Thursday, March 23, 2023

BTRTN: Reagan Was Wrong… Government is Not the Problem. Greed Is.

After watching the monopolistic tyranny of the Carnegies, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, the United States implemented rigorous government oversight and regulatory mechanisms to protect consumers, citizens, and our democracy from capitalism gone rogue. Then, over time and to this day, Republicans eroded the mechanisms that protected us. Hello Norfolk Southern, Silicon Valley Bank, and Fox News.

A television network is humiliated by revelations that its leading on-air personalities brazenly lie to their viewers to boost ratings. After years of thinking they deceive and mislead for political purposes, we discover that they are merely vacuous greedy charlatans perfectly willing to subvert our democracy purely for financial gain.

A train derails, delivering a devastating chemical bomb on a small Ohio town. Only then do we learn how much toxic material travels over our rails every day, how carelessly the railroads handle these materials, how frequently derailments occur, and how much money is to be made by cutting corners.  

A huge California bank spontaneously combusts, and with each passing day it becomes more apparent that the cause was simply bad fiscal management practiced in broad daylight. Regulators knew it, saw it, called the bank on it, and were still apparently powerless to stop it.

What’s going on here?

Each of these disasters is complex, years in the making, and defies the type of infantile analysis of Republicans who think a “woke culture” brought down a 200-billion-dollar financial institution. There’s no single cause, and no single responsibility in each case.

But that is not to say that there are not common threads: reckless management – emboldened and enabled by a long-term erosion in government oversight, and prioritizing cash flow growth to the virtual exclusion of safety, integrity, or any societal consideration – creating catastrophic consequences for ordinary consumers, citizens, and our democracy.

Oh, and these events have one other thing in common: Republicans in a constant war to reduce the regulatory role of government, creating the breeding ground for unchecked greed, deceit, and carnage.

The truth is that we the people have no one to blame but ourselves. It is, after all, our government. Or, in this case, our insufficiency and inadequacy of government.

On January 20, 1981, newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan would put his unique homespun spin onto long-standing conservative orthodoxy, saying the words that would become the mantra of modern Republicanism: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Just for the record, no one ever bothers to point out that Reagan put a clear limit on his contention with the caveat “in this present crisis.” Republicans ever since conveniently lopped off that antecedent phrase, went with the bloated generalization, and the rest is no mystery.

Reagan proceeded to articulate a philosophy that was aimed at dismantling a supposedly strangling regulatory environment and a tax system that allegedly stifled all those rugged individualists and high achievers who – if only freed from government burden -- would be the entrepreneurs fueling growth, employment, and a rising tide for all boats.

More myth than math, “supply-side economics” set out to de-fang government regulation and to fundamentally invert the tax code so that the rich and big business paid less in taxes. This would supposedly inspire private enterprise and investors to open the floodgates of investment, turbo-charging economic growth, and raising the standard of living for all.

Trickle-down economics, as it was also dubbed, failed then. As it failed under George H.W. Bush, who, God bless him, had labeled it “voodoo economics,” and sacrificed his Presidency because he knew that higher taxes needed to be restored. It failed under George W. Bush, whose administration’s utter abdication of financial regulation and oversight torpedoed the global banking system. It failed under Donald Trump, whose supporters absolutely refuse to believe you when you point out that a full 25% of our current national debt was created in Trump’s single four-year term in office.

In the wake of the catastrophic 2008 global financial meltdown, Democrats sought to dramatically increase regulatory oversight of our banking system with the Dodd Frank act. When Donald Trump was running for President in 2016, he aimed his sights at eviscerating Dodd Frank, and one “accomplishment” of that effort was to dramatically raise the threshold of bank size that would require routine stress testing. You guessed it: under the original Dodd Frank, Silicon Valley Bank would have been required to undergo routine stress testing and its insufficient financial basis would have been revealed. Post-Trump, SVC fell under the asset level qualifying for scrutiny. Poof. Global catastrophe… still unfolding.

What Republican mess would be complete without the blindfolded dance of the hypocrites trying to pin the blame on the donkeys? Ron DeSantis, now fine-tuning his ability to trace every problem in America to “woke culture,” found SVB’s focus on DEI as the primary cause of failure. That is a bit like turning to your teenage son and saying, “do you understand what just happened, Bobby? Putin invaded Ukraine because you didn’t do your homework.” Huh?

We now learn from The New York Times that the Fed in San Francisco saw fundamental problems in SVB’s basic balance sheet math even without the step of government stress testing, and was issuing warnings to the bank to clean up its act since 2021. Somehow, the Fed lacked the clout, the authority, or the gumption to force SVB to take action.  Perhaps both the bank and the Fed never anticipated the dizzying velocity at which rumors on social media could rip a bank limb from limb.

And yesterday, the inadequate oversight of SVB was once again the lead story in The New York Times… with no one able to quite understand how the bank could brazenly ignore years of Fed warnings right up until it imploded.

Note the pattern, because we will see it again: Republicans winnow government oversight and shame those who practice it as anti-business socialists, catastrophe follows, Democrats try to clean up the mess after the fact, and Republicans un-do it at the first possible opportunity.

The train derailment?

The official NTSB report is far in the future, but early findings fingered a clear mechanical failure: an overheated ball bearing that was clearly visible in video footage. But this is the same as saying that a frozen O-ring caused the Challenger disaster. Sure, that is the literal, immediate cause… but the mechanical failure in each case revealed broad cultural behaviors in organizations that had allowed safety concerns to fall to the bottom of the priority list.  Norfolk Southern has long been castigated for practices that clearly prioritize train schedule speed, productivity, and profit over safety.

A report in Freight Waves, an industry journal, noted that the NS-32 train – the one that turned East Palestine into West Chernobyl -- was nicknamed the “32 Nasty” by railroad employees because of its history of problems. Norfolk Southern’s adheres to a practice called “precision scheduled railroading,” which sounds like the exact title you’d find on a management consultant’s PowerPoint explaining how to maximize profit at the expense of safety. The NS-32 train is two miles long – that’s 141 cars – and was operated by three people. Given the time constraints of “precision scheduled railroading,” local unions complain that the train was not properly “blocked” – the term for making sure heavier cars are placed at the front for smoother braking. This dramatically exacerbated the devastation at the derailment.

Yet herein, too, lies a tale of Republican regulatory relaxation. In 2015, the Obama administration instituted a rule mandating that trains transporting toxic materials must be equipped with “ECP” (electronically-controlled pneumatic) brakes. In 2017, the Trump administration repealed the rule.

Sure, upgrading thousands of train brakes would have cost lots of money, and the Trump administration really liked to suck up to donors by making businesses more profitable. Probably Trump believes in “trickle down train economics.” I can hear the speech now: “If we simply reduce the woke regulations strangling the railroad industry, the management and stockholders will be free to use those new-found dollars to invest in infrastructure, safety, adequate staffing, and operational practices.”

Or not.

Perhaps it is time that Republicans wake up to the fact that managers under quarterly pressure from Wall Street are more likely to stuff all that money into profit, pumping up the stock price, and then exercise stock options and retire young while all the men, women, children, pets, and livestock in a small town in Ohio live with a foul stench in the air and the constant threat that homes, neighborhoods, and schools have been contaminated.

You see, Ronald Reagan was wrong.

In saying “Government isn’t the solution, it is the problem,” he not only fingered the wrong problem, he made government into the enemy.

Government should be the check and balance on greedy businesses that protect consumers from liars, cheaters, and hustlers.  But long before Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan took the very institution that he led and branded it as the enemy of the people.

Ever since, Democrats have been on their heels. Every effort to shore up the regulatory role of government is attacked by Republicans as a blaspheme against Ronald Reagan’s sacred canon.

No, Gipper, government is not the problem. Greed is the problem. We live in a country where you have to be pretty naïve to think that heads of business are going to “do the right thing.” Yes, I certainly believe that some businesses and business leaders act with ethics, principle, and even the occasional moral compass.

But Wall Street does not have an excel spreadsheet algorithm that rewards ethics. It is all raw numbers. P&L. Return on capital. Most CEOs chase profits -- and when it comes to safety, they roll the dice and hope the Titanic sinks on the next guy’s watch.  

Government should be strong enough to protect the small, defenseless people in an Ohio town from soulless corporate profiteers before the disaster happens.  Our problem is not big government… it is that we don’t have enough government in place, empowered with all the necessary enforcement mechanisms -- to do the work that needs to be done.

Rinse and repeat: Democrats put safety regulations in place, Republicans repeal them, catastrophe happens. The only shock here is that Ron DeSantis has not yet proclaimed that Norfolk Southern management is woke, the train engineers are liberals, and that the train tracks are dressed in drag.

Which brings us to the Prime-time star of today’s essay, Fox News.

Of all our stories of insufficient government oversight, we have the cesspool of deceit that wants to be called a “news” organization, but fails to realize that “news” that is not grounded in fact is belongs in the “fiction” section of Barnes & Noble. Thank heaven for Dominion Voting Systems having the guts and the determination to unmask Fox, revealing it not to be simply a glitzy, high octane Pravda, but as an organization that brazenly lies to stoke up its partisan audience purely in order to maximize profits.

The texts and emails that have surfaced through the Dominion defamation suit reveal that Fox – its leaders, and its prime-time personalities – did not believe that the election was stolen, and indeed welcomed a future in which Donald Trump was broomed from the national stage.  While worshiping Trump on television, Carlson privately wrote “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait… I hate him passionately.”

But suddenly there was a very big problem at Fox: it had angered its viewers by being the first network to call the state of Arizona for Biden. This was viewed by the conservative base as the ultimate betrayal. Audience data and research into audience opinion demonstrated an enormous threat to Fox’s hold over conservative viewers. Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News, was blunt in an internal meeting: “Listen, it’s one of the sad realities. If we hadn’t called Arizona those three or four days following Election Day, our ratings would have been bigger. The mystery would have still been hanging out there.

Raj Shah, a Senior VP at Fox Corporation, revealed the real fear at Fox in an internal memo: “We are not concerned with losing market share to CNN or MSNBC right now. Our concern is Newsmax and One America News Network … I’d like to get honest/deeper feedback from Fox viewers on the brand, the handling of the election, if they feel like they have been somehow betrayed by the network.”

Very quickly, it became clear that embracing Trump’s “Big Lie” could be a strategy to regain the trust of conservative viewers. On November 11, a member of Tucker Carlson’s staff spoke bluntly in an internal message to Carlson: “Have you seen last night’s numbers? It’s a stupid story, but that’s all the viewers are into right now.” Carlson’s reply: “I noticed.”

Make no mistake: Carlson knew that the “stolen election story” was bogus, and specifically that the ravings of Trump lawyer – and leading Dominion conspiracy theorist -- Sidney Powell were unhinged. In a text to Laura Ingraham, Carlson said “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane.”

And so Fox News began pounding away, pushing Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” – not once because they believed it was a valid issue, but because it was a big ratings winner for their audience. They carried on, in spite of the fact that the head of the entire organization did not believe the story. In a sworn deposition, Rupert Murdoch was asked by lawyers for Dominion if he agreed that there was “massive fraud” in the election, and he replied, “No. I have never even studied it.” And yet, under questioning, Murdoch acknowledged that his on-air stars were hawking the unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud: “Some of our commentators were endorsing it. I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it, in hindsight.”

Hey Rupert… it’s still happening. Tucker Carlson is still pushing his “stolen election” crap. You can still stop it.

Or would that hurt the ratings? Damage the revenue stream?

It would more dignified if we found out that Fox lies, distorts the truth, and commits libel because it believes so passionately in its political philosophy. But that’s not it! They lie for money. They lie strategically, focusing on the lies that are proven to draw the highest audience.  

It is painful to accept that people can be so depraved: the leaders of Fox News knowingly promulgated lies that would damage the confidence Americans have in their democracy and elected leadership, all to make a few more bucks.

Every bit as galling: it took a private company – Dominion – to fork up its own money for a lawsuit for all the world to finally see that Fox News was sabotaging American democracy for cash.

Where the hell was our government all this time?

Ah, our theme continues. It was Ronald Reagan who dismantled a finely honed regulatory system that oversaw the media industry. Back then, three television networks were only able to broadcast content to homes by leasing public radio spectrum owned by the people and operated by the United States Government. The government could – and did -- demand that broadcasters operate to a code of ethics, standards of decency, and provide equal time to different voices along the political continuum. The threat? If the government felt that a broadcaster was failing to live up to its public obligations, the broadcast license could be pulled and – poof – the National Broadcasting Company would cease to exist in the time it took to air a Chevy commercial on Bonanza.

This was a finely balanced conflict: Edwin R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite served as a powerful check on the Federal government, standing up to corrupt Senators and woefully misguided Presidents. In turn, the FCC stood up to television networks, ripping them in public when they aired fraudulent game shows. That purposeful and often pitched opposition made both government and journalism better.

I know the rigorous standards and protocols that television networks adhered to back then very well. When I was a junior exec at the Ogilvy & Mather ad agency in 1980, one of my responsibilities was securing “network clearance” of scripts for television commercials. Prior to filming a commercial, we had to prove to NBC, CBS, and ABC that the claims we were making in our commercial were factually accurate – or they would not air them. If we wanted to claim that “Country Time tastes like good old-fashioned lemonade,” we had to implement nationwide taste tests among consumers to prove that our claim was valid in the minds of consumers.

Compare that meticulous scrutiny to the howitzer of bullshit flying out of Tucker Carlson’s mouth every night. How did this happen? How did television degrade from public trust to public manipulation in the span of a couple of decades?

It is not as complicated as you’d think. During the Reagan administration, the famous “equal access” law, which required television networks to afford “equal time” to competing ideological perspectives and candidates, was repealed. The rise of cable television created a mechanism for the distribution of content that was not rooted in the “public radio spectrum” model of broadcast television, and the neutered FCC did not assert the same authority over cable programming as it did on broadcast. The result: families had Fox News and pornography streaming into their living rooms without any government oversight, hindrance, or guidelines.

What’s worse: the government had every right to assert the same “public radio spectrum” model for the nascent internet that it had for broadcast television. United States taxpayer dollars paid for the original ARPAnet, the predecessor of today’s internet. The government had every right imaginable to put in rules and regulations about how private citizens and companies used the internet, which was essentially a public utility paid for by taxpayers.  But in our post-Reagan “anti-government, anti-regulation” religion, the United States government ignored the internet, and allowed it to grow like a weed, spurred on by porn sites and pirated music. The United States government just punted, and watched the internet fall under the total control of amoral creeps from Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk.  

And now, Mark Zuckerberg tries to justify the freak show of viral streaming deceit on his platform as standing up for “First Amendment Rights.”  Zuckerberg knows that if he was ever required to fully police the hate speech, conspiracy fever, and defamation happening daily on Facebook, he would have to reallocate his entire profit margin to hire an army of lawyers.

And where are our Republican friends in all of this?

Today, Republicans want to arrest drag queens because of the “danger” they pose to impressionable youth. Yet these same Republicans forget that their deregulation of the media industry is why your cable box has an entire menu option devoted to pornography… right there in your living room.   

Once again, too many ironies in the fire.

Yes, it is a popular Republican trope to say that our government is “too big.” That’s lazy.

Do we have an imbalance between revenue and expense? You betcha. Should we fix it? Yes, but perhaps by considering raising taxes on the richest Americans and corporations, rather than the knee-jerk response of “cutting government.” Cutting regulations and regulators merely increases the odds that more SVBs will happen… which are astronomically more costly to our economy than the salaries of the regulators who could help prevent the failures in the first place.

We come full circle: we have a government that has convinced itself that “government is the problem.”

It is our own fault. We, the people. We were served a lie by Ronald Reagan, and too many people bought it.

It is our problem.

We, the people, who as a society can no longer tell truth from lie, and right from wrong. 

We have government that bans books in Florida, but gives Tucker Carlson an open microphone to lie about the reliability of our elections, undercutting faith in our own democracy.  

Millions stare at Fox News, and have no idea that Tucker Carlson is lying to them for the precise intent of feverishly stroking the erroneous zone that makes them want to watch more… more lies, more hate, more justification for their bigotry, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.

All for greed. All for money. We now know that Tucker Carlson does not say what he believes. He says what will make more money… for Fox News, and for himself.

And while everyone else in the country now knows this, the Fox viewer will never learn. Because Fox won’t tell them, and that’s the only news they watch.

What have we learned from this horrendous confluence of greed? 

The rich and powerful stand to make the most money when there is the least regulation. It is the rich and powerful who want the lowest taxes, not only to further enrich themselves, but also to they cut off the oxygen to the government that would police them.  You will recall that one reason Donald Trump was able to get away with paying virtually no income tax was because he had an army of accountants and lawyers pushing every trick to the max to avoid tax payments… and the IRS had but one person assigned to review Trump’s thousands of pages of tax filing.

We need to reverse this death spiral. 

We need new taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to ensure that our government has the manpower, the laws, and the enforcement mechanisms to regulate the rogues to the full measure required.  

Because Ronald Reagan was wrong.

Government is not the problem. Greed is. 


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1 comment:

  1. I don't believe money is the only commodity driving Republicans. Seems to me there are some who choose to gather power instead of (or along with) money.

    The motive of power can motivate Second Amendment fanatics to spend money freely in order to have and hold their guns. Power is at the base of some Evangelical anti-abortionists who insist THEIR definitions of life ought to prevail. Power is key to some of those who oppose environmental restrictions that would limit what happens on their land.

    It is greed and selfishness at base, but money is not the only token to be pursued.


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