After watching the monopolistic tyranny of the
Carnegies, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, the United States implemented rigorous
government oversight and regulatory mechanisms to protect consumers, citizens,
and our democracy from capitalism gone rogue. Then, over time and to this day, Republicans eroded the mechanisms that protected us. Hello Norfolk Southern, Silicon
Valley Bank, and Fox News.
A television network is humiliated by revelations that its
leading on-air personalities brazenly lie to their viewers to boost ratings. After
years of thinking they deceive and mislead for political purposes, we discover
that they are merely vacuous greedy charlatans perfectly willing to subvert our democracy purely for financial gain.
A train derails, delivering a devastating chemical bomb on
a small Ohio town. Only then do we learn how much toxic material travels over
our rails every day, how carelessly the railroads handle these materials, how frequently
derailments occur, and how much money is to be made by cutting corners.
A huge California bank spontaneously combusts, and with each
passing day it becomes more apparent that the cause was simply bad fiscal
management practiced in broad daylight. Regulators knew it, saw it, called the bank on
it, and were still apparently powerless to stop it.
What’s going on here?
Each of these disasters is complex, years in the making,
and defies the type of infantile analysis of Republicans who think a “woke
culture” brought down a 200-billion-dollar financial institution. There’s no
single cause, and no single responsibility in each case.
But that is not to say that there are not common threads:
reckless management – emboldened and enabled by a long-term erosion in government
oversight, and prioritizing cash flow growth to the virtual exclusion of safety,
integrity, or any societal consideration – creating catastrophic consequences
for ordinary consumers, citizens, and our democracy.
Oh, and these events have one other thing in common: Republicans
in a constant war to reduce the regulatory role of government, creating the
breeding ground for unchecked greed, deceit, and carnage.
The truth is that we the people have no one to blame but
ourselves. It is, after all, our government. Or, in this case, our insufficiency
and inadequacy of government.
On January 20, 1981, newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan
would put his unique homespun spin onto long-standing conservative orthodoxy, saying the words that would become the mantra of modern Republicanism: “In this present crisis, government is not the
solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Just for the record,
no one ever bothers to point out that Reagan put a clear limit on his contention with the caveat “in this present crisis.” Republicans ever since conveniently
lopped off that antecedent phrase, went with the bloated generalization, and
the rest is no mystery.
Reagan proceeded to articulate a philosophy that was aimed
at dismantling a supposedly strangling regulatory environment and a tax system
that allegedly stifled all those rugged individualists and high achievers who – if only
freed from government burden -- would be the entrepreneurs fueling growth, employment,
and a rising tide for all boats.
More myth than math, “supply-side economics” set out to de-fang government regulation and to fundamentally invert the tax code so that the rich
and big business paid less in taxes. This would supposedly inspire private
enterprise and investors to open the floodgates of investment, turbo-charging economic
growth, and raising the standard of living for all.
Trickle-down economics, as it was also dubbed, failed then.
As it failed under George H.W. Bush, who, God bless him, had labeled it “voodoo
economics,” and sacrificed his Presidency because he knew that higher taxes
needed to be restored. It failed under George W. Bush, whose administration’s utter
abdication of financial regulation and oversight torpedoed the global banking
system. It failed under Donald Trump, whose supporters absolutely refuse to believe
you when you point out that a full 25% of our current national debt was created
in Trump’s single four-year term in office.
In the wake of the catastrophic 2008 global financial
meltdown, Democrats sought to dramatically increase regulatory oversight of our
banking system with the Dodd Frank act. When Donald Trump was running for
President in 2016, he aimed his sights at eviscerating Dodd Frank, and one “accomplishment”
of that effort was to dramatically raise the threshold of bank size that would require routine stress testing. You guessed it: under the original Dodd Frank, Silicon
Valley Bank would have been required to undergo routine stress testing and its
insufficient financial basis would have been revealed. Post-Trump, SVC fell under
the asset level qualifying for scrutiny. Poof. Global catastrophe… still
What Republican mess would be complete without the blindfolded
dance of the hypocrites trying to pin the blame on the donkeys? Ron DeSantis,
now fine-tuning his ability to trace every problem in America to “woke culture,”
found SVB’s focus on DEI as the primary cause of failure. That is a bit like turning
to your teenage son and saying, “do you understand what just happened, Bobby?
Putin invaded Ukraine because you didn’t do your homework.” Huh?
We now learn from The New York Times that the Fed in San
Francisco saw fundamental problems in SVB’s basic balance sheet math even
without the step of government stress testing, and was issuing warnings to the
bank to clean up its act since 2021. Somehow, the Fed lacked the clout, the
authority, or the gumption to force SVB to take action. Perhaps both the bank and the Fed never anticipated
the dizzying velocity at which rumors on social media could rip a bank limb
And yesterday, the inadequate oversight of SVB was once
again the lead story in The New York Times… with no one able to quite
understand how the bank could brazenly ignore years of Fed warnings right up until
Note the pattern, because we will see it again: Republicans
winnow government oversight and shame those who practice it as anti-business
socialists, catastrophe follows, Democrats try to clean up the mess after the
fact, and Republicans un-do it at the first possible opportunity.
The train derailment?
The official NTSB report is far in the future, but early
findings fingered a clear mechanical failure: an overheated ball bearing that
was clearly visible in video footage. But this is the same as saying that a
frozen O-ring caused the Challenger disaster. Sure, that is the literal,
immediate cause… but the mechanical failure in each case revealed broad cultural
behaviors in organizations that had allowed safety concerns to fall to the
bottom of the priority list. Norfolk
Southern has long been castigated for practices that clearly prioritize train
schedule speed, productivity, and profit over safety.
A report in Freight Waves, an industry journal, noted
that the NS-32 train – the one that turned East Palestine into West Chernobyl --
was nicknamed the “32 Nasty” by railroad employees because of its history of
problems. Norfolk Southern’s adheres to a practice called “precision scheduled
railroading,” which sounds like the exact title you’d find on a management
consultant’s PowerPoint explaining how to maximize profit at the expense of
safety. The NS-32 train is two miles long – that’s 141 cars – and was operated
by three people. Given the time constraints of “precision scheduled railroading,”
local unions complain that the train was not properly “blocked” – the term for making
sure heavier cars are placed at the front for smoother braking. This
dramatically exacerbated the devastation at the derailment.
Yet herein, too, lies a tale of Republican regulatory relaxation.
In 2015, the Obama administration instituted a rule mandating that trains transporting
toxic materials must be equipped with “ECP” (electronically-controlled pneumatic)
brakes. In 2017, the Trump administration repealed the rule.
Sure, upgrading thousands of train brakes would have cost
lots of money, and the Trump administration really liked to suck up to donors by
making businesses more profitable. Probably Trump believes in “trickle down train
economics.” I can hear the speech now: “If we simply reduce the woke regulations
strangling the railroad industry, the management and stockholders will be free
to use those new-found dollars to invest in infrastructure, safety, adequate
staffing, and operational practices.”
Perhaps it is time that Republicans wake up to the fact
that managers under quarterly pressure from Wall Street are more likely to stuff all that money into profit, pumping up the
stock price, and then exercise stock options and retire young while
all the men, women, children, pets, and livestock in a small town in Ohio live with
a foul stench in the air and the constant threat that homes, neighborhoods, and
schools have been contaminated.
You see, Ronald Reagan was wrong.
In saying “Government isn’t the solution, it is the problem,”
he not only fingered the wrong problem, he made government into the enemy.
Government should be the check and balance on greedy businesses
that protect consumers from liars, cheaters, and hustlers. But long before Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan took the very institution
that he led and branded it as the enemy of the people.
Ever since, Democrats have been on their heels. Every
effort to shore up the regulatory role of government is attacked by Republicans
as a blaspheme against Ronald Reagan’s sacred canon.
No, Gipper, government is not the problem. Greed is the
problem. We live in a country where you have to be pretty naïve to think that
heads of business are going to “do the right thing.” Yes, I certainly believe that
some businesses and business leaders act with ethics, principle, and even the occasional
But Wall Street does not have an excel spreadsheet algorithm
that rewards ethics. It is all raw numbers. P&L. Return on capital. Most
CEOs chase profits -- and when it comes to safety, they roll the dice and hope
the Titanic sinks on the next guy’s watch.
Government should be strong enough to protect the small,
defenseless people in an Ohio town from soulless corporate profiteers before
the disaster happens. Our problem is not
big government… it is that we don’t have enough government in place, empowered
with all the necessary enforcement mechanisms -- to do the work that needs to
Rinse and repeat: Democrats put safety regulations in
place, Republicans repeal them, catastrophe happens. The only shock here is
that Ron DeSantis has not yet proclaimed that Norfolk Southern management is
woke, the train engineers are liberals, and that the train tracks are dressed in drag.
Which brings us to the Prime-time star of today’s essay, Fox
Of all our stories of insufficient government oversight, we
have the cesspool of deceit that wants to be called a “news” organization,
but fails to realize that “news” that is not grounded in fact is belongs in the
“fiction” section of Barnes & Noble. Thank heaven for Dominion Voting
Systems having the guts and the determination to unmask Fox, revealing it not
to be simply a glitzy, high octane Pravda, but as an organization that brazenly
lies to stoke up its partisan audience purely in order to maximize profits.
The texts and emails that have surfaced through the
Dominion defamation suit reveal that Fox – its leaders, and its prime-time personalities
– did not believe that the election was stolen, and indeed welcomed a future in
which Donald Trump was broomed from the national stage. While worshiping Trump on television, Carlson
privately wrote “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most
nights. I truly can’t wait… I hate him passionately.”
But suddenly there was a very big problem at Fox: it had
angered its viewers by being the first network to call the state of Arizona for
Biden. This was viewed by the conservative base as the ultimate betrayal.
Audience data and research into audience opinion demonstrated an enormous
threat to Fox’s hold over conservative viewers. Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News,
was blunt in an internal meeting: “Listen, it’s one of the sad realities. If we
hadn’t called Arizona those three or four days following Election Day, our
ratings would have been bigger. The mystery would have still been hanging out
Raj Shah, a Senior VP at Fox Corporation, revealed the real
fear at Fox in an internal memo: “We are not concerned with losing market share
to CNN or MSNBC right now. Our concern is Newsmax and One America News Network
… I’d like to get honest/deeper feedback from Fox viewers on the brand, the
handling of the election, if they feel like they have been somehow betrayed by
Very quickly, it became clear that embracing Trump’s “Big Lie”
could be a strategy to regain the trust of conservative viewers. On November 11,
a member of Tucker Carlson’s staff spoke bluntly in an internal message to
Carlson: “Have you seen last night’s numbers? It’s a stupid story, but that’s
all the viewers are into right now.” Carlson’s reply: “I noticed.”
Make no mistake: Carlson knew that the “stolen election
story” was bogus, and specifically that the ravings of Trump lawyer – and leading
Dominion conspiracy theorist -- Sidney Powell were unhinged. In a text to Laura
Ingraham, Carlson said “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s
And so Fox News began pounding away, pushing Donald Trump’s
“Big Lie” – not once because they believed it was a valid issue, but because it
was a big ratings winner for their audience. They carried on, in spite of the
fact that the head of the entire organization did not believe the story. In a
sworn deposition, Rupert Murdoch was asked by lawyers for Dominion if he
agreed that there was “massive fraud” in the election, and he replied, “No. I
have never even studied it.” And yet, under questioning, Murdoch acknowledged
that his on-air stars were hawking the unsubstantiated allegations of election
fraud: “Some of our commentators were endorsing it. I would have liked us to be
stronger in denouncing it, in hindsight.”
Hey Rupert… it’s still happening. Tucker Carlson is
still pushing his “stolen election” crap. You can still stop it.
Or would that hurt the ratings? Damage the revenue stream?
It would more dignified if we found out that Fox lies,
distorts the truth, and commits libel because it believes so passionately in
its political philosophy. But that’s not it! They lie for money.
They lie strategically, focusing on the lies that are proven to draw the
It is painful to accept that people can be so depraved: the
leaders of Fox News knowingly promulgated lies that would damage the confidence
Americans have in their democracy and elected leadership, all to make a few
Every bit as galling: it took a private company – Dominion –
to fork up its own money for a lawsuit for all the world to finally see that
Fox News was sabotaging American democracy for cash.
Where the hell was our government all this time?
Ah, our theme continues. It was Ronald Reagan who dismantled
a finely honed regulatory system that oversaw the media industry. Back then, three
television networks were only able to broadcast content to homes by leasing
public radio spectrum owned by the people and operated by the United States
Government. The government could – and did -- demand that broadcasters operate
to a code of ethics, standards of decency, and provide equal time to different
voices along the political continuum. The threat? If the government felt that a
broadcaster was failing to live up to its public obligations, the broadcast license
could be pulled and – poof – the National Broadcasting Company would cease
to exist in the time it took to air a Chevy commercial on Bonanza.
This was a finely balanced conflict: Edwin R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite
served as a powerful check on the Federal government, standing up to corrupt
Senators and woefully misguided Presidents. In turn, the FCC stood up to
television networks, ripping them in public when they aired fraudulent game shows.
That purposeful and often pitched opposition made both government and journalism better.
I know the rigorous standards and protocols that television networks adhered to back then very
well. When I was a junior exec at the Ogilvy & Mather
ad agency in 1980, one of my responsibilities was securing “network
clearance” of scripts for television commercials. Prior to filming a commercial, we had to prove
to NBC, CBS, and ABC that the claims we were making in our commercial were factually
accurate – or they would not air them. If we wanted to claim that “Country
Time tastes like good old-fashioned lemonade,” we had to implement nationwide
taste tests among consumers to prove that our claim was valid in
the minds of consumers.
Compare that meticulous scrutiny to the howitzer of
bullshit flying out of Tucker Carlson’s mouth every night. How did this happen?
How did television degrade from public trust to public manipulation in the span
of a couple of decades?
It is not as complicated as you’d think. During the Reagan
administration, the famous “equal access” law, which required television
networks to afford “equal time” to competing ideological perspectives and candidates, was repealed.
The rise of cable television created a mechanism for the distribution of content
that was not rooted in the “public radio spectrum” model of broadcast television,
and the neutered FCC did not assert the same authority over cable programming
as it did on broadcast. The result: families
had Fox News and pornography streaming into their living rooms without any
government oversight, hindrance, or guidelines.
What’s worse: the government had every right to assert the
same “public radio spectrum” model for the nascent internet that it had for
broadcast television. United States taxpayer dollars paid for the original ARPAnet,
the predecessor of today’s internet. The government had every right imaginable
to put in rules and regulations about how private citizens and companies used the internet, which was essentially a public utility paid for by taxpayers. But in our post-Reagan “anti-government, anti-regulation”
religion, the United States government ignored the internet, and allowed it to grow
like a weed, spurred on by porn sites and pirated music. The United States
government just punted, and watched the internet fall under the total
control of amoral creeps from Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk.
And now, Mark Zuckerberg tries to justify the freak
show of viral streaming deceit on his platform as standing up for “First Amendment
Rights.” Zuckerberg knows that if he was ever required to
fully police the hate speech, conspiracy fever, and defamation happening daily
on Facebook, he would have to reallocate his entire profit margin to hire
an army of lawyers.
And where are our Republican friends in all of this?
Today, Republicans want to arrest drag queens because
of the “danger” they pose to impressionable youth. Yet these same Republicans forget that their deregulation of the media industry is
why your cable box has an entire menu option devoted to pornography… right there
in your living room.
Once again, too
many ironies in the fire.
Yes, it is a popular Republican trope to say that our
government is “too big.” That’s lazy.
Do we have an imbalance between revenue and expense? You
betcha. Should we fix it? Yes, but perhaps by considering raising taxes on the
richest Americans and corporations, rather than the knee-jerk response of “cutting
government.” Cutting regulations and regulators merely increases the odds that
more SVBs will happen… which are astronomically more costly to our economy than
the salaries of the regulators who could help prevent the failures in the first
We come full circle: we have
a government that has convinced itself that “government is the problem.”
It is our own fault. We, the people. We were served a lie by
Ronald Reagan, and too many people bought it.
It is our problem.
We, the people, who as a society can no longer tell truth
from lie, and right from wrong.
We have government that bans books in Florida, but gives Tucker Carlson an open microphone to lie about the reliability of our elections, undercutting faith in our own democracy.
Millions stare at Fox News, and have no idea that Tucker
Carlson is lying to them for the precise intent of feverishly stroking the erroneous
zone that makes them want to watch more… more lies, more hate, more
justification for their bigotry, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.
All for greed. All for money. We now know that Tucker
Carlson does not say what he believes. He says what will make more money… for
Fox News, and for himself.
And while everyone else in the country now knows this, the
Fox viewer will never learn. Because Fox won’t tell them, and that’s the only
news they watch.
What have we learned from this horrendous confluence of
The rich and powerful stand to make the most money when there is the least
regulation. It is the rich and powerful who want the lowest taxes, not only to
further enrich themselves, but also to they cut off the oxygen to the
government that would police them. You
will recall that one reason Donald Trump was able to get away with paying
virtually no income tax was because he had an army of accountants and lawyers pushing every trick to the max to avoid tax payments… and the IRS had but one person
assigned to review Trump’s thousands of pages of tax filing.
We need to reverse this death spiral.
We need new taxes on wealthy
individuals and businesses to ensure that our government has the manpower, the
laws, and the enforcement mechanisms to regulate the rogues to the full measure
Because Ronald Reagan was wrong.
Government is not the problem. Greed is.
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