Saturday, April 19, 2014

Money in politics #3

I thought some more about Jack Abramoff's statement that the Supreme Court justices are naive about the corrupting effect of money in politics -- and especially how Abramoff's view does not apply to the four liberal justices who voted against McCutcheon.   Perhaps he didn't mean for it to.

Justice Stephen Breyer was joined in his blistering dissent by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  There is nothing naive about this opinion of the minority.  They charged that the majority's “conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts.”
Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.
Taken together with Citizens United, Breyer writes that McCutcheoneviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."

Breyer then cites this court's 2003 decision in McConnell v. FEC that money — and the access it purchases — has a pernicious influence on the political process.  In the record from that District Court case was documented evidence that enormous soft money contributions, ranging from $1 million to $5 million, enabled wealthy donors to gain access to federal lawmakers and the ability to influence legislation.

Breyer further points out that the majority in McCutcheon reaches: 
" . . . a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform."
So, no, these four liberal justices do not fail to understand the problem.   They just need one more justice to agree with them, and we would have a very different outcome -- on this and many important cases.  How can we get that vote?    On issues of gay rights, we have it in Justice Kennedy.   But we need to elect another Democratic president in 2016 and keep control of the Senate in 2014.


Money in politics #2

Jack Abramoff is a former Washington lobbyist who was at the center of a big scandal of political corruption involving at least 21 people.  Abramoff spent time in prison for it.

He speaks from . . . experience, shall we say? . . . when he says that the Supreme Court justices just don't get how money influences politics.   He cites the fact that none of them has ever run a political campaign or been an elected office-holder and says:  "To think that the conveying of money is not going to create a corrupt relationship, I think is naive at best."

One quibble, however.    I think the four liberal justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) are very aware of the problem of money in politics.   That is why they voted against Citizens United and McCutcheon.

That quibble aside, shouldn't the conservatives pay attention to someone who was right in there buying favor -- and getting it?   Who better to know how it works?   Perhaps they are not naive, though, and actually think that this is the result they want to achieve?


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Scientific study suggests U.S. is technically a democracy, but becoming an oligarchy functionally

 Yes, the U. S. has the structure of a democracy and rule by the people -- we have a constitution, bill of rights, regular elections, majority rule, peaceful transfer of power, free press, etc.   But how much power do the people have to influence what our government actually does?   Is our press really free when money interests dominate the content of news sources -- and the political ads disguised as welfare advocacy ads -- that such a large number of citizens rely on for information?

This seems particularly relevant to the consequences of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision of 2010, as well as to the anticipated consequences of the 2014 McCutcheon decision -- both opening up the doors to more political influence by wealthy, anonymous donors.

To be published this fall in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, a reserch study by Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) offers scientific evidence to back up the commonly held view that wealthy Americans and groups that speak for big business have far more influence on U. S. government policies than average citizens.

They studied 1,779 policies that were enacted between 1981 and 2002, comparing the preferences on each policy of the average American (at the 50th percentile of income) with those of the economic elite (90th percentile), and with those of large special interest groups, to determine how often certain income levels and organized interest groups got the policy results that they favored.

It makes almost no difference whether a policy is supported or opposed by average citizens (think sensible gun control, immigration reform, campaign finance reform).   The graphs show that when 0% of average citizens want the policy, the probably of enactment is 30%;   when 100% want it, probability is about 32%.  In other words, it makes virtually no difference what the average citizen wants.

In contrast, the graph for the economic elite shows that, when 0% want a policy, the probability is 0%when 80% want it, probability is 45%when 100% want it, probability is 59% (think closing tax loopholes).  Graph results for the organized interest groups are similar (think NRA).

Interpretations of the meaning of this will vary, but the liberal, progressives people I listen to are saying this is evidence that we are headed for, if not already there, becoming an oligarchy.   The authors themselves conclude:
Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
 How can the Roberts-Alito-Scalia-Thomas-Kennedy conservative coalition on SCOTUS not see that this could not be the intent of the Founding Fathers?   Deciding that money = speech in the political realm has got to be one of the worst decisions made by this court in modern times.   

Democracy has to be vigilantly protected, because there will always be those who want to accumulate power, wealthy, and privilege.   Unregulated, free-market capitalism will not protect democracy.   It will lead to an oligarchy, the control of government by a small number of wealthy people.    That's where we seem to be headed.


Short takes

Short takes, meaning takes a short time to tell -- but some have big meanings and/or consequences.

1.  President Obama announced today that enrollment in the Affordable Care Act has now reached the 8 million mark, and that the percentage of younger enrollees in the past month jumped, making 35% of overall enrollees under the age of 35.  This is what's needed to make the plan work.    Imagine how much higher the enrollement would be if everyone had cooperated instead of trying to kill it.

2.  Sec. of State John Kerry has just met with the Russian foreign minister and representatives of Ukraine and the European Union.   After seven hours of negotiations, they have an agreement that should ease tensions.   All sides agree to halt violence, as well as intimination and provocative actions.  Armed militia groups will be disarmed and control of buildings seized by pro-Russian separatists will be returned to the legal authorities.  In exchange, further sanctions against Russia will be put on hold.

3.  Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) got it wrong.   He said that 20 million jobs were created after President Ronald Reagen cut taxes in the 1980s.   In fact, 16.1 million jobs were added during the Reagen presidency, contrasted with 22.9 million added during the Bill Clinton presidency -- which raised taxes.  Give a conservative the talking point that cutting taxes creates jobs, and he'll believe it despite all evidence to the contrary.   Watch for Paul to continue plying this falsehood. 

4.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died at the age 87 following a long illness.   Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, Marquez most celebrated novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which begins with the memorable opening line: "Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Captain Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

There are many things that can be said about his fiction, which won both critical and popular acclaim -- such as his effective use of magical realism and his creation of a fictional world in which Latin Americans could recognize themselves, their passions and their superstitions.  But, for me, Garcia Marquez first and foremost is the master of the opening line -- the kind that compels you to read on.

Another favorite is from his short story, "Maria dos Prazeres."  It begins, "The man from the undertaking establishment was so prompt that Maria dos Prazeres was still in her bathrobe, with her hair in curlers, and she just had time to put a rose behind her ear to keep from looking as unattractive as she felt."

Don't you want to know why the man from the undertaking establishment was coming to call so early in the morning, and why it mattered to her how she looked to him?   The story is even more fascinating:   Maria is an aging prostitute, with no family or friends to mourn her after she's gone.   So she buys a cemetery plot, then trains her little dog to go and sit by the future grave and weep real tears.   Hooked?   Well, you gotta read it in his own words.


Bloomberg takes on the NRA and our gun culture

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has just declared war on the NRA and our gun culture -- starting with a $50 million contribution to a new advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety.   This group will bring together several other advocacy groups, including Bloomberg's previous effort, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Everytown for Gun Safety has just released a chilling public service advertisement about the risk of unsecured guns in homes and the accidental killing of children that result.

Take a look.   Very effective.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Marching into the past -- Phyllis Schlafly tells why women should not be paid as much as men

You need to be of a certain age to know who Phyllis Shlafly is.  Born in 1924, she was an outspoken opponent of feminism and equal rights for women.  At the 1960 Republican National Convention, she led a revolt of "moral conservatives" against the more liberal Richard Nixon camp.

In the wake of Senate Republicans' unanimous vote that blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act last week, Schlafly published an op-ed in the Christian Post, saying that providing women with equal pay for equal work would deter their chances of finding a "suitable mate."

She starts with the assertion that women prefer mates who earn more than they do.  Therefore, if you eliminate the pay gap, "simple arithmetic suggests that half the women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate."

Wait, it gets better.   She further says that women do not deserve equal pay because they "work fewer hours per day, per week, per year . . . [and they] place a much higher value on pleasant working conditions:  a clean, comfortable, air-conditioned office with congenial co-workers."

She concludes that the best way to empower women "is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives."

She is definitely a voice from the 1950's to the 1970's.   It's safe to assume that she and Gloria Steinem were not best gal-pals.

But it's striking how the right wing of the current GOP is marching back there to meet her.   Watch for her to be keynotes speaker at the next convention.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Unbelievable, pathetic . . . but, oh, so predictable from the Repubs

It looks like the Republicans are just going to keep on pounding Obamacare, but it refuses to die.   Even after enrollment reaches 10 million, they'll still be calling it a disaster and a complete failure.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius announced her resignation;  Obama announced her replacement, thus eliminating Sibelius as the already bruised defender.    So what do we hear from Repubs about this?

It's almost unbelievable.   And it's utterly pathetic.  Rep. Marsha Blackburn said on "Face the Nation:
"They know they've got a math problem with Obamacare and the numbers are not going to work out so that the program is actuarially sound. . . .They're going to have to have somebody to kind of spin the numbers and this is something ... I think they're expecting her to be able to do [it]. . . "
Get it?   Who better than the budget director to come in and cook the books and manage this numbers fraud than their budget director?    That's all they've got ????    No substantive argument ??    Just "nyah, nyah, nyah . . . they're just making it all up."

Who is this Sylvia Matthews Burwell that Obama has nominated?    Originally from West Virginia, she graduated from Harvard, following which she earned a second bachelor's degree in philosophy, economics and politics from Oxford where she was a Rhodes Scholar.   She has been CEO and Executive Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, President of the Walmart Foundation, Assistant Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, and Staff Director of the National Economic Council.   Just one year ago, the U. S. Senate approved her nomination to head the White House Office of Management and Budget by 96 to 0.

You know, that's going pretty high up in the food chain of government and non-profit service just to get someone to cook the books on the ACA.   How pathetic that they have no valid argument and so have to stoop so low.

Instead of getting outraged, maybe we could see it for what it is:   
 a sign of Republican's bankruptcy of ideas and dearth of policy alternatives.   So all they can do is make noise and try to buy whatever votes they aren't able to suppress.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Another great response to anti-gay reaction

Here is a companion piece to the Honey Maid story (April 9th) on handling anti-gay responses

On the University of Utah campus, there was a performance of the 30 year old play Deathtrap, which includes a murder and also a rather chaste, single kiss between two men at the end of act 1.

A woman, who had taken her teen age son to see the play, left "disgusted and infuriated" at intermission.  She later wrote to the theater saying that they should have provided a "content advisory" in the publicity that divulged the "repulsive content."

The theater's managing director wrote her back:
"You object to the kissing, but not to the fact that they’re murderers?  You are comfortable with your son witnessing an enacted murder, but not a same-sex kiss? In both cases, it’s just make-believe, but how is a play that depicts murder, whether it’s a contemporary murder-mystery like 'Deathtrap' or an immortal tragedy like 'Macbeth,' morally acceptable while the depiction of a fairly innocuous, albeit same-sex kiss, is totally unacceptable?" 
Let's hope this mother gives a little thought to her moral values and to her parental responsibilities.   And let's hope the teenage son has someone else in his life who can provide a less narrow-minded, restrictive role model.


Even liberals slant the news

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services for the first five years of Barack Obama's presidency, announced her departure following the victory lap and triumphant success of more than meeting the goal for people signing up.   The initial goal was 7 million;  after the problems with the web site, that was reduced to 6 million.  But when all the counting was done, 7.5 million people signed up for health insurance through the various parts of the Affordable Care Act.

Now we have not heard it said enough:   This amazing success has occured despite these facts:   (1)  The Supreme Court cut out one important aspect of the ACA and made the expansion of Medicaid optional to states;  and half of them opted out.  This eliminated 600,000 people just in Georgia alone.  (2)  Republican politicians and the right-wing media have drilled into the American psyche that "Obamacare is a disaster," besides dangerous to your health, creeping socialism and the work of the devil.  (3)  All the efforts to discourage people from signing up, including some states passing laws making it illegal for any state employee to even tell people where to sign up for the plans.  (4)  The website launch was a disaster that showed lack of planning and expertise for such a complex system;   but they are equally to be praised for getting it fixed so quickly.

It's been a rough year for Sebelius, with Republicans grilling her in hearings and telling her she should resign.   She's a tough lady, having been governor of Kansas and having grown up in a political family.   However, the toughness is contained within a genteel demeanor.  I have long admired her, but never more than when she kept her cool during those brutal hearings.

That's why it's so gratifying to me for her to have been able to leave on the high note here at the end of the initial enrollment period -- and before the next phase problems begin to surface.  There will be problems, but it's good to have someone new in the job now, who won't have the website launch problems hanging over her.

But why couldn't the media have given her a high five on the way out?   Of course, FoxNews went wild with glee and used it once again to trash the "Disaster, Utter Disaster" of last October.   But even the New York Times' headline for an article was: "Cabinet Secretary Resigns After the Disastrous Rollout of the Site."

No, she most emphatically did not.  Rather, she "Resigns After the 7.5 Million Enrollment, Surpassing Wildest Expectations."

Huh?   Why not that?   It's equally true -- and more immediately timed to her leaving.   Come on, guys.  With friends like that . . .


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Republicans have no alternate plan for health care

Paul Krugman began his April 11 column thus:  "When it comes to health reform, Republicans suffer from delusions of disaster."   Quoting a Rand Corporation study that 9.3 million adults have been added to health insurance rolls since September, he contrasts that with the continued bellowing of Republicans that "Obamacare is a disaster, a total failure."

He goes on to say that "they have no idea how to respond to these developments.  They can't offer any real alternative, because you can't have the good stuff in the Affordable Care Act, like coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, without also including the stuff they hate, the requirement that everyone buy insurance and the subsidies that make that requirement possible.   Their political strategy has been to talk vaguely about replacing reform while waiting for its inevitable collapse.  And what if reform doesn't collapse?  They have no idea what to do."

Krugman quotes health economist Jonathan Gruber about the states that rejected Medicaid expansion, for which the federal government would have paid 100% for 3 years, and then 90% after that.  Gruber said that the Medicaid rejection states "are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people.  It really is just almost awesome in its evilness."

I'm not sure it's only, or mostly, to punish poor people, however.  I think it was a direct strike against the Democrats -- and President Obama in particular.   They cannot stand for him to win on anything, much less his signature achievement and legacy.

But it looks like all their efforts have failed to kill it . . . .  and now what is their campaign issue going to be?    Oh, I remember.   IRS scandal.  Benghazi scandal.  No amnesty for illegal immigrants.  And voter fraud.    All of which are essentially non-existent.

Their real strategy, of course, is:  (1) lie to the people through billionaire-backed tv ads and (2) make it harder for poor people to vote through oppressive voting laws.