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VIEWPOINT:

The ACORN Affair: A lesson in Waspishness

by J. Russell Tyldesley

Republicans are now portraying themselves as populists, guarding the Treasury against the predations of such groups as ACORN, while painting Democrats as the party of the elites.

It is amazing how fast Congress rushed to judgment in passing legislation to "defund" ACORN, based on an "indictment." Compared to, say, health care legislation and climate change legislation, it was lightning-fast. Better to go where there is easy consensus. But, where is the fairness? Even Barack Obama said (after the legislation passed) that he would like to see a probe, an investigation into the practices of certain ACORN employees caught on a hidden-camera video. Why a sentence before an investigation? Are we now in an Alice in Wonderland world in Congress?

What this swift action by Congress seems to indicate is that Republicans continue to be able to bully Democrats when issues of race and class and war are involved. And these are only the obvious pressure points where the Democrats exhibit profound weakness. Not many Democrats were willing to support ACORN, despite the memberships' exemplary loyalty to Democratic candidates and despite having registered millions of African-Americans in the ghettos of America over the past two decades who, of course, tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Republicans, of course, do not want the voting franchise extended to the poor and to minorities who are the victims of Republican trickle-down economic policies. Republicans are now portraying themselves as populists, guarding the Treasury against the predations of such groups as ACORN, while painting Democrats as the party of the elites. This, in part, is what the "tea-party" protests were all about. I doubt, however, that they are fooling most of the people in the aggrieved classes. It will, of course, appeal to the "Base."

To put ACORN's activities with Federal funds in perspective, it is reported that they received $53 million over the past 15 years, primarily for their housing efforts on behalf of the poor. That averages out to $3.5 million per year, considerably less than each of the thousands of pork-barrel earmarks hidden in most Congressional bills. Considering all the good ACORN has done for the poor and dispossessed over the years, it strikes me that this is a bargain.

Republicans and their Democratic enablers could save billions of taxpayer money in many places, but they would rather focus on the small change given to ACORN and other non-profits engaged in socially beneficial work.

Consider too the money squandered just in Iraq and Afghanistan since the invasions. We have all witnessed how the crony corporations tied to Bush and Cheney (like Halliburton and Blackwater, for instance) have received billions of dollars in no-bid contracts and then been unable to account for at least $8 billion of this money to this day. Similar giveaways to favored donor corporations describes the pitifully disorganized and inadequate relief efforts in the ghettoes of New Orleans after Katrina struck. We will not get into here how the not-so-benign neglect of the needs of this city made the disastrous consequences of Katrina inevitable. These corporations who feed on disasters still continue to feed at the public trough even when (in the case of Blackwater) they are under indictment for murder. There are many places where Republicans and their Democratic enablers could save billions of taxpayer money, but they would rather focus on the small change given to ACORN and other non-profits engaged in socially beneficial work.

ACORN was in the forefront of the effort to ban subprime lending at the local level, all over the country.

One irony of trying to de-fang and de-fund a movement of the people (which ACORN arguably is) involves sub-prime lending—or predatory lending, as it is more aptly named. ACORN was in the forefront of the effort to ban such invidious practices at the local level, all over the country. We now know that this scam was what ultimately became the straw that broke the back of the entire economy of America and most of the rest of the world. ACORN chapters across the country were trying ten years ago to get the attention of their elected watchdogs to the injustice and unsustainability of the onerous loans being perpetrated on the poor in poor neighborhoods under cover of the Community Reinvestment Act as it applied to banks. All this was well before we had the "liar" loans, no down payment loans, low doc loans, and ALT-A loans that we have all become familiar with as we watch our 401-Ks become 201Ks.

No, the people served by ACORN were being scammed long before we entered the great recession of this decade. I know about this first-hand because I accompanied delegations of ACORN to the Baltimore City Department of Finance and to the State of Maryland legislature to argue in favor of local laws to protect people from deceptive lending practices and "catch-22" mortgage contracts. We were repulsed by the power of the banking lobby, which was able to persuade legislators that local regulations would be a hardship on banks that had to operate in many states and banks could not be expected to have to spend the time figuring out the different ways they might have to operate in these different states. The insurance industry has never had much of a problem with differing state regulations, but so it goes. It's worth noting that the insurance industry, except for health insurance, is actually pretty competitive; banking is not, as we have come to realize. Thus, Citigroup was able to extract a $3 million tax abatement from Baltimore in order to keep their predatory lending subsidiary in the City neighborhod where they could be closer to their prey.

If our exalted leaders had listened to ACORN 10 years ago instead of to the hard-lobbying banking industry, we may have averted the debacle that brought Wall Street to the brink, only to be saved by the public—including the very people who were bamboozled.

If our exalted leaders had listened to ACORN back then instead of to the hard-lobbying banking industry, we may have averted the debacle where devilishly clever derivative securities were used to cover up the weaknesses contained in the underlying collateral, bringing Wall Street to the brink, only to be bailed out by the public—the very people they bamboozled. Including government guarantees to the banking industry, it is estimated that the Federal Government has ponied up $14 trillion to save our financial system (perhaps only to fail again, given the tepid approach, so far, to re-regulation). Compare that $14 trillion with the $53 million for ACORN over 15 years, and their prescient warnings that went unheeded.

If Obama really wants to prove he is listening, he should not sign this bill de-funding ACORN—a ridiculous, patently political piece of garbage produced by this ethically-challenged Congress.

We had hoped that our President would be a chap that would listen to the people, even the unimportant and disadvantaged part of the population, rather than to the corporate people that are so revered in Congress and (it is to be feared) at the Supreme Court of the land. He may not have a tin ear like his predecessor, but if he really wants to prove he is listening, he should not sign this de-funding bill, so quickly passed by both houses of Congress. He, of all people, should know the real ACORN, and his refusal to sign should be accompanied by an explanation in detail to Congress and the people. This would be an act of political courage, but should be easy given the ridiculous, patently political piece of garbage the bill is, produced by this ethically-challenged Congress.


J. Russell Tyldesley, a retired Maryland insurance executive, writes from Santa Fe, NM.



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This story was published on September 24, 2009.