Monday, February 21, 2005

Feb. 18-21, 2005

Friday Freak Out

By the time Fridays roll around I have four days worth of loose news items floating around in my head. News that, while annoying when I read them, did not seem worthy of a full-bore rant. Trouble is I can’t let go of them. They keep popping into my consciousness demanding attention. It’s a bit like having Andy Rooney living in my head.

My only escape is to download these troubles to you. What you do with them is your business.

Phony White House Reporters

I never thought I would say this, but the time has come to pull the TV cameras out of the White House Press Briefing Room. The daily press briefing has become a dog and pony show that simply encourages a trend in journalism that has done nothing but harm the profession – reporters as players.

I trace this phenomenon back to that day young White House reporter, Dan Rather, stood up and challenged president Richard Nixon. It’s a now famous film clip that you will surely have to watch once more in March when CBS sends Dan off into involuntary retirement. That short back-and-forth between a mere reporter and the President of the United States made Rather’s career. Ever since we have seen more and more reporters strive to become media personalities.

Major print publications now pay their reporters bonuses for writing a story that gets their puss on one of the dozens of TV news talk shows. The networks put the best of them on contract as regular panelists. To my mind this has been the most corrosive trend afflicting journalism today.

While being a White House reporter may sound glamorous, it is in fact a tedious assignment. TV cameras in the White House Press Briefing Room have became an opportunity to escape the faceless press scrum with a high-profile grab at the news media brass ring of stardom.

The cameras also offered a cheap and dramatic way for political operatives like Jeff ( Gannon -- a wolf hiding among the sheep -- to use White House briefings as an extraordinarily high-profile vehicle to deliver rightwing propaganda.

It’s time to unplug the cameras at the White House before the Screen Actors Guild starts organizing White House reporters and demanding royalties.

Regarding Groping
For the record, I am foursquare against sexual harassment, okay? And, I have supported women’s liberation since 1969. (Alright, I admit it was the bra burning that initially won me over, but after that I supported the substance of the movement and continue to do so to this day.)

But forty years later I just shake my head in disbelief when I read about women wasting valuable court time trying to prosecute and/or sue famous guys because, they say, at some point in life, the guy “groped them against their will.”

First let me say that’s redundant. I know of no women who have been “willfully groped.” Groping is by definition an uninvited and unwelcome lurch by one individual at the private body parts of another individual. There are guys – concentrated in Red States -- who view groping a woman just a bit of proactive petting. Of course groping is not petting anymore so than rape is consensual intercourse.

Having said that I am becoming increasingly annoyed at the recent spat of groping allegations, like the one against Bill Cosby. Do I think Cosby is incapable of groping a woman? Nope. He may well have tried to sneak a feel or two. And, if he did, he was a bad boy, a cad. If my wife discovered I groped someone, the next time you saw me in public I’d be wearing an orthopedic hand brace, maybe two.

But we need to get this groping business back into some kind of perspective. Unless some other kind assault or law was broken in the course of a furtive, unwelcome, uninvited sneak feel, groping is not rape. And, if unrelated in anyway to the workplace it not sexual harassment either – at least as the term was legally intended.

What is groping then? It’s a bad date. Yeah, you dated a jerk. So feel free to return the favor by thoroughly “groping” the cad’s crotch with your knee. Then call a cab, not a lawyer.
Women’s lib has come a long way, but women still have plenty of good reasons to seek judicial redress. Groping is not one of them. (And don’t even get me started on the counter-revolutionary nature of breast implants and the WonderBra !)

Farm Welfare
Before I became a journalist I was a farmer -- a Wisconsin dairy farmer, to be precise. Never mind how I got from shoveling cow manure to covering Washington, except to say the leap was not difficult.

During my farming years I became well acquainted with welfare masquerading as farm subsidies. And I learned how farm subsidies became a $20 billion a year welfare program impervious to all attempts to end them. Farmers, it turns out, are fabulous PR people. You would not have thunk it, but let me tell you, they have their spiel down pat. They are so disciplined in their message that even when talking to one another, they remain in character. Prices are always too low, costs too high, the weather, markets and bugs are always against them. It’s a miracle any of us survive at all.

I had many such conversations with neighboring farmers:

“How’s it going Bill?”

Bill shakes his head as he kicks the dirt with the toe of his new, steel-tipped work boots.

“Don’t know Steve. Don’t know what we’re gonna do if corn don’t go up pretty soon.”

“Did you lose any corp during that hail storm that came through the county last week?”

Bill looks out over 200 acres of man-high corn. “Well, I don’t know. But I called my federal crop insurance rep. He came out and approved a claim for a 10% loss, just in case."

“That’s your third claim this season, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Been a bad weather year,” Bill says looking up at a clear blue skies.

“But your field looks great, Bill.”

“Yeah, but I will barely break even, if lucky, at these prices. Can barely afford to plant next year. Thank God we don't have to pay federal gasoline tax or that would bust me for sure."

Then Bill brightens up. “Hey, come on in the barn and see my new tractor."

"But Bill, that tractor was only five years old. Why did you get rid of it so soon?"

"Depreciated that puppy beyond salvage value," Bill replied with a chuckle and a wink. "Hey, look at this baby. Damn thing cost me $125,000, but that included the GPS gadget, stereo and air conditioning. Didn't have to put a dime down. Farm bureau got me one of those no-interest disaster loans approved after the winter floods.”

Saturday Update: From a reader:
I had to laugh at your piece on farmers. You have a lock on the way they can complain about anything. My father is from Iowa and his favorite joke is two farmers looking over a perfect field of corn,

"Well, Bill, looks like a record crop."...."Yeah, but it's going to be hell on my picker."

Jay O'Neill Burbank, CA

Farmers are the all time system finaglers. Yes it's hard work, but so is busing tables and cleaning motel rooms for a living and I don't see anyone subsidizing those folks. How do they get away with it? Farmers shamelessly leverage a long-gone Norman Rockwell image of family farmers even though farming is now the biggest of big business in farming regions. By predicting the end of the family farm they have locked themselves into the fattest-assed stream of government welfare money in the country.

How much? Wheat, corn, cotton, rice, soybeans farmers alone bagged more than $130 billion over the last nine years. That’s a record, by the way.

But don’t pay a lot of attention President Bush’s recent promise to cut farm subsidies. An eye familiar with such things need only a brief glance at Bush’s proposed cuts to see that he is proposing only a tiny cut, $5 billion over ten years. Chump change. Nevertheless get ready for the heartbreaking stories of families being forced off their farms.

The trouble is that farm subsidies don’t do what farmers claim they do. These payments do not stabilize food prices. Instead they distort normal supply/demand market forces. I saw this first hand when I was milking cows. At the time the markets were awash in milk. You couldn’t give the stuff away. Nevertheless the government paid me a top dollar for all the milk I could deliver. They took the stuff and wasted a few tons of natural gas drying it, then rented warehouses to store it until it went bad.

Multiply that kind of waste by many times over and you get an idea of why its time to get rid of most farm subsidies. (Except for that mohair subsidy. Guys my age fondly remember how great girls looked in mohair sweaters so I am prepared to see my tax go to encouraging more to that kind thing.)

More Corporate Welfare
I began my journalism career writing for a banking newspaper where, among other things, I covered the two giant housing finance entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I call them “entities” because they are neither companies (as we know them) or federal agencies. They are “GSE’s” Government Sponsored Entities. What that means is that, while they operate like private companies their product, mortgage backed securities, carry the implied backing of the US government.

The idea when these agencies were created was that an implied government guarantee would serve to keep home mortgage rates low since it would take the risk out of the bonds that backed them for investors.

It worked. Boy did it work! Fannie and Freddie mushroomed into financial behemoths. Those who ran them became filthy rich. And I mean filthy rich. We’re talking salaries and bonuses in the triple millions for the top guys.. like former Clinton budget advisor, Franklin Raines, Fannie’s CEO.

But since these companies were created decades ago, banking and the mortgage businesses have been deregulated, re-regulated, deregulated again and reinvented. Today you would be hard pressed find a more competitive business than the home mortgage and refinance rackets.

Therefore, frankly Fannie and Freddie no longer need or deserve implied government backing. What they do need is to be kicked out from under the taxpayer’s umbrella before they do end up costing us a few hundred billion dollars.. something I suspect may already be brewing.

All the signs of trouble are there for anyone paying attention. Both companies have been caught cooking their books, ala Enron et al. And both companies responded to congressional criticism by turning loose hundreds of high-paid lobbyists loose on Capitol Hill to fight for the status quo. What this tells me is that some valuable turf, rather than taxpayers, are being fought to protect.

Even weird Al, Fed Chief Alan Greenspan, believes it’s time to kick Freddie and Fannie out of their well-feathered nest. This week Greenspan testified that if the two companies want to keep their GSE status they should be made to reduce their portfolios of mortgage loans to between $100 and $200 billion, to protect taxpayers. How much do they hold now? A combined $1.7 trillion. (By comparison, the S&L scandal of the 1980s cost taxpayers $165 billion.)

I agree with Al. Today’s residential mortgage markets are so competitive the miniscule premium Freddie and Fannie’s gets because of its GSE status makes little to no difference to consumers.

So let both of them compete on a level playing field. Before the housing bubble bursts, please get us taxpayers clear of these two titanic GSEs.

Axis of Evil Refreshed

With Iraq now well into a 12-Step anger management program, there was a vacancy in Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” That vacancy was filled last week the Syrians blew up Lebanon’s former, and likely future, Prime Minister. So we have a full hand again. And, the question is not whether Syria deserves the listing, it does. Syria is a bad actor. Always has been. While they don’t have WMDs they do have BA - bad attitude.

And, they routinely display a shocking lack of subtly. Piss them off and they kill you. They kill you, your wife, your kids, your neighbors and anyone who happens to be passing by. A while back when a handful of their own political dissidents pissed them off they leveled their entire city, killing everything that moved. These are mean-ass folks. Don’t doubt it. The Lebanese sure don’t.

The same goes for the North Koreans and Iranians. Which poses a problem to those of us who hate all things Bush. When is it okay to agree with this guy? Since he lies like a rug so often, we are never quite sure. But we would make a serious mistake denying that he has these three countries wrong. Even Bush can get some things right, and classifying these three as the malignant tumors, he is right.

The question becomes, what to do about them. Send troops? No way. First we couldn’t if we wanted to. We don’t have the troops and we don’t have the money for that kind of thing now. Besides, as we learned in Iraq it’s – to quote Bush – “hard.

For an alternative refer to my “Don’t Do That Doctrine,” the full text of which you can read here if you are curious. We can inflict an unacceptable level of pain on these pains in the neck without sending troops. We should play to our strength, technology, not our weakness. Anyway, troops are so 20th century.

North Korea is a pricklier matter now that Bush has allowed them develop several nukes. Now it’s pretty much up to China to reel their crazy cousins in before they spark a arms race in Asia. Instead of threatening North Korea (never pick a fight with a man who has nothing to lose,) we should threaten China with the prospect of US nukes in Japan and So. Korea if they don’t drop the hammer on their Kim boy and PDQ.

Anyway, love Bush or hate him, there is no denying that someone, someday, is going to have deal with countries like Syria, North Korea and Iran AND Saudi Arabia. Democrats can only pray that someone figures out how to round up these perennial bad actors before the problem lands back on the desk of the next Democrat occupying the White House.

Ah, that felt good. I hope it was good for you too.

Have a nice weekend.

By Stephen Pizzo

Raconteur at Large

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