Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Too pleasant to work for the people?

The Existentialist Cowboy's guest columnist, Phil Rockstroh, provides an interesting analysis on how Clinton and Obama are alike in their deference to corporate power:

Obama and the Democrats do not move. They do not act. They do not govern. They do not serve their constituents.

Although, in reality, they do serve their true constituents ... the corporate elite -- the forces behind the rising level of authoritarian control over the lives of the people of the nation, both of ordinary citizens and the political class. In situations of veiled coercion, where unspoken threats to one's economic security and social standing are the primary motivating factors determining an individual's response to an exploitive system, there is no need to threaten potential dissenters with crude, old school totalitarian methods of repression such as forced deportment to labor and reeducation camps. In the class stratified, debt shackled US work force, where the personal consequences of financial upheaval are devastating, the implicit threat of being cast into the nation's urban gulag archipelago of homelessness coerces most into compliance with the dictates of the corporate oligarchs.

The effects are insidious. In such an environment, there is no call for the Sturm und Drang of mass spectacle, replete with blazing torches and blown banners hoisted by serried ranks of jut jawed, jack-booted ubermensch: corporatism establishes an authoritarian order by way of a series of overt bribes and tacit threats. This social and cultural criteria causes an individual to become cautious. A Triumph of the bland reigns. Obama's bland, non-threatening charm was cultivated in this hybrid, corporate soil.

As is the case with Obama, corporatism demands employees (and Obama is first among us underlings) render themselves fecklessly pleasant. This is the mandatory mode of being demanded of corporate hires -- self-annihilation by habitual amiability. And Barack Obama has perfected the form.

In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama stated that he learned early: Never scare old, white people ... that is a good description of how he has dealt with BP and the banksters, and all the other old white men in their perches of privilege and power.

Obama, as was the case with Bill Clinton, will not challenge the corporate oligarchs. Both he and Clinton are gifted, intelligent men, but are products of their time. They are men of, what was once termed, "modest birth" who -- out necessity to rise past the circumstances of their origins -- studied, internalized, and made allegiance to the corporate structure. Why? Because, in the age of corporate oligarchy, they knew the only way to rise to power would be to serve its interests. In contrast, FDR came from the ruling class; he knew their ways ... wasn't tempted by the rewards and adulation that come with privilege. He was born into it, could never lose its advantages, and it held no novelty for him.

One possibility that we might also consider in explaining Obama and Clinton, and their deference to corporate interests, lies in the extraordinary scope of the job. As a new President, the sheer scale of the military, governmental, and judicial structures, needing to be led, must be overwhelming. Nothing in life as a Senator or Governor would give someone an adequate preparation for the job of U.S. President. It isn't surprising that a President would give undue weight to the advice of people who own the country, and act as if they are rightfully in charge.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Playing into the hands of terrorists

This is a sobering piece that shows the recklesness of the recent wave of anti-Islamic fear-mongering:

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beck Day

Well, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and friends put on their show at the Lincoln Memorial. The organizers did a fairly good job at keeping the speakers and crowds from saying anything overtly political, or remotely interesting. My interpretation of the whole event is that it was meant as a show of strength. First, to show that appropriating the date and place of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech could be done with impunity. Second, to show that there are a lot of wacky white folks out there who'll show up to an event organized by right-wingers. They all got to emote about love, honor, God, guts, and glory. They pretty much followed the plan to not talk about specific political issues or people. Boring, sure, but somewhat menacing just because they all showed up when called by their masters.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Paul Krugman wants policy makers to face reality:

The small sliver of truth in claims of continuing recovery is the fact that G.D.P. is still rising: we’re not in a classic recession, in which everything goes down. But so what?

The important question is whether growth is fast enough to bring down sky-high unemployment. We need about 2.5 percent growth just to keep unemployment from rising, and much faster growth to bring it significantly down. Yet growth is currently running somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, with a good chance that it will slow even further in the months ahead. Will the economy actually enter a double dip, with G.D.P. shrinking? Who cares? If unemployment rises for the rest of this year, which seems likely, it won’t matter whether the G.D.P. numbers are slightly positive or slightly negative.

All of this is obvious. Yet policy makers are in denial.

Not only is Krugman right, the consequences of this denial may be catastrophic politically for the Democrats. Working people and the white collar unemployed have lost patience with the happy-talk from the Obama administration. Talking about being disappointed with the slow pace of the recovery won't cut it. Only by laying out a bold plan for putting millions back to work can the President regain the confidence of American voters. It may be time to propose a huge W.P.A. style jobs program.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

From 36 to1?

Rhode Island may be our nation's smallest state, but it can be home to some pretty big ideas. This is from Linda Borg's report in the Providence Journal:

The leaders of the state’s two teachers’ unions said that they would not be opposed to consolidating Rhode Island’s 36 school districts into one big district.

Although they cautioned that they were speaking as private citizens, Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, and Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association, Rhode Island, offered the most radical suggestions about how to fix public education. The two made their remarks at a morning-long forum in Smithfield sponsored by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Reback said a statewide school district might be the only way to level the playing field between rich and poor students in Rhode Island, where the vast majority of poor, urban students attend schools that are largely isolated from their white middle-class peers.

“Desegregation works,” Reback told 200 educators, community leaders and public officials gathered Tuesday at Fidelity Investments. “We need to create opportunities for students of color and those with limited English language skills to go to school with kids who aren’t like them.”

What, she asked, would close the gaps between poor children and privileged ones? Combining the Central Falls and the Cumberland school districts. Joining Lincoln and Pawtucket.

This is certainly one way to remove some of the inequities inherent in a system that is mostly funded by local property taxes. Landlords in poor communities and wealthy families in affluent communities would all have their property taxes put into the same huge pot. Moving students by bus to different schools within this new mega-district would move us in the direction of desegregation.

The biggest obstacles I would foresee in implementing this bold plan are logistical and cultural. Some of the larger of Rhode Island's 36 districts, like Providence, are already accustomed to dealing with great diversity and large numbers of students. The explosion in size would be a real logistical shock to those accustomed to much smaller districts. The cultural shock would be profound. These 36 districts represent communities that have enjoyed local independent government for a long time-- in some cases well over 300 years! Could they all be brought together on one school board without deep wounds to local pride? Because Rhode Island is so small, folks define their comfort zone as a pretty tiny geographical area. Any drive of more than twenty minutes is considered an epic journey, only to be undertaken in exceptional circumstances. Families in both poor and wealthy communities will not be easily persuaded to send their kids to a school in another city or town.

Still, it is good to see that people find the current inequitable situation as something that needs major change. Hopefully this will spark needed dialogue about how to make things better.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Scaring White People

Once again Rachel Maddow shows her chops:

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Senate Blues

Andrew Leonard has an interesting analysis of why Sen. Chris Dodd may be reluctant to back Elizabeth Warren as appointed chief of the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection:

We can't dismiss the possibility that Dodd's concern over whether Warren can be confirmed is merely a smokescreen disguising some long-held antipathy towards her, instead of an honest appraisal of her chances. But there's another possible explanation, too: The insane, absurd rigamarole involved in getting anything accomplished in the U.S. Senate has drained all the life out of Dodd. Throughout the American Banker interview, Dodd repeatedly talks about the challenge of doing the best you can do under the circumstances you are in -- a process that requires constant compromise and accommodation and sacrifice.

"You want to write a good bill. You can get votes, but in order to get the votes your bill becomes a shadow of itself or you try and write a stronger bill but you don't get the votes. So what's the point, you don't have a bill," he said. "You try to write the bill in a way that would be a strong bill -- that those who are watching this would say this is a remarkable bill in terms of what it does and you've got the 60 votes to pass it."

Dodd said he was pulled and pushed from both sides.

"You are working against, what was it, a thousand lobbyists that got hired to work against this bill?" he said. "I don't have a Republican partner, I have a one-vote margin in conference. It's a complicated subject matter. I've got a left that doesn't think you're being strong enough and a right that thinks you've gone too far."

Further exacerbating the situation: the other side stands to gain politically by preventing you from succeeding at all, and is willing to pretend to negotiate as a pure stalling tactic. You might think that, now that he is no longer running for election, Dodd would feel free to lambaste this mockery as the sham that it truly is. But the opposite has happened. Dodd seems to be suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome. He's been part of a broken system for so long that he's completely internalized its rules. If GOP willingness to abuse the process of how legislation gets made becomes standard operating procedure to the point where even non-Cabinet appointments become all-out political wars, then so be it. Better to accommodate, than fight.

In this sense, the fight over Elizabeth Warren is a proxy fight over the currently inoperative system of government we are suffering under, because there's little question that in many ways the Obama administration has mirrored Dodd's capitulation. As a result, it is true, legislation has been passed. We have healthcare reform and bank reform. But we also have a right-wing outraged at even the pale "shadow" of reform and a left wing apoplectic at how little has been achieved.

The rules that allow the filibuster process in the Senate have in fact allowed the Republican minority to thwart the will of the Democratic majority. While this pisses me off, I must admit that the Republicans are simply taking advantage of rules that were knowingly adopted a long time ago. When media types say the Democrats "control both houses of Congress," they are not quite accurate. You need at least 60 Senate votes to really do that. However, if Senate Democrats were more effective in framing the national debate they would be able to pick off at least a few Republican votes from Senators who want to get re-elected. I don't blame people like Chris Dodd for feeling demoralized. Those of us out here in the country need to give more love to Senators when they do stand up for our interests. We could also be more patient with the lengthy process of breaking filibusters. Impatience to get something passed quickly leads to watered down legislation. When Republicans are forced to filibuster for a really long time, even the media begins to notice. Under scrutiny, the Republicans are forced to at least discuss their opposition. The way the game is played now, Republicans merely threaten to drag things out and Democrats quickly cave. Forcing someone like Mitch McConnell to actually keep a team awake on the floor, for days, would make the Republicans pay a greater cost for their obstructionism .

Monday, August 23, 2010

Billions for those who don't need it

From Paul Krugman's NYT blog:

What’s at stake here? According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to following the Obama proposal, would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. For the sake of comparison, it took months of hard negotiations to get Congressional approval for a mere $26 billion in desperately needed aid to state and local governments.

And where would this $680 billion go? Nearly all of it would go to the richest 1 percent of Americans, people with incomes of more than $500,000 a year. But that’s the least of it: the policy center’s estimates say that the majority of the tax cuts would go to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent. Take a group of 1,000 randomly selected Americans, and pick the one with the highest income; he’s going to get the majority of that group’s tax break. And the average tax break for those lucky few — the poorest members of the group have annual incomes of more than $2 million, and the average member makes more than $7 million a year — would be $3 million over the course of the next decade.

We need to find a way to help ordinary folks in America understand what's going on. Many people simply accept that tax cuts for rich and poor alike are equally good for the general economy. The reason they believe this is that they generalize from their own experience. When your living expenses eat up most of your income, a cut in taxes is a significant change. Having a little more after-tax money to play with means the opportunity to eat out, buy a new microwave, save towards a vacation at Disney World. Even more affluent people, like doctors and lawyers, might be tempted to spend a little more if they can pay a bit less to Uncle Sam. But when you get to a certain level, the tax-break doesn't translate into dinners at Pizza Hut or new bicycles that would otherwise not be purchased.

The majority of this deficit-growing $680 billion would go to a group of Americans who have an average income of $7 million/year. Do you think these folks might already have a pretty nice house? A comfortable car? Do you think if we give them each an extra $3million they'll stop sitting home, pinching pennies, and run out to JCPenney's to jump-start our economy? No, there's a very good chance the extra money will be put someplace safe, to earn a guaranteed return. Or, if it is spent, does the choice to buy that diamond tennis bracelet really generate a lot of new jobs? How about another racehorse? What if the money finances a new villa in the south of France? Is that a good investment for the rest of us taxpayers? If we are to defeat Republicans in the fall, we need to do a better job of helping voters understand the true cost of their "No billionaire left behind" program.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Couric Stumps Palin With Supreme Court Question

The Sunday Funnies

This comic is actually a bit generous, since it shows an open decision to shoot the deficit hawk to protect tax cuts. Many of those opposing expiration of cuts for the wealthiest behave as if tax cuts actually have no impact on the deficit. As if a budget didn't reflect both income and expenditures.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Henry Ford

Henry Ford was no communist. He went into the business of producing automobiles to make a profit. Indeed he amassed a huge, world-class fortune through providing a sought after product to an expanding market. Yet Ford was routinely accused by some of his fellow industrialists of recklessly endangering the survival of the capitalist system. Why? Because he paid his workers more than many other blue-collar workers were paid at the time. Interestingly, he didn’t claim to do this out of some religious or humanitarian impulse. Rather, he defended his policy in strictly capitalist terms. He argued that well-paid workers would not only work harder, they would become customers as well. Automobiles were relatively expensive, and only workers paid a living wage could afford to buy them.

Incredible as it may seem, many of today’s capitalists seem to have forgotten how Ford was proven right. Workers in the U.S. are among the most productive in the world. Yet many American companies have chosen to reward this hard work with cut wages and benefits. Even worse, some companies have outsourced jobs to low-wage countries like Bangladesh. Since workers in Bangladesh are often making only 10 cents per hour they will not become new customers. Thus companies chase a short-term bump in profits at the risk of permanently shrinking their pool of potential customers. The obscene compulsion to drive down labor costs is so strong that it distorts the owner classes’ understanding of their own actions.

There are some who argue we shouldn’t worry about the disappearance of so many decent blue-collar jobs, workers simply need to “retrain for the 21st century.” Some workers who took that advice made sacrifices to learn about computers. They were lucky to land jobs at major companies that sold software or hardware. Of course, these companies try to handle technical customer service through computerized, non-human means. Yet some customers stubbornly spend an hour or more on the phone until they reach a live person. Maybe it’s one of those displaced workers? Not any more. Thanks to the aggressive colonizing history of Great Britain, there are millions of underpaid, well-educated English speakers throughout the world for Microsoft to exploit.

Very few occupations are completely secure from the risks of downsizing and outsourcing. Even creative writers and actors who work for television have seen their employers cut costs by producing more and more “reality shows.” The truth is, there is only so much demand for “21st century” skills. While biotechnology firms may well enjoy considerable growth going forward, their labor demands will be modest. Many millions of people have lost manufacturing jobs. They won’t all be able to find work cloning sheep. Most of them will have to settle for working at a Burger King or a Walmart.

We are now definitely moving in the direction of becoming an economy more like that of the third world, with an ever-smaller middle class. Apologists for Wall Street like to characterize this as becoming “more competitive.” Yet what does it mean for us to win this competition? Millionaires and Billionaires can pay less for their domestic help, like they do in Brazil? We already know that the situation today is untenable. Yet the super-wealthy needn’t fear the dismantling of the system that sustains them. Many of us in the bottom 98% would be content to see the return of a little common sense, like that shown by Henry Ford.

Friday, August 20, 2010


This latest controversy, over the Cordoba center in lower Manhattan, reveals a disturbing readiness of some in this country to dismiss the First Amendment. In this case, they seek to deny Muslims the freedom to spend their own money to construct a center that will include a mosque.

Yet this is not the only direction from which freedom of religion comes under attack. In addition to placing no restraints on the right of citizens to worship as they see fit, the state must also show no favor to any particular form of religion. In practice, some favoritism towards Christianity has been tolerated throughout U.S. history. Public holidays are a good example of how the simple fact of majority status has given U.S. Christians special consideration. Yet the founders’ strong distrust of any official church, like the Church of England, has persisted, and has resulted in a continuous tradition of separation between church and state. Over the last century, Jews and Catholics were often successful in preventing Protestants from improperly using the resources of the state to enforce their hegemony.

Despite all the battles won, there are many folks who still want to see their conservative Christian beliefs reflected in the content that is taught in public schools. The state of Texas recently adopted new curriculum and textbook standards that moves what teachers are expected to teach students far to the right.

In this piece about Don McLeroy, creationist, dentist, and the chair of the Texas State Board of Education we learn that he is pleased with their changes. Thomas Jefferson is marginalized while the contributions of Phyllis Schlafly and Newt Gingrich are elevated to great importance. Doubt is placed on whether the founders intended a separation of Church and State. In science, evolution must now be presented as a theory that is dubious at best.

The National Centre for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution in US public schools against inroads by creationists, is so alarmed that it has branded 2010 “the year of science denial” — yet nothing alarms it more than Dr McLeroy’s astonishing success in seeding the Texas high school curriculum with his literal interpretation of Genesis.

The dentist has not achieved everything he wanted. Creationism will not be taught alongside evolution as an alternative explanation for life on Earth. Even so, he says he is still “pumped”. By requiring students to probe for weaknesses in evolutionary theory the new standards will “restore the lustre of science”, he says at his surgery in College Station, near Houston.

“Take bones,” he says, offering a brief description of the collagen and amino acids in bones as an example of biological complexity. “Intuitively people have a tough time thinking nothing guided this. Are we supposed to believe that all of a sudden, say on April 1, five million years ago, the first bone appeared? The question is, how did evolution do this, and the evolutionists have been painted into a corner. They don’t even have a clue. How did that first piece of bone get there?”...

Dr. McLeroy presumably passed a biology class at some point on his way to becoming a dentist. Yet he was so strongly wedded to his fundamentalist world view that attempts to teach him basic principles of scientific reasoning simply failed. The children of Texas should not be forced to follow Dr. McLeroy in his religiously motivated resistance to modern science. Creationist parents are certainly free to send their kids to private schools that reject modern science. Other Texas parents, who pay for public schools, should not be forced to subsidize the kind of religious indoctrination that Dr. McLeroy demands.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where the money is

Les Leopold has a good piece that puts things nicely into perspective.

We can't tackle the jobs crisis until we're willing to tackle Wall Street. Both Democrats and Republicans have stood idly by as the wage gap has turned into a Grand Canyon of inequality. (In 1970, the top 100 CEOs made 45 times more than the average worker; in 2008, they made 1,081 times more. See The Looting of America) Almost no one in Washington has the nerve to challenge Wall Street's socially useless and reckless financial games. They're afraid to say that it's wrong that the top 25 hedge fund managers made as much money during 2009 as 658,000 teachers -- or that the top ten hedge fund managers "earn" $900,000/hr. The money for job creation is right there, in the hands of the elites who profited so handsomely from the financial meltdown they helped create.

The American people are hungry for proposals to rectify this injustice. Why not turn Wall Street's ill-gotten gains into programs that put our people back to work? Here's a plan we'll probably never hear from Democrats, Republicans or the Tea Party:

Place a windfall profits tax on the super-rich who profited from our bailouts to pay for the jobs that these gamblers destroyed.

Call it a windfall profits tax or a financial transaction fee. But really it's reparations, long overdue. Tens of millions of Americans are suffering through no fault of their own. These working people didn't buy houses they couldn't afford. They didn't gamble their life's savings on derivatives and securitization.. They just went to work one day and were told their job was gone. They came home to find their neighborhood disintegrating as the housing bubble burst around them. All thanks to reckless financial games on Wall Street.

Appealing to hedge fund managers to do the right thing probably won't work. Creating incentives that reward making new jobs at home, and discourage "outsourcing," might actually work. The U.S. economy is by no means a pure free market system. If it were, big oil would be facing far more competition in the energy market. It is instead a system where the super wealthy use their overwhelming political clout to rig the system in their favor. Those of us in the bottom 98% who want to see change must set aside our differences over minor issues, and insist that our so-called representatives in government actually defend our interests.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Working together

Thomas Friedman frequently says things I don't agree with. But there's a recent plea he made that struck a chord:

The president needs to take America’s labor, business and Congressional leadership up to Camp David and not come back without a grand bargain for taxes, trade promotion, energy, stimulus and budget cutting that offers the market some certainty that we are moving together — not just on a bailout but on an economic rebirth for the 21st century. “Fat chance,” you say. Well then, I say get ready for a long phase of stubborn unemployment and anemic growth.
Our nation's unemployment crisis will not be fixed by Wall Street alone. It won't be fixed by Congress alone. It won't be fixed by unions alone. Right now Wall Street and corporate interests dominate economic policy-making completely. But the President does have the power to put other interests together with the big-money players and pressure them to find a "grand bargain." Obama would surely risk losing face if such a summit was tried and accomplished nothing. But I think many voters would give him credit for the attempt.

Friedman is mostly interested in doing something good for "the market." But, even though his suggestion isn't really motivated by any real concern for the 98% of us without major stakes in 'the market,' doing as he proposes might just help all of us. A leader who brings people together despite enormous mistrust and bitterness shows superb leadership indeed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


This story is close to my heart for a couple of reasons: I love applesauce, and the folks who've been making great applesauce at Motts for generations have been doing so in my native country of upstate New York. Now they are on strike because their new parent company is determined to drastically slash their wages and benefits.

The workers, meanwhile, are incensed that the company is demanding givebacks when it posted record profits last year and increased its dividend by 67 percent in May.

“Corporate America is making tons of money — this company is a good example of that,” said Mike LeBerth, president of the union local representing the strikers. “So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?”

Dr Pepper Snapple has vigorously defended its stance. “The union contends that a profitable company shouldn’t seek concessions from its workers,” the company said in a statement. “This argument ignores the fact that as a public company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”

Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (parent company of Motts) is making an argument that doesn't hold water. No one is suggesting that they shouldn't try to make profits. They have in fact made enormous profits. Continuing to pay decent wages to its workers is the only way they can operate in the best interests of all their constituents. This is because workers are constituents as much as shareholders. It is true that layoffs at Xerox and Kodak give them a large pool of local workers who would work for low wages. Why is it then necessary to slash wages and benefits at Motts? Is there something wrong with being one of the few decent employers left?!?! This doesn't generate jobs and build communities. It does the opposite! Although incomes of pre-strike Motts workers were fairly modest, they allowed the surrounding community to enjoy the presence of people able to live and spend a few bucks. Pushing everyone down to subsistence level wages will destroy jobs and communities. Ice cream parlors, bookstores, realtors-- they all suffer when an important former source of decent local jobs starts paying like Walmart.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Supreme Court

Here's a news flash from the Supreme Court blog:

“Birther” lawyer rebuffed
$20,000 penalty stands

The Supreme Court on Monday put an end to a running battle between a California lawyer — a prominent figure in the movement to challenge the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s Presidency — and a federal judge in Georgia. The full Court refused, without comment, to block a $20,000 penalty that District Judge Clay D. Land of Columbus, Ga., had imposed last October on the attorney, Orly Taitz, of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Earlier this month, Judge Land’s Court put a lien on all of Taitz’s real property until the penalty is paid.

The denial of Taitz’s stay application (Taitz v. McDonald, 10A56), was by the Court after the issue had been referred by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. In July, Justice Clarence Thomas similarly denied the application; it was then refiled with Alito. Now that the full Court has acted, Taitz is blocked from making the same plea to another Justice.

After Justice Thomas' denial, this outcome was predictable. Yet I must confess that I was holding my breath, unsure if the right-wing majority on the court still had any grip on reality. The loonies behind Taitz, who simply refuse to believe the well-documented fact that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, haven't managed to gain full acceptance in the conservative establishment. This is a relief. Yet we have already seen that Justices like Alito and Thomas are willing to abandon precedent and constitutional principles in order to further the radical agenda of big money interests. Through advertising, lobbyists, and the means to pursue expensive legal battles, corporations have always had tremendous power to advance their political agendas. Yet our legal system has for decades viewed that power with some mistrust. In cases where corporate power and money were used to influence the political process, there was an expectation that the people had the right to put some limits on corporate control over elections and lawmaking. At the least, it was considered that the public interest was best served when the spending of corporate money in politics was fully disclosed and not unlimited. Especially after the advent of expensive television advertising, the notion that it was unfair to allow big-money interests to easily "buy" elections was consistently upheld. That has all changed with the recent decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C. As Lyle Denniston observes:
The fact is that the decades-old image of American corporations as a destabilizing and perhaps even corrupting influence in politics has now been thoroughly re-examined by the Supreme Court, and the corporate “person” emerges from the process with — in the eyes of the majority — a burnished image of good citizen. There is a deep chasm of perception, between Thursday’s majority and the dissenters, about the nature of the corporate personality.

Ordinary people have few viable options in standing up to corporate interests. If someone willing to champion the people's interests must face unlimited and uncontrolled corporate spending, they will have little chance of being heard over the big-money noise machine. The only folks left in the arena to defend the people's interests will be liberals with great personal wealth. While I appreciate the contributions of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, we cannot hope to find an adequate supply of well-meaning aristocrats willing to get their hands dirty in politics.

The DISCLOSE Act will come up soon for another attempt at a vote in the Senate. It is a fairly modest attempt to counter some of the most pernicious effects of the Citizens United ruling. In particular, the Act would require that large corporate political advertisers be clearly identified as sponsors of their ads. I hope this legislation passes, yet I fear that even if it does, corporations will figure out clever ways to evade its intent.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The slippery slope

Downward social mobility is always a possibility in any social or economic system. For those of us in America who are baby boomers, however, there is a strange reluctance to admit how many folks are falling down today. We were raised in a time when middle-class kids who did well in school, and went on to college, felt reasonably confident they could find an opportunity to make a decent living. My friend Peter W. is a great example of someone who was totally shocked by this recession’s impact on him and his family. After graduating college, Peter began working at a large bank in Boston. Over the years he was steadily promoted, and he earned his M.B.A. by the late ‘80s. Transferred to Rhode Island, he bought a home and started a family with his wife, Meg. The family enjoyed vacations in places like Europe and Hawaii. They had two comfortable cars, and paid landscapers to keep their yard beautiful. When the girls needed braces, Peter simply wrote out checks to the orthodontist. Financial worries seemed far away. Then, in February of 2008, Peter was laid off from the bank. Since then the only work he’s found has been a very short-term stint working for the Census. Thanks to Meg’s job as a bookkeeper there is still some income coming in. Yet they have been forced to deplete their savings. They are behind on the mortgage. They sold one of the cars, and no longer take fancy vacations. They dropped their gym membership and their subscription to the New York Times. Peter borrows a neighbor’s lawnmower to cut the yard. Peter fears they will eventually face foreclosure. Moving into an apartment in a far less attractive neighborhood is a real possibility.

Peter’s family hasn’t fallen anywhere near real poverty. They are, in fact, still living a much easier life than many. Nonetheless, their confident assumptions about the world, and their place in it, have been shattered. Peter’s former employer has recently posted record profits. Wall Street observers have heaped praise on this large bank for its “intelligent restructuring of human resources.” Corporate interests are not the same as our interests. For the very wealthy, high unemployment is mostly a good thing. It depresses wages which allows the owner class to bring goods and services to market at lower cost. This time, however, the persistence of high unemployment has begun to seriously affect consumer demand. This low demand will eventually erode profits enough that at least some rich folks may feel a pinch.

The easiest way to think of our current situation is like a huge game of chicken. On one side the corporate interests are saying: “Hey, America! Want some of your jobs back? Act more like our workers in Bangladesh who toil away for 14 hours a day at 10 cents an hour!” And the American middle and working classes are saying: “A new plasma T.V.? Are you joking? We’re not buying more stuff until we know we have a steady job at good pay!” Who’s going to win? Sadly, we all need to eat so we tend to work for less. This is why companies are so often able to find scabs to replace striking workers. The very wealthy don’t need to worry about their next meal. They can ride out even long periods of depression, investing in anything that provides any kind of return.

There is one piece of good news. The vote of a poor person counts as much on Election Day as that of a rich person. There are relatively few rich people. What’s more, some rich people have a conscience! Our votes combined with those of decent rich folks should prevail in any contest. We should be able to elect folks who will pursue policies aimed at producing full employment. If we can’t, it’s because politicians have found ways to distract and divide us. A politician who was truly willing to take up the cause of improving conditions for working people, even at the risk of losing support from the very wealthy, would have great appeal. The huge challenge for such a politician would be to speak to voters without massive funding or media exposure.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A long awaited statement of principle


- After skirting the controversy for weeks, President Barack Obama is weighing in forcefully on the mosque near ground zero, saying a nation built on religious freedom must allow it.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Obama told an intently listening crowd gathered at the White House Friday evening to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances," he said. "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

It was quite a relief to hear the President reaffirm our basic rights to religious freedom in the U.S. It was too bad he left Mayor Bloomberg and others twisting in the wind for so long. The other day I was reflecting on just how remarkable it is to enjoy true religious freedom. This freedom is inherently controversial. We need to protect people's right to build synagogues, churches, mosques, and Buddhist temples. Equally important, we need to prevent Christians, Buddhists, or anyone else from forcing public school teachers or nurses to promote their doctrines. The U.S. will lose very much if popular sentiment against any religious group (or against atheists for that matter) is allowed to sway public officials to abandon their duty to uphold the separation of church and state. Here in Rhode Island this principle has been upheld from the days of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Rhode Islanders are rightly proud of their diverse and tolerant heritage. Of course, even Rhode Island has bigots, but I'm grateful to live in a place that celebrates its ethnic and religious diversity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Redirecting resentment

Union membership in this country has steadily declined over the last decades, falling most sharply in the private sector. This has had a negative effect on all working Americans, reducing wages, benefits and job security. It has also hurt the bargaining power of surviving unions, leading some to allow employers almost free reign, in exchange for the dubious distinction of recognition as parties to contracts that offer less and less to workers. With less people in unions, and unions losing clout, many Americans today have no real direct experience of enjoying the benefits of union membership. This makes it possible for Republicans to call unions "special interests," on a par with those who own mineral rights on public lands, or importers of Russian mink. The teachers, police, and firefighters who were spared the ax, with the bill house Democrats just passed, are mostly union members. They do not enjoy anything like the wealth or power that an investment banker or corporate lobbyist does. Yet compared to many other working Americans, these folks have it pretty good. When you're working for a low wage with no benefits, the deal given to a cop or a school teacher seems sweet indeed. Moreover, the wages and benefits paid to these public sector union members come out of taxes. All of this might help to explain how a group of Republicans, who has vigorously fought for the interests of the very wealthiest among us, has managed to redirect some of the natural anger and resentment of the less affluent against "union special interests." This is discouraging, yet perhaps it is also what we might call a "teachable moment." Union members can point proudly to their relative strength. The recession has hurt us, the cops and teachers can say, but at least we have some protection. Wouldn't our country be better off if more workers were able to get a better deal than they're giving at WalMart? Instead of whining about fat union contracts, try to form a union and get yourself a fatter contract too!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Zagat's guide to militias by Bill Maher

Bill Maher shows how making fun of those who are truly scary can be a healthy thing. The concept is clever, and the bit doesn't drag on too long. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A despicable industry

One of the more heartbreaking aspects of the current jobs crisis is how so many folks, who are unemployed, fall victim to various sorts of predators. Newspaper want ads and internet job postings invite applicants to apply for jobs. The jobs don't exist. The predator may be "phishing" for personal information to use in a scam. Or, the predator is looking to net a few customers for some sort of for-profit training school. Very often the desperate job seeker is encouraged to jump through a number of hoops, before finally being told how they can send $39.95 for a DVD that explains some sure-fire method to gain wealth. While con artists of earlier generations needed to present an honest looking face to individuals or small groups, no such personal touch is required today. Mass posting of phony jobs on hundreds of sites, a slickly produced website, a couple of phone lines, and thousands of new suckers will be drawn into the net. We can all try to make these bloodsuckers work a little harder for their money, by posting scam alerts that might warn off some potential victims.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Republicans capitalizing on bad news

It is very disturbing to see the high glee that high unemployment numbers are producing among Republicans. They are steadfastly opposed to helping the Democrats improve the situation, because they hope to convince U.S. voters to blame all of their economic woes on the Democrats. To keep the public diverted from their own agenda, so clearly devoted only to the interests of the very wealthy, they create a false Social Security scare-- proposing to "rescue" the program through slashing benefits and raising the retirement age. They continually misrepresent the Democrats' position on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. They point out, truthfully, that all taxpayers paid less taxes after the Bush cuts. But then they lie about the Democrats' plan for expiration. The expiration of these cuts would only apply to those making over $200,000/year. The vast majority of Americans, including all of those truly suffering the effects of the recession, would not see their taxes go up. Instead of blaming Obama and congressional Democrats, Americans need to look at wealthy corporate decision-makers (a few of whom might be Democrats!) who are outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries, slashing wages and benefits, and busting unions. While this may be impossible to prove, it may well be the case that some are deliberately putting off hiring in order to help their Republican friends in the election.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sen. Franken: Stop the Corporate Takeover of the Media

Playing the race card

A new paranoid fantasy has begun to emerge among American racists. This new fear is a natural outgrowth of earlier fears, but it represents an interesting leap into a new paradigm.

After the abolition of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan was formed as a group prepared to use violence against blacks who presumed to challenge the supremacy of whites in any way. While the popularity of the Klan has gone up and down since that time, the group still represents the most extreme end of white racist thought. Most white racists publicly profess distaste for the crude violence of lynchings and beatings. Instead they call on the power of the state and the courts to maintain the supremacy of whites. In this they were pretty successful, until official segregation and disenfranchisement began to be challenged through legislation and the courts in the 1960s.

And so racists moved into a defensive posture, resisting all of the many changes that came in the following decades. Affirmative action was an extremely bitter pill to swallow. How can universities and other institutions be forced to try and undo the natural order of things? In point of fact, despite the fears of the racists, the situation of blacks in this country showed only modest improvements. Blacks today still endure disproportionately high levels of unsafe housing, substandard medical care, poverty, and unemployment.

The election of Barack Obama (with millions of white votes) came as a shock to American racists. They had become used to seeing blacks in prominent roles in T.V. and real life, yet they knew that whites were still basically in charge. Racists might grumble about seeing so few white faces on a professional football or basketball team, but at least most of the owners and coaches were white.

Now the most powerful person in the U.S., the president, is not white. While racists, of course, had never worried that all of our earlier presidents might have favored whites, now they fear Obama might favor blacks. The shift in thinking is that racists no longer fear only that they’ll be forced to make more room at their table. Now they suspect that their table has been sold out from under them. Will whites now have to conform to black expectations to get ahead? Is everything topsy-turvy?

Reality won’t get in the way of telling the story of this supposed “reverse racism.” A decision by the Bush administration’s Justice Department, in their final days, to not pursue criminal charges against the New Black Panthers is blamed on Obama. A maliciously edited, phony videotape is uncritically accepted by Fox News and used to destroy a black official in the Agriculture Department. Even efforts to encourage high voter turnout in urban districts is portrayed as some kind of reverse racist trick. The attempts of white Republicans to suppress turnout in these same districts is, of course, applauded as “fighting voter fraud.

The sad truth is that nothing Obama or his supporters actually do will make a difference. I don’t live inside the Beltway, but from what I can see the power establishment in D.C., hasn’t changed all that much. White males still dominate, with women and minorities slowly making small inroads into the entrenched power structure. The racists fear a revolution, the reality is painfully slow evolution.

Appeals to racist sentiment, both crude and subtle, will be a part of U.S. electoral politics this cycle. Getting into an endless pattern of accusation from the left and denials from the right won’t be very constructive. Merely calling someone a racist in sweeping terms invites a misleading response full of irrelevancies. Carefully exposing the specific lies, distortions, or stereotypes, on which a particular racist claim or appeal is based, leaves the perpetrator nowhere to run.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Contrariness above consistency

Rachel Maddow does a nice job here in pointing out the remarkable lengths many Republicans will go to in, order to hinder the Administration and Congress from making any progress:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I recommend this piece, it will make you laugh and cry.

Friday, August 6, 2010

California Dreamin'

The reaction of right-wingers to the recent judicial decision overturning proposition 8 in California was predictably harsh. Here's what our old pal Newt Gingrich (who likes marriage so much he got married three times) had to say:

"Judge Walker's ruling overturning Prop 8 is an outrageous disrespect for our Constitution and for the majority of people of the United States who believe marriage is the union of husband and wife. In every state of the union from California to Maine to Georgia, where the people have had a chance to vote they've affirmed that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Congress now has the responsibility to act immediately to reaffirm marriage as a union of one man and one woman as our national policy."
What's notable about Newt's statement is that he conflates two very different things. One, our Constitution, was the relevant document on which Judge Walker's ruling was rightly based. The other, popular opinion, has no bearing on the question of whether gays have constitutionally protected marriage rights.

I wish that Newt Gingrich was wrong about the popular opinion of gay marriage in this country. Indeed I hope that someday gay marriage will seem ordinary and non-controversial. However, today a lot of people in the U.S. do feel threatened by gay marriage. But does the fact that doing something makes some people uneasy mean that it is unconstitutional? Of course not.

The whole thrust of our Constitution and Bill of Rights is to defend the rights of people to do whatever they choose, provided they do not infringe on the rights of others to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The burden of proof is on those who would prohibit gay marriage to show how gay marriage substantially infringes the rights of others. We don't actually have the right to live in a world where we can never be offended. We can choose not to read offensive magazines, watch offensive commercials, or listen to offensive song lyrics. Likewise, we can choose not to attend a gay wedding.

Religious groups will not be asked to approve, still less to perform, gay marriage ceremonies. Politicians, Rabbis, Priests, Ministers and private persons will still be allowed their free-speech rights to condemn gay marriage as wrong. What is new is that gay people, for the first time in U.S. history, have gained enough social acceptance that they are now asserting their full rights as citizens. Just like everybody else, gays deserve the right to live alone, to live with an unmarried partner, or to get married. The redemption of this right may violate religious teachings, it in no way violates our secular constitution.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Kuttner argues that exaggerated fear of deficits blocks economic recovery

Robert Kuttner has an interesting piece in which he criticizes the timidity of President Obama and Erskine Bowles on the issue of government spending.

This fall, Congress will either follow the conventional wisdom and prematurely cut government outlay before an economic recovery arrives, or it will increase public spending, put jobless Americans back to work, and reduce the deficit in a less painful fashion thanks to increasing economic tailwinds. The road that Congress takes depends on presidential leadership.

Kuttner goes on to quote approvingly from Yale economist Robert Shiller who asks the Obama administration to consider direct government job creation, W.P.A. style. While most of what Kuttner says makes a lot of sense, I don't feel Democrats need to do what Republicans under Reagan and the Bushes did for so long, and ignore the deficit. Kuttner is right that recovery will require some government spending. Yet there is a better alternative than deficit spending.

Bite the bullet, and end huge subsidies to the oil industry and other corporate interests that contribute so much to Congressional campaign coffers. Admit the fact that the wealthiest Americans caught a huge break with the Bush tax cuts, and that these cuts for them should expire as scheduled in 2011. Make it less financially attractive to ship jobs overseas. Begin enforcing our nation's labor laws, so that working and middle class people might have a little money to spend and thus stimulate the economy.

President Clinton was also criticized for being too concerned with the deficit. Yet the economy was quite healthy after his tax increases were adopted, and the deficit reduced. We may not be able to match Clinton's feat of actually producing a surplus, yet we shouldn't abandon the goal of striving towards a balanced budget.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Pelosi does the right thing

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi deserves a lot of credit today for calling the House back from vacation, to vote on a bill that would restore some Federal aid to the states. Much of the money would go towards medical assistance and schools. Will this federal aid allow states to help more uninsured folks receive medical care? Will school districts be able to repair facilities, buy new equipment, or rehire laid-off teachers? Sadly, the answer is no. In most states this federal aid will only partly cover the gaps created by drastic cuts in state budgets. Wages and benefits have already been cut. Teachers and firefighters have already lost their jobs. People who need medical assistance have already been turned away. All that this aid would accomplish would be to give states a chance to pause in this latest round of cuts, before further erosion in their revenues forces still more cuts in the near future.

Within hours of Pelosi’s call to action, Republicans started to whine. How dare she demand that Congress make an effort to prevent even worse devastation in an already ravaged country? The measure that will go the House is fully paid for, it will not add to the deficit. Indeed the Senate Republican filibuster was only broken after Democrats were forced to make cuts in the SNAP (Food Stamps) program. Yet Republicans still complained that the increased taxes in the law would be bad for business and hurt job creation. But what are these job killing tax hikes? Nothing that would remotely influence a business to refrain from creating U.S. jobs. Rather, the measure calls for closing a loophole that allowed companies to evade U.S. taxes through manipulating foreign tax credits. Companies that behave in such an unpatriotic fashion have already busted unions, cut wages and benefits, and outsourced as many jobs as possible to low-wage countries. They had no plans to create any good new jobs in the U.S. Losing this tax dodge will only spur them to dream up more shady ways to jack up their profits.

Let's hope this little step in the right direction signals a more active Congress in the future!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Carving up the pie

A new report based on data recently released by the Congressional Budget Office shows in stark terms the increasing concentration of our nation's wealth in fewer hands. Over the last three decades we have moved from a situation of massive inequality to one of mind-boggling inequality. Even in 1979 the top fifth (or 20%) took a very large portion of the national income. By 2007 this had become an obscenely huge portion of the national income. This is easily visualized with the help of these pie charts to the left. In 1979 80% of Americans were still able to control slightly more spending power than the wealthiest 20%. By 2007 the top 20% actually took more than half of the national after-tax income. The steady erosion of the relative position of the middle class and the poor is striking. But even more remarkable is the explosive growth in income of the very wealthiest among us. The top 1% have increased their share of national income much more dramatically than other wealthy folks in the top fifth.

We must remember something about this data. The numbers here reflect only income wealth that is actually reported to the IRS. Is it possible that some folks in the top 1% might have some money stashed in accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands that they forget to mention to Uncle Sam? As Sarah Palin might say-- "you betcha!" How much wealth do school teachers or short-order cooks have tucked away out of sight? They don't have fancy lawyers or money to fly to Zurich.

So, what's the point? It's not "class warfare" to remark on how much better the wealthy have fared than the rest of us. It's a simple statement of fact. When a modest increase in taxes on the wealthiest is proposed, the howls of protest are deafening. Yet such an increase would not really change the situation. When one considers that more than half of the national income belongs to the wealthy, all of a sudden advertising makes more sense. Sure, businesses and politicians would like everyone's support. Yet the spending power of the wealthy simply dwarfs that of everyone else. Their interests are never ignored. Instead of crying over the supposed unfairness of asking multi-millionaires to fork over a bit more cash on April 15th, politicians in Washington might consider the real unfairness of asking the vast majority of American taxpayers to live in fear of sickness or injury. Instead of insisting that we can't afford health care for all, maybe we should start asking how a great nation could allow so many middle-class families to go bankrupt and lose their homes because of medical bills.

Any capitalist economy is going to produce significant disparities in wealth. This in itself is not a reason to advocate the destruction of capitalism. Yet capitalism does not have to be heartless to flourish. A billionaire can afford to pay the workers at his company a living wage without having to sell his vacation home in Aspen or the south of France. Rich people enjoy so much of our bounty that asking them to help out a little more seems only right.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Remaking History

Jerry Adler of Newsweek reports on a fascinating story from Iowa. It seems the Republicans in that fair state have called in their newly adopted platform for something pretty radical. As some of us may remember, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1865 to complete the work begun by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The language of the amendment is simple:

"Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

What is far less well known is that there was a much earlier amendment proposed by Senator Philip Reed of Maryland, one that appeared on its way to eventual adoption by the end of 1812. For whatever reason it was never finally adopted and accepted as constitutional law. This amendment, had it been adopted, would have become the 13th. It had nothing to do with slavery, but was rather concerned with the acceptance of titles of nobility and pensions from foreign monarchs. Reed wanted to strengthen the existing constitutional ban, that prohibited U.S. officeholders from receiving such goods, by extending it to all U.S. citizens and imposing the loss of citizenship as the penalty for violating the ban. The precise language of Reed's amendment follows:
If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.

What does all this have to do with Iowa Republicans in 2010? Well, they have adopted as part of their platform a call for “the reintroduction and ratification of the original 13th Amendment, not the 13th amendment in today’s Constitution.” Let's give these folks the benefit of the doubt and not interpret this this as calling for the reversal of slavery's abolition. We might be over generous in so doing, but this blog is all about giving everyone a fair shake. But why call for bringing back this early 19th century amendment? Iowa Republicans are happy to explain that they could use it to strip President Barack Obama of his office and citizenship since he received the Nobel Prize. They don't seem to mind that it would also damage Jimmy Carter. Or that Ronald Reagan, who received honors from Elizabeth II of England, would be a posthumous violator of "the original 13th."

Of course, this is all absurd. Categorizing the Nobel Prize Committee as a foreign power is only one aspect of the craziness. Yet it actually makes sense from the distorted perspective of the radical right. Obama-haters have already made up their minds that Obama seeks to destroy all that they value. They are not content to accept the results of a national election. If they can't easily find something in Obama's conduct to warrant throwing him out of office, then they will search for anything else they can use to make him illegitimate. The brouhaha over alleged irregularities in his birth certificate was another manifestation of the same desperate desire to destroy credibility.

We can't convert these rabid Republicans to a more reasonable point of view. Yet we need to take seriously their fanatical opposition. Only by motivating Democrats and progressives to work with heightened zeal can we construct a better vision for America that appeals to voters. We should never seek to appease those who will stop at nothing to destroy us. Instead we need to patiently counter outrage with good sense and positive deeds.