Molly Ivins December 24
AUSTIN, Texas — Goodness, someone has left some nasty little lumps of coal in our stockings. Fortunately, someone else put in a few nice, shiny toys.
Look at this lousy lump. Just before it left town last week, Congress passed a little horror called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, brought to us courtesy of heavy lobbying by Wall Street banks and investment brokers.
Frank Portnoy, writing in The New York Times, describes the bill thusly: "First, it lifts a long-standing ban on futures trading in individual stocks, thus allowing investors to buy shares through brokers with very little money down. Second, it protects a lucrative business for bankers — the private financial contracts known as swaps — from being regulated. ... Investors are affected by swaps because they are ... used by many mutual funds and publicly traded companies."
Note the cunning timing of this odious piece of special-interest legislation. The Nasdaq is wobbling and the Dow's not healthy, while our merry brethren on Wall Street are cashing in their usual obscene Christmas bonuses. As all you happy capitalists know, you now have to pony up half the purchase price of stock before buying; you can only borrow double what you put up from a broker. This is known as buying on margin, and some experts believe it's already too generous.
You will recall that the proximate cause of the Great Crash of '29 was too many buying on wide margins. Under this new law, you can buy stock futures with almost nothing up front, borrowing more than 10 times your own investment. Think how much that will do for the stability of the stock market.
Notice, too, that we have just been informed by the Securities and Exchange Commission that an earlier piece of Wall Street special-interest lobbying has been a windfall for Wall Street and done zip for consumers. The recent SEC report says that brokerage firms have pocketed millions of dollars from the new competitive arrangement in the trading of stock options while passing on almost none of the money to customers. Does this remind you of Lucy and the football in "Peanuts"?
"The commission found that from November 1999 through September 2000 the options specialists paid $33 million to retail brokerage firms for directing their orders, with one brokerage firm collecting $6 million and six others getting more than $2 million each. None of the large recipients passed those payments on to customers, either through reduced commissions or rebates," the Times reported.
Why does this not amaze us?
Meanwhile, in our goody bags, President Clinton left a nice veto that unhappily becomes of greater interest every day.
(Reminds me of a Jim Hightower line. Someone once said in his presence, "Phil Gramm is his own worst enemy." Hightower promptly replied, "Not while I'm still alive.")
This ugly power grab by the credit-card industry would have made it far more difficult for average people drowning in debt to simply declare bankruptcy and start over, even with all the attendant drawbacks that involves. The so-called reform would have made it almost impossible ever to get out from under high-interest debts. Even such unlikely populists as Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois were outraged.
Of course, the credit industry wouldn't have needed to push such a rotten bill if it hadn't also been pushing credit card after credit card on people who are not financially able to carry them. Thanks for the veto, Bill.
On a more positive note, the Clinton administration is about to leave us several new national monuments — meaning protected public lands. Clinton has once again outplayed Congress on the budget and is now free to fade as much heat as he wants for whatever he can do between now and Jan. 20. Say what you will about the man, he is a master politician.
He is also leaving us a spiffy new set of rules to protect our medical privacy. Naturally, the insurance companies and the HMOs are opposed to the new rules, but since it has taken five years to get this far, we can only hope the president-elect has enough sense to leave the rules in place. George W. Bush can come in with clean hands and blame it all on Clinton, saying, "Sorry, it was a done deal before I got here."
This is an interesting issue for students of democracy in that it boiled up from the grass roots. Politicians were slow to catch on that people are just steamed about having information about their private lives not just bandied about but sold for assorted commercial purposes. All the better to market more stuff to you, my dear. The wave of I-want-my-privacy anger caught the Establishment off guard and it has scrambled to catch up, even as the health-care industry set up an organized whine about how much it would all cost.
Essentially, the new rules require written consent from patients before disclosure of their medical records, even for routine purposes like the payment of claims. And yes, there is some cost attached, though not as much as the health-care industry is claiming.
And in the meantime, I wish each and every one of you (even the Republicans) a very merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, joyous Kwanzaa, feliz Navidad, reflective Ramadan and whatever it is that you pagans do at this time of year. May we all have a lovely time and treat one another with special kindness.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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