Monday, March 23, 2009

No sense arguing with pitchfork carriers


Everyone loves a scapegoat. And Chris Dodd is a convenient target.

But his current controversy puts Countrywide mortgages and his 2007 Iowa move to shame. He, along with some rich, previously anonymous AIG executives who live in Fairfield County, is at the top of the nation’s enemies list for, so the charges go, letting the people who ruined the economy collect huge bonuses, paid for by the government, and then lying about it. Off with his head.

What he’s actually guilty of can be limited to a poor explanation of his actions. But that hasn’t stopped the mob.

It started more than a month ago when the Senate passed the Obama administration’s stimulus package. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 14, "The giant stimulus package that cleared Congress Friday includes a last-minute addition that restricts bonuses for top earners at firms receiving federal cash — including those that already received it — more severely than the Obama administration’s previous pay limits."

That last-minute addition — to retroactively limit executive bonuses at companies the government bailed out — was put into the Senate version of the bill by Chris Dodd, the guy we all hate so much.

But that addition didn’t make the final version of the bill. Once it went into the House-Senate conference, where they reconcile each body’s version to create a common bill to send to the president, its effect was nullified. "The administration is concerned the rules will prompt a wave of banks to return the government’s money and forgo future assistance, undermining the aid program’s effectiveness," the Journal reported at the time. "Both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who heads the National Economic Council, had called Sen. Dodd and asked him to reconsider."

The administration thought the provision would backfire. The president was not going to sign it with the retroactive limit on bonuses. So, at the administration’s insistence, the final version of the bill allowed for AIG, and anyone else covered in the bailouts, to pay their agreed-upon bonuses. Which they did.

(Incidentally, the argument that these bonuses represent sacrosanct "signed contracts" that must be honored lest we tumble into a socialist quagmire is ridiculous. When it’s workers, not executives, on the other end, companies break contracts all the time. Why is it every union from here to Alaska has been told to renegotiate its terms or else? Aren’t those contracts "sacred"?)

This has been part of a long-term trend. Since last year, when the economy went into free fall, at least half the political world has designated as villains Dodd and his House counterpart, Barney Frank. Those two, the argument goes, are to blame for the recession because they ran their banking committees for two whole years before the world collapsed.

The Obama administration, especially its Treasury Department, simply picked up this thread. When the outcry over the AIG bonuses exploded, the blame was put on someone already on the receiving end of misplaced outrage. Dodd had moved to limit the bonuses, but instead was blamed for enabling them. Maybe there’s some nefarious reason why he would have inserted a strict pay-limiting amendment only to weaken it, with no outside pressure, later in the process. But no one has come up with anything.

Coming so soon after his benefits on a pair of mortgage deals and the grumbling about his missed service while he ran for president, these incidents are taking a real toll. Republicans desperate to find Democrats to blame for the recession smell blood.

And in the past week, Dodd has been less than clear about the time frame and sequence of his actions. He’s been reluctant to point fingers at specific administration officials. But muddled explanations don’t justify outrage, and the legislative record is clear. You don’t need to think Dodd is a saint to think he’s being unfairly blamed here.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at

Expecting more from public figures


This didn't have to be a big issue. If University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun had kept his temper in check, this story would have gone nowhere.

He didn't, of course, and now his insulting response to a question at a post-game news conference has become the talk of the sports world, and beyond. It's about far more than salaries and deficits -- it's about basic decency.

The issue is not whether Calhoun should, as his questioner suggested, give back some of his salary in light of the state budget crisis. No one in a position of authority -- the athletic director, university president, governor, etc. -- has asked him to, so there is nothing for him to refuse.

This is also not an issue of whether his salary is justified. The university pays him what it thinks he is worth; if he disagreed, he could go somewhere else and maybe make more money. Both sides entered into his contract with a full understanding of how the system works.

Most of Calhoun 's job is based on one thing -- winning basketball games. On that score, his success may be unsurpassed in the entire country. That UConn is in the upper echelon of programs -- alongside North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, etc. -- would have been unthinkable before he arrived in the 1980s. Every other consistently top program has a tradition of greatness. Calhoun had to create UConn's tradition, and he has.

And the impact is hard to measure in dollars and cents. The bottom line shows the athletic department brings in far more money than it pays to run a basketball program, whether from ticket sales, sports paraphernalia or TV rights. What it can't measure is how many more students have chosen UConn over other schools because of the winning sports teams; or how much extra money alumni donate because they like what they see on the court.

It's true not all his players graduate, but a significant number go on to successful careers, in basketball or otherwise.

Then there's the change in the university's wider reputation. Its academic standards and physical infrastructure are dramatically improved from a generation ago. At least a small part of the credit should go to its highly visible athletic successes.

There are many budget items that drain significant funds from the state and university -- Jim Calhoun 's salary is not among them.

But another part of his job is to be the public face of the university. And no matter how much money he brings in; no matter how much positive publicity he creates for the school and the state; no matter how much he gives to charity, he has responsibilities. High on that list is basic decency.

If he didn't like the question, or he didn't think it was appropriate, there are ways to handle that without resorting to saying, "Shut up." Calhoun has never been known for his diplomacy, but that doesn't mean the state doesn't have the right to expect better.

Workers, players better off organized


You can blame the unions and public employees if you want to. But when there's only one group of people that can feel remotely secure in their employment, I have a hard time taking them to task.

At every level, the call is for concessions. Teachers should forego raises, union contracts must be renegotiated, city workers need to sacrifice benefits. The story in Bridgeport City Hall is the same one in the state Capitol. The inference is that public employees are feeding off the rest of us, and it's time to take it back.

No doubt there are some lazy, good-for-nothing public employees who are wasting time and money. But there isn't a workplace in America that can't say that.

There are changes that should and likely will be made to make the system fairer and more transparent. But a crisis like this brings outbursts against the very idea of collective bargaining, and the protections only available to a lucky few. It's a system that treats workers as disposable that needs reform, not the one that offers a safety net.

Today, in businesses across the nation, people who work for a living watch grim-faced executives hold daylong, closed-door sessions secure in the knowledge they aren't talking about anything good. The jobs shed so far haven't slowed the economic plunge, so everyone knows worse is coming. And it could be any day.

Meanwhile, people who have been able to negotiate a modicum of security over the years are held up for ridicule. The autoworkers are blamed for Detroit's troubles, much like homeowners are said to be responsible for the mortgage crisis.

Surely some people took advantage of the housing bubble, and took what they could and ran. But most people didn't. A mortgage is like any contract; it has two parties, and usually only one is well versed in how the system works. If a lot of people ended up borrowing beyond their means, it was often because they believed the hype about all-powerful markets.

So now, in a situation where the news gets grimmer day by day, in one industry after another, we're told to take out our anger on the one group of people lucky enough to enjoy some security. Organized labor exerts only a fraction of the influence it once had in this country. But it's no coincidence that the only people it still covers are those best equipped to ride out this economy.

Missing in the debate about Jim Calhoun and his salary is the question of the performers themselves, and what they are worth. The coach is the mainstay -- the only link between the greats of years' past and the current product. But no one pays to see Calhoun roam the sidelines, entertaining as that can be.

It's the players who produce the value. Without them, there's nothing. But of the billions of dollars spent in this country on college sports and their marketing, they end up with a pittance.

An athletic scholarship is not to be minimized -- a lot of people would pay dearly for the opportunities it can provide. But at a total value of, say, $120,000 over four years, it doesn't come close to matching the value produced by even an average player on a successful team.

If the coach is paid $1.6 million a year, how much is the point guard worth?

Some players will go on to successful basketball careers after college, a (very) few of them in the NBA. But for many, this is it. They fuel a multibillion-dollar enterprise and see the equivalent of a few pennies tossed their way. If they find a way to profit and get caught, they risk being banned from the sport.

The solution is uncertain, but people who make big money in this business should hope the players never organize themselves.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at

Dodd may face trouble, but from whom?


Whether he deserves it or not, Chris Dodd will be fine. He's taken a beating for a year, and almost all of it could have been avoided. Whatever his reasons, he hasn't handled his problems with much dexterity. The infuriated reactions from his constituents were entirely predictable.

But as his poll numbers drop and he gets ready to run for re-election next year, he lacks the one factor that could give him real trouble -- an opponent. Without much in the way of a Republican bench, it's hard to think who could step in and give him a real race. And without a viable alternative, he'll cruise to re-election, regardless of his approval ratings.

Plenty of people are exhausted by politics, and have no desire to jump into thinking about 2010 already. The president has barely been in office a month, after all. But this is the time any opponent would have to get a campaign under way, and start the long process of fundraising and building up name recognition.

People who forecast elections for a living have been surveying the field, and say there's nothing to see in Connecticut. Writers for The Washington Post, Roll Call magazine and elsewhere say it's no more than a middle-of-the-pack contest -- not an absolute lock, but nowhere near the most competitive in the country (look to New Hampshire or Ohio for that). Since no more than a handful of Senate incumbents lose most years, Dodd is in good shape.

Surely someone will arise to challenge him, but the possibilities are slim. The Republicans have three recently defeated ex-congressmen running around, but whether any of them would be willing to put his name on the line in what might be a futile cause is unclear. All three of them -- Chris Shays, Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson -- are out of Congress because the voters rejected them, and are not all that well-known outside their respective districts.

There are Republican leaders in the state Assembly, but they face huge hurdles over name recognition. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield is the son of a former Congress member, but that was two decades ago.

A number of analysts say the only Republican who could give Dodd a real contest is the one who's likely to run away with her own re-election campaign next year -- Gov. M. Jodi Rell. If she has any interest in running for Senate, she's keeping it quiet.

In electoral danger or not, watching Dodd flail about these past few months dealing with questions about his mortgage refinancing deals has been frustrating. It's hard to figure why he couldn't have put all this to rest a year ago by making everything public. Also, his decision to temporarily move his family to Iowa in a quixotic bid for the presidency had predictably negative repercussions. He was elected to serve Connecticut, and people expect him to be here.

He's also emerged, along with Rep. Barney Frank, as a flash point for Republican anger over the economy, but that's hardly his fault. Any Democrat serving as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee during this mess would have been vilified.

It's all the more infuriating because his accomplishments are already forgotten. Dodd took unpopular stands against the worst excesses of the Bush years that deserve to be recognized; instead, they've been subsumed by all the unforced errors. He was the most passionate, eloquent voice in the Senate arguing against the idea of granting retroactive immunity to telephone companies that may have broken the law by helping the government eavesdrop on Americans. If they want to be exonerated, let them prove it in court, Dodd reasonably argued.

He lost that battle, but deserves credit for having fought it. Instead, while waiting to find out his opponent, all anyone wants to talk about is his mortgage rate.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at