Archive for January, 2012

WHEN FILIBUSTERS ARE BAD

January 31, 2012

“Isn’t that conveeeeenient!”
-The Church Lady

Integrity Street

Probably most people are in agreement with me when I say I prize intellectual and ethical consistency. Even if someone is rotten, they are more respectable to me if they’re consistently so than changing with the wind and personal gain. Integrity still ranks quite high in people’s esteem even though politicians are getting sleazier and smaller every year.

And that’s why when you read something like this from the New York Times, I think you sneer along with me:

It is time to end the ability of a single senator, or group of senators, to block the confirmation process by threatening a filibuster, which can be overcome only by the vote of 60 senators. We agree with President Obama’s call in the State of the Union address for the Senate to change its rules and require votes on judicial and executive nominees within 90 days.

This is a major change of position for us, and we came to it reluctantly. The filibuster has sometimes been the only way to deny life terms on the federal bench to extremist or unqualified judges. But the paralysis has become so dire that we see no other solution.

Yes, now convenient, just in time for Democrats to face filibusters of judges by Republicans the Times changes its mind on the topic… until a Republican is president again, that is. Here’s the thing, though. The reason that 60 votes are required in the Senate for major decisions (such as treaties or lifetime judicial nominations) is that this means except in very rare cases (such as early in Obama’s administration) the minority necessarily gets a voice in what is done.

The founding fathers and early Senators decided that some decisions were so critical that everyone had to have a say. And since getting 60 out of 100 Senators to agree on something almost certainly means that must include the minority, that’s a way to ensure such a thing takes place.

The problem with the filibuster isn’t its existence, its how the filibuster is done. You used to have to actually stand up and physically keep speaking (or have a series of people do so) until the other side gave in. The film Mr Smith Goes to Washington shows a classic example (incidentally, his filibuster failed). The last major real filibuster I can recall was the Democrats trying desperately to stop the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s from passing. Yes, you read that right, Democrats. Sue your teachers if you didn’t know that.

These days all you have to do is threaten a filibuster and its presumed to have taken place, and the other side caves in. Its pathetic. I am all for the filibuster in principle, but you have to force people to pay a price to make it work or it becomes meaningless. Unless its hard to do and has a personal cost, it ceases to have significance and simply becomes a political stunt. If you were to force some coddled multi-millionaire fat politician to actually stand up and talk for hours on end, chances are they’d find a way to get along with the majority more readily.

But the New York Times is just transparent here. They were all for filibusters – enthusiastically – during the Bush administration, and didn’t care about them while the Senate was 60-40 in control of Democrats, but now suddenly they’ve had a change of heart! Yes, I’m sure they have.

EYE ON PRODUCTION

January 31, 2012

“Gentlemen, you are hereby granted a full pardon for having – through song and dance – brought joy and laughter into the hearts of every murderer, rapist, and sex maniac in Sing Sing! You’re free!”
-The Producers

Legendary Pictures

I don’t know if you’ve ever paid much attention but at the beginning of every movie made these days, there’s a whole chain of different production companies that helped make a film. Each one of them has a thirty second animation for their company and you have to sit through them all to get to the actual film. Its funny because in the old days, they’d put all the credits at the beginning, and you’d have to sit through them but now most of those are at the end.

And I’ve noticed that some of these companies I like more than others. Films I want to see and enjoy I keep spotting the same production companies on over and over. And other companies I tend to be less impressed by.

For example, Dreamworks SKG was founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen in 1994, which is pretty much the dream team of entertainment moguls. You’d expect such a wealth of experience, creativity, and ideas to produce amazing stuff. Except… they don’t very often. There have been some good movies, they started on a high note with Peacemaker, Amistad, and then the put out… Mouse Hunt and other than a few like Saving PRivate Ryan, its been largely mediocre or silly movies. Here’s their last five films:

  • I Am Number Four
  • The Help
  • Fright Night
  • Real Steel
  • War Horse
Now I haven’t seen most of these, and The Help did get a lot of good word of mouth (what did you expect, its a white person saving blacks from evil southerners in the 50s). But you see that lineup and you expect stuff like Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List, not Hotel for Dogs and The Tuxedo.

On the other hand, Lionsgate is a production studio I keep seeing movies I really like from. Lionsgate is an independant company which started out with little projects such as The Pillow Book and Gods and Monsters, but their first big movie was Dogma by Kevin Smith. They’ve gone on to make movies such as American Psycho, The Punisher, Hotel Rwanda, and Crash. And they put out a lot of crap like Saw, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Secretary, so its not all great but when they put things out like The Expendables and From Paris With Love I can’t help but like the company. They’ve been so successful they just bought Summit productions (Twilight films, Hurt Locker, The Dark Knight.

What’s interesting is how many of these companies are out there. It used to be just the big studios, with Fox and MGM and Universal and Paramount. I think the first independent company was Tri-Star, created in 1984. Their first movie? The Natural . Now there’s hundreds and movies are so expensive they pile on by the half dozen or more. These little independent companies have becomes so successful that big studios have created subsidiary companies to produce different kinds of movies like Miramax, which was successful for a time.

So I actually watch for these companies now to see who is putting out films, such as Legendary Pictures (Batman Begins, 300, Watchmen etc) or Icon (Mel Gibson’s company, which put out Braveheart and Payback). Usually they’re going to be well made and entertaining. Others, I tend to think less of, such as Franchise Pictures (Battlefield Earth, Get Carter) or Morgan Creek (Juwanna Mann, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves).

The thing is, they all are up and down, even Franchise put out Boondock Saints, and Legendary put out Superman Returns. Its just that some seem a lot more consistent in their choices and product than others, and while actors can pick some real turkeys or get like DiNiro and just show up for a paycheck, directors can lose their way like George Lucas, a production company can help tie it all together and give you some idea what a movie might be like.

LOBBY OR DIE

January 31, 2012

“Adam Smith told us that whenever two capitalists get together, their conversation turns to scheming on how they can get the government to restrict entry into their business, and thus reduce competition.”
Fascists Kill This Machine

What other people call “crony capitalism” I just call cronyism because it has nothing to do with capitalism. Its rather the opposite, in fact, of the free market. Ace at his HQ (and Senator Jim DeMint R-SC) calls it “Venture Socialism” because its offering funds for companies to expand socialism with the presumption of future rewards.

By either term its the same thing: businesses working to benefit themselves through government regulation and law in such a way that it hurts their competition. The idea is that these businesses figure the laws are going to happen anyway, so its in their best interest to find a way to work with the system to their best advantage (or, at least, least detriment) and hurt any competitors. That’s why Goldman Sachs and other mega corporations have such an in with congress. Jerry Pournell writes:

More lobbyists mean more revenue for the Nomenklatura, more parties for the staff, more campaign donations for the Members of Congress and the Senators. Even “good” lobbyists (i.e. ones advocating policies we approve of) raise the cost of doing business. This results in more regulation, which results in higher to prohibitive startup costs in any industry which can get the attention of the Nomenklatura (and you can always get that attention if your lobby budget is large enough), which results in reduced competitiveness, more pay for “compliance officers” who produce nothing, higher costs for the affected trade, and higher costs for the consumer. Eventually that drives jobs overseas, so the lobbyists then turn to restricting imports.

So it works to benefit both sides: government and business – at least the business which wins in their lobbying efforts. They’ve gone way beyond lobbying directly into helping to write legislation and craft how agencies apply that legislation.

To a certain extent this is reasonable. If a bill is going to affect insurance, then its not just reasonable but proper for insurance companies to have their say and help agencies understand how that will affect them and be applied. To an extent. But these businesses have long since crossed that line.

The problem is, we’ve reached a point where for a business to prosper, even survive, in America, it has to work through the government. Its not enough to run a good business and try to follow the law, you have to actively work to protect your business from government regulators and competitors who are lobbying the government.

Consider Gibson Guitars, who ran afoul of the federal government for importing a kind of wood that lobbyists had made legally questionable. Kimberley Strassel explains how that came about at the Wall Street Journal:

On a sweltering day in August, federal agents raided the Tennessee factories of the storied Gibson Guitar Corp. The suggestion was that Gibson had violated the Lacey Act—a federal law designed to protect wildlife—by importing certain India ebony. The company has vehemently denied that suggestion and has yet to be charged. It is instead living in a state of harassed legal limbo.

Which, let’s be clear, is exactly what its persecutors had planned all along. The untold story of Gibson is this: It was set up.

How, you ask?

Well here’s what happened. It started with the Lacey Act in 1900 to control imports of rare and exotic animals, so you can’t just bring tigers and wombats into the US. The idea was to control trade of illegal game and give the government the power to police this at the borders. Except in 2007 the law was expanded because of lobbying by environmental groups, labor unions, and industry groups. Strassel explains:

Congress had previously resisted such a broad definition for the simple reason that it would encompass timber products. Trees are ubiquitous, are transformed into thousands of byproducts, and pass through dozens of countries. Whereas even a small U.S. importer would know not to import a tiger skin, tracking a sliver of wood (now transformed into a toy, or an umbrella) through this maze of countries and manufacturing laws back to the tree it came from, would be impossible.

Furniture maker Ikea noted that even if it could comply with the change, the “administrative costs and record-keeping requirements” would cause furniture prices to “skyrocket.” The wood chips that go into its particleboard alone could require tracking back and reporting on more than 100 different tree species.
Which is exactly what the Lacey expanders wanted. The drive was headed up by a murky British green outfit called the Environmental Investigation Agency. The EIA is anti-logging, and, like most environmental groups, understands that the best way to force developing countries to “preserve” their natural resources is to dry up the market for their products. They would prefer that wood be sourced from the U.S. and Europe, where green groups have more influence over rules.

The EIA was joined by labor unions such as the Teamsters and industry groups such as the American Forest and Paper Association. As Mark Barford of the Memphis-based National Hardwood Lumber Association told one news outlet: “We need the protection of the Lacey Act…. Our small, little companies cannot compete with artificially low prices from wood that comes in illegally…. This is our Jobs Act.”

Ron Wyden (D-OR) promoted the bill and the Democrats who controlled congress tacked it on to the farms bill and it passed. President Bush dutifully signed the bill and the game was on.

Although other guitar companies used the same wood, Gibson was targeted for daring to use wood covered by the now-expansive Lacey Act. Why? Well its a famous wood importer that the American Forest and Paper Association wants to make an example of, and besides the company tends to support Republican politicians and is not sufficiently leftist. And, most importantly, they didn’t lobby to get protection from the government. It didn’t matter that the Indian Government gave Gibson paperwork okaying the export of this wood, it didn’t matter that other guitar companies were importing the wood. Gibson was too big and had to be taught its place.

Its one thing for groups to hire someone to go to congress and present their side of things, to argue for their ideas or concerns. That’s what lobbying is all about. The problem is lobbying has become a multi-billion dollar industry and became a tool to get government to do what you desire. Then it went beyond that into being a necessity for businesses to control damage and competition.

When government becomes so powerful and expansive that it controls every aspect of the economy and your business, you must spend money, give gifts, and bow to the legislators, paying your tribute in hopes of a positive outcome. Every new business-related bill that passes will damage your company unless you can find a way to work with government to avoid the damage, minimize it, or at least be aware of it before it hits you.

So government becomes less a tool of the lobbyist and more a mob boss who demands tribute and regular protection payments or, well things burn, don’t they? And so now, if you don’t lobby you’re in trouble. Consider the pharmaceutical corporations and the Government Health Insurance Takeover Act. When the legislation was being crafted, they strongly opposed the bill, but couldn’t stop it – no one could, because the Democrats were hell bent on getting this bill through no matter how much opposition they faced, this time.

So these companies were forced to go to congress bowing and scraping to get some measure of protection from the legislation’s effects on the industry. Gifts and praise were given, obeisance was shown, and some of the damage that was going to happen was staved off.

The problem is that government is too big. Because the US Federal government, under the flimsy cloak of the commerce clause, has become a massive monster with tentacles in every aspect of life, businesses have to appease this creature to function. Because government has become so pervasive and controlling in the economy, businesses are able to control their destiny and cripple competition by lobbying and helping craft legislation.

If the US Federal Government was not so unconstitutionally mammoth, there wouldn’t be the need to lobby or the motivation to do so. Companies wouldn’t need to fear the next bill being written and government wouldn’t have the power to help or harm businesses with legislation and regulation. Power invites corruption, because power means you have the ability to do what a corrupter desires. No one tries to bribe a bum on the street, he can’t give you anything.

So to the extent government becomes powerful, that’s the extent corruption will be attempted, and humans being what we are, become successful. The more powerful and extensive a government becomes, the more corrupt it inevitably will be. That’s why tyrannies are always defined by corruption and graft; if survival means keeping the government friendly, then its worth paying them to do so.

So the only way to stop this cycle of ever-rising corruption and lobby abuse is to weaken and shrink the federal government. There is no law, no idea, no restriction, no regulation that will stop it, or even slow it. In fact, the more laws and regulations you put into place, the more corruption will occur to protect people from those laws and regulations. Smaller, constitutional government is proper, more virtuous government. And in the end it means smaller, more controllable businesses. Gigantic megacorporations thrive in corruption and lobby cultures, they survive on heaps of laws, because each one is just a tool to get bigger and get away with what they want.

If you have a problem with lobbying and corruption, then you have a problem with big government.

Quote of the Day

January 31, 2012
“This president didn’t talk about his record for one simple reason; he doesn’t want you to know about it. But you do know about it, because you feel the failure of his leadership every single day of your life”
-Marco Rubio

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