Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blago's Charge of the Light Brigade

"Half a league, half a league onward..."

So goes Tennyson's famous poem "Charge of the Light Brigade." The British fought a lot of senseless wars during their heyday, but managed to do it such bravado, such elan, that it seemed that their greatest purpose was merely to gloss their national ego -- even when they lost.

Which brings us to former governor Rod the Mod. Blago went down in a blaze of glory today. Not a single vote to save his sorry governorship. The Chicago machine abandoned him, President Obama said sayonara a long time ago and not even Roland Burris was around to see him off.

What was more pathetic than a man who refused to even defend himself or his career?

While many argued that his brain had turned to mush under the weight of all that hair, I claim arrested development was his main flaw. He just couldn't advance beyond the second grade in terms of maturity. The world revolved around him. Everyone was unfair. Nothing could possibly be his fault, nor could he take the blame for his runaway arrogance and living in the frail bubble of his own ego.

His father-in-law procured him his political career, which he managed to squander despite being elected twice in the wake of George Ryan's unrepentant corruption. It took a lot of effort to gorge on the grand buffet of Illinois politics then wretch on all of his constituents without so much as a hint of remorse.

Now he's gone, leaving poor Pat Quinn to clean up the mess. And what carnage! A huge state budget deficit, underfunded schools and pension funds, cronyism mismanaging state money and contracts. Shall I go on?

Fortunately, if Pat Quinn can work with the legislature -- and I suspect he'll make an effort -- he will be a true progressive and attempt to heal the state's many fiscal and political wounds.

Schools really need adequate funding. Homeowners need relief from property taxes. One of the bills that my group (The Citizens Action Plan of Lake County --- had drafted actually passed both houses last year, but got stuck in the mire between Blago and House speaker Mike Madigan. A lot of legislation ended up that way.

I'd like to see a complete reform of political fundraising. New limits now apply but more can be done to separate the money from political cronyism. Quinn's proposed ethics commission may be able to do something on that front. The state badly needs infrastructure improvements. Everything from the Chicago elevated system to local roads are crumbling.

The state income tax and other excise taxes need a close examination. The income tax -- a flat 3% -- should be at least considered for revision, if for no other reason than to provide more funds for schools and make wealthy residents pay their fair share. If anyone has better ideas that would prevent taxes from being raised, let Gov. Quinn know. He's going to need lots of help in righting the ship of state.

Now the national media won't have a clown to have on their talk shows to liven up the sober political climate. It's bad enough Obama has to fix the banks, but now he's charged with reviving the economy, creating jobs and saving the Great American Dream from imploding even more. God help him.

In the meantime, Elvis has left the building. I think only Barbara Walters will miss him. And to think Oprah could've been senator if he just had more time!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's Nation

I've just turned off the obnoxious David Brooks on NPR, who derided "the cold spine" of our President's inaugural speech earlier today. For some reason Brooks, whose writing I often respect, didn't seem to realize that Obama's reference to "childish" things was an allusion to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians (13:11), which, for my literary money, is one of the greatest few lines about spiritual maturity ever penned:

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things."

So Brooks missed one of the most telling parts of Obama's graciously crafted speech: It's time to grow up, or as he put it,

"we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

But this is not a criticism of David Brooks, it's for those who might have missed what our president didn't say. He wasn't interested in criticizing the lack of inclusion in Rev. Warren's constricted invocation.

Out president is seeking healing and genuine partnership, calling out to our friends and enemies alike, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian. Unlike the "Decider" who thankfully did the nation an enormous favor by removing himself to Texas and becoming one of the ugliest footnotes in American history, our new president extols the "promise of citizenship."

While I was somewhat disappointed that our president didn't call for specific sacrifices -- we are willing to work with him -- it's abundantly clear that what lies ahead is akin to crossing the frozen Delaware River in the middle of winter with a ragtag army. The battles that need to be fought include:

* Wall Street must shrink down to size and its minions policed.
* Foreclosures must stop now.
* Banks need to start lending again.
* People need work.
* National healthcare is not just a pipe dream. It's a necessity in the global economy.
* Climate change is a killer that the international community needs to halt.

We need a leader who believes in change and is willing to transact it.

And then there's that "great gift of freedom" that needs to be "delivered safely to future generations." We can do that if we're broke, hungry, out of work and despairing. As FDR noted during the height of the Depression, one of our freedoms should be "freedom from want."

There's no time for "petty grievances" in Obama's America. No time to avoid "the collective failure to make hard choices." It's reckoning time and Obama says he's ready for the tough work ahead. I believe him. I hope that others have his faith and confidence.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bye, Bye Avarice

As Barack Obama ascends to the White House next week, I wanted to share this musical spoof of the popular Everly Brothers song "Bye, Bye Love."

Here are my lyrics, updated to reflect the pain of an investment banker who has lost everything. It's not that I have any sympathy for this class of parasites. Everybody has a right to make as much money as they can in this lifetime. But you can't take it with you and it's not fair taking a bunch of innocent folks down with you.

If want to read a ripping tale of how avarice has wrecked our economy in the past, see my Merchant of Power, which is now in paperback.

Anyway, enjoy!

Bye, Bye Avarice
Apologies to the Everly Brothers

There goes my Bentley
There goes my Porsche
My wife’s a trophy
But now divorce.

She was my baby
Until the crash
Goodbye to bonuses
Goodbye to cash

Bye, Bye Love
Bye, bye avarice
Hello stinginess
I think I’m gonna cry.

Bye, Bye Bear
Bye, Bye Lehman Bros
Hello bankruptcy
I feel like I could die.

I’m through with subprimes
I can’t charge fees
I’m through with trading
I’m on my knees.

And here’s the reason
That I’m so free
I lost it all
In the credit freeze.

Bye, Bye Love
Bye, bye avarice
Hello stinginess
I think I’m gonna cry.

Bye, Bye Bear
Bye, Bye Lehman Bros
Hello bankruptcy
I feel like I could die.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Benjamin Button Moment

We've reached a point in American history where we have to look back to move forward. The economy and job market are a wreck. We've poured about $1 trillion into the financial services industry and things seem to get worse by the day. President-elect Obama is rejiggering his economic stimulus plan every week -- and he hasn't even taken up residence at the White House.

It's time for a "Benjamin Button" moment of reflection.

If you've seen the recent movie starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, you're in for a powerful treat. This is the rarest of American movies that takes a long, epic view of human nature and puts the human tragedy of human mortality into full focus.

Loosely based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the story starts at the end of World War I, when the protagonist is born into a body that's as frail as an 80-year-old. Miraculously, he manages to age backward, getting younger as we move through the 1920s and into the 1980s. It's a double narrative where we have the dying Daisy (Cate Blanchett) -- the love of Benjamin's life -- going back in time through his diary to the highlights of his life and the profound secrets that her daughter discovers. Here's a sample of the original story:

"I like men of your age," Hildegarde (named "Daisy" in the movie) told him. "Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and
how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to
appreciate women."

Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal--with an effort he
choked back the impulse. "You're just the romantic age," she
continued--"fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be
pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole
cigar to tell; sixty is--oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is
the mellow age. I love fifty."

Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be

"I've always said," went on Hildegarde, "that I'd rather marry a man
of fifty and be taken care of than many a man of thirty and take care
of him."

Fitzgerald fans, be forewarned. The movie little resembles the short story, which is set in Baltimore and pretty much ends around 1920 or so. The heroine is named "Hildegarde" and Benjamin is not left on the doorstep of a nursing home. As much as I revere Fitzgerald, this was not one of his better works and the movie brings to life an imagined Fitzgerald plot without tainting it with overdone special effects. I found the movie much more moving and a triumph of David Fincher's direction and storytelling. "Daisy" is modeled much more after Zelda Fitzgerald or the heroine in Gatsby than the short-story's female character.

Benjamin is really based on Shakespeare's famous "Ages of Man," where we start out helpless and unknowing and end up that way. In a few lines, the bard captures the human condition. Most of us will be born and die with our diapers on.

If you haven't seen the movie, go see it. It's a heartbreaker, but it's a real gem that showcases the talents of the divine Miss Blanchett and the handsome Brad Pitt.

Now back to the Benjamin Button moment. When the movie begins, the "War to End All Wars" ends, resulting in much celebration. At that moment in history, Europe was devastated by the first modern, mechanized war that had claimed 10 million lives and brutally depleted "The Lost Generation." Fitzgerald, who wanted to be a soldier, got into the army right when the war ended.

What followed was a global flu pandemic that took the lives of up to 50 million. We're still afraid of that killer microbe, which is sitting in some government freezer as scientists continue to decode its genome. Then a worldwide recession followed and people were starving in Europe. That brought on the scene Herbert Hoover, who led a truly heroic campaign to feed people and the dreadful Warren G. Harding, one of our worst presidents (until W came along). The roaring 20s really began toward the middle of the decade and made F. Scott Fitzgerald immortal, who created the Great Gatsby in his timeless prose. Scottie, whose "This Side of Paradise" was initially more successful than Gatsby, eventually drank himself to death and ended up a hack screenwriter in Hollywood. His flamboyant and schizophrenic wife Zelda ended up in an insane asylum. Gatsby, though, still sells about 300,000 copies a year, making it a well-deserved bestseller.

Toward the end of Fitzgerald's life, the 20s stock and real estate bubble burst, fomenting the Great Depression. Hoover's efforts to prop up banks was a failure and by the time FDR came into power in 1933, some 10,000 banks had failed and a quarter of the workforce was out on the street. FDR found it politically convenient to blame the bankers and speculators (see Jonathan Alter's splendid account of FDR's First 100 Days). There was even talk of FDR seizing emergency powers and creating a private army to do his bidding. That never came to pass, but the economy was indeed wrecked and few thought that capitalism would survive.

FDR ushered in the New Deal by hiring hundreds of thousands of men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually planted more than 1 billion (yes billion ) trees and rebuilt trails, state parks and other public facilities. He also put in place most of the investor protection laws that lasted up until the "Age of Froth" (our most recent bubble period). Most notably, the dismembering of FDR's Glass-Steagall Act made it possible for investment banks to run roughshod over the financial system with high leverage and package debt that held the toxic waste of subprime loans.

Now our Benjamin Button moment causes us to look back and think "what can we salvage from the New Deal philosophy that will help re-employ some three million people and stop even more job loss?" We're born old on this subject. Leaders from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a scholar on Depression economics, to Barack Obama, have an above-average awareness of history. Historians pretty much know what didn't work in the 1930s and what can be tried -- and so do they.

We can start out seeing history through the eyes of 80-year-olds knowing what happened after 1929, but can regain our youth by trying new things like a 20-year-old with new-found freedoms. We don't have to follow the New Deal all that closely. A lot of it didn't do much for the economy.

We do know that tightening the federal budget (trying to balance it) and raising taxes is a rotten idea. FDR tried it midway through the Depression and it caused more harm to the economy, snuffing a rally in 1937.

Yet will cutting taxes make a difference? Should we raise taxes for the rich? Cut payroll taxes for every salaried employee? Put millions to work rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, water systems and the electrical grid? Create a green economy by investing in energy independence?

Infrastructure improvements will pay off over time, but won't necessarily re-employ millions all at once. The green economy idea is essential, but it has to be bold and big. It will require new paradigm thinking that will turn on these themes:

-- Instead of every home, factory, and commercial building remaining a persistent energy consumer, they should become energy producers. Every building can produce its own energy and heat. Solar collectors and geothermal heat pumps can store and re-channel heat into interior spaces and hot-water heaters. Solar panels and windmills can generate electricity. You can even turn any kind of waste into methane, which produces more heat and free natural gas.

-- The economics of the utility industry needs to be reversed. Instead of utilities making profits by selling energy, they should make money by conserving it. Give them tax incentives to do that. Mandate net metering so that any consumer of electricity knows when they get the cheapest power and can adjust accordingly.

-- Invest in biomass energy production. Ethanol was wrong-headed and wasteful. There needs to be a way of channeling all of the waste from our homes, factories, restaurants, schools and commercial buildings into biogas producers that produce methane (for heat or electricity) on sight. It's possible if we invest.

-- We need an efficient, long-term means of storing energy long-term. That means batteries that can store solar/wind-generated power for weeks or months. That will mean less reliance on the grid, fewer power plants, less CO2 and other poisons in our air and water. Why can't every building have its own battery bank that's constantly being recharged by solar, wind and geothermal energy? During the night, the electrons flow back into appliances, furnaces and recharging all-electric cars. Every building in the future would come standard with its own power plant and storage capability. A smart network would manage the entire building's energy use. This is all possible! It only takes political will, taxpayers dollars and vision.

-- The money we save from energy consumption and waste can be better spent on health care, research and education. What if we took all of that money we pay for imported oil and spent it on free college educations or universal health care? Mr. Obama is in a position to at least advance the idea.

Unlike Benjamin Button, none of us is getting younger. We're born with a certain amount of wisdom in our souls and the benefit of history as a guide. Let's not waste this invaluable moment in which we are still young at heart as a country and wise in our outlook on what we can do with our lives and country in the future.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Thomas Geoghegan for Congress

Although Illinois politics has been overshadowed by the ongoing shenanigans with our Governor and his appointment of Roland Burris to Barack Obama's vacant US Senate seat, another interesting situation is presenting itself in the Prairie State.

Rahm Emanuel, now Obama's chief of staff, has created an open US House seat. Lots of people would like to win the Rahmanator's seat.

The election for Emanuel's seat would be special. It's an interesting district that's always been owned by the Chicago machine. A combination of "ethnic working class" and upwardly mobile yuppies who gentrified the southern part of the district, the seat was formerly held by Blagojevich.

Before Blago, Dan Rostenkowski, who was there forever and built his power base from there (until he was convicted of some obscure crime and went to jail in the House post office scandal), held it with an iron fist for 36 years. For more information on Rostenkowski, see Actually, that's not entirely correct. A "reformer" Republican lawyer named Mike Flanagan held the seat for one term before the machine slapped him down to make way for Blago.

Tom is attempting to wrest Rahm's seat from the machine. The reason you haven't heard too much about it is that Emanuel has said nothing about it and has yet to anoint anyone. It's unlikely that he would since the machine's leaders (Daley, etc.) would be the ones to pick his successor. Since the Dems have a huge majority in the House, the machine may not make much of an effort and put up some dopey ward heeler.

Both Emanuel and Obama are doing their damnest to try to distance themselves from the machine. I wish that I could say that they are unsullied by the muck that seems to coat every political surface here, but they aren't. Nevertheless, they want to disconnect from that operation -- at least in terms of the public perception.

One of the reasons Harry Reid and Dick Durbin had an epiphany about seating Roland Burris is that they got a call from either Obama or one of the Chicago bosses. Not only did it look bad that Burris was standing out in the rain looking like a lost lamb, the machine guys are now trying to absolve themselves of the monster they created in Blago.

Our erstwhile governor is probably going to be impeached within the next two weeks, although a bloc of machine Democrats actually voted against having a special election to replace Obama. They wanted to roast Blago on a spit first and keep the power to name the new senator. Blago, being the petulant little newt he is, usurped that power, knowing full well he had legal standing as the sitting governor.

Political life has never been dull here.

I'm already involved in Tom's campaign. I'm usually repulsed at the idea of engaging with candidates -- I know full well the compromises they have to make -- but Tom is extraordinary. So far, his slogan -- "It's Your Turn" -- has been my one humble contribution. Even with all of the multiple bailouts and Obama's impending stimulus plan, it's not clear to me what happened to the $700 billion Congress gave to the banks, automakers and AIG. With all of the Fed loans included, the total tab to "help" the financial services industry is $8.5 trillion. There are lot of questions that need to be asked. Tom will ask them.

My Letter

Here's the letter I wrote to my friends asking for their support:


I hate spam and I hate asking people for money, but this time I have to make an exception.

My friend Thomas Geoghegan is running for Rahm Emanuel's seat in Congress. I've known Tom for nearly 30 years and he's not a politician. He's a labor lawyer, writer and activist who has deeply rooted principles.

I first met him as he was fighting to restore pensions for some steelworkers I knew on the South Side of Chicago who had lost everything when their mill closed in 1980. After many years, he got some money back from a stingy multinational corporation, but it wasn't easy. Few of his cases have been. Representing unemployed workers is about as popular as undertaking.

As a Harvard Law School grad, Tom could've made a fortune in any other legal specialty. Instead he stuck to labor law with his legendary partner Leon Despres (now 100). Along the way, he's fought for voter's rights, the medically uninsured and a whole list of things that don't make most folks' radar screens.

If you want to know more about Tom and the issues he cares about, read some of his extraordinary books such as "Which Side Are You On?" or "See You in Court." He's also profiled in my late friend Studs Terkel's book "Hope Dies Last."

I'm asking for your help because Tom is one of the few people I know who wants to enter politics to do the right thing. His issues are clear: economic and health security for everyone. So I'm hoping you can get him started. He's one of the few bright lights on the Illinois political scene these days and I'd like to see as many folks as possible give him a fighting chance since he'll be up against the Chicago machine to win this seat.

If you'd like to spread the word, please copy and paste this message below to family, friends and neighbors.

Once again, forgive the intrusion.


Tom's Letter

If interested in Tom's campaign, here's his letter and particulars about how to help:

Dear Supporter,

Thank you very much for joining the campaign.

This is a historic period for America. We are in a financial meltdown and each day more people lose their jobs, their homes, health care, and pensions. In short, Americans are losing their economic security.

At the same time, Congress sends the banks $700 billion and the Federal Reserve pours in trillion more.

Tired of bailing out banks? We need Congress not just to save Social Security but raise it. We need single payer health care to relieve employers from health care costs and avoid debacles like GM. And we need to put caps on the interest rates that the banks we bail out are charging consumers.

This is what I will work for in Congress. But I need your help to get there.

First, please pass this email on to ten of your friends and tell them, "Now it's your turn." Help us get economic security for America by joining the campaign.

Second, please donate to the campaign. In less than a week we've raised over $50,000—and amazing sum—but we'll need ten times that to run a winning campaign.

Third, if you live near Chicago, please help us gather signatures to get us on the ballot – the deadline is January 11th.

We're off to a great start, and with your help we can win this!

Thanks for everything,

Thomas Geoghegan

PS I'll be interviewed on the Rachel Maddow Show on Air America tonight, which airs between 5pm and 8pm CST. You can listen to it live online or on your local Air America affiliate.

How to Clean Up Illinois Politics

If you live in Illinois, you should be able to vote for the junior senator's seat. Better yet, you deserve a right to recall corrupt or incompetent election officials. A recall measure came up in the General Assembly that would do just that, but Senate Democrats killed it. These are the senators who opposed giving you the right to purge the state of corruption:

Here are the 21 Democrats who voted no or present (the effect was the same), denying you a choice on whether Illinois should have a recall amendment:

Michael Bond

James Clayborne Jr.

Jacqueline Collins

John Cullerton

James DeLeo

Deanna Demuzio

William Haine

Don Harmon

Mike Jacobs

Emil Jones Jr.

Kimberly Lightford

Terry Link

Iris Martinez

James Meeks

Antonio Munoz

Michael Noland

Kwame Raoul

Heather Steans

John Sullivan

Donne Trotter

A.J. Wilhelmi

Four Democratic senators were recorded as not voting: Gary Forby, Mattie Hunter, Martin Sandoval and Louis Viverito. Source: Chicago Tribune, 1/5/09

Want to clean up Illinois politics? Demand to right to dump lousy politicians and separate the money from the power.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Day At The Museum

I always marvel at the ways museums present the past and future. The past is usually in a glass case or mounted on the wall. The future is hands-on.

Such was the case with our visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, the 75-old relic that continues to reinvent itself. Although first opened as an arts exhibition hall in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition, the museum has morphed into the largest science and technology museum in the Western hemisphere. Like many great venues, you can't possibly see it in one day and each subsequent visit inspires awe and wonder.

I was happy to escort my two daughters Sarah (almost 12) and Julia, 8, to this colossus of the imagination. When I was their age (doesn't that make me sound ancient?), I was thrilled to go into the fake coal mine, see the ultra-low-tech Foucault pendulum swinging in a circle to show the earth's rotation (it's a big brass ball suspended from a three-story cable) and the chicks hatching in an incubator (still a big draw). Now there are interactive exhibits on genetics, petroleum, space and the haunting U-505 submarine.

The U-boat is much better than I remembered because the museum built a real powerful exhibit around it. Captured off the coast of Africa near the end of World War II, it was the first ship boarded and captured by the U.S. Navy since 1815. Although its captain attempted to scuttle it, the American sailors bravely stopped it from sinking and towed it to Bermuda enroute to the East Coast. After the war, it made it all the way up the St. Lawrence Seaway and to 57th and Lake Shore Drive, where it was rolled across the highway. My Dad told me tonight that this event (in 1954) slowed his progress to a date with my Mom (then his fiance). "Not too many people can say they were stopped by a submarine -- on a highway," he said with a chuckle.

For those of you who know World War II history, before the atom bomb, the U-boat was Nazi Germany's weapon of mass destruction, sinking thousands of ships and taking the lives of more than 55,000 sailors, most of whom were in convoys attempting to supply Great Britain. The Germans didn't have much of a navy, but the U-boat could strike and slink away before the advent of fully functional sonar, radar and submarine task forces. There's a stunning graphic in the exhibit that shows how many ships were sunk during the war. It brings tears to your eyes.

Aboard the sub, it's tight and hot. Diesel engines, which only could have run when the sub had surfaced, brought the interior temperature to 100 degrees. There weren't enough bunks for all of the sailors and if you were over 6 feet, you had to hunch nearly everywhere. There were no showers (sailors bathed with alcohol) and no privacy during your three-month tour. The mortality rate was 70 percent. I'm not sure why this is fascinating now, nor why my girls were interested in this death machine. Yet it's like immersing yourself in a tangible fantasy, a scary world of steel and isolation. In many ways, it's better than fiction. When you leave the exhibit, you are chastened by the mechanics of war, knowing that even when we are clever, the destruction is almost unfathomable.

After Julia made some slime in an experimental station, we saw a splendid IMAX movie called "Wild Ocean" about billions of sardines making their way up the coast of South Africa into the maw of waiting predators like gannets, sharks, dolphins and seals. The beauty was mesmerizing -- ranging from Zulu fisherman dancing before they set out to the dive-bombing gannets in a feeding frenzy. Like most of the nature films these days, there's an unavoidable global warming/conservation angle to it: About 12 percent of the earth's surface is protected in nature reserves or parks. Less than .001 percent of the ocean is off limits to exploitation. If we destroy the web of life in the ocean, we're in deep trouble.

There are many objects of beauty and wonder in the museum that always seem to come out of nowhere. The Burlington Zephyr train, a streamlined dandy from the 1930s, still looks elegant. The airplanes hanging from the ceiling, a Boeing 727, German Stuka, British Spitfire and Wright's bi-plane still look stunning.

The best exhibits engage your hands and your mind. One thing that I hadn't planned on seeing, but sort of popped up on our way, was called "Fast Forward."It was about inventors trying to change the world. It wasn't a large venue, although I think it resonated the most with me. One designer was planning "vertical farms" in skyscrapers. Another was making clothes in which you could experience a "hug" transmitted from someone else. A carmaker named Dana Myers ( was manufacturing a one-person, all-electric car that could go as fast as 75 miles an hour. When the price tag drops under $20,000, I'll be a customer. You could even make music by moving blocks on a coffee table. That was way cool.

The museum ( is open every day except for Christmas. If you're going back, it makes sense to become a member, as we did. They throw in discounts in the gift shop and food court and knock $4 off the parking (a stiff $14). Also included are free IMAX tickets and lots of other benefits.

All told, one day at the museum is better than 100 hours of iPod and Xbox playing. The imagination is something that needs to be exercised on a regular basis.