land and its institutions. It is more troubling than the anger directed at Goldman. It found expression last week in a fund raising video produced by the Republican Governors Association. Claiming the mantle of Guy Fawkes, the governors encouraged their viewers to "Remember November" and the day Fawkes tried to blow up the British Houses of Parliament:

This, from the party which claimed that the president's health care bill would institute "death panels;" and which also claimed that the proposed financial reform bill was just a guarantee of more bailouts -- forgetting to mention that the massive bailout of The Street was the work of one of their own presidents -- a bailout they voted for. Interestingly, after claiming solid 41 vote opposition to the bill, the Republicans turned on a dime, saying they could support the legislation if it were tweaked a bit. As Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, after discovering "a Pew poll that even in a divided America 61% favor financial regulatory reform, the unity pledge in McConnell's pocket was now worth as much as a mortgage backed security."

Fraud, simply defined, is misrepresenting what you are selling. It is a bald faced lie. The Republicans have become very good at selling lies. Or, more precisely, they have become masters of the simplistic solution. For, as H.L. Mencken wrote, "For every complex, human problem, there's a neat simple solution; it's just that it's wrong." An example of one such solution is the one Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada, Sue Lowden, is suggesting (seriously) -- that the way to pay for health care is through a barter system.

The Republicans have anger on their side. They just can't find any wisdom -- and they have very few ideas -- to go with it. And, at the end of last week, the Republican governor of Arizona signed a law which allows police to stop someone on the street -- in this case, Latinos -- and demand that they present papers showing that they are legal residents of that state.

Chomsky and his relatives -- immigrant Jews -- recognize the tactic all too well. It is the equivalent of having to wear the Star of David. Those who support the new law call themselves patriots. That is the biggest fraud of all.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Sources

There was sound and fury in Ottawa last week, as the opposition parties and the press tried to uncover the sagas of Helena Guergis and Afghan prisoners of war. The sagas were based on the testimony of two very different sources. The charges against Guergis came from a private investigator named Derrick Snowdy, who is -- The Globe and Mail reported -- "a flamboyant character who [drives] a Porche 911 Turbo" and is $13 million in debt. The charges of prisoner abuse came (again) from Richard Colvin, a career Canadian diplomat, who was posted to Afghanistan and is now stationed at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

When Snowdy brought his information to Arthur Hamilton, a Toronto lawyer and member of the Conservative Party, it went immediately up the chain of command, directly to the prime minister, who characterized the information as "serious and credible."

Colvin, on the other hand, experienced repeated road blocks when trying to reach those at the top of the government pyramid -- even though soldiers in the field were complaining that, as Provost Marshall Captain Steve Moore wrote on February 27, 2008, "There is a disturbing tendency to keep information within and to resist MP [Military Police] advice and oversight."

On the one hand, there was immediate action on information which some might have questioned as less than reliable. On the other, there were repeated attempts -- from those at the top -- to remain blissfully ignorant, even though the source in the past had been deemed unimpeachable.

If there is a common thread that ties these starkly different stories together, it is the government's attempt to sit on the information surrounding each case. The information which Snowdy provided the prime minister was ferreted out by the press. The unredacted files on the transfer of Afghan prisoners remain under lock and key -- even though Alain Prefontaine, the government lawyer appearing before the Military Police Complaints Commission, admitted having seen the files, a privilege the commission itself has been denied.

How did we come to such an impasse? Murray Dobbins wrote this week that "it could not have happened except for the broader context of a corrupted democracy:

For twenty years we have witnessed the inexorable transformation of government, from one that really did base itself on moral imperatives, democratic principles and political integrity (for the most part) to the corporate model of governance. We are not a country anymore, we are an economy; we are not citizens, we are clients; public services are not the things we do together for each other, they are products (the easier to privatize them.)

The goal of economic man is self preservation. Ms. Geurgis, the government and the prime minister share the same goal. Any attempt to get at the truth behind both stories is a threat to self preservation. Mr. Snowdy is essential to Mr. Harper's political survival. Mr. Colvin is a threat to his survival. It should come as no surprise that both men have been treated so differently.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Man the Barricades

Last week, Helena Guergis finally fell from her perch. It was not a surprise. As Adam Radwanski suggested in The Globe and Mail, her downfall did not mark a turning point in Canadian history. Her story and her husband's story are not new; in fact, they are as old as the Book of Genesis. We have been treated to a tale of two young and ambitious people who began to believe their own press releases -- or, in Guergis' case, the letters to the editor which were written by her own staff.

And, beyond the obvious hypocrisy of a party which is obsessed with bringing in mandatory sentences -- except for fellow public servants -- the saga represents another object lesson in how this Prime Minister handles problems. Having told a press conference that "serious allegations" had been brought against Guergis, Mr. Harper then announced that he had received Guergis' resignation, had called in the RCMP and the Ethics Commissioner to investigate, and had thrown Geurgis out of the Conservative caucus.

Tossing elected representatives from the caucus is nothing new for Harper. He did the same thing to Garth Turner and Bill Casey. And, when embarrassing information emerged about Brian Mulroney, he ordered his minions to treat Mulroney as persona non-grata. Mr. Harper frequently banishes -- or tries to banish -- those he deems toxic to the brand.

But, once again, he has tried to pull down the Cone of Silence. When asked what the allegations against Guergis were, he said, "Under the circumstances I will not comment on them further." It was another example of a well established pattern. Mr. Harper has just returned from his second prorogation of parliament in thirteen months -- the first time when he faced a vote of non-confidence in the House, the second time when the committee investigating Afghan prisoner abuse demanded uncensored documents about how those prisoners were handled.

He tried to dump thousands of redacted documents at the committee's doorstep, hoping to create a diversion. But information keeps leaking out -- most recently in Sunday's Globe, which recounts the story of Canadian military involvement with Kandahar's infamous Brigade 888. When Guergis' husband -- defeated MP Rahim Jaffer -- walked away from a drunk driving and cocaine possession charge with a $500 fine, Kevin Donovan of The Toronto Star, began digging into Jaffer's relationships with people who have been charged with fraud, as well as the former MP's claims to have had access to the Prime Minister's Office.

There is probably no substance to Jaffer's assertions that the levers of power were at his finger tips. Like Duddy Kravitz, he seems to have been perpetually pitching, engaged in a never ending effort to promote himself and to rise in the world. It would appear that Guergis herself has a similar history. They both have encountered similar fates.

But the real issue is the character of the Prime Minister. His is obsessed with control -- and control of information is his first line of defense. He has a hard time dealing with public scrutiny; and he seeks to limit it at every turn. He has no problem when it comes to appearing at public events, like the Olympics, or the remembrance ceremony to mark the death of Canada's last veteran of World War I. But he draws the line when the opposition parties or the press seek information. Like the Pope, he has concluded that all they wish to do is to spread "petty gossip."

But the information keeps seeping through the dam Mr. Harper has constructed. The second Bush administration, seeking allies when it ginned up the War in Iraq, co-opted large segments of the American press. This prime minister has always been suspicious of the Canadian press; and, from the very beginning, he declared that they -- people like Garth Turner -- were the enemy. And, in the end, it will be those "ink stained wretches" who will bring him down.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Yesterday, the forty-second anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, various commentators focused on one of his lesser known speeches. That speech was delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City; and it made him a pariah among the movers and shakers of his time. In the speech, King voiced his opposition to the War in Vietnam. His reasons were many. But, taken together, they added up to the fact that the war was an affront to justice. Admitting that truth, however, was not easy. "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth," King said,

men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

The war was also an affront to King's faith in non-violence. But, more than that, it was "devastating the hopes of the poor at home" by transferring the resources that were originally targeted for the "war on poverty" to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Citing a recently released report, "State of the Dream 2010: Drained," from the group United for a Fair Economy, Bill Moyers on Friday drew his viewers' attention to this sentence: "The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income." Despite the election of Barack Obama, not much has changed for the people whose concerns King championed. "We are at a perilous moment," Moyers said:

The individualist, greed driven free market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about. Popular support for either party has struck bottom, as more and more agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics has corrupted our system, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity -- its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.

A year to the day after King delivered his Riverside speech, he was assassinated. He knew that anger was brewing in the ghettos of the country. It erupted after that rifle bullet ended his life. That was why he warned his audience that "tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now." That was also why Americans had to choose wisely. "The choice is ours," he said, "and, though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment in history."

The Vietnam War has come and gone; and it is now generally acknowledged to have been a colossal mistake. Like the financial meltdown, from which we are now emerging, it was the consequence of monumental arrogance and stupidity. But the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised remains the same -- in the United States and around the world. Once again we live at a crucial moment in history. King was a man for all seasons. Forty-two years after his death, he still asks us to choose justice.