Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Filthy lucre

By Don Klein

We used to make lots of fun when growing up by suggesting money was the root of all evil. When we were young we often used the phrase "filthy lucre" to describe how money dishonored otherwise nice people. We knew it was wrong to influenced by cold cash but secretly we all hoped to have an opportunity to be so tainted.

As we moved through life we noticed that the concept of filthy lucre was alive and well everywhere we turned. People, try as they may to do the right thing often are swayed by the lure of money. Immature boys would hone their athletic skills at the expense of a good education not because they loved sports but because of the prospect of making big bucks as a pro.

Little girls, some as young as five, are entered into beauty contests with eyes focused on an ultimate career in films so they could dress up in fancy clothes and live an eventual life of luxury as a superstar. The prospect of success and the money that goes with it seems to drive the ambitions of many.

Most of these end up as disappointments, but that doesn’t stop the next wave of youngsters from trying.

You would think politics is different. Many say they went into public service because of a earnest desire to do good. They say they want to improve the lot of the people, but once elected or appointed to powerful office, the filthy lucre syndrome takes hold. Often the influence of money is subtle and almost imperceptible, often it is bold and ugly.

Why would a respectable politician like Tom Daschle need to place his career in jeopardy for the sake of a chauffeur driven car provided by an organization that wants a Congressional connection? Why would a solid, up by his bootstraps John Edwards, need a sordid love affair at the potential height of his political career? Why would Charles Rangel, a senior member of the House of Representatives seek a $10 million gift from AIG to build a school in his honor?

The answer is power. If you got it, you use it, you take advantage of it.

Power was what got Newt Gingrich in trouble in 1997 when he was brought up on ethics charges by the House of Representatives, when he was House Speaker at the time. There were 84 charges filed against him but the most serious was claiming tax-exemption status for college courses he ran for political purposes. He paid a fine for $300,000 and resigned his seat for the 1999 term.

What brought him down? Filthy lucre, again.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Vietnam veteran who served multiple terms in the House of Representatives admitted taking bribes to the tune of $2.4 million from defense contractors and another $1 million in other bribes. He denied it at first than confessed and eventually was sentenced to prison in California.

And then we have the bizarre case of Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana. When the FBI raided his home in 2006 suspecting bribery funds extracted from a defense contractor, they found $90,000 in cash in his freezer. Another $10,000 was wrapped in freezer food containers. After a series of trials and appeals, Jefferson finally was defeated for reelection in 2008.

The answer rings in our ears over and over again: Filthy lucre. Filthy lucre. Filthy lucre.

These are just a few of the recent cases, but we keep learning over and over again what motivates many of our trusted lawmakers. It not always is money. There are other ways to satisfy an individual’s need to exercise power. Bill Clinton found it in a satellite office adjacent to the Oval Office. Others found it in writing suggestive letters to Congressional pages.

The most notable – in terms of rank -- of all cases of political greed during last half century was Spiro Agnew, the vice president in the Richard Nixon administration. The full impact of the Agnew scandal never reached absolute momentum because ten months later, Nixon, who himself was neck deep in a personal scandal, was forced to resign or face impeachment in the wake of the Watergate case.

Agnew’s situation had nothing to do with Watergate but was just as surly. He was charged with receiving a $10,000 cash bribe in a plain envelope on White House grounds. The bribe allegedly was a payoff to Agnew who when governor of Maryland had provided lucrative state contracts to a contractor.

On October 10, 1973 the country was treated to the dismaying specter of the vice president of the United States pleading no contest to bribery charges in a Baltimore court. In exchange for his resignation Agnew was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation and fined $10,000, the exact amount of the bribe.

Filthy lucre at its zenith, but pretty small by today’s standards.

When you have power, your have privileges. That’s the way it should be. Executives, like mayors, governors ad presidents deserve respect, deserve their prerogatives and entitlements. It comes with the job. They have nice offices, usually a home provided by taxpayers, have large staffs working for them, are given personal security and officially provided speedy and comfortable transportation. It’s a tough job and deserves rewards.

But those rewards cannot be monetary and cannot be in exchange for official action because legally no one is said to be above the law, especially elected officials sworn to serve the people.

The enticement of filthy lucre has to be controlled.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The immutable pair – swindlers and suckers.

By Don Klein

P.T. Barnum, the legendary American circus impresario was reported to have said, "There is a sucker born every minute." Some historians dispute whether Barnum was the actual author of those words, but no matter who coined the phrase, it is Bernard Madoff who perfected the adage. To put it more succinctly -- $60 billion worth of suckers.

Now clearly everyone should have sympathy for those who lost their wealth and in some cases their life’s savings, but all of the victims should be welcomed into the Suckers Hall of Fame. Even I, a very minor player in the stock market with a piddling portfolio, knows that you do not put all you eggs in one basket.

Haven’t we all been taught from childhood the well-worn proverb: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t."

When thinking of the Madoff scandal I can only conclude that there will always be swindlers like him because of one documented human factor. Greed. There are always those who hope to beat the odds or outsmart others by making a better deal than anyone else.

These are the people who are red meat for swindlers. Come up with a juicy idea that allegedly will make more money for you than you ever thought possible and you will have a steady supply of suckers beating a path to your door. They can be taken for all they are worth.

With homage to Barnum (or whoever talked about suckers being born every day), the sad thing about this is that after the balloon bursts these chumps look for someone else with deep pockets to extenuate their losses. They want the government to cover their foolishness because the Security and Exchange Commission didn’t do its job monitoring Madoff. That’s like suing the fire department for not saving your burning house.

Back in 1985 there was a swindle in Baltimore on a much lesser scale than Madoff’s. In that case the Old Court Saving and Loan Association, insured by a private company, offered much higher interest than other financial institutions. High rate seekers flocked to Old Court, dumped thousands of dollars in savings and were burned when the S&L president absconded with the money. The association failed and the depositors insisted on the state reimbursing them because the insurance firm, unable to cover the losses, operated under state law.

A congenial Gov. Harry Hughes, more concerned about reelection than wasting taxpayers money, complied after a time. The insult was that investors sought the advantage over careful taxpayers in seeking higher interest rates in Maryland yet when the bank failed insisted on the taxpayers bailing them out.

What happened to the risk factor in investments? Sounds familiar?

Is there any meaning anymore for personal responsibility? Have we created a society which happily reaps all the advantages of a free economy but with none of the responsibilities? Nothing forced Madoff investors to put their money with him except his phony salesmanship and their greed. That’s the risk of investing. Does everyone have a right to a bailout?

Swindlers make good fiction but bad reality. I remember the fun it was to watch the film "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" to observe the three main characters – Michael Caine, Steve Martin and Glenne Headly – try to out smart each other in fraud following fraud. It was a classic gyp comedy that previously could have starred favorites like Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant. In fact years later it was made into a Broadway play.

Then there was "The Producers." The Mel Brooks play about swindlers who decided that it was profitable in selling well over 100 percent of the shares of the play that they expect to fail so the shyster producers would reap a fortune in massive over subscriptions when the play closed. People eager to have a piece of Broadway gladly invested in the nefarious plot, which backfires when the show, "Springtime for Hitler," becomes a hit.

"The Producers" with Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Dick Shawn, was a classic Broadway show which later became a film hit. The film won the Academy Awards for script writing. A few years ago it was revived on the stage and was the draw on Broadway during its long run.

People love swindles when it happens to others. I predict that just about every Madoff victim saw at least one or maybe both of these plays or films and laughed their sides off. But they are not laughing anymore. It is truly sad. There is nothing funny about swindles in real life. Losers want their money back, but must realize they will never see it again, except for a possible fraction that the government can offer from Madoff’s seized assets.

The best thing about the Madoff case so far is that he is now sitting in jail, not in his posh New York penthouse.

Next year though, or the year after or the year after that, another Madoff will emerge with a great line of hocus on how to make money by investing with him and the suckers will trample over each other to buy in. And soon after they will go through the same pain as Madoff’s investors because even if Barnum didn’t say it, there is a sucker born every minute.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Castration for sex offenders?

By Don Klein

To most of us there is nothing more despicable than a child molester or a person who rapes. These are usually men who have an uncontrollable need to dominate those weaker than themselves – children and women. Sex is just the weapon they use.

I come to this subject not with any psychological credentials but from the perspective of a onetime police reporter who had a keener knowledge about sex crimes than ordinary members of society. It has been said many times than rape has little to do with sex and most to do with dominance.

Even if that is so, when one person brutalizes another person by destroying their will and making their body the tool of their rage, it should be considered a sex crime. It has been with humanity through the ages. A large part of ancient slavery was not only dominance but sexual bondage.

The battle cry of embattled hordes through history has been "kill the men and carry off the women." Women and children were viewed as spoils of war, booty that the Romans, for example, brought home after military campaigns to be sold at auction to toil as human property. Through World War II and continuing today in Darfur, rampaging armies on all sides have committed rape almost as a battle ritual.

But that is war and much is ignored in the name of the awful stress of combat. Not so back in civilian life and that is the problem where often the rapist and child abuser roams our streets looking for vulnerable individuals to prey upon. Their only explanation for some is the uncontrollable urge to satisfy their need to dominate and harm others of lesser physical dimensions.

There are others, however, who just like to beat other people, especially those they deem helpless. These are bullies who consider sex domination a personal conquest and proof of their superiority and even their cockeyed rights.

The sex offender is a societal abomination who is driven by ugly impulses. Laws won’t stop them. Police cannot protect everyone. The courts can lock them up, but it will not change the offender. Society can label them as sex offenders but they are like a can of gasoline near an open flame – you never know when they will explode, if at all.

For years there have be those who advocate the castration of sex offenders. This they say will serve two purposes. For one, it will end their sex drive and also will serve as a deterrent. In Prague recently, a man only identified as Pavel, volunteered to be surgically castrated to rid himself of his offensive trends.

Twenty years ago, when Pavel was 18, he lured a 12 year-old boy from his neighborhood into his home and stabbed him five times. Pavel said his sexual desires were set off after viewing a Bruce Lee martial arts film. He has spent some of the time since in prison or institutionalized. Today he works as a gardener at a Catholic charity.

"I can finally live knowing that I am no harm to anybody," he said in an interview with The New York Times, "I am living a productive life. I want to tell people that there is help."
The question is, is this the answer to the problem posed by sex offenders? Is castration better than having to live the rest of your life branded as a sex offender who must report where he lives to authorities whenever he moves and be an immediate suspect of every sex crime which occurs in his neck of the woods?

Castration as a deterrent is questionable if the act results from irrepressible instincts, not cool premeditation? And isn’t castration a draconian solution in a nation which prides itself on the Eight Amendment of the Constitution barring "cruel and unusual" punishment?

Then again when you weigh that against the cruelty suffered by the victims of sex crimes, which in many cases lasts a lifetime, where should the weight of the law fall? The only deterrent to crime seems to be when the individual responsible for the criminal act is caught, tried and locked away in prison. It doesn’t stop others from following in his path. And when you are dealing with instinctive crimes, it is not even in the quotient.

But the question of castration for convicted sex offenders is an appealing thought for many. Why should society care how severely a sex brute is treated after the commission of such heinous crimes? As Pavel said after his castration he now can live a normal life. Maybe castration is not so grievous after all.

The recent focus on violence in the home has reduced substantially those instances of wife beatings. More women call police for help and wife beaters have gotten the message that you can’t get away with brutalizing your spouse.

Perhaps if more attention was placed on sex crimes there would be a reduction in the number of men who rape not because they can’t control themselves but for the so-called pleasure of dominance. Cutting off the male sex organs could work as a threat to these. But is this the only solution we can find in a so-called civilized community?

Before answering that question I would remind everyone that the United States is one of the few industrialized nations of the west that still executes criminals convicted of capital crimes. What is as cruel as taking a person’s life? Certainly not castration.

NEXT: There will always be swindlers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The rule of rude

By Don Klein

If you visited New York City this winter you might have gotten the impression that there has been an attitudinal metamorphosis among big city dwellers. Had they really mellowed into a twilight zone of kindliness and civility?

Could the elusive miracle have happened? Has the page been turned? Have the denizens of the city that never sleeps become tamed? Not at all. Have faith children. The tribe of the ugly New Yorker we all know so well is still plentiful. They simply have gone to Florida for the winter.

Let me explain. The day after New Year’s we made a special trip to the city on the Hudson primarily to attend a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. We were stupefied at how well behaved everyone was during that noteworthy weekend. Everywhere we were met with cordiality, helpfulness and pleasantries. At every level of contact. Can you believe it?

I concluded that things have changed since I grew up in what is often called The Big Apple. I remember brusque behavior was the rule, competition down to the level of out-pacing someone for a seat on the subway or racing one’s auto ahead of others to the next traffic light, and elbowing one’s self to the front of any line.

We were indoctrinated in that behavior as children. When my mother-in-law sent my wife as a young girl to the bakery Sunday morning, older more field tested women would push past her to order their bagels out of sequence of their arrival at the store. She learned to push back and use her elbows as well. We all did.

None of that existed while we spent the post New Year weekend in the Times Square area. A miracle? A transformation? Had Jehovah fired a lightning bolt down on the street of a million lights? None of these. I now realize that the people we ran into during that fateful visit were those employed in tourism, where it pays to be pleasant, or out-of-towners who were unaware of the New York rule of rude.

Six weeks later we found ourselves visiting friendly relatives in lower Florida when much to our surprise, we discovered a nest of ugly, wayward and temporarily displace New Yorkers. They were hiding right out in the open, basking in the subtropical sun. The southland did not improve their bad manners though. They brought them with them.

I first noticed this on the broad, well-defined Florida roads. The motorist who gives no quarter to anyone is always present, cutting other drivers off and displaying aggressive lack of concern for everyone. Clearly a New York trait, sometimes shared by others but when they are driving a car with NY plates, there is no need for further ID.

Strangely enough there is a contrast among New York drivers. The opposites are the elderly ones, who after a lifetime of intimidation on northern highways by the aforementioned antagonistic road ruffians, have been reduced to a level of determined timidity so that even backing out of a parking lot space could take longer than unmooring the QM2 and easing it into the Hudson.

It doesn’t end when out of the car and on their feet. There is always the copyrighted Manhattan snarl. You get that if you are unfortunate enough to be in their way in any market environment. New Yorkers are the only people who can make the simple request "please let me pass" sound like "get out of my damn way you freaking dimwit."

Then there are the circumstances of queues at information counters or cashier check-outs or on line to order a deli sandwich or in autos at busy gas stations or waiting to buy a movie ticket. The ugly New Yorker is the expert at weaseling ahead of his or her legitimate place in line. It’s a manifestation of the adage "Me first." Women are best at this.

There are other things that make a visit to Florida memorable. Since the Sunshine State is the ultimate destination for seniors it is interesting to watch how they walk. Some lean forward like they are about to fall on their faces while walking, others spread their arms as though they were wings to maintain balance, and some move as though their shoes are attached to the street with Elmer’s Glue.

Then there is the license plate policy in the state where some say there is over thirty different versions. There is the standard plate with an outline map of Florida with two oranges superimposed on top. But that’s just the beginning. There are manatees, panthers, butterflies, alligators, swordfish, flamingos, dolphins, an apple, tie dye, plus all the colleges have their own design, and the Olympics and a family first design. That’s just a few noticed in one busy parking lot and probably represent the most special tags of any state.

These may sound like petty nuisances but after living more than a half century in comparative bucolic Maryland I have lost the killer instincts familiar to my native New York upbringing. I now echo, not abhor, what others used to define as pushiness. I cannot understand the need to be competitive while motoring around town or when ordering a pastrami sandwich.

Now let me mention what I like about Florida:

++ Its wide and convenient local roads.
++ Its abundance of excellent restaurants.
++ Its balmy weather, even when locals describe 70 degrees as chilly. Hah!!
++ Its oranges and grapefruits.
++ Its range of novel shopping centers.

But in some ways it still reminds me of the adage about Paris. You know the one about loving Paris despite the Parisians who live there.

Watch for my next commentary: Castration for sex offenders?