a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Money, money, money and the system: Lawrence Lessig

Posted on the May 28th, 2010

Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig gave a talk last week at the Yahoo! campus (“Innovation Corruption” May 20, 2010). He spoke about how corruption in government and business are blocking innovation in the U.S.

In case you think this has always been the case and isn’t getting much worse, Lessig explains how this isn’t so. The details he provides are more than a little disheartening to hear. But…

His plea to the audience was to not be passive – that the public is very much a part of the problem when clearly there are patterns but no one does anything about it. As a major player in the Internet world, he’d like to see Yahoo! pushing for competition in the IP world. As far as the government is concerned, Lessig would like to see a return to citizen-funded elections – a concept born during Teddy Roosevelt’s term in office. Such a system would eliminate money from the economy of influence – the underlying cause of corruption and ultimate roadblock to innovation.

If you really want to understand precisely how the system goes so incredibly awry, you will learn here.

And if you agree with Lessig, you can go to his website, ChangeCongress.org, and sign up to participate in helping him bring our political leaders back to serving the common good. Lessig’s organization is non-partisan — its sole bias is for the good of “we the people.”  I think Lessig has a great idea here.

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If you love Juliette Binoche..

Posted on the May 28th, 2010

Fans of Juliette Binoche — I’m one! — will enjoy this interview with the French actress in today’s Guardian (“Juliette Binoche: the queen of Cannes” by Xan Brooks).


Binoche is in Cannes to discuss her role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie Conforme) – a performance that will later win her the award for best actress. She stars as a gallery owner who hooks up with a British art historian (played by William Shimell, an opera singer). Together, these two lost souls drive off through the hills of Tuscany, where they first accept and then furnish the misconception that they are actually a couple, married for 15 years and toiling to keep their relationship afloat. En route, She and He talk about artistic forgeries, and ponder the meaning of originality. What Kiarostami is saying here, I think, is that we are all copycats who play-act our lives, and that doesn’t make us any less real…

And if you haven’t seen the movies of Abbas Kiarostami, you’re missing a great director. Earlier post here.

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Is the U.S. Congress really reforming Wall Street?

Posted on the May 28th, 2010

Must read investigative journalist Matt Taibbi provides an unvarnished play-by-play of what (and how) the U.S.Congress is and  is not doing to reform the country’s financial practices (“Wall Street’s War” Rolling Stone, May 26, 2010).

Congress looked serious about finance reform – until America’s biggest banks unleashed an army of 2,000 paid lobbyists.

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Can the gloomy left ever clarify its message?

Posted on the May 27th, 2010

I really like the article yesterday –“The left is trying to take back centre ground in Europe” — in the Netherlands newspaper nrchandelsblad International.  Reporter Marc Leijendekker nails down some of the meatier issues at the center of the accelerating conversation about social democracy versus free market capitalism.

To begin with he addresses the paradox of a voting public in Western democracies that often enough has drifted to the right in recent elections even after the worldwide financial crisis

…laid bare the faults in an economic model in which free market thinking takes centre stage and the state plays a supporting role.

Leijendekker explores some of the reasons for voters’ choices, a well-known and most unpleasant one being that in many cases it was the political leaders of the left who pushed the hardest for freer markets (See Tony Blair’s Third way and Bill Clinton’s Triangulation).

Division of wealth is a focus of the second half of the article, plus a glance at the upcoming June parliamentary elections in the Netherlands where “opinion polls show things are going well for social democracy…”

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Coming up roses at Animoto

Posted on the May 26th, 2010

On an impulse today, I decided to try out Animoto, using some photos I took last spring of a blooming yellow rose on the balcony. It was fun.

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First days with a new camera

Posted on the May 25th, 2010

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When everything old is still only old

Posted on the May 24th, 2010

Some answers to how new media differs from old media are offered in a report published yesterday by Pew Research Center (“How Blogs and Social Media Agendas Relate and Differ from Traditional Press” May 23, 2010). The question was the focus of a 2009, year-long study by Pew.

First answer — the differences between the new and the old are substantial, Pew reports.


Most broadly, the stories and issues that gain traction in social media differ substantially from those that lead in the mainstream press. But they also differ greatly from each other. Of the 29 weeks that we tracked on all three social platforms, blogs, Twitter and YouTube shared the same top story just once…

Each social media platform also seems to have its own personality and function. In the year studied, bloggers gravitated toward stories that elicited emotion, concerned individual or group rights or triggered ideological passion. Often these were stories that people could personalize and then share in the social forum — at times in highly partisan language. And unlike in some other types of media, the partisanship here does not lean strongly to one side or the other. Even on stories like the Tea Party protests, Sarah Palin and public support for Obama both conservative and liberal voices come through strongly…

So much for critics who claim that bloggers and other social media sites are only re-cycled imitations of traditional media. And the finding that new media content isn’t homogeneous indicates that it’s less susceptible to the pack journalism syndrome. That’s good news.

Another finding from the Pew study may point to why traditional media is struggling to gain the eye and ear of new generations of  audience. Referring to content of new media sites, Pew reports:

…top weekly stories differ dramatically from what is receiving attention in the traditional press. Blogs overlap more than Twitter, but even there only about a quarter of the top stories in any given week were the same as in the “MSM.”

Instead, social media tend to home in on stories that get much less attention in the mainstream press. And there is little evidence, at least at this point, of the traditional press then picking up on those stories in response.

That last sentence packs a wallop.

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No funeral wreaths necessary for Europe: Julien Frisch

Posted on the May 19th, 2010

Although I can only lay claim to the merest smidgen of knowledge about the European Union, I have become unmistakably aware since I moved here that many Europeans are as ideologically passionate about a united Europe as many Americans are about a United States. This is especially noticeable with Europe’s younger generations.

But to find any awareness of this in the major USA news and opinion media takes a long hunt. During the eurozone crisis, the headlines in much of the USA (and also UK) English language press I was reading online were dominated by financial and market perspectives. From outside Europe, in particular, the focus seemed to be exclusively on the financial scenario.

The implication was that a monetary union is the only important aspect of the European Union that anyone — European political leaders and citizenry — cares about. And if this monetary union falters or fails, these pundits and experts seem to imply, “Well, there goes the European Union itself and, by the way, the European Dream is dead.”

Yesterday, I was happy to see a passionate rebuttal of this strange, uninformed nihilism offered by Julien Frisch, a political scientist from Germany, on his “Watching Europe” blog (“The European Dream is not dead” May 18, 2010)

I am excerpting three paragraphs, the final one being Frisch’s summing up (I hope he won’t mind):

“The European Dream has been to create unity in diversity, it has been to prevent wars happening between European countries, it has been to allow freedom of movement, to create a common market, a common social model or even to create a common demos etc…”

“For me, the political fight we are seeing is the proof of a common Europe, not an indicator of its bad state. And even if this was a fight of nations, it is still a political fight and the European Union’s system is advanced enough for that this will remain just a political fight – quite an unlikely scenario 60 years ago!…”

“The European Dream is not dead, it is there, and many of us are living this dream – very well aware of the luck that we had having grown up in a European Union, one in which we look at each other as different but equal, and one in which we don’t mind having a good political fight with friends and partners today and a glass of wine tomorrow to talk about our common plans.”


(Tuesday, 29 June 2010)
Dear readers,…
… this is the last real post of this blog, and the day after tomorrow at midnight, quite exactly two years after he came into existence, the blogger “Julien Frisch” will cease to exist… (read more here).

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Italians not so smokin’ anymore

Posted on the May 18th, 2010

Nowadays very few of our friends and neighbors here smoke. Still ever once in a while, someone visiting us from the U.S., will notice a smoker and then, as if by rote, comment that “all Italians smoke.”

I’ve learned to murmur, “No, not really,” and leave it to time and the obvious for them eventually to realize that most of the Italians they are encountering are, in fact, not smoking.

Now if I want to do more than murmur, I can cite the new survey results on smoking that came out this week from the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), an agency of the Italian National Health Service. According to an ANSA.it article today about the ISS report, the percentage of the Italian population (est. 60 million) that smokes is now down to only 21.7 percent.

Of the 11.1 million Italians who still smoke, down from over 13 million a year ago, 5.9 million are men and 5.2 million women.

The new survey finding of 21 percent places Italy on a par with the USA where the percentage of smokers is more or less the same.

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Everybody is backing the euro: Romano Prodi

Posted on the May 18th, 2010

Europe’s reputation was damaged at the beginning of the recent eurozone crisis, but now everyone is backing the euro, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said in an interview today with Bloomberg Television.

He added that it would have been better if the European Union had not taken so long to make its decision, but now the clear decision is that there is no alternative.

The delay has had very, very high costs, you know, but to build Europe, you need time, as you know, Prodi said.

To see the full interview (7:33), click on thumbnail above.

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A few words that can change your life: Muhammad Yunus

Posted on the May 17th, 2010

When I began listening just now to the video of the commencement address that Nobel Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus gave yesterday to some very lucky students at Duke University, my intention was to excerpt only a few sentences to accompany the video posted here. But Yunus’ words and ideas are so extraordinary that, as you can see,  I couldn’t stop transcribing.

With occasional wry touches of humor,  Yunus describes his kind of capitalism in action. It is astounding. This is a capitalism that is nothing like the rather awful deformity that is dominating our world now.

(The talk was less than 20 minutes — my transcription begins about four minutes in)

…I am very happy to be receiving this honorary degree. Not too many people are giving honorary degrees to bankers anymore…

You have just heard about my work, creating Grameen Bank. When I went back to Bangladesh, teaching economics, I had no idea that I would someday get involved in banking. I had no idea about banking. I didn’t have any learning about banking. But circumstances forced me into it. And since I didn’t know anything about banking, that became a big help for me. I didn’t have to follow their rules. I just looked with my eyes and saw what was there and tried to respond to the problems that I saw, and created a banking system that now looks like exactly the opposite of the conventional banks.

If I knew the rules, probably I would not be able to break those rules. Since I didn’t know it, I didn’t have any problem creating new rules and breaking all of them. Conventional banks go to the rich, we make sure we go to the poor. The poorer you are, the more attractive you are for us. If you are the poorest, we kind of celebrate that we found you. And it’s our job to find resources for you so you can change your life.

And we created a bank where we emphasize the women. Conventional banks mostly go to men, we decided to go to women. It changed their lives, it changed their families, it changed the country. The most dramatic thing that happened in Bangladesh in the last 25 years — any visitor to Bangladesh will tell you this — it is the empowerment of women. The status of women has changed so much from how it was 25 years back. One after another you see the differences that it made to people’s lives and the whole society.

And we created a bank, unlike conventional banks which are owned by the rich. We made the Grameen Bank owned by the poor. And owned by the poor women. So all the borrowers of Grameen Bank own the bank. Unlike the traditional way of thinking that you have to have donations and assistance from the government to run something for poor people, we defied that. We created a bank which runs by its own money. We just take the profits, just like any other bank, and lend that money to the poor women. We lend out $100 million a month, and all this money comes from the profits of the bank. And the bank makes profit, the profit goes back to the borrowers as dividends because they own the bank.

We concentrated on the children of the borrowers of Grameen Bank. We wanted to make sure they do not remain illiterate like their parents, who are totally illiterate. We made sure all the children go to school. And we’re very happy that we succeeded in that. And then we saw streams of these children going up the levels of education and coming to higher education. We gave them education loans to continue with higher education. So we have thousands and thousands of students in medical schools, engineering schools, universities all around the country. Many of them have completed their Ph.Ds.

And sometimes when I meet these young people, try to understand their problems, one common frustration they come up with, they say “We have education, we are finishing that. But what about our jobs? There’s no jobs in the country.” So I started telling them, “Look you are very privileged young people. You are privileged because your mother owns a bank. Why should you be looking for jobs? You should be taking a pledge. And that pledge will be, I’m not a job seeker, I’m a job creator. And prepare yourself to be a job creator. So change your mentality from just being in the employment market, to finding a job, looking and knocking at everybody’s door. If you feel frustrated that you don’t know how to start a business or something like that, you just look at your mother. She’s an illiterate woman. Many years back she joined Grameen Bank. She was scared to death taking this money in her own hand… but she overcame those fears and she became a successful business person. What good is your education if you are not better than your mother? So why can’t you at least do something with what your mother does, ten times as big, fifty times as big or 100 times as big, if you don’t have any new idea? And gradually you will come up with new ideas.

So we look at these young people, the son and the daughter, and then look at their mother, side by side. And I always come up with the same thought, that I always feel — the mother could have been a doctor too, like her daughter. But she couldn’t even go to school. Is this her fault? Is this something lacking in her? No, nothing is lacking in her. Simply, society never gave her the opportunity to go there.

So I sum up by concluding — poverty is not created by the poor people. Poverty is created by the system that we all built, in which we have to live. And that’s what created poverty. Seeds of poverty are not in the person, seeds of poverty are in the system. Look at the banking, what it does. Refuses to extend its services to the majority of the world population.

Two and a half years back, we started Grameen program in New York City because we were challenged that it could not be done in this country. I always said it could be done anywhere on this planet. So taking that challenge, we started it in Queens, New York in 2008, in January. That’s the year the financial crisis hit the world. So we had an amazing situation — in Queens, the Grameen program with no collateral, no guarantee, was flourishing… On the other side of the street, big banks were collapsing. These big banks told me back in 1976, “Banks cannot lend money to the poor because they are not creditworthy.” So I started asking people in New York, “Can you tell me who is creditworthy now?”

Journalists asked me, “What do you want to achieve in New York City by lending this little money to poor people? I said, “I just have one idea. I hope I can succeed in doing that. If we succeed in New York City — I hope we do — then there’ll be no payday loans in New York City. All these payday loans will be done, finished, with 1000 percent interest, 1500 percent interest. I said, “we are looking for a day when there will be no pawn shops in New York City. There will be no check cashing companies in New York City.” It became successful, we have opened a branch in Manhattan and Brooklyn, another branch in Brooklyn. This year we started in Washington D.C., and San Francisco…

The problem of the system is also in this conceptualization of what we are as a human being. In business, human beings are conceptualized as moneymaking machines. Business means business to make money, nothing else. And on top of it, you have to maximize profit. Except human beings are not a one-dimensional being. Human beings are a multi-dimensional being. They are not just money-making machines. If you can interpret the true human being within the framework of economic theory, then the world would be very different.

So I’m suggesting that we create another kind of business. The existing business is built on the selfishness of human beings. Everything is for me, nothing for others. But there is selflessness in all human beings. Every human being has this quality. And we create a business on the basis of selflessness. Everything is for others, nothing for me…

You have options now as young people graduating. You’ll be coming up with the idea, “What do I do? Do I work for a profit-making company or do I work for a social business? Or do I create a social business or do I create a profit-making business?” It’s up to us to decide. It’s an option, it’s not something anybody’s forcing on you.

A social business is a business dedicated to solve the problem. Any problem you see can be solved with a creative mind. Individuals become very powerful.

I was in Glasgow, and one of the problems they were discussing with me — they have thousands of families in Glasgow City who are on third-generation unemployment. I said, “How come?” They said, “Because of our welfare system.” I said, “That’s a shame. If I was one of those who is in third-generation unemployment, I’d be suing the government for crippling me. I’m not a crippled person, I’m a fullbodied human being. I have the creative energy, I can take care of myself.”

So in the discussion we decided to start social businesses to get unemployed people who remain unemployed for generations, to get them into opportunities and get out of the system they are forced into. So you see around us, whatever problem we see, we can create a social business. That’s the creative energy you all have as an individual. Each individual, each human being has the power, enormous power to change the world. And you have it. Are you going to use that to change the world? That’s the question I raise with you.

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When God speaks, do bankers listen? Stephen Green

Posted on the May 17th, 2010

Before you watch the video interview below with banker Stephen Green, you  may first want to read this rather hard hitting session with him late last year (“The New World Order ‘Is Already Underway'” Spiegel Online International, Dec 19, 2009). Just for a little context, I suggest this. And given that these days many of us are a touch cranky on the subject of bankers giving advice.

But considering that Green heads up one of the world’s largest banking groups, HSBC, and that he is also an ordained priest in the Church of England, and that he is also the author of a book titled “Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World” (2009), I wanted to listen to what he has to say.

The video excerpt here features an interview with Green in New York, in which he discusses social responsibility (“Market Fundamentalism: Whose Job Is It to Fix Capitalism?” Feb 2010). The interviewer is Vishakha Desai. Full interview here (1:12). From FORA.tv.

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Singing merrily in Rome: Russell Crowe

Posted on the May 16th, 2010

For celebrity watchers, this is fun. Russell Crowe was in Rome yesterday promoting his new film, Robin Hood. And singing. See local news report here.

Crowe also appeared as a guest on popular Italian talk show Che Tempo Che Fa and he and his fellow co-stars sang again.

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Those images worth a thousand soundbites: new White House Vlog

Posted on the May 16th, 2010

With its new, weekly video log — “West Wing Week” — the Obama administration is offering a pearl beyond price (no sarcasm intended), it seems to me.

First and foremost to historians and other scholars who collect images as a database for analysis of society and civilization. The range and cumulative visual narrative of these video images take my breath away. An additional boon to analysts is that the imagery comes most conveniently pre-packaged with a running audio that supplies chronological and ID data.

And, in a lesser sense, to an interested citizenry, the videos offer an unparalleled (and entertaining) peek into the White House world itself.


As is discussed in the Washington Post where I saw the article today online about the new White House Vlog, this may be another way for the Obama administration to try and control the message  — but who can really blame them for that, given the chaos and idiocy of the news cycle at times (“White House video blog offers an inside view” by Paul Farhi, May 15, 2010) .

Or the Vlog could be transparency in action, as Obama the candidate often promised. Whatever. For those who really know how to look and how to decipher imagery, the codebreakers here are golden keys to the promised land.

Again, mamma mia!

UPDATE (5/17/2010): I was digging through my blog posts this morning on a hunt for something and I came across the post I wrote about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s Vlog — I’d forgotten.

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For always and always: Francesco De Gregori

Posted on the May 15th, 2010

Francesco De Gregori – “Sempre e per sempre

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In pursuit of understanding ALL the bailouts

Posted on the May 14th, 2010

From the blog Fabius Maximus: The response by major national governments to the Greek crisis is rational, and inevitable (“The hidden key to understanding Europe’s crisis — and ours” May 11, 2010)

Short and to the point. Recommended.

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Thumbs up on EU bailout: Nouriel Roubini

Posted on the May 12th, 2010

I’ve been nosing around online during the past couple of days to see what leading financial experts and economists are saying about the trillion dollar bailout that the European Union leaders announced Sunday. Easily found some boos and hisses: fears that the EU is going down the same path of moral hazard that some say the U.S. has taken, for example. There’s a sample round-up of quotes and links here.

But I’ve been especially on the lookout for Nouriel Roubini’s reaction, given the extraordinary accuracy of his longstanding predictions on the 2008 financial crisis. And his verdict on this weekend’s EU bailout decision is a thumbs up, generally speaking.

In an article yesterday on CNBC.com, Roubini was quoted as saying (“European Rescue Could Work: Nouriel Roubini” May 11, 2010):

Roubini believes the sheer size of the rescue package will therefore halt the threat of contagion.

The amount, in addition to European Central Bank liquidity facilities and quantitative easing, “comfortably covers the worst case scenario and should thus help fight contagion,” he wrote.

And in a comprehensive interview with CNN Money on Monday (video below), Roubini also expressed his approval of the EU action. Here he offers his views on what he considers the risk level of other European countries, especially those of the acronym PIIGs (Italy comes out not-so-bad here, it’s good to hear).

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How to have a Japanese cherry blossom picnic (in London)

Posted on the May 12th, 2010

This video offering a glimpse of an traditional cherry blossom viewing picnic in London’s Regent’s Park is too exquisite to be missed, compliments of the Guardian yesterday (“Hanami: a Japanese cherry blossom picnic” May 11, 2010).

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Globalization as music: Syrian National Orchestra

Posted on the May 10th, 2010

This is globalization that isn’t from the business pages, for a nice change. That was my thought when I saw the article today in the Global Post about a different style of  music that the Syrian National Orchestra is creating (“Classical music, with a Syrian twist” by Theodore May, May 10, 2010.)

As May describes it, the orchestra is blending “the classical music of Europe with traditional Arab sounds, violins and French horns against an oud and a tambourine.”

Wow. Curious I went looking for a video so I could hear a sample of the music. Found a news report on YouTube from The National Newspaper (Abu Dhabi). It features an interview with the orchestra conductor, and a brief selection of the orchestra performing.

Excerpt from the interview with Conductor Missak Baghboudarian:

I’m sure that we’re going to have more than one hundred orchestras in Europe playing better than us. They have tradition and they know how to play that music. And nobody’s working to have the oriental music in the classical style, in the classical language. So maybe you have to try to do this, and it’s going to be our speciality…

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A cathartic rant on the egregiousness of Wall Street (take it if you need it)

Posted on the May 10th, 2010

A classic old song popped up on my iPod shuffle this morning, reminding me of something rant-like a United States Senator said a couple of weeks ago during a Congressional hearing on the financial markets. First, the song:

When you wish upon a star,
makes no difference who you are
anything your heart desires
will come to you…

It’s tantamount to blasphemy, I know, to compare the financial free market system in its present incarnation to the pure magnificence of a star. But, in fact, for a long time the extremist proponents of this finance philosophy tried to spin it as if it actually were the lovely fairy tale of the lyrics above. Anybody can play, anybody can win, they said, the system is so very perfect it will reward all who invest wisely.

Not true, of course. The system’s loudest cheerleaders were those who saw it as a way to protect and perpetuate their existing economically privileged positions (aka: the haves are always entitled to have most — or all, really — of the world pie). That was their ideology and it beat the stuffing out of competing ideas.

In Las Vegas terms, these dudes were (are) the “house” (see below). And, as in that betting town, their system ensured that the house always wins the lion’s share (Exhibit A: see third world).

Still, for some time the citizenry by and large tolerated it all. It allowed some earnings advantages to them also. Teachers, accountants, IT workers,  plumbers, construction workers, waiters, janitors, police officers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and fire chiefs — i.e., people who actually do something to serve society — were able to create group pension funds to invest in the financial markets and earn a respectable return. Private individuals also were able to build portfolios of more-or-less reliable, longterm investments.

But then, as all know now, the greed-is-good bunch blew it all to pieces. Citizen investors and taxpayers worldwide lost bigtime. The house had gone insane with its own game. So much so that it’s commonplace now to hear mainstream news commentary refer to the Wall Street of today as casino capitalism (or worse).

And if you’ve been following the news about financial reform efforts now finally underway in Washington D.C., then you know that the house is still mad as a hatter and dementedly demanding that it be allowed to remain so.

Rhetorically speaking at least, some Congressional members now seem inclined to reign in the lunacy. As a fairly entertaining example, here’s the video of that U.S. Senator that I mentioned earlier, Claire McCaskill, giving a roasting to some bankers. Quote: “…you all are the house. You’re the bookie.”

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