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Main Street banks and Wall Street banks PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 02 November 2011 18:59

Don’t confuse the solid institutions that help make our communities thrive with the predators whose unregulated financial trickery helped trigger the recession

The president of the Wisconsin Bankers Association recently sent out an op-ed article lamenting the fact that the word “bank” has become a pejorative term people associate with some of the worst culprits in the Great Recession.

Rose Oswald Poels wrote that “in Wisconsin you can’t call yourself a bank unless your deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance corp. Traditional banks are insured depositories and lenders. Investment banks are the Wall Street traders.”

She’s right, and it is unfortunate that the word that has always described the solid institutions residents of the small towns of Ozaukee County rely on for their checking accounts, car loans and mortgages and as safe places for their savings is now used so loosely it also refers to the likes of Citigroup.

Citigroup is only one of a rogues gallery of investment banks that very nearly brought down the global financial system in 2008 with their unethical if not illegal exploitation of exotic mortgage derivatives, but we mention that company because it’s back in the news.

In October Citigroup was fined $235 million for selling packages of mortgage-backed securities that were essentially worthless and then profiting enormously by buying credit default swaps that paid off when the mortgage securities failed.

Citigroup’s machinations were typical of the abuses that led to the failure and subsequent bailing out at taxpayer expense of a number of investment banks and a financial crisis second in severity only to the Great Depression.

Citigroup was held only somewhat accountable. Incredibly, it was allowed by the Securities Exchange Commission to pay its fine without admitting wrong doing. Overall there has been little accountability for the misdeeds that contributed to the recession that cost Americans significant amounts of their life savings and, in many cases, their livelihoods.


Executives of the bailed-out investment banks were awarded obscenely generous bonuses by their boards of directors. The investment banks continue to spend billions—far more than any other special interest group—to lobby Congress to prevent reform of the system that caused the collapse.

The lobbying pressure appears to be working. The response of Congress to the investment bank scandal was the Dodd-Frank Act, whose regulations affecting the practices of investment banks, while better than nothing, are too mild. Even so, there is a movement in Congress to repeal the law.

Deregulation of the financial industry, which started in the 1980s and was facilitated by both Democratic and Republican presidents and members of Congress, is what got the U.S. into this mess. It is what allowed Wall Street shysters to cook up schemes to sell toxic mortgages and profit when they went bad.

Now Dodd-Frank, the one modest attempt at regulating risky derivative securities that emerged from the wreckage of the recession, is under attack from a number sources, including some Republican presidential candidates. One of them, Rep. Michele Bachmann, has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would repeal it.

Critics of the Dodd-Frank regulations claim they are job killers. Americans who lost their jobs because of a recession that was caused in part by an unregulated financial industry must find that amusing in a sick way.

In her defense of depository banks, the head of the Wisconsin Bankers Association included a veiled complaint about Dodd-Frank, describing it as an increased regulatory burden.

That is probably true to some extent, but there has been no groundswell of complaint by community bankers that the law is discouraging them from making loans to qualified business owners.

In any case, some increased hassle in dealing with regulations is a small price to pay to rein in the Wall Street banks whose reflected shame has damaged the image of the Main Street banks that are community assets.


 
The great honeybee menace PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 October 2011 21:10

Condemning a family’s beekeeping hobby as an endangerment to public safety gave a false impression of Port Washington as intolerant and uninformed

Kudos to the members of the Port Washington Common Council and Plan Commission for their rational response to the great honeybee menace.

When a Port Washington woman appealed for relief from the city attorney’s warning to her family to end their beekeeping hobby or face legal consequences, the aldermen were sympathetic. The Plan Commission followed suit with a recommendation that an ordinance specifically allowing beekeeping in the city be passed.

The Council should now settle the matter with an ordinance that protects the right of citizens to engage in the environmentally friendly activity of honeybeekeeping without interference from authorities.

And then, one more thing for the aldermen to do before the subject is closed: Have an earnest discussion about setting a tone for city governance that rejects nitpicking intrusions into the lives of residents to enforce conformity with arbitrary and unnecessary regulations, and then see that the city attorney gets the memo.

Besides uplifting local attitudes about the city government, that might help burnish Port Washington’s image, which is currently a bit tarnished in the area of tolerance, thanks to the fiasco of the beekeeping crackdown and the lawn-mowing flap that preceded it.

After Ozaukee Press reported last week that City Attorney Eric Eberhardt had declared the beehive maintained by Mike and Bethel Metz and their children “a public nuisance endangering health and safety” and ordered it removed by Oct. 24,  the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an opinion column suggesting that the city was foolish and out of touch. A number of websites made the same point.

This is not the kind of PR the city is looking for, but the harassment by a city official of a family trying to do the right thing by keeping bees as part of a national effort to sustain declining bee populations in order to pollinate crops certainly invited it.


It’s widely understood that honeybees are desirable and their concentration in hives, especially the pod type provided for the pollinators by the Metzes, presents no threat to humanity. What is not understood is why this benign family project was the subject of a threatening notice that left Bethel Metz, in her words to the Common Council, “confused, angry, upset and, frankly, heartbroken.”

There had been no complaints of threatening behavior by the bees. There was no ordinance prohibiting beekeeping, though the city attorney maintained it could not go on without an ordinance saying it was allowed. Bethel Metz said she asked before buying the bees whether there was a prohibition against beekeeping, and was told by city hall that there wasn’t.

In short, there was no reason to apply the heavy hand of city authority.

If this sounds familiar it’s because there is some resemblance to the lawn-regulating ordinance introduced last summer. Before the Council instructed the city attorney to modify it, this potential law would have had the effect of making some of the city’s prettiest residential properties illegal—those with yards filled with flowers and foliage—and required them to be replanted in grass clipped to a specified length. Not surprisingly, this nonsense also generated some dubious publicity, as Milwaukee television stations entertained their audiences with coverage of Port Washington’s misguided attempt at lawn regimentation.

No one is suggesting this is evidence of some sort of Robespierreian reign of terror. The city attorney no doubt means well and the efforts to banish unregulated honey bees and lawns thataren’t planted in grass are probably just manifestations of a desire to maintain a really orderly city. It can also be said that the beekeeping and lawn intrusions directly affected only a few families.

But even so, every resident should be affronted, for these attempts at regulating harmless behavior feed a perception of Port Washington as provincial and unaware of progressive ideas about living in the 21st century.

That is not the Port Washington we know. We think of this city as a culturally and economically diverse community that welcomes and appreciates the type of citizens who care enough about the planet to keep bees and create yards full of plants instead of grass.

Send that memo.

 
AWOL in the climate war PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 17:22

As its economic rivals take the lead in dealing with global warming, the U.S. is shackled by political rhetoric that denies the existence of the crisis that solid, credible science predicts

We hear a lot about the U.S. falling behind other countries in education and health care, as we should—these are clouds over America’s future. But shamefully little is heard these days about another cloud over America’s future—global warming.

Little is being heard because the U.S. is ignoring the problem of man-made climate change. Meanwhile, other countries are moving forward to deal with it.

China is adopting a cap and trade system with penalties for excess pollution. India has enacted a carbon tax on coal. Australia is about to levy a carbon tax. The European Union’s emissions trading system, adopted in 2005, is expanding annually on schedule.

The irony here is that the U.S. should be leading way, rather than being unable to even follow. This is true not just because the U.S. puts more carbon in the atmosphere than any other country, but because climate change caused by energy consumption is the sort of challenge that can-do, problem-solving America ought to be able to handle better than any  nation, given the power of its technology and the capitalist engine of its still world-leading economy.

Scholars looking back from a future era may be able to determine how climate change became a political issue in the first decades of the 21st century in the U.S., but for now we’re stuck with the bizarre reality that it is, and that a significant number of elected officials, candidates for office and voters think that the proper response to global warming is to deny it exists.

Some leaders who do believe the science of climate change are daunted by its politics. President Barack Obama promised “a new chapter in American leadership on climate change,” but now doesn’t talk about it.

The scientists, however, are talking. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in September warning that failing to act now to reduce carbon emissions will leave the country with terrible choices in the future.


The report emphasized that the science forecasting the dangers of climate change is valid.

The academy put together a diverse committee of scientists, business leaders and politicians to weigh the evidence and produce the report in an attempt to counter the anti-science bias that seems to account for much of the global warming denial phenomenon.

The notion that the scientists raising the alarm about climate change, representing the vast majority of the scientific establishment, are inept or fraudulent defies reason. Some of the same Americans who trust science to find cures for disease, send humans into space and develop amazing weapons, among other wonders it accomplishes, find science untrustworthy when it comes to analyzing the cause and effect of climate change.

In parts of the world where climate change is being addressed an understanding is emerging that reducing gas-trapping air pollution is not just an imperative, but an opportunity to abet economic growth through the development of new technologies.

They are facing the reality that dealing with climate change is about more than windmills and solar panels and other non-polluting sources of energy. It is also about making cleaner, more efficient use of the oil, coal and gas that will be needed to power the world for many generations, if not centuries, to come.

In the race to reap the benefits of dealing with climate change, the U.S. has conceded the lead to Europe and, more ominously, to the gigantic Asian nations that are or will be our chief  economic rivals.

A recent Pew Research Group poll found that 59% of Americans believe global warming is happening. That’s down from 79% in 2006, perhaps a reflection of the tenor the political rhetoric, but still a solid majority.

It’s time for that majority to be heard. Its message should be: Don’t cast America as a know-nothing, science-doubting society so bereft of vision that it can’t see a way to take on global warming while sustaining its free-market economy. If America is a world leader—as it has been and should be—it must lead in meeting the coming climate crisis.

 
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