Clean-Up on Aisle Eight

Perhaps it is the combative Irish ancestry. Or a writer’s simple desire for stories, even non-fiction ones, to have the satisfying symmetry of conflict resolution, wherein heroes vanquish villains.

I want to blame someone for the near destruction of our national economy and world financial markets. I want them to pay for their incompetence.

Pitchforks aside, I believe in fair blame as deterrent. We need not go to the lengths of the Chinese who quickly strung up the bureaucrats who tainted the country’s milk supply.

This was good in theory, but bad in … uh … execution.

There are times when awful things happen spontaneously, with no control for mortals to exert. No matter how hard we try, sometimes the geese fly into both engines.

But there are other times when people in charge of preventing disaster make consistently bad decisions, or no decisions at all, and things go terribly wrong.

A generation ago, there were a dozen men in gray suits who made one bad decision after another that lead to untold misery in Vietnam. Another collection of suits stuffed with ignorance and arrogance led to a botched Iraq strategy that reduced our highly trained troops to carnival targets driving around in thin-skinned Humvees waiting to be blown up by cheap explosives concealed beneath dead goats on dirt roads.

The irk of the current financial crisis is that we feel powerless. How can humble Wisconsin folks ever influence the mysterious world of Wall Street derivatives, shorting and homes in the Hamptons? How can we communicate with the shockingly wealthy folks who have no idea where the state of Wisconsin is actually located or if indeed we are still a state?

They steal our money. We bail them out. And yet they mock ice fishing.

Where is the justice in that?

I came across three pieces of information that have added perspective to these questions.

First there is the riveting Rolling Stone piece by Matt Taibbi titled “The Big Takeover.” With bared teeth he examines our economic collapse and the power grab that created it.

Secondly there is a YouTube video floating in the ether showing Congress folks lambasting government regulators who had the impertinence to raise the warning flags about the solvency of Fannie and Freddie. It is cynically edited by a Republican with Final Cut, but telling nonetheless.

And then there was the rare funny joke I heard Jay Leno tell. He was chiding U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd for the AIG bonuses. Said Leno, “ One of the AIG execs was going through airport security yesterday. They asked him to empty his pockets and Christopher Dodd fell out.”

Christopher Dodd, you see, is the Chair of the Senate Banking Committee. A visit to their website tells a citizen this about their responsibilities:

“The Committee plays an integral role in managing legislation that affects the lives of many Americans. These areas of jurisdiction include, but are not limited to: banking, insurance, financial markets, securities, housing, urban development and mass transit, international trade and finance, and economic policy.”

In short, they are The Committee on Everything That Went Wrong.

In the middle of the Leno joke a voice whispered, “Isn’t there a Wisconsin connection to that committee?” A check reveals that sure enough, our friendly neighborhood grocer, retailer and basketball arena gifter Herb Kohl serves as a committee member.

Along with Tammy and Russ, Herb is our Guy in Washington. One of our very own charged with being our voice in the halls of money and power.

Herb is an interesting politician. While most senators talk so much it makes you think we could harness the hot air from their chamber to light Oshkosh for a year, Herb says very little. Unlike Russ Feingold, the smart kid from Janesville who revels in pointing out nude emperors, Herb is quiet to the verge of muteness. Despite a fairly long term in the Senate, Herb seems stuck in the second row of history, a Wisconsin answer to Woody Allen’s Zelig.

Well, it would seem fair now to ask Herb to step to the front row and tell his fellow Badgers just what happened on his committee.

Did he not apply some of his grocer’s practical wisdom to Wall Street’s practices? With the compassion of a Democrat and the common sense of a business owner, he would seem the perfect person to question the reckless practices that lead to disaster.

Why didn’t Herb sharpen his pencil, do a little down-home Wisconsin math and ask a few uncomfortable questions of the fat cats?

Tell us Herb.

What happened?

Where were you?

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write john@jrpinc.com.

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