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Posts published in February 2010

Cantwell and Wall Street

cantwell

Maria Cantwell

You can't say that no one in Washington is trying to loose the hounds on the financial high-chargers who, with their endlessly creative financing efforts, crashed the country's economy. Not many visible people in Washington have delved deeply into this murk. But at least a couple of Northwest senators have: Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and to even a larger degree, Washington's Maria Cantwell.

A Seattle Times piece out today is one of the few really to highlight this, although her work on big business finance goes back some years to her ongoing war on Enron. The article notes: ". . . crusading against 'dark market' derivatives trading? Agitating about the systemic hazards of mingling commercial and investment banking? Trash talking about the Obama administration's finance team?" Cantwell's been doing all that.

And, "She has introduced bills to curb such speculative trading and to allow state gambling commissions and attorneys general to oversee unregulated, or "dark market," derivatives trading. In addition, Cantwell, along with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, wants to resurrect a strict separation between commercial banks and investment firms. At the same time, Cantwell has displayed exasperation with what she sees as inadequate regulatory actions so far. She slammed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner as an 'enabler' who isn't truly reining in Wall Street's excesses."

More to the ground, consider this from a Cantwell February 3 press release:

"Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said today Congress and the Obama administration must establish tough regulatory oversight and transparency in derivatives trading and commodities markets to prevent abuses that helped bring about the economic crisis. Cantwell joined commodity “end-users,” – businesses that actually trade in or use commodities such as petroleum and agriculture products – and consumer protection organizations, to advocate moving all standardized derivatives onto fully regulated public exchanges and clearinghouses. Loopholes in the House-passed bill leave up to 60 percent of the derivatives market without minimum requirements for capital behind trading positions. The resulting unregulated and highly leveraged gambling in derivatives, Cantwell said, were a major contributing factor in a financial crisis that has now become an economic crisis."

Plagiarism he probably didn’t see

wingard

Matt Wingard

Start this with a quote from Oregon state Representative Matt Wingard, R-Wilsonville, appearing in the Hillsboro Argus: “It’s amazing to me that somebody blogging in their underwear from a basement of their mom’s house can make a vicious personal smear on their Web site."

So many are the problems with that quote, that even it's hard to know where to start. Does the fact of easy communication in today's technology really amaze the representative? Does he really hold with that old wheeze stereotyping bloggers? If the answers are yes, then part of what happened in the Wingard global warming plagiarism dispute starts to fall into focus - and not to the representative's advantage.

The blogger Wingard was specifically upset with was Kari Chisholm, one of the founders of Blue Oregon and a website designer for a bunch of Democratic officeholders and candidates - the runner of a substantial business, and a far distance from Wingard's stereotype. (Would he apply the stereotype as well, say, to Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian? Or, say, to attorney Jack Bogdanski?)

He was upset with Chisholm because the blogger had been paying attention to a House floor speech (actually a "remonstrance," a point of order that allows members to speak on whatever subject they want) he had given, on global warming (he is an arguer against), and thought some of the words had a certain ring. Chisholm ran a check, and it turned out that they did: Most of it was taken, word for word, from the Washington Times. A few other slices came from other sources, but no more than a few words at most from Wingard himself.

Reading from someone else's article or publication is okay, and nothing unusual. But in this case, Wingard didn't bother to attribute any of it: To listen to his floor speech, he seemed to have created it all himself. After Chisholm called him on it, Wingard acknowledged the source in a press release and elsewhere. But not until he was called on it.

Chisholm also pointed out this: "This incident is especially damning for Wingard because he's a trained journalist. He's got a degree in broadcast journalism - and once worked as a journalist in Yakima, Washington." Among journalists, plagiarism has happened, but when exposed it's usually followed with a quick boot out of the profession.

Wingard hasn't yet come up with a decent explanation. He said that he meant to attribute - but he didn't until after he was publicly challenge on it. He said he didn't have time for an attribution - but the speech lasted several minutes, and attribution would have taken seconds.

The only explanation that seems to make sense is that Wingard just didn't know any better or wasn't thinking. Just as, apparently, about bloggers.

Radio impact

Is the clout of talk radio diminishing?

Political people certainly act as if it is powerful enough, considering the bows and scrapes given to Rush Limbaugh from anyone on the right who momentarily crosses him. But as with broadcast television, it may be a lesser influence now than it was, given the competition from the web and elsewhere.

Seattle's Blatherwatch recalled how "KVI was at the forefront of the 1994 Republican resurgence, the pre-Waco militia strutting. John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur organized and ran initiative signature campaign on-air and almost single-handedly got a measure on the ballot (later rejected by the voters) that defunded roads. The US Supreme Court upheld their right to wage that campaign on public airwaves, a huge win for talk radio. Wilbur's now gone, and Carlson is talking to the crickets in the toughest time slot in town (3-6p). . . .

"Talk radio was in its heyday back then - the talk pie has shrunk. Conservative KVI at its peak was often in the top 10, in the market now it’s languishing at 27th. Despite KIRO’s right turn in the last few years, what was once an AM news-talking blowtorch perennially (it seemed) at no. 3, is now a wimpy FM at 18th in the market that can’t be heard in many corners of the city, much less the rest of the region."

A hanging

Nothing like a hanging in a fortnight, the saying goes, to concentrate the mind. Or, maybe, prompt a fundraiser.

For all the Democrats' problems nationally, there's little indication (outside of a couple of polls that look like outliers) that the major Democratic figures in Washington or Oregon are in big trouble. The extreme rhetoric does show up in places, but the guess here it will mostly boomerang.

Like the blast by the TeaPartier at Asotin, unsatisfied with simply declaring Senator Patty Murray as wrong on the issues - no, she declared she wanted to hang her. (You can see this in the clip at about a half-minute in. The female speaker says: ""What happened to Jake when he ran with the wrong crowd? What happened to Jake when he ran with the wrong crowd. He got hung. And that's what I want to do with Patty Murray.")

How can this kind of garbage appeal to the majority of voters? Reality is, it probably won't; and we keep seeing indicators that it's wearing progressively thinner month by month.

Meanwhile, Murray's campaign is using the Asotin incident as another lever for fundraising. Makes sense.

“The saint goes marching out”

If you're in favor of having medical practices at what may be the only hospital in your region determined by the doctrine of a specific religious organization, than you may find what happened in Bend to be unfortunate.

The rest of us may see it as a hopeful harbinger for the future.

The Catholic Diocese of Baker, which has been the church's sponsor for the St. Charles Medical Center at Bend, said this week it will end that relationship:

Recently, hospital administrators and Baker Bishop Robert Vasa have “respectfully disagreed” on the meaning of some of the directives. In particular, St. Charles offers patients tubal ligations, a form of permanent female reproductive sterilization, which, Bishop Vasa says, goes against the church’s teachings.

“It is my responsibility to ensure the hospital is following Catholic principles both in name and in fact,” Bishop Vasa says. “It would be misleading for me to allow St. Charles Bend to be acknowledged as Catholic in name while I am certain that some important tenets of the ethical and religious directives are no longer being observed.”

Bishop Vasa asked St. Charles in 2007 for an audit of the hospital’s compliance with the ethical and religious directives. The hospital openly provided the bishop with the information. Since that time, Bishop Vasa and hospital officials have had a number of discussions about the future of the hospital as a Catholic institution.

In the context, this seems amicable enough - an agreement to disagree and a logical move forward. The two organizations seemed both saddened by it, and no doubt some people are: St. Charles has been a Catholic hospital for close to a century. A tradition is ending.

(In many respects, the changes may be subtle: "Mass will no longer be celebrated in the hospital's chapel and all items considered Catholic will be removed from the hospital and returned to the church. The St. Charles name will remain the same and the cross will remain on top of the building.")

Others from the Bend area, probably plenty of Catholics included, may see this as a tradition worth ending. The connection between religious organizations and hospitals never seemed entirely logical (in the modern era), except maybe in the sense of fostering a general sense of unifying medical provision with charitable work - and we all know how well that's worked out. Catholics in Bend will still be able to manage their own health within the constraints of their church's doctrine, if they choose to; but there'll b no pressure now for non-Catholics to do so.

There are plenty of other Catholic hospitals, at present, in the Northwest. This move may reverberate.

(H/t for the post headline, to Bend or Bust.)

A streetcar with no name

Probably doesn't feel that way right now to the Boise advocates - Mayor David Bieter among them - of a downtown streetcar, but in denying federal money to the city for that project, the feds may have done those advocates a big favor.

This marks the opportunity, which maybe some of them have been quietly hoping for, to back off.

No doubt Bieter was very serious about creating such a project; it would much change the look and feel of Boise's downtown, and some positives likely would have come of it. But the questions about how and why it would work, and whether it was the right priority for the area, were almost overwhelming. We've been struck by the number of Boiseans who have been long-time passionate supporters of mass transit who could not see their way to supporting this one, even if most of the money for it was federal. Polling suggests that Boiseans overall are highly skeptical.

Streetcars are not necessarily a bad idea. Portland has a good streetcar system (linked to its light rail and bus operations), and picked up $23.2 million today for its program. Tucson and Dallas got money for streetcars too.

And for now at least, Boise city officials indicated they won't be giving up.

But they may be well advised to see today's decision as an opportunity to take a pause, step back, and rethink.

A little sunshine, at least

Here is what health insurers would have you believe: That the free market works best when when the sellers of a product get to withhold virtually all information about it, and the consumer are best served by being left in the dark.

The Oregon Insurance Division has "finalized changes to its health insurance rate review process that make all information submitted as part of an insurance company’s rate request open to the public." (Note that this applies only to some individual, small business and portability plans; most health insurance in Oregon is not regulated by the state at all.) The rule changes follow up on 2009 state legislation.

You might wonder that this information hasn't been public all along. You might wonder how Oregonians could possibly assess the work of its insurance division when much of the information submitted by insurers is sealed away from public view.

There's no wondering on the part of the insurers: They are furious at the new rules, and are threatening everything from lawsuits to pulling out of the state in response.

The Lund Report, a fine Oregon health care blog, reported:

Oregon’s five largest health insurers along with the national trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, argued in comments to the Division that the new rules would expose trade secrets, harm competition and increase rates.

Several implied they might sue. A representative for LifeWise called the rules unconstitutional, but none put it quite as succinctly as Theresa Neibert, manager of regulatory advocacy and consulting for Kaiser. “These new rules will invite instability, confusion, uneven treatment of carriers and litigation,” Neibert wrote. “This may embroil the division in costly litigation.”

The Insurance Division basically called their bluff.

Lund also notes that in theory, "Rate filings were made public starting in 2006, but consumer advocates who've tried to challenge premium increases since then have faced difficulties because insurers were allowed to redact key information. A case against a 26 percent increase on Regence individual health plans in 2008 is still ongoing."

You have to know that something dark is going on when the fight to keep information - that affects our health and even lives - under wraps is this ferocious.

Kraig E. Anderson, vice president of underwriting and actuarial, ODS Companies (odious?): “We believe that larger competitors, with greater capital resources, could price their products in such a way to gain market advantage. This type of predatory pricing could lead to higher rate increases for consumers, or a situation where it is necessary for ODS to leave the market.”

Ah yes, the great threat to leave the market, should the public ask for basic information about what it is that requires insurers to pump up their premiums so massively every few months, kicking people by the millions off of health coverage and running our country fast over the cliff into bankruptcy.

Sounds from here like the insurers are making an airtight argument for a public option.

At a time when so much fear is mongered about a public health insurance option, what realistic defense of our current health insurers is even possible? There's only one realistic answer: Health insurers have money, tons and tons of money. And money talks.

Maybe about where it is

The primary poll numbers in the Oregon Democratic gubernatorial, conducted and released by the John Kitzhaber campaign, are about as you might expect from that source: Kitzhaber 55%, Bill Bradbury 21%, Jerry Wilson 2%, and undecided 22%. (There was a released split by congressional district, which among Democrats said Kitzhaber was strongest in the 4th and weakest in the 2nd.)

The response from Bradbury, the former secretary of state who has been running as underdog (though with some strong out of state endorsements, like Al Gore and Howard Dean), might have been to dis the poll. Instead, the emphasis was this: "This Kitzhaber poll is actually good news for our campaign. For a two term Democratic Governor to be polling barely over 50% in his own party shows a real weakness and an opportunity for us to get our message out that Bill Bradbury is THE democratic candidate in the race."

It's a sounded geared at hopefulness rather than irritation, but if you assume the numbers are somewhere close to realistic, they don't bode well for Bradbury. Other numbers from the poll give Kitzhaber a 69% favorable among Democrats - not super-strong certainly, and now what he should want if running against a strong Republican, but good enough for a solid base at this point among fellow Democrats.

Three months to go for Bradbury to turn it around.

Common thread

Look at all the protests - the anti-tax and the countering anti-cut protests at Olympia and Salem this week.

The two sides would seem to be totally opposite in motivation. But look again - turned down the volume and squint at the signs, and what do you see? Anger, simply. This is a time of anger, all over the place.

The role of a representative

There's no perfect answer, and there are always situational answers, to the question of whether elected officials should rigorously follow the polls in deciding what to do. Veer too far from what the public wants, or will accept, and you'll be thrown out of office, and maybe should be. But the questions facing voters are often different from those facing their representatives.

Public attitudes can be hard to gauge, and they aren't always what you think they are. Have you seen the recent articles about the polling on whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military? A CBS poll says that 51% of Americans favor allowing "gay men and lesbians" to so serve - but just 34% of "homosexuals." Draw what conclusions you will from that.

Ballot issues should in theory be a more solid base for assessing opinion; but the questions they ask typically are narrow. Would you like lower taxes? You probably would. How about this: Would you prefer a tax cut of x amount with a cut in public services at x level, or not? That result might be a little different, especially depending on the variables.

Washington legislators are grappling with this as they deal with cutting ot the most stringent portions of Initiative 960, which said that "for the Washington State Legislature to raise taxes, the legislature would have to approve any tax increases with a two-thirds supermajority vote or submit tax increase proposals to a statewide vote of the electorate." It passed in 2007 with 51.2% of the vote (a lot less than it would ask of the legislature to transact conventional business).

Initiatives ordinarily are considered close to untouchable - the people have, after all, spoken directly in those cases. But they periodically are adjusted, in many states (Washington has amended them before), and ordinarily there's less political blowback than you might expect. (A notable case from Idaho in 2002, when voters passed a term limit initiative aimed in part at state legislators themselves. The legislators swiftly and overwhelmingly repealed the voter-passed limits, with votes so strong they overrode a governor's veto. The whole subject hardly even came up in the next election.)

When Tim Eyman, I-960's key backer, tells legislators that there's strong support for keeping a limit on taxes, he's undoubtledly right. But consider that point in context.

You can consider, for example, the anti-tax rally at Olympia today, which drew 3,000 people - a substantial crowd. But then, there were also the 6,000 people who showed up at the anti-budget cuts rally.

Then there was the Elway Poll (403 Washingtonians, January 29-31, margin of error 5%) for Eldercare Alliance released today, indicating 47% favoring for lawmakers who “voted to raise taxes in order to maintain services for elderly and disabled people;” 24% disapproved and the other 24% said it would make no difference. Complicating the situation: If a legislator voted to increase taxes "to maintain statewide public services," support drops to 23% and opposition rises to 37%. In other words, there's empathy and willingness to pay for specific needs, but not for bland, generalized government - although a large chunk of what government does as an ongoing matter is providing those services.

What seems to be at issue, as a matter of politics, is not whether legislators are upholding an initiative; it is a somewhat broader picture of what legislators are doing. What people think of what their legislators are doing seems to depend a great deal on how you paint that picture.