Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Washington insider: "Virtually no one walks in your door trying to educate you about the public's argument" (and what about Big Real Estate/Big Sports in NY?)

When I wrote in May 2009 about Brooklyn singer-songwriter John Pinamonti's new album, I cited "It Wasn't the Rain," a mix of elegy and fight song, about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans: "It wasn't the rain/it wasn't the wind/it was just greed and power/winning again."

That song could be the soundtrack to George Packer's richly reported piece in a recent New Yorker, Washington Man: He transformed himself from public servant to rich lobbyist. When the financial crisis hit, he remembered who he was.

The profile of Jeff Connaughton, a political insider, lawyer, and lobbyist, is not online, but here's part of the summary:
After the financial crisis happened in 2008, he left lobbying, eventually going to work as the chief of staff for his friend Ted Kaufman, who had inherited Joe Biden’s senate seat. Connaughton, angry at Wall Street, worked with Kaufman to try and pass financial reform legislation. The legislation they drafted was either ineffective or failed to pass. Disillusioned and exhausted, Connaughton left politics and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he wrote a book about his experiences called “The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins.”
The asymmetry: no one talks "about the public's argument"

If Wall Street always wins, so too--nearly always--do Big Real Estate and Big Sports in New York, for some of the same reasons, the power of money and the way it can can be deployed. Which is why, for example, Times critic Michael Kimmelman's criticisms of Atlantic Yards may be welcome, but ineffectual.

Packer writes:
But in the three decades since he'd felt that initial optimism [about politics], Washington had been captured by the money power. He had been captured as well, and until now he hadn't fully apprehended how much the "influence industry"--the lobbying, the media campaigns, the grasstops, the revolving door--had transformed Washington. "When you go back into government, you realize how dramatically asymmetrical it has become with the public interest," he said. "Virtually no one walks in your door trying to educate you about the public's argument."
Consider how Empire State Development, the state agency assigned to both oversee and shepherd Atlantic Yards, has long leaned toward the latter. (Check out video of the official directly in charge of Atlantic Yards promoting the Sensation dance event.) Consider Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's reflexive backing for the Nov. 1 game.

And that's why I argued that an upcoming article on the "Atlantic Yards opposition" should be sure to recognize the issue of press oversight, serving as a counterweight to the huge effort by developer Forest City Ratner (lobbying and public relations) and its government allies (p.r.) to promote Atlantic Yards.

The value of dissent

There's a dismaying account of the effort at breaking up the biggest banks, an idea opposed by the Obama Administration's top advisors and the most connected senators. Kaufman steers clear of Biden, deeming his old friend as having his plate too full:
Connaughton couldn't get over it: their former boss held the second-highest position in the country, and still they couldn't' do a damn thing about Wall Street. "You might as well be beholden to the permanent class if you're going to pull your punches at a moment of national crisis," Connaughton said.
In late April, Kaufman and Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, introduced an amendment to Dodd's bill that would limit certain liabilities of banks to two percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. In effect, Brown-Kaufman would force banks that grew beyond a certain size to be broken up. The Senators took the floor. Spectacles perched on the end of his nose, Kaufman chopped the air as he spoke without a script. "In 1933, we made a decision that helped us through three generations," he declared, in a trembling voice. "Why are we not passing legislation that'll work over the next two or three generations?"
... Later, Connaughton sent Kaufman a note: "There's nothing more honorable than standing up as the sole dissenting voice as a matter of principle."
In Rolling Stone

Matt Taibbi, in his Taibblog, wrote about Connaughton's book in a 9/18/12 piece headlined, A Rare Look at Why the Government Won't Fight Wall Street:
There are some damning revelations in this book, and overall it’s not a flattering portrait of key Obama administration officials like SEC enforcement chief Robert Khuzami, Department of Justice honchos Eric Holder (who once worked at the same law firm, Covington and Burling, as Connaughton) and Lanny Breuer, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
Most damningly, Connaughton writes about something he calls "The Blob," a kind of catchall term describing an oozy pile of Hill insiders who are all incestuously interconnected, sometimes by financial or political ties, sometimes by marriage, sometimes by all three. And what Connaughton and Kaufman found is that taking on Wall Street even with the aim of imposing simple, logical fixes often inspired immediate hostile responses from The Blob; you’d never know where it was coming from.
...Similarly, when Kaufman tried to advocate for rules that would have prevented naked short-selling, Connaughton was warned by a lobbyist that it would be "bad for my career" if he went after the issue and that "Ted and I looked like deranged conspiracy theorists" for asking if naked short-selling had played a role in the final collapse of Lehman Brothers.
...Essentially the same thing happened in Kaufman’s biggest reform attempt, the amendment to the Dodd-Frank bill he co-sponsored with Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, which would have broken up the Too-Big-To-Fail banks. But the Brown-Kaufman amendment, which was really the meatiest thing in the original Dodd-Frank bill, the one reform that really would have made a difference if it had passed, just died in the suffocating mass of the Blob. The key Democrats one after another failed to line up behind it, and in the end it was defeated soundly, with Dick Durbin, the number two man in the Democratic leadership, giving it this epitaph: "a bridge too far."

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