Hard Questions for Clinton and Obama
By Al Meyerhoff
April 8, 2008 - 11:29am ET
At the upcoming Clinton-Obama presidential debate in Philadelphia, there is only one thing the American public wants to hear less than another wonk discussion about health care. That would be more personal sniping over race, patriotism or honesty. So, instead, here are a few things for Katie, Hillary and Barack to kick around – some now timely, others more timeless. An intelligent discussion might actually help voters understand where either candidate would take the country.
Reining In Big Business
For the past three decades or so, we have been traveling down the deregulation highway, letting business go unfettered and the economy alone. It was while on the "bridge to the 21st century," during the first (and possibly the last) Clinton administration, that we deregulated financial markets.
First, over a presidential veto, the GOP Congress enacted the Private Securities Law Reform Act making it easier for Wall Street to defraud investors. Like night follows day, that brought us Enron, World Com, Tyco and a host of other robber barons. Then, at the urging of Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Congress repealed the Depression Era Glass-Steagall Act, allowing Wall Street banks to become investment firms.
A "shadow" banking system followed, free of regulation; billions of dollars in newly invented hybrid securities were issued, erroneously classified "AAA"; countless home loans were made without due diligence; and massive fees were generated to those very same Wall Street bankers.
Now, banks are overflowing with bad paper and nearly 3 million sub-prime adjustable loans are past due. We are at recession’s door, all from market deregulation. While denying that our economic woes came from this failure to regulate, Treasury Secretary Paulson this week announced banking reform that isn’t. So here are a few questions:
Were Glass and Steagall right – should banks stick to banking and leave investing to stock brokers? Should we re-enact their law? While we’re at it, should we enact the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act, now stalled in Congress? Should securities fraud laws be strengthened, including undoing a recent Supreme Court decision letting "third party" bankers in cahoots with fraudsters off the hook?
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain says that "there is a tendency for liberals to seek big government programs that sock it to American taxpayers while failing to solve the very real problems we face." Is he right? Or has the deregulation pendulum swung too far? Do we need more and bigger government?
Not to be outdone, the newly constituted Supreme Court has been rolling back a host of consumer and environmental safeguards, denying the public a right to sue over defective products, imposing obstacles to antitrust enforcement, and generally favoring Wall Street over Main Street. Our civil liberties are also hanging by a thread, as is Roe vs Wade. The lower federal courts have now been refashioned in George Bush’s image, with virtually all Circuit appellate courts having a majority Republican, and often arch-conservative, jurists. Last year, those courts issued 29,913 decisions, the Supreme Court 76.
Bill Clinton picked mostly moderate judges from corporate law firms. Where will you pick yours? On what basis? How would you refashion our courts? Do you favor the Senate judges bringing confirmation of even more Bush judges to an immediate halt?
Making Trade Less Free
In Ohio, NAFTA became a dirty word. Yet much of the "debate" over trade was with broad strokes – each of you accusing the other of selling out U.S. workers – Hillary in the White House, Barack in, of all places, Canada. Largely ignored was the industrialization in China – by far presenting the most serious threat to labor and consumers alike. Even Chevy car engines ("little 409") now are being built in China. Consumer products are flooding our markets – from food to pharmaceuticals to children’s play things –found later to be unsafe.
Is it time to seriously revisit our embrace of the global economy? Would you favor re-imposing strict tariffs on goods from China? On children's' toys? Textiles? Imported steel? Do you favor a warning of imported consumer products manufactured offshore and not inspected for safety? How about through polluting the environment or violating human rights?
Another piece of the Antarctica fell off last week. A "dead zone’ with no marine life whatsoever was just found off the Pacific Northwest. Droughts are on the rise in the U.S. and worldwide. What, specifically, are you prepared to do? Do you support the carbon tax proposed by former Vice President Gore? How about explicit limits on CO2 emitters and taxing any excess, creating a "Superfund" for global warming? Or, as the European Union is considering, imposing tariffs on goods (now like ours) from countries not adequately controlling their CO2 emissions?
There are, of course, other such topics given short shrift in past debates. What is to be done about "the pension time bomb," as fewer and fewer Americans are provided defined retirement benefits by their employers? How do we actually end the newly rediscovered "racial divide?" (Despite the Obama candidacy, from schools to prisons, we remain two Americas, one black, one white. Busing? Affirmative action? Or has white backlash from such approaches made things worse?)
Then there is immigration. In past debates, your focus has been on driver's licenses, while the pressures on the border continue to increase. How do we address that reality with something more than a wall? If the North American Free Trade Agreement has been a failure, then how do our adjoined countries work together for our mutual economic and cultural benefit?
All of this is to say that McCain is right; this country does face "very real problems." The candidates and ultimately the voters need to as well. No time better than on April 16 at the Constitution Center.
Al Meyerhoff is a public interest attorney in Los Angeles and a board member of Campaign for America's Future.
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