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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Ryan Clemency Petition, the Presidential Inauguration, the Rick Warren Selection and Interest Rates…

My apologies to anyone who reads this blog regularly. I was too busy to record any thoughts last week, so I’ll be covering two or three subjects today.

When I last wrote about imprisoned former Illinois Governor George Ryan on December 12, 2008, I was being supportive of Senator Dick Durbin’s appeal to President Bush to grant him clemency and let him get home for Christmas. I’m still supportive of the effort but now I’m disgusted with Ryan’s disingenuous "apology" for past misdeeds. I know he wants to get out of jail. Of course he does. He isn’t a hardened criminal. He was a pharmacist before he went into politics. He lived what might be called a "soft" life. Jail must be hell for him and people like him. But the sudden change of heart has no ring of truth to it. Throughout his trial and as he entered through the gates of the federal penitentiary, he insisted that his conscience was clear - that he didn’t believe that he had committed crimes. Now, in a "private" letter that somehow became public, he is apologizing to the people of Illinois for "letting them down" and to the Willis family who lost six children in an accident involving a truck driver who had pain a bribe to get his commercial license under Ryan’s watch as Illinois Secretary of State. After years of insisting that there was no way he could be held responsible for the death of those children, he now says that they - the surviving Willis parents, "deserved better." Well of course they did - but there was also nothing Ryan could have done or not done that would have changed their fate.

What’s unfolding now is reminiscent of what happens in so many prison story movies. The wrongly
imprisoned man is denied parole for the second or third or fourth time because he shows no remorse and doesn’t admit or apologize for his "crime." If he’d just show remorse, maybe the parole board would give him a break. And different movies play out in different ways. In some, the stubborn innocent swears that he will die in prison before he will admit to a crime he never committed - and if he’s the hero, he gets out of jail anyway. And in other scenarios, the wrongly imprisoned inmate, concluding that the only way he will ever get parole is to "confess" and "apologize" - does exactly that and is granted parole, only later to prove that he was wrongly convicted in the first place.

I’m not saying that George Ryan was wrongly convicted - only that he’s acting like one of those movie characters - the one that will say whatever he thinks he needs to say to help him get out of jail. And now the Willis parents are adding to the "B" movie atmosphere of this whole affair - saying that they want to meet with Ryan in jail, look him in the eye so that they can determine the sincerity of his "apology" and so that they can forgive him!!!

I don’t think Bush will grant Ryan clemency - and for sure he won’t get it from an incoming president. But he would have stood a better chance if he had stayed silent while others petitioned on his behalf. Clemency was never going to be dependent on the merits of his case or on admissions of guilt and expressions of remorse. All that the Ryan "letter of apology" reveals is that the former governor is capable of being disingenuous - something that we all knew anyway. I was sympathetic to his plea before this letter surfaced - but a lot less so today.

Twenty nine days to inauguration day and every day that we get closer to the grand event, I become more and more convinced that we need a royal family. I’m old enough to remember the coronation of Queen Elizabeth - and from what I remember of the details of that event, it didn’t hold a candle to what’s about to unfold in Washington on January 20th.

There’s no question that the inauguration of a new president is a major event in the life of this country - but does it need to be the super bowl, the academy awards, D-Day, VJ-Day and a royal coronation all wrapped up in a single event? Alerts are being broadcast about the difficulties one might encounter being in Washington on that day as though it is or will be a war zone!! If you’re a mere citizen that is. Not a hotel room to be had. Not a cab to be hailed. Not a public toilet available to relieve your urge to purge. No backpacks, strollers , umbrellas and a host of other items banned from anywhere close to inaugural activities. Very little to indicate that we live in a democracy in which ordinary people have just elected a new government. But everything imaginable to indicate that something akin to the coronation of a King for Life is about to take place.

Since our beginning, the roles of chief executive and national symbol have been combined in one individual - adding to the idea that the President of the United States is some sort of exalted individual with inherited powers above and beyond those of political leaders in other democracies that have a separate individual with the title and responsibilities of a national symbol. The British Parliamentary system comes to mind of course. Prime ministers of England are not thought of or treated as "exalted" figures. There’s no British version of "Hail to the Chief" for British Prime Ministers. When pomp and ceremony is called for , the royal family is available. I know the reason we are not today a loyal member nation of the British empire can be mostly attributed to our founding fathers’ decision to eschew all forms of royalty from our form of government - but maybe, when we broke away from King George lll, we should have created a substitute office to represent us all in ceremonial matters - maybe someone to run on a ticket with presidential and vice presidential candidates as "ceremonial president."

I don’t know about you, but I think the idea of having a ceremonial head of state and getting rid of inauguration pomp and circumstance is a more appropriate way of honoring and celebrating our democracy.

Probably a hell of a lot cheaper too.

Still on the subject of the inauguration, count me as one who is disappointed at the selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation prayer at the royal event. President Elect Obama is defending the choice as typifying his expressed desire to reach out to all corners of our society - to make room for everyone under the national tent - to respect ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with - to be tolerant of all points of view, particularly religious points of view. Sure - that’s exactly why he chose Warren - to demonstrate what kind of people he wants us all to be. In selecting Rick Warren, he’s "reaching out" to evangelicals. An example if you will of the "change" that he’s been promising.

It’s change all right. A concerted effort to lure votes of evangelicals away from their traditional home and move them over to the Democratic column. It’s purely a political move and I think it’s a bad one. Maybe Obama won a few more evangelicals than a Democratic candidate usually wins in presidential elections - but their votes didn’t make a significant contribution to the final totals. He didn’t need evangelical votes to win and I think that’s a good thing.

Religion and politics are of course intertwined. No one can run for president without professing some sort of religious faith. We’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, but that separation becomes blurred during presidential campaigns. People of strong religious beliefs - and that’s a description that fits evangelicals - will vote for the presidential candidate whose views on certain topics are the closest to theirs - or perhaps are less in opposition to theirs. And if evangelicals become strong enough to swing close elections - that becomes dangerous. Think about it for a minute. How different are evangelical beliefs from those of theocracies - nations that we consider our enemies, run by people who we more or less think of as madmen? Yes, evangelicals have a different faith. They’re Christians - the nut cases are Muslims. But apart from the specifics - both would rather have a theocracy than a democracy - and the nuts have already achieved that.

A smart politician knows that he has to respect the power of evangelical voters, so he doesn’t want to appear to ignore them or not acknowledge their legitimacy and the legitimacy of their beliefs. But if that smart politician wants to steer a course that keeps religious beliefs, particularly extreme religious beliefs from being too decisive a factor in elections, he’s going to avoid the appearance of openly courting their vote strictly on the basis of their religion,. Doing so could have two undesirable outcomes - inadvertently strengthening the political power of the extremists while turning off supporters who don’t share their extreme beliefs.

It’s possible that Obama is accomplishing both of these things with the selection of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation. It was bad enough when Obama submitted himself to questioning by Warren in front of an evangelical audience during the presidential campaign - something he wasn’t able to refuse to do unless McCain had joined him in turning down the "invitation" - and there was no way that was going to happen with evangelicals considered part of the Republican "base." But he could have chosen anyone he wanted to for the honor of joining him on the inaugural dais . The best choice would have been someone not considered to be controversial. Not someone who equates abortion with the holocaust. Not someone who believes that natural disasters are the result of "sin." Not someone who doesn’t believe in evolution. Not someone who believes that Christianity is the true religion - and the rest of us are headed straight for hell. He might as well have chosen Jeremiah Wright to offer the inaugural prayer for all the "reaching out" that will be accomplished by choosing Rick Warren. In my view, he’s chosen badly - a big disappointment for one who has been and continues to be a strong supporter of Barack Obama.

Finally - while I was concentrating on other things, the Fed lowered interest rates last week. Sneaky Feds. Now banks can loan each other money overnight and it’ll only cost a quarter of a percentage point in interest. And, like all of the previous key rate cuts that have been made since it stood at 5.5% in September of 2007, it is doing and will be doing not one damn bit of good. Of course you might get an argument from people who are refinancing or trying to refinance their mortgages at a more attractive rate - but those people have been trying to do that anyway and it isn’t much help getting a lower interest rate on your mortgage if you’ve lost your job and the only security you had other than employment was some interest bearing investment that just got cut down to almost nothing.

I’m no economist but I don’t think I have to have expertise in what many consider to be a voodoo science to conclude that lowering interest rates is NOT the magic bullet that some members of economic royalty consider it to be. The Fed might as well cut the rate to zero - maybe even create reverse interest rates. Banks will PAY overnight borrowers an incentive percentage to induce them to borrow. Yes it sounds crazy - but with the financial world in turmoil and our economy in a tailspin, maybe it will take something just as crazy to snap us out of it.

The Fed members can stroke their beards and look wise and worried all they like, but the billions of bail out money isn’t loosening the purse strings of big banks - except perhaps to pay out bonuses and hold parties - and it isn’t stemming the flow of job losses - which seem to be growing exponentially. At the same time - while the interest rate cuts haven’t loosened those purse strings - while money isn’t flowing to would be start up companies or to small businesses struggling to stay afloat - witness the debacle of Republic Windows - States and Cities struggling to meet their expenses in an era of diminishing revenues, are receiving less and less of those revenues from interest bearing investments.

I don’t have any magic bullet suggestions to make myself. As I said, I’m no economist. I don’t practice voodoo. But my reaction to last week’s rate cut from the Fed is what it would have been had I been bloggoing last week and commented upon it then. Ho hum. Or in the word (singular) of Darth Vador - recently masquerading as vice president Dick Cheney - "SO??"

We’ll come out of this recession - maybe after it becomes a certified depression - but I suspect that only economists will be able to look back and assert that all the Fed rate cuts made a measurable contribution to the recovery. And I suspect that though they’ll say it, they won’t understand it any better than we mere mortals.