Sunday, March 23, 2008

John McCain, Idiot Magnet 

It pains us to follow the minutiae of the Democratic primary campaigns: we don't care about one candidate's crazy preacher (political analysis, pretty solid; God talk, wack) or another's membership in a secretive cult, and we personally feel that any spokesperson for any candidate who says anything about any subject whatsoever should be renounced, repudiated, and forced to retire from public service on the spot. We are eager and willing to support whichever pitiful, compromised hack the party gives us, but for the love of God kindly pick one and let us get on with it.

And those are the Democrats; our interest in the mechanics of the GOP campaign team comes perilously close to nonexistence, a great emptiness, a void, the sort of absolute interstellar vacuum in which eyeballs bulge and pop as one's blood approaches the boiling point. We must nonetheless don our pressure suits and pay closer attention, for even at this early stage of the contest there is no dearth of grotesque astonishments to be had; to cite but one, we did not know, until we read tomorrow's Krugman column (on the current financial meltdown), that John McCain has enlisted, as his chief economic adviser, former senator Phil Gramm.

God's baby momma! Phil Gramm? Did we just type the name "Phil Gramm"? The chief economic adviser to Mr. National Security is . . . Phil Gramm?

From the Sept. 20, 2001 edition of the NYT (as cited a couple of years back by our distant lookalike cousin Sammy Sassendyll:
A six-year struggle to uncover Osama bin Laden's financial network failed because American officials did not skillfully use the legal tools they had, did not realize they needed stronger weapons, and faced resistance at home and abroad, officials involved in the effort say.

Federal officials say they have not persuaded foreign banks to open their books to investigators and that in this country, a law that would have allowed the United States to penalize foreign banks that did not cooperate was blocked last year by a single United States senator . . . .

But present and former government officials say that since the mid- 1990's, they did not fully use the legal tools they had to wage this difficult fight. "We could have starved the organization if we put our minds to it," said Richard Palmer, who gained experience in money laundering as the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Moscow during the 1990's. "The government has had the ability to track these accounts for some time."

Congress is now reviving a proposal killed last year by Senator Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican who was then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. The bill, introduced by the Clinton administration, would give the Treasury secretary broad power to bar foreign countries and banks from access to the American financial market unless they cooperated with money-laundering investigations. It was strongly opposed by the banking industry and Mr. Gramm.

"I was right then and I am right now" in opposing the bill, Mr. Gramm said yesterday. He called the bill "totalitarian" and added, "The way to deal with terrorists is to hunt them down and kill them" . . . .

The effort to track the bin Laden group's money began in earnest when President Bill Clinton signed a classified presidential order on Oct. 21, 1995. The secret order, Presidential Decision Directive 42, ordered the Departments of Justice, State and Treasury, the National Security Council, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies to increase and integrate their efforts against international money laundering by terrorists and criminals.

The government agencies joined together to try to penetrate the bin Laden network of businesses, charities, banks and front companies. They failed . . . .

The lack of great success was "mostly due to the limited assistance we received from key countries abroad," Mr. Wechsler said. He blamed "their lack of political will or weaknesses in their laws which fail to effectively regulate their financial institutions and charities."

Until last week's attacks, the Bush administration was not much more enthusiastic about new money laundering laws than Mr. Gramm. Led by its chief economic adviser, Lawrence B. Lindsey, the administration did not want to pressure international banks in the United States and elsewhere to open their books.
The chief economic adviser to Mr. Straight Talk is . . . Phil Gramm? This Phil Gramm?
The one person in the Enron scandal whom congress is not likely to subpoena is its own revered Phil Gramm, the retiring Republican Senator from Texas. Gramm and his wife, Wendy, have tight links to Enron, Wendy being a director and Gramm the pusher of legislation that assisted the company during its troubles last year . . . .

In an apparent response to a 1992 plea from Enron, Dr. Wendy Gramm, then chair of the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission, moved to exempt the company's energy-swap operation from government oversight. By then, the Houston-based Enron was a major contributor to Senator Gramm's campaign.

A few days after she got the ball rolling on the exemption, Wendy Gramm resigned from the commission. Enron soon appointed her to its board of directors, where she served on the audit committee, which oversees the inner financial workings of the corporation. For this, the company paid her between $915,000 and $1.85 million in stocks and dividends, as much as $50,000 in annual salary, and $176,000 in attendance fees, according to a report by Public Citizen, a group that has relentlessly tracked Enron, which in turn has called the report unfair.

Meanwhile Enron had become Phil Gramm's largest corporate contributor—and according to Public Citizen, the largest across-the board donor in its industry. Between 1989 and 2001, the company tossed Gramm just under $100,000 . . . .

n June 2000, Senator Gramm co-sponsored the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, a measure aimed at deregulating certain kinds of futures trading, but not energy futures. That bill never made it to the floor, and thus quietly died. Six months later, on December 15, Gramm curiously turned up as co-sponsor of a bill with the same name, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which did deregulate energy futures and which, without undergoing the usual committee hearings and preliminary votes, was immediately attached as a rider to an 11,000-page appropriations bill. It passed and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton six days later . . . .

All during this period there was a series of remarkable coincidences. Between June and December 2000, the California energy situation was worsening but still not in crisis. After the Gramm bill went through, all hell broke loose, with one emergency rolling blackout after another. There were charges that out-of-state suppliers were withholding gas and running up the price. Finally, in June 2001, public pressure forced the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to reassert price controls.
The chief economic adviser to Mr. Campaign Finance Reform is . . . Phil Gramm? Mister . . . Wendy . . . Gramm???
You'd expect Wendy Gramm, now head of the Regulatory Studies Program at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, to recognize that the Enron board's extraordinary failure indicated a dire need for reform. You'd be dead wrong.

Gramm thinks the system works just fine. After all, she pocketed an estimated $2 million as an Enron director.

Gramm joined Enron's board after chairing the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission, where she issued regulations that legalized the type of electricity trading that helped Enron make millions in illegal profits (on Gramm's watch as a director). As a member of Enron's audit committee, Gramm found nothing wrong with accounting tricks that inflated earnings and siphoned money to selected executives in violation of company rules, if not federal laws. Coincidentally, Enron also delivered campaign cash to Gramm's husband, former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, and now provides that arch opponent of big government with his first private-sector job in decades at the Swiss bank UBS, which owns the rump of Enron's energy trading operations.
And just a few minutes before we had been laughing uproariously at Mr. Krugman's mention, earlier in the same article, that John McCain was also consulting with Kevin Hassett, co-author of Dow 36,000. Why, we chortled, he might as well be getting his economic advice from the Imperial Beagle! -- but then we saw the name Phil Gramm, and realized that we would all be far better off if Mr. McCain were getting his economic advice from the Imperial Beagle, and instead of laughing we wept. It was, after all, Easter, and like Jesus, we wept.

For we knew that, however unlikely it may seem, things can always get worse.

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