February 05, 2009


Sam Smith

One of the reasons that politics is less appealing these days is that politicians have become such wimps. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the watering down of the Senate filibuster.

A filibuster used to be a filibuster. But now, as Wikipedia notes, "In current practice, Senate Rule 22 permits filibusters in which actual continuous floor speeches are not required, although the Senate Majority Leader may require an actual traditional filibuster if he or she so chooses. This threat of a filibuster can therefore be as powerful as an actual filibuster. Previously, the filibustering senator(s) could delay voting only by making an endless speech. Currently, they need only indicate that they are filibustering, thereby preventing the Senate from moving on to other business until the motion is withdrawn or enough votes are gathered for cloture."

What's the use of having a tradition as ridiculous as a filibuster if the Senate ignores the tradition? Besides, if we had used the current rules in the past, we might never had gotten some of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s approved at all.

Why the change? Nobody talks about it much, but here are three good explanations:

- Both sides like to use the technique (or, more precisely, the threat of the technique) these days. For example, here is a Senator speaking a few years ago: "When legislation only has the support of the minority, the filibuster slows the legislation . . . prevents a Senator from ramming it through. . . and gives the American people enough time join the opposition. Mr. President, the right to extended debate is never more important than when one party controls Congress and the White House. In these cases, the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government." The senator speaking was Harry Reid, now leading the body at a time when one party controls Congress and the White House.

On another occasion, Reid sang a different tune:

"It would be one thing for Republicans to vote against this bill. If they honestly believe that 'stay the course' is the right strategy - they have the right to vote no. But now, Republicans are using a filibuster to block us from even voting on an amendment that could bring the war to a responsible end. They are protecting the President rather than protecting our troops. They are denying us an up or down - yes or no - vote on the most important issue our country faces."

- The Senate is now on C-SPAN. This makes rambling, non-pertinent speeches such as Huey Long's recitation of his favorite fried oyster and potlikker recipes less likely to be appreciated by the viewing public. It's hard to keep a TV fan base after 15 hours, the length of one of Long's filibusters, which was finally busted by his need to go to the bathroom.

- The Senate has gotten older. It simply doesn't have as much energy as it did, say, in the 1960s and earlier. They can't even have an inaugural lunch without having to call an ambulance; imagine what would happen after several nights sleeping on cots in the Senate out rooms as in the past.

I was fortunate enough to have covered a number of real filibusters. Once I reported that "This afternoon it was JW Fulbright who said the issue of discrimination was non-existent -- raised every four years for political reasons." Fulbright at the time was participating in a southern filibuster that had already been going 69 hours, far longer than any previous effort.

Among those also taking part were Sam Ervin and the rambunctious, hard-drinking Russell Long who managed to hold the Senate floor for eleven hours. This, however, was no record. Senator Wayne Morse had once gone over 18 hours and two years earlier, Strom Thurmond had held the floor for more than a day.

Thurmond reportedly described to Rep. Wayne Hayes in some detail how he managed this feat without having to relieve himself, noting that he had taken saunas, avoided liquids and so forth. Hayes listened thoughtfully and then said, "Strom, I can understand how you went that long without pissing, but what I can't figure out is how someone so full of shit as you could have done it."

One filibuster would drift into another and the hours turned into days. A group of reporters gathered around the minority leader, Everett Dirksen, in the middle of a night and one asked, "How are you doing?" The Wizard of Ooze told us he was doing all right "but at some point I suppose I shall have to lie down and let Morpheus embrace me . . . After two weeks the flesh rides herd on the spirit."

That was a real filibuster. Today, Dirksen would have just called Harry Reid and said, "Chalk me up for a filibuster."

There's a way out of this dilemma. Change the Senate rules. But you can't do that without a filibuster? Not really, as well argued by Ronald D. Rotunda of the Cato Institute a few years ago:

"The modern filibuster is much more powerful than its historical predecessor because it is invisible: The Senate rules do not require any senator to actually hold the floor to filibuster. Instead, a minority of 41 senators simply notifies the Senate leadership of its intent to filibuster. Other Senate business goes on, but a vote on a particular issue -- a nomination -- cannot be brought to a vote.. . .

"The Senate, unlike the House, is often called a continuing body because only one-third of its members are elected every two years. But that does not give the senators of a prior generation (some of whom were defeated in prior elections) the right to prevent the present Senate from choosing, by simple majority, the rules governing its procedure. For purposes of deciding which rules to follow, the Senate starts anew every two years."

To be fair, the activists also play both sides of the filibuster game, depending on whether the politically anointed are on their side or not. I prefer the majority vote in either case; it's worked pretty well in the House. But even if you want to keep the filibuster, then at a bare minimum, its advocates should be required to show a little gumption and not treat it as a dial up option - the political equivalent of phone sex - but rather get out there on the floor and read Shakespeare for 18 hours and 32 minutes. If you're going to be bumptious recalcitrant, at least give us something to laugh about.

February 03, 2009


Sam Smith

Watching the crowd reaction to Bruce Springsteen at the Super Bowl brought to mind how much better Americans have become at collective enthusiasm than at collective action.

The arm punches, screaming, and the mixture of joy, tears and intense facial expressions that in any other context might be taken for anger seemed somewhat mechanical, but thanks to television, movies and prior attendance, we all know how to act in such circumstances even if it means yelling so loudly that you can hardly hear the individual you so admire. Besides - unlike, say, a 1930s big band dance concert - the promoters have made sure there isn't much room to do anything else.

It is easy to forget how recent this phenomenon is. Many credit Frank Sinatra as being the founder of modern fan hysteria. As Pop History Dig describes it:

"By 1942, as his music was broadcast on the live radio show Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes, Sinatra began attracting the attention of teenage girls. The 'Bobbysoxers,' as they were called for their rolled-to-the-ankle white socks, were swooning in the aisles for the young singer. Sinatra's vast appeal to this group revealed a whole new demographic for popular music and for marketing. Sponsors had yet to recognize the vast economic buying power of teenagers and young adults, and had traditionally aimed their programming and sponsorship at the 30-to-50-year-olds. But that soon changed.

"On December 30,1942, when Sinatra played his first solo concert at New York city's Paramount Theater near Times Square, the Bobbysoxers came out in droves. After being introduced by Jack Benny, Sinatra walked on stage to loud and continuous shrieks and screams. 'The sound that greeted me,' he later recalled, 'was absolutely deafening. It was a tremendous roar. Five thousand kids, stamping, yelling, screaming, applauding. I was scared stiff. I couldn't move a muscle. Benny Goodman froze, too. He was so scared he turned around, looked at the audience and said, 'What the hell is that?' I burst out laughing.' The kids screamed in delight; some even fainted. They also crowded the back stage door after the show shrieking for his autograph, and spilled over into Times Square, snarling traffic. . . . Between 1940 and early 1943 he had 23 top ten singles on the new Billboard music chart. And all through those years, back at Paramount and other venues, the kids continued screaming and swooning for Sinatra.


"Fans had not swooned or screamed over other singers, such as Bing Crosby. So what was it with Sinatra? Something else was going on, the critics surmised. Although his singing was certainly a factor, some charged it was also Sinatra's look; his seeming innocence, frailty, and vulnerability that evoked the passions of female fans. Newsweek magazine then viewed the Bobbysoxer phenomenon as a kind of madness; a mass sexual delirium. Some even called the girls immoral or juvenile delinquents. But most simply saw them as young girls letting their emotions fly. . .

"By 1946 Frank Sinatra's recording company, Columbia, estimated that he was selling 10 million records per year."

Elvis and the Beatles, of course, contributed mightily to the phenomenon. The latter's first appearance at a U.S. concert was at Shea Stadium and 56,000 fans showed up to set a world record in attendance and gross revenue. The Beatles cleared $160,000.

Now, some six decades into increasingly orchestrated fan hysteria, it shouldn't surprise us if both the Springsteen performance and the reaction seemed somewhat artificial. But what did surprise - nay, stun - this cynical journalist was that a suspicion I had voluntarily suppressed not only had merit but was worse than I had imagined: the crowd knew precisely what to do.

In fact, they had been rehearsed, told where to stand and how to react - witness this video.

Such discoveries of rock promoters have spilled over into other aspects of our lives including politics. In fact, the Obama campaign might be fairly described as the first modeled on the principles of a rock concert tour including audiences that are better at cheering than listening, more moved by charisma than content and not too curious about what it all adds up to.

Of course, rock concerts have had a lot of help. Television and the internet, the atomization of American culture and the dominance of corporate and political propaganda in our daily lives have also contributed. So has, I'm convinced, albeit without solid evidence, the widespread use of anti-depressants and tranquilizers. It's hard to start a revolution if you've drugged away your anger and disgust.

In any case, what is clear is that America has largely accepted the dismantling of its constitution, an ordinate improper transfer of wealth from the many to the few, illegal wars and the destruction of its economy with striking passivity. With a few exceptions such as punk rock, there hasn't been a movement of any strength and continuity challenging the wrongs in America since a few years after that Beatles concert. It's almost as though, with the arrival of disco in the 1970s, we all agreed to just shut up and do what we were told.

Disco, with its mechanizing of music, was a suitable introduction to the Reagan - Bush - Clinton - Bush era - or RBee CBee - with its similar effect on politics. The instrument of our power - whether musical or political - had been taken away and put in a machine to be managed by a DJ.

Its thus not so surprising that America has been so slow in its response to the current economic disaster. We have been trained to react but not to act on our reaction. We've been taught to dance to the DJ and to stand in our crowded corner of the stadium and cheer just like everyone else. And if some slight residue of independence and rebellion remains, the Prozac should take of it. If not, we'll up the dose.

What this means is not that the collective anger and riots won't come as they already are elsewhere in the world. They likely will and the reaction of the government will likely be cruel and senseless. But it means that our opportunity to avoid such a moment is passing us by as the very leaders who created this disaster create inadequate or even disastrous solutions and the only thing we know how to do well is to stand close to one another, yell and punch our arms towards the sky.

And it will be like until we rediscover the basic truth that the answer is not up on the stage but with those before, behind and on either side of us. In the end, we are the only band that really counts.

February 02, 2009


Sam Smith

Let's say a couple borrows $100,000 on their new house. Let's say one of the pair loses their job and has to take one at a lower wage and the family is no longer able to pay the $7200 annual mortgage cost. Thanks, however, to one homeowner still being employed, the couple can still pay about $5000, or 70% of the total.

What's to be done? If the bank lowers the interest rate from 6% to 5% and extends the mortgage from 30 to 40 years, this would lower the annual payments to about $5800, still too much but within the park. Besides, perhaps the owners have savings that allow them to handle it for a few years.

But what if the bank doesn't want to help and what if the bank is no longer in charge of the mortgage, but has bundled it off to somewhere else?

This is why giving bankruptcy courts strong powers to modify such loans is so important. Mediation can help, too, although a study in Connecticut found that about half of endangered homeowners didn't ask for any help, many apparently unaware that it was available. In the end, mediators could only resolve about 5% of the cases.

Michael Hiltzik, in the LA Times, explains how the proposed bankruptcy court changes would work:

"Under the leading proposal in Congress, a typical plan would work like this for a debtor owing, say, $225,000 on an adjustable-rate mortgage on a home now worth $200,000: The judge reduces the balance to $200,000. The excess $25,000 becomes an unsecured debt to the lender, to be paid off, probably for pennies, at the end of the case. . .

"The judge can modify the remaining loan by converting the adjustable rate to a fixed market rate, adding 1% to 3% as a risk premium. The judge can erase all the fancy gingerbread that makes so many mortgages toxic -- periodic rate adjustments, prepayment fees, balloon payments, etc. -- and extend it out as long as 40 years. If the judge determines that no combination of these alterations would produce a mortgage the debtor could handle, the house could be foreclosed."

Another solution - one the Progressive Review has argued for - would be for the government - federal, state or local - to become a part owner of the endangered house, pay its share of the mortgage and get its share of the proceeds when the house is finally sold, probably under better market conditions than at present.

But let's say the market doesn't recover and the house is sold ten years from now for 20% less than was paid for it, i.e. $80,000. The government would get $24,000 out of the sale. Interest payments plus principal balance minus sales price would leave the government in the hole about $23,000. If the house had increased in value by 10%, the government would end up down about $14,000.

But let's say you're part of the Washington power system. You know that more of your campaign contributions come from creditors than from those who owe them money. Besides you're used to dealing with issues from the top down. So instead of be interested in working out endangered homes at a local level based on the specific facts of each case, you decide it's a lot simpler just to bail out the banks, especially when Hank Paulsen says if you don't, we may have riots and need martial law.

So that $100,000 foreclosure-in-waiting disappears into a giant bailout. It's safe to guess that some of that bailout is going to be used to cover the bad $100,000 loan; it just won't be accounted for that way. Better yet, the bank can even get tax dollars for the failed mortgage and then sell the house at, say, a 50% discount. Then the bank would be ahead $150,000 from where it was before Congress acted.

There are other approaches being discussed, such as the government buying the $100,000 mortgage and then disposing of the house itself at a discount. In which case the bank would be ahead $100,000, the government down $50,000 and the homeowners still on the street.

Either way, what has happened - without a word being said about it - has been a substantial transfer of wealth. In one approach, the government has subsidized the homeowner by $14-24k and in the other case the winner is a bank that will end up $100-150k ahead. Which is cheaper? Which is wiser?

The troubled homeowners lose their house, their down payment and everything they have paid the bank to date. Further, everyone who does business with the family will likely suffer as well. The town in which they live will find their property tax revenues slipping. Social service costs may increase as the family needs assistance of one sort or another.

Meanwhile, if the bank is designated the official victim in this matter, it will either recover its losses (plus all the interest that was paid before the crisis) and may even make a profit out of the deal. Further, the gap between being a banker and being a homeowner has just widened again.

Note finally that if you primarily help the banks, the homeowners have gained nothing, but if you help the homeowners the banks are helped as well.

Multiply our aforementioned troubled homeowners by their several million colleagues in disaster and we're talking about real money and a real transfer of wealth and power.