May 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Last year, in October, I posted some pessimistic comments about the drafting of Dodd-Frank regulations. See The Details Devils. Those regulations involve the jurisdiction of four different federal agencies. They are necessary to implement Dodd-Frank’s purpose: To limit the ability of Wall Street banks to wreak havoc on the economy by creating and marketing risky and deceptively complicated securities. I cited three articles from the New York Times and Bloomberg News describing the bitter multi-agency struggles concerning the effort to separate investment banking from commercial banking, generally known as the Volker Rule.
Since then I have expressed my gloomy opinion that corporate capitalism seems to have overpowered the ability of our government to rein in its most destructive inclinations. See Capitalism and Democracy – Symbiotic Conflict.
Today’s New York Times has a story about the struggle between government regulatory agencies and Wall Street banks concerning proposed Dodd-Frank regulations. See story.
Lastweek I read a lengthy article in The Nation by Gary Rivlin, “How Wall Street De-Fanged Dodd-Frank“. The author, a talented reporter, has described, in detail, how armies of lobbyists and lawyers, financed with unlimited money from Wall Street banks and a consortium of corporate organizations and trade associations, have overwhelmed both the officials charged with drafting and seeking adoption of Dodd-Frank regulations, and the members of congressional committees having oversight of those subjects.
The characters in this melodrama are interesting. One member of the corporate wrecking team is Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Humpty-Dumpty Scalia. His role is to file multiple law suits designed to embroil the regulatory drafting process in litigation for years and thereby thwart Congress’s effort to protect the American economy from a repetition of the 2008 financial debacle. According to Rivlin’s article, he is succeeding swimmingly.
One of the associations funding and sponsoring the lobbyist members of the wrecking crew is our own Kenneth M Bentsen, former member of Congress and now head of the Securities Industry and Financial Marketing Association, nephew of Lloyd Bentsen. We all remember Lloyd. He’s the guy who waged a successful smear campaign against Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1970, later made an unsuccessful run for the presidency, then was rewarded by the Democratic Party with a nomination for Vice President and running mate with Walter Mondale; then, when that didn’t work out, was again rewarded by President Clinton, who appointed him Secretary of the Treasury. Oh yeah, we remember him. Looks like his nephew is carrying on the family tradition.
Why is it, that every time some absolutely putrid, disgraceful process takes place in Washington D.C., some Texas yahoo shows up in the middle of it? When Ken Bentsen was a congressman, I thought he was a new generation of Bentsens; that maybe he was going to renounce the dark side. Guess the money was just too good to pass up.
I won’t try to summarize Gary Rivilin’s article. It is long but I urge you to read it. If, as I have written, there is a war going on between democracy and capitalism, Wall Street banks possess the nuclear bombs. They have already demonstrated that they are irresponsible and reckless custodians of those weapons. We are still living with the resulting economic ruin. Dodd-Frank represents an effort to disarm them. So far, the prospects don’t look promising.
April 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
In the following essay I will describe the conflict between capitalism and democracy; how that conflict has developed; how the conflict can either benefit or threaten both capitalism and democracy; and how recent changes in the uses and availability of political money affects that conflict.
The Conflict Between Capitalism and Democracy
I recently read two essays by Peter Radford. He is the publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School. The essays first appeared in his own journal and then in the Real World Economic Review blog. Here are links to the blog posts:
I have cited the blog posts rather than Radford’s journal because the second blog post responds to comments made in response to the first one. Also, the comments to both posts are interesting and informative.
As stated, Radford is not an academic. His descriptive references to capitalism are informed by his past employment by two large banks. Here is his comparison of capitalism and democracy:
“It isn’t capitalism that created the American middle class. It was democracy. Which is a countervailing force pressing against capitalism. Democracy is the mechanism through which the likes of you and I prevent the pillage that unfettered capitalism encourages. And it is the method we use to make sure we get our fair share of the collective spoils.
So, you see, capitalism and democracy are locked in a fight against one another. They cannot abide each other.
The one concentrates wealth by encouraging greed, exploitation, monopoly, and conspiracy. The other distributes wealth by enforcing the tyranny of the majority, constraining liberty, establishing rules, and forcing apart those conspiracies.”
Notice there is no mention of the economic system described by Adam Smith, the one that achieves efficiency through competition and division of labor. No. Mr. Radford, the veteran practitioner of capitalism, understands how it actually works in twenty-first century America. In fact, he observes that capitalists “despise competition” and seek every way possible to diminish or destroy it. The adherents of democracy, eager to escape exploitation at the mercy of monopolies, impose anti-trust laws that are resisted by capitalists.
A Brief History of Freedom
Radford offers an insightful discussion of the word “freedom”. He uses history to explain how the word came to be used in two different ways by capitalists and the rest of us. In Medieval Europe, property was owned by kings and the aristocracy, but kings controlled its use. As wars required money and soldiers, the landowners were able to force kings to limit royal control over their land in exchange for armed soldiers and increased taxes. As this process progressed, the concept of “freedom” was equated with the right to control the use of one’s property.
At this stage in history, freedom had nothing to do with the wishes or welfare of common people, who were landless. Finally, as the feudal era ended, towns were organized around commodity markets. A new class of merchants, tradesmen and artisans emerged. The members of this new class acquired small tracts of land and became protective of their right to use their property. This was the situation at the time of the American Revolution.
In America, free land was available on the frontier and those who became landowners saw the efforts of England to impose taxes and to limit their right to import and export commodities as encroachment on their freedom to own and use their property as they chose. Again, the protection of those property rights had no relationship to those with no property. When the Revolution was successful, the new American government did not provide for or guarantee any voting rights for the landless. Our Constitution was designed to limit government’s authority, but it was adopted by the votes of landowners as fearful as Mitt Romney that their property rights would be threatened with taxation by those without land.
Industrialization produced a new class of workers, whose interests and rights were not land-based. These factory workers and miners conceived of freedom as the right to vote and to have some control over government’s right to impose taxes, to limit their right to travel, to marry, to raise their children, to organize and bargain with their industrial employers for a fair share of the results of their labor - rights that were not related to property ownership.
Finally, another very significant result of industrialization was the replacement of human landowners with a new corporate aristocracy. This transformation has had a significant effect on the nature of the struggle between democracy and capitalism. In feudal Europe and pre-industrial America, human landed aristocrats were subject to some moral strictures. Although slavery became common, and was not affected by compassion or empathy, there were, at least, some religious forces that affected the way that landowners treated those dependent on them. When they were replaced in the industrial age with corporations, those influences ended. Corporate masters respond only to the drive to make profits and the only moderating influence they respond to is the threat of punishment if they disobey laws. When that threat, which results from the force of democracy. disappears, they become oblivious to everything except “the bottom line”.
A Recent Example: The Banks and Dispossessed Homeowners
In 2007 – 2008, Wall Street banks capsized financial markets by bundling vast numbers of residential mortages in derivative products, obtaining false ratings for the value of the derivatives, and selling them to pension plans, government agencies and other investment groups all over the world. When the truth about the value of those derivatives finally became known, the scheme collapsed and our current recession as well as some of the current economic problems in European countries resulted.
This caused panic in Washington near the end of the second Bush administration. The banks threatened to convert the mess they had created into a bottomless financial disaster and the government paidthe ransom demanded by the banks and their complicit “credit default swap” partners. The perpetrators’ potential losses were covered one hundred cents on the dollar.. There was no mutuality to this deal. The banks made no enforceable promises to use their lending capacity to alleviate the results of their wrongdoing. No fines were paid. The massive fraud was entirely unpunished.
A part of this episode consisted of local banks, eager to provide the fodder for the creation of the above-stated derivatives, making thousands of loans without any attention to the ability of the borrowers to repay them. Contrary to the claims of the GOP, most of these bad loans were not the result of government policies encouraging banks to make residential housing available to middle class borrowers. Those policies may have contributed in some way to the problem, but no government policy encouraged or enabled Wall Street bankers to securitize the mortgages securing those loans into derivative products and then fraudulently market them.
When the recession began and layoffs occurred, many homeowners became unable to make payments on their loans. At the same time, far from trying to moderate the harm from these problems, the banks began aggressively foreclosing on homeowners and severly damaging the housing market. Widespread misconduct characterized these foreclosures, including forging signatures on loan documents, filing false court papers and erroneously foreclosing on mortgages even if the payments on the underlying loans were current
The victimized homeowners sought redress in class action litigation. That litigation was recently settled. The settlement required the banks to pay a small fraction of the amount of the damage they caused. The average payment to a homeowner who was thrown out of his or her home was $500.
Meanwhile, during the current recession, Wall Street bankers have enjoyed record profits and bonuses. The stock market has risen to unprecedented heights. The pain has not been shared by those who caused it and, in testimony to a congressional committee, the Attorney General acknowledged that the “to big to fail” banks have proved also “too big to jail”.
This, in part, explains my feeling that, from 1890 to 2013, during the industrial age and beyond. there has been, as Radford argues, a conflict betwween the capitalists and democracy and, so far as I can see, the capitalists have won.
The Nature of Political Power
Because Democratic Party candidates have won four of the last six presidential elections, and because Barack Obama just won re-election, my pessimistic ranting may seem inappropriate, even ungrateful. Of course I am relieved that Mitt Romney is not President. But, in terms of the subject of this effort, the tension between capitalism and democracy, I am not sure that Obama and Clinton, the two winners in those four elections, represent a triumph of democracy.
Is Obama’s rhetoric about the urgency of “solving” the “debt crisis” significantly different from the RNC talking points? What is the explanation for his peculiar negotiating style: Make an opening offer that concedes the opponents’ primary argument? When he proposed the “sequester”, did he really believe that the GOP would never allow it to become law? And, now that it has become law, is there any reasonable basis for believing that some less damaging alternative will be embraced by the GOP? If the Senate filibuster could have been defanged in January with a simple majority vote, why wasn’t it? What did the GOP threaten in reprisal that would have been as damaging as the filibuster rules?
In a recent episode of “Up With Steve Kornaki”, I heard a panelist succinctly describe political reality: “There are two kinds of political power: money and constituent base.” Well, so far, money has not been able to determine the outcome of presidential races. But state legislative races seem to be very vulnerable. The score card on voter suppression is not encouraging. If you’re more than 200 miles from one of our oceans and 100 miles South of the Canadian border, you’re screwed if you are interested in expanding voting rights. No, I haven’t actually checked to see if that’s true, but I’ll bet it’s not far off.
I think of political parties as mechanisms for requiring or, at least, demanding that political candidates adhere to a set of values and principles. So, when candidates depend on political parties for money, I regard that as a helpful antidote to their temptation to sell out to the highest bidder in the political money scramble. The Citizens United decision has undermined that potential effect. Now, corporate America can establish superpacs dedicated to supporting or opposing any political candidate and anonymously contribute unlimited amounts of money to them. The voters will have no way to know what deals have been cut or what promises have been made.
Here’s a link to an April 10 NY Times article that describes how this new Supreme Court designed invitation to political bribery works. Superpacs
It seems to me that our technology has enabled a relatively small number of giant American corporations to dominate global markets, including financial markets, and to control barely imaginable amounts of money, thus becoming, as stated earlier, too big to fail and too big to jail. These corporations, joined by a host of smaller ones, have managed to manipulate our government during the past forty years in ways that allowed them, not only to become big enough to bully the forces of democracy, but also to revise the tax system in ways that have created a gross inequality of wealth. Wages have stagnated while the wealth of a few Americans has skyrocketed. In terms of wealth inequality, America ranks second in the world. The GOP warns that we are in danger of becoming Greece. In fact, I think we may have already become Mexico, except we have no handy neighbor, except Canada, to which we can export our impoverished working class
So far as concerns the “constituent base” component of political power, the capitalist forces have solved that problem by guiding their state legislative departments to design constituencies that do not threaten their interests. I have read that 80% of Congressional districts are so designed that general election outcomes are decided by margins of 10% or more. [For a thorough and interesting analysis of this phenomenon, see this post in the Five Thirty-eight blog.] “Throw the rascals out” is an empty threat in such districts. The collapse of any effort to limit gun rights demonstrates that “profiles in courage” are in very short supply in the U.S. Senate. Even when over 90% of Americans demand action and the President is roused to active participation, only fifty-four of the one hundred Senators were willing to offend a lobbyist association like the NRA, which itself had the “courage” to ignore the opinions of a majority of its own members, in order to kow-tow to a group of weapon manufacturers.
In addition to designing constituencies, capitalist forces have also managed to shape the electorate in many states by limiting the period of time for voting and by requiring that voters have picture ID”s.
These defeats for democracy are continuing and, given the new power that the Supreme Court has bestowed on those who control wealth in this country, I see no reason to believe that the trend toward autocracy will not continue.
To summarize, the capitalists have enough money to bribe or threaten most political candidates. They also have learned how to herd those subservient agents to create ways to control and manipulate the electoral process so that democracy is, at best, a mild threat to capitalist interests.
A Self-indulgent Conclusion
I tend to see technological changes as being accompanied by institutional changes. Professor Ayers at UT taught me that “accompanied by” is correct, not “caused by”. In the past, I have thought of this relationship as a hopeful one. I saw technology avoid the grim predictions of Malthus, the prediction that we were “running out of energy” giving way to nuclear discoveries and, currently, to the expansion of natural gas availability. The diseases that were the scourge of medieval times have been vanquished by modern medicine. It remains to be seen how the threat of climate change will fare, but the technological solutions are plainly available.
I thought that digital technology and the internet would be a liberating force, enabling ordinary people to organize themselves into powerful coalitions, free of control by corporate media, and thus obtain a better bargain with their governments and the corp;orate giants that control so much of their lives. I now have serious doubts about those hopes. The communication marvels that now span our planet have enabled some corporate giants to access, exploit and influence, for good or evil, global markets. Twitter, Facebook and other popular digital meeting places, except for some instances in the Middle Easts’ recent upheavals, have proved to be mere distractions for ordinary people. I see small evidence that they have strengthened democracy more than they have the interests of capitalists.
Radford’s description of the history that has led us to the present situation reminded me of a very old story. Now, having given the matter more thought, I have concluded that the triumph of capitalism was not inevitable, as I once intended to illustrate with the story. I just think that, right now, the future looks bleak. But, I like the story so I’m going to finish with it because I like to share things I like.
An Appoinment in Samarra
There is a very old story, told many times in many contexts. Its earliest appearance, so far as I can find, was in the Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 53a, written about 1500 years ago. Somerset Maugham and John O’Hara used it to launch stories. Here is Maugham’s version:
“The speaker is Death
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
In the Talmud, after recounting a similar tale, King Solomon said, “A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted”, which I interpret to mean that flight from one’s destiny is futile.
April 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Animal Cruelty and Public Policy: A Meditation
A front page story in this morning’s Times made me realize how completely our state governments have become subsidiaries of corporate business. The story described the results of tape recorded investigations by an animal rights group. Their tapes showed corporate farm employees inflicting disgusting cruelty on horses, chickens and pigs. The tapes led to criminal indictments and McDonalds cancelled its contract with the owner of the chicken farm.
My first reaction was satisfaction that the activists had achieved some good results.
Then, however, I read the rest of the story on the jump page. In response to the investigations, legislatures in Iowa, Utah .and Missouri adopted new laws that provided criminal penalties for any surreptitious video taping by employees designed to defame an employer. The laws also criminalized any application for employment that contained false information to conceal the intent of the applicant to investigate employment practices that would harm the reputation of the employer. Finally, the laws required that any tape recording of any wrongful practices be turned over to appropriate authorities within two days, thus making any meaningful investigation impossible. Similar laws are pending in Indiana . [A link to the story]
All of these coverup laws are provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate funded incubator for right wing voter suppression, union busting and, now, whistle blower eradication.
Stop and think about this. Democratically elected legislators are proposing to jail private citizens because they expose criminal conduct by corporate employers. Has our country become so committed to corporate welfare that fundamental moral values no longer matter? Has Engine Charley Wilson’s famous slogan, “What’s good for General Motors is good forAmerica” finally replaced e pluribus unum as America’s motto? Has our “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” become a plantation?
On a happier note: While searching for something else I recently discovered a poet, writer and creative thinker named Gloria Anzaldua. She was born in Hargill, a small town in South Texas near the Mexican border. I found her thoughts about race, ethnicity and sexuality to be fascinating. She writes from the perspective of a Mexican American of mixed ethnicity and as a woman whose sexuality, so far as I can determine based on a very incomplete review of her writing, is too complicated to fit neatly into a standard label.
One thing that attracts me to her is that, far from regarding these complexities as burdens or problems, she celebrates them.
In another context, just this morning, I listened to a discussion of Obama’s mixed race and the issues that his prominence has highlighted among other mixed race Americans. It seems to me that, although the facts concerning racial and ethnic mixtures have not changed, our cultural attitudes have. I find that to be promising and hopeful. Intelligent discussion of racial and ethnic mixture will, I think and hope, make racism and bigotry too complicated to survive. Because I am convinced that everything I abhor is, in some way, related to those two plagues, anything that hints at their abatement pleasures me.
Ms. Anzaldua got her undergraduate degree from Pan American University in Edinburg; did graduate work at UT and was awarded a doctorate after her death in 2010.
April 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A PERSONAL NOTE
This is my “new and improved” Phoenix edition, “Bob’s Remonstrance II”, “Bob’s Remonstrance Redux”, “The Remonstrant Returns”, “Bob’s Remonstrance Second Edition” or “I’m Baaaack”.
I fell and broke my right arm on February 15 and typing is still somewhat awkward, but not too difficult. I’ve been watching the succession of farces and tragedies breathlessly chronicled on cable news channels and have a few thoughts I’d like to sort out and organize by writing about them. So, “Once more dear friends, into the breach….”.
THE HELLER CASE
For the past couple of hours I’ve been wading through Tony Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v.Heller. I have to admire his audacity. In order to reach his conclusion: That the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to buy and possess guns, he had to ignore the obvious intent of the Amendment as well as ignore or reinterpret several decades of judicial precedent. To do so, he had to embody the comic self-confidence of Humpty Dumpty, who famously declared, “‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less. ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”
THE SECOND AMENDMENT
“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” Scalia begins his analysis by acknowledging the obvious: “The Amendment could be rephrased, ‘Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’” (emphasis added) He labels the preliminary clause, a “prefatory clause” and acknowledges that it requires a “logical connection” between it and the remaining language of the Amendment.
So far so good.
But then, Humpty Dumpty takes over and Tony is off to the races. He begins the serpentine path to his conclusion by stating that the “logical connection” between the prefatory clause and the rest of the Amendment is only significant if consideration of that connection is required to resolve any ambiguity; that the only usefulness of the prefatory clause is to “clarify” the remaining language.
In the remaining pages of his opinion Scalia argues that, because the language at issue is unambiguous, no “clarification” is required and, hence, ” we don’t need no stinkin’ militia”
The fact that a 1939 Supreme Court decision (U.S v.Miller, infra) plainly interpreted the “prefatory clause” as a limitation on the meaning of the remaining language, and that hundreds of lower federal courts had likewise interpreted that language for decades, did not, to Humpty Dumpty Scalia, hint that, at the very least, there was some ambiguity. Like Humpty Dumpty, he was the “master” and it looked plain enough for him.
THE SECOND AMENDMENT ACCORDING TO HUMPTY DUMPTY TONY
Scalia’s lengthy opinion includes quotes and citations to a massive set of historical documents and references to treatises on Constitutional law from American and British authors. (never mind the yow-yow about “foreign law”). Some of these authorities support his conclusion and some do not, but he plows ahead, discounting the authorities that agree with him and crowing about those that do. For example, he quotes from state constitutions whose language must have been known to the framers of the Second Amendment. Pennsylvania’s constitution provided, “That the people have the right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state.” To some analysts, the specific reference to individual rights to guns suggests that the Second Amendment’s omission of such language implies that no such right was intended. But not to Scalia.
In order to find precedent to support his conclusion, Scalia imports an old defamation case from the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The Massachusetts constitution provided, “The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defense . . . . “ In Commonwealth vl Blanding, a libel suit brought against a newspaper, the Chief Justice wrote, “The liberty of the press was to be unrestrained, but he who used it was to be responsible in cases of its abuse, like the right to keep and bear arms, which does not protect him who uses them for annoyance or destruction.” Scalia interprets this dicta about gun rights to mean that the Massachusetts provision for the right to bear arms was not limited by the reference to “common defense”. He wrote, “The analogy [drawn by the Massachusetts court between gun rights and press rights] makes no sense if firearms could not be used for any individual purpose at all.”
It is Scalia’s statement that “makes no sense.” The limits of a right in a constitution is not equivalent to a ban on behavior or practice not protected . Stating that Massachusetts citizens had a right to bear arms for purposes of “common defense” did not mean they were prohibited from keeping guns for hunting. It just meant their private ownership of guns was not protected to the same extent as their right to keep a gun “for the common defense”.
One of Scalia’s most heroic efforts was required to square his exegesis with the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Miller. In this federal criminal case, the defendant was convicted of illegally transporting a sawed-off shotgun across state lines. On appeal, he argued that his Second Amendment rights had been violated.
The Court disagreed and confirmed his conviction. They held that the “militia clause” in the Second Amendment limited the protection of gun rights to guns appropriate for use by militias. They decided that sawed-off shotguns were not the kind of weapons useful by militias and, thus, there had been no constitutional violation.
The plain thrust of the Court’s reasoning was, contrary to Scalia’s arguments, that the “prefatory clause” was, indeed, a limitation on the sweep of the protection provided by the remaining language of the Second Amendment. Scalia, however, was undaunted. He interpreted the decision as an affirmation of his analysis. He wrote that, if the Court had believed that the prefatory clause limited the meaning of the remaining language, they would have ruled that, because the defendant was not a member of a “well regulated militia”, he was not entitled to the protection of the Amendment. Since they chose not to base their ruling on that argument, he read their minds and declared that they agreed with him.
Scalia does not disclose whether the United States argued the issue that he insists was decided sub silentio by the Court. He simply applies his Humpty Dumpty authority to the matter and moves on.
SOME PARTING SHOTS
One of the ironic features of Scalia’s skewed and transparently sophistic analysis of the Miller case. is the fact that the Miller decision was authored by Scalia’s mirror image predecessor, Justice James Clark McReynolds. Like Scalia, McReynolds was perhaps one of the most despised and controversial men ever to serve on the Court. He was an anti-Semitic ill mannered misogynistic reactionary. When Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Court, McReynolds did not speak to him for three years. When Benjamin Cardozo was appointed, McReynolds said, “Huh. It seems that the only way you can get on the Supreme Court these days is to be either the son of a criminal or a Jew or both.” He waged relentless war on FDR’s New Deal legislation. When a woman lawyer appeared to argue a case, he would remark, “Here is that female again.” He sometimes left the bench and refused to listed to arguments made by female lawyers.
I don’t mean to imply or allege that Anton Scalia is anti-Semitic or misogynistic. I’m sure that is not true. He is reported to enjoy a close friendship with Justice Ginzburg. He does, at least to me, resemble McReynolds because, like McReynolds he barely conceals his zealous adherence to an ideology that has little or no respect for precedent or logic. I think he and his cohorts, Alito, Thomas and, perhaps, Roberts, are dedicated to undoing much of the law made by the Supreme Court since 1937.
I would have more respect for Scalia if he would simply vote to overrule precedents with which he disagrees. His tortured analysis is an insult to intelligence and the law.
January 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Yesterday I learned that one of the rants I posted on this blog included a false accusation. This is intended to correct it.
On September 10, 2010, I posted an item entitled “Charity and Government”. I directed most of my bile toward Ronald Reagan, especially regarding his often repeated charge about a “welfare queen” who drove her “welfare Cadillac” and generally enjoyed the high life while gorging herself at the liberals’ misguided and generous government trough, financed with money wrongfully confiscated by taxing hardworking entrepreneurs.
I repeated what I had read: That, in response to Reagan’s claims, several investigative reporters conducted determined searches for such a “welfare queen” and could not find her. The obvious conclusion, which I repeated, was that her existence was just one more of Reagan’s lies.
Last night, while watching Oliver Stone’s episode regarding Reagan’s presidency, a reproduction of a Washington Post story flashed across the screen. It concerned the trial of Linda Taylor of Chicago, on trial on several counts of fraud, who had used multiple identities to bilk the government out of lots of money in the form of Social Security benefits and various other kinds of federally financed welfare benefits. And yes, she had a garage full of fancy cars, including a Cadillac.
A few minutes of Google searching disclosed that both the Washington Post and the NY Times had carried the story. It was also described in a biography of Reagan. I learned that Chris Matthews, like me, had recently accused Reagan of lying about it and had been rebuked by a media-watching group for doing so.
So, Reagan may have lied about Iran-Contra and several other things, but he did not lie about the ‘welfare queen”. I should have done more research before adding that charge to my complaints about him.
I know there is a hint of hubris about posting this correction. Something like, “Who the hell cares, Bob? What makes you think anyone notices what you did or didn’t get right?” I agree, but I choose to post this because it enables me to stop thinking about it; a sort of intellectual absolution.
This information has not changed my assessment of Reagan’s mentality. The fact that he found one dishonest claimant did not justify his use of that discovery to defame every person who is saved from poverty by our grossly inadequate “safety net”. He was just as cruel as I perceived him to be. He just didn’t lie about that particular matter.
After all, if we want to be for “truth, justice and the American way”, we must be truthful.
January 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Winston Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” In my lifetime, the United States government has expanded greatly the concept of “wartime” to include several situations that fall short of wartime, but nevertheless were regarded as sufficient to justify a “bodyguard of lies”.
For me, becoming old has proved to be dis-illusioning. It is very disorienting. I spend more time alone than at any earlier time in my life. The internet avails me easy access to virtually infinite sources of information about almost any conceivable subject or event. This has proved to be both satisfying and discomforting.
The Usual Suspects
I have not been naive about the likelihood that much of what the government, especially the federal government, claims is related to truth on a scale of somewhere between artful choices between conflicting facts and outright lies. During my adult lifetime, the sources of government information were guided by Harry, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Dick, Gerald, Jimmy, Ronnie, Poppy, Bill, GW and Obama. I expected no truth from LBJ, Dick, Ronnie or GW and they did not disappoint. The Gulf of Tonkin lie mired us in Viet Nam; Watergate and God knows what else welded “Tricky” to Dick like “Damn” to Yankee; Iran-Contra was Ronnie’s claim to the most elaborate multi-national of the giant whoppers and GW’s fantasy about WMD’s cost a trillion dollars and over 100,000 lives – these four were, I thought, the champions of mendacity (although, in GW’s case, his stupidity raises the possibility that he actually believed the nonsense fed him by Chaney and his cohorts).
Two Pairs of Clay Feet
I claim no dis-illusions about the above-cited four because I had no illusions about them. Until recently I thought that, regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with their policies, Harry and Ike seemed to have been honest about the major issues that confronted them during their presidency. I know, of course, that Ike lied about the CIA’s U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers over Soviet territory. His lie was quickly exposed and he apologized for it. I don’t regard that as a major issue. Covert operations are invariably based on deception and that is just part of the game. I’ve read enough Ian Fleming novels to understand that.
But now I have discovered that Ike’s memorable farewell address, which included his warning about the “military industrial complex”, followed four years of vast expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 1,000 bombs to 20,000 bombs. I have learned that he directed the deployment of a significant part of that arsenal to European bases, where it directly threatened the USSR, and changed the prot0cols for using nuclear arms to authorize generals to use them, authorizations that led some of those officers to sub-delegate that authority to lower-ranked persons. Ike justified these measures and the accompanying huge expansion of the military budget by grossly exaggerating the size of Soviet military resources.
Ike and his communist-obsessed Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, used the threat of nuclear war to back negotiations with the communist block on three separate occasions. Ike stated that he regarded nuclear weapons as no different from any other weapons; that they would be used where and when necessary. In other words, far from launching efforts to outlaw nuclear war as dangerous to the survival of the human race, Ike embraced it as a tactical advantage to be used routinely to add strength to U.S. negotiating power.
The fact that such tactics would inevitably lead to a world-wide nuclear arms race and widespread nuclear proliferation apparently did not affect Ike’s policies.
As I listened and watched Oliver Stone’s TV series account of these events I recalled an aphorism repeated often by Professor Bob Montgomery long ago in a UT classroom: “The one invariable characteristic of man is that he will always, sooner or later, play with his gadgets.” He was profoundly convinced that all-out nuclear war would occur. The only question was “When?”.
So, Ike’s comments about the “military industrial complex”, that I always thought were a warning lest his successors create such a monster were, instead, a confession that, like Dr. Frankenstein, he had created a monster and was confessing that he knew full well its dangerous proclivities.
This dis-illusion is based on Oliver Stone’s “Untold Histories of the United States” series. I have not duplicated his research, but the specific numbers he cites sound credible to me.
Another of my illusions that has been “dis’ed”regards the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I, along with millions of others, was told that, although it was horrific to kill and maim so many civilians, it was necessary to avoid a brutal land invasion of Japan. Now I have learned that, according to research done by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a historian, and by other scholars, the Japanese surrendered because the Soviet Union abandoned their neutrality and announced that they would enter the war.
The Japanese had a 50 year history of conflict with Russia over Korea, Manchuria and other issues. They had every reason to take seriously the Soviet threat of invasion. As Ward Wilson stated in a recent op/ed in the Times, sixty-six Japanese cities had already been obliterated by incendiary carpet bombing, so the loss of the two objects of nuclear bombs would not have caused them to surrender. “The A-bomb saved thousands of American lives” made a persuasive narrative but, now it appears that it was more a protective justification for Truman’s decision than an objective rendition of the facts.
A Tragedy and a Puzzle
Aaron Swartz, a twenty-six-year-old computer genius, killed himself recently. At the time of his death he was depressed because he was scheduled for an April, 2013 trial based on a federal indictment charging him with multiple crimes, seeking millions of dollars worth of fines and thirty-five years in prison.
Aaron Swartz’ life was dedicated to making information freely available through the internet. At 14, he designed and invented RSS, a way of making website content available for free distribution. He created other applications to facilitate the free distribution of information, including the federal database of documents filed in federal courts.
His effort to make Jstor’s database freely available led to his criminal prosecution. He went to MIT, broke into a room where wiring related to Jstor was located, attached some of it to his laptop, downloaded program files that enabled him to gain access to Jstor’s database, and proceeded to download millions of Jstor documents to a freely available internet cite.
None of Aaron Swartz’s activities, including the break-in at MIT, netted him any money. The authors of the documents stored on Jstor’s database did not lose any money because Jstor does not compensate the authors of stored papers. Jstor’s requirements limiting access to their database and charging for some of that access is used entirely to finance Jstor’s expenses.
After Swartz was charged, MIT chose not to pursue or request his prosecution. In fact, in apparent response to Swartz’s activities, Jstor decided to make freely available a large portion of its database.
Despite these circumstances, the U.S. Attorney for the Massachusetts District continued its effort to send Schwartz to prison and to destroy him financially. In other words, the U.S. DA was and is a jackass who did not appreciate the meaning of “prosecutorial discretion”. The result was the loss of a young idealistic genius.
The sad story was reported in the Times.
Here is what is puzzling to me: I have free access to the Jstor database through my free Houston Public Library card. Jstor is one of the “research” options available to me and, I assume, to everyone. So why did Aaron Schwartz feel it was necessary to do a commando raid at MIT to make Jstor documents available to everyone? It does not require a genius or a trained hacker to gain free access to that database. It seems like a waste of his talents. It also seems to me an additional basis for designating the US DA a jackass for, like Javert, the relentless pursuer of Jean Valjean, driving Aaron Swartz to his untimely death.
I have nothing but admiration for Aaron Schwartz. The whole episode is a tragic waste of a valuable life.
December 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
I have been thinking about John Boehner’s prat fall on December 20. 2012, when he discovered that the GOP caucus would not support his proposal to preserve the Bush tax cuts for all but a relatively tiny group of millionaires. Like a two-by-four forehead bash, that allowed me to see what we face: Nothing less than a group of U.S. Congressmen (and perhaps Congresswomen) who are disciplined and committed to sabotaging our government. Given the fact that the handler for this group had declared years ago that his “. . . goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”, I should not have been surprised.
One headline writer likened them to Bolshiviks. I am uncomfortable with that analogy. I have far more favorable emotional links to that historical reference than I do to these corporate flacks. Grover Norquist is no Nikolai Lenin. Also, and this is vitally important, unlike the Bolshiviks, these so-called “Tea Party Republicans” are not ideologues. They affect the trappings and rhetoric of conservative ideology and we and the media have been gullible enough to discuss them in terms of their “right-wing” views. No. I believe the truth is that they are merely motivated by a sort of primal fear of losing their jobs and their status as important, respected elected government officials.
I understand this. I remember very well the unexpected thrill I felt when I was sworn in as a lawyer and realized that, regardless of whatever happened after that, I had been indelibly stamped with a new status: I was a lawyer. After a few years, that became so much a part of me that I realized if someone wakened me suddenly at three o’clock in the morning and said, “Who are you?”, I would probably answer “I’m a lawyer. My name is Bob Hall.”
Just as the Taoists teach, there is a reciprocal dark side to this phenomenon. The dark side is that when a person identifies himself or herself with a status, there is a built-in fear of losing it. Old ex-Wobblies say with a sigh that labor unions lost their claim to be a “movement” the day they successfully bargained for retirement plans. The workers then had a vested interest in preserving the economic power of their employers. As Bobbie McGee’s companion sings, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When you have something vital to lose, you are not free.
Norquist identified the fear of losing their jobs and the attendant status as the lever to compel obedience from these elected officials. There is a fictional example of how this works. In Orwell’s “1984″ novel, there is an unforgettable description of this kind of compulsion. Winston Smith, a dissident, is tortured by O’Brien who, having identified Smith’s worst fear, straps a cage containing ravenous rats to his face. Smith immediately breaks and becomes a willing candidate for “re-education” and conformity to Big Brother’s teachings.
As stated, the embarrassing part of my epiphany is that the truth is, and has been, so obvious. Grover Norquist understood these ideas very well. That is the reason for his “pledge”. One important advantage that corporate business analysts have over liberals like me is that they have no patience, confidence or interest in noble or idealistic motives in people. They believe only in the power of fear and force to compel behavior suitable to their goals.
So, these saboteurs are willing to render inoperable the government whose constitution they are oath-bound to “. . .defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. . .” and to “. .. faithfully discharge the duties of the office” to which they were elected. They are willing to ignore their oaths because they are convinced that, otherwise, they will be removed from office by primary opponents. This is a realistic fear because their constituents inhabit a district deliberately drawn to enclose people devoted to hostility toward government, especially the federal government.
When I looked at the problem in this way, the solution became apparent. Their belief that adherence to Norquist’s pledge would protect them from primary threats must be destroyed. A careful and intelligent plan should be designed and implemented to generate opposition to these saboteurs.
Now here is where this essay becomes somewhat paradoxical. To be effective, the identity and motivations of the people responsible for the design and implementation of such a plan should be kept secret. This is not a program calling for public demonstrations and letters to editors. These domestic enemies cannot be defeated, or even credibly threatened by “moderate” or “reasonable” opponents. Such opposition would serve only to afford them more credible appeal to their carefully picked and packed supporters. Those working on this strategy must fashion appeals to people whose political beliefs are opposite to their own. Then those people must be recruited to mount primary opposition to the present saboteurs.
This is not hard-ball politics. This is rat-cage politics. There is a vast difference.
So, you may logically ask: “Why, then are you posting this idea on the world wide web?” My answer is: “Because I think it unlikely that very many people who would oppose this plan will notice me and, even if they do, they will probably not take me seriously. Also, I do not have the energy or the talent to carry out this plan. I am hopeful that someone who has those abilities may consider these ideas.”
The first step is to recruit about fifty people willing to spend some time during the next two years working on this. They should be smart, skilled at electronic research and use of internet media (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, et al.). They should be willing to work without recognition, without titles, and perhaps without compensation. I think some money might be raised to finance this operation, but only after some preliminary organizational work has been done to convince contributors their money will not be wasted. Also, soliciting money must be done carefully to prevent any public disclosure. This kind of politics requires people who will work quietly, without fame or glory.
It is not necessary, probably undesirable, for the members of this team to be in the same place. People can now work together without being together. They can share information and ideas from any place. At some point, it might be fun for some or all of them to meet, but that has nothing to do with the plan. Of course, to launch the plan, some person must begin the process. He or she should find four others to help. Then each of the five should find others until a cadre of at least fifty have been found. Twenty target members of Congress should be selected. Each one should have a record of undeviating adherence to Norquist’s pledge. Each one should have been a participant in the caucus that torpedoed Plan B. That may be a problem because no public record of that caucus was kept. Someone in Washington surely knows what went on there and that information should be obtainable. Everything leaks in Washington. That event offers a simple way of identifying those who, when required to choose between their fear of Norquist and their concern for the welfare of over ninety percent of their fellow citizens, responded to their fear.
An early objective should be to locate sources of information in or near the districts from which the target officials were elected. Ideally, the fifty team members should include as many as possible from the areas (not necessarily the districts) from which the targets were elected. Appropriate persons would be liberal political activists, young lawyers, young teachers, professors, graduate students, Unitarian ministers – anyone with knowledge of the political and social history of people in the target districts. Local newspapers, bulletins and newsletters published by local civic organizations might furnish useful information. The records of recent political conventions would be useful. Minutes are kept by political parties. Some local TV station tape archives can be accessed. Seasoned researchers can add to this list.
There are two goals for this research: The first objective is to create a comprehensive opposition-research data base on each of the targets. That should also identify any political enemies they may have acquired during their rise to elective status. If they held other offices before election to Congress, then those histories might yield useful information. Any gaffes will be useful. Any speeches or written communications should be reviewed to glean any bases for future attack ads. Associations within or without their families should be reviewed for possible sources of embarrassment. We have learned that “out of context” quotes can be harmful, so the material should be read with this possibility in mind.
One other thing: It seems likely that, if we don’t have a deal by January 1, 2013, and the sequester kicks in, the stock market will tank at least briefly. If that happens, some people are going to make a killing if they have been buying puts for the past few days or weeks. Someone should find out if any of the Norquist zombies make money from the market gyration. If so, they should be exposed for manipulating the stock market for their personal gain. Family members, close associates, staff members should all be checked out.
The second objective is to identify potential primary opponents and ways to motivate them to make the effort.
The ultimate goal is to recruit at least ten GOP primary opponents for each of the targets. The candidates for primary opposition to the incumbent target will probably be people who have run for other offices and have either been defeated or have been elected to some lower caliber office and would like to move up to Congress. Or, they might be people who have cherished the notion of running for office, but have not been flattered and encouraged to do so. Or they might be lawyers who would regard a campaign for office as a way to promote themselves and their law practice. Or they might be single-issue fanatics who feel their issue has not been adequately represented by the incumbent target. People who want to hold public office are a varied group. Only folks like me make the mistake of classifying them as liberals or conservatives. Eric Hoffer’s “True Believer” identifies a whole pantheon of people who embrace political movements for reasons that have little to do with the substance of the movement, but everything to do with their personal psychological needs. Such people might be potential recruits for primary opponents. A challenger with the same last name as the incumbent would have an extra edge. Primary elections are low-turn-out affairs and the voters are usually more informed than average general election voters. Still, confusion about the name of a candidate is usually worth some measurable percentage of votes.
At some point in the process of recruiting these primary candidates, the issue of money will arise. If one million dollars can be raised, it would finance $5,000 worth of seed money for each of ten candidates in twenty primary races. A non-profit corporation could be created called “AmericanPageTurner, Inc.” A logo might say,”New Blood For a New Beginning” or “Healthy Competition Builds Political Strength” “No One Is Indespensible” “Time To Turn the Page” “Public Office – Not a Career – A Turn At Bat”. This corporation should proclaim that we should return to the ideas of the Founding Fathers: That public office should not be a full-time job or a life-long pursuit. It should be, instead, a brief interlude of public service in a life devoted to private enterprise and to family. Pursuant to those goals, the corporation’s purpose would be to encourage competition for public office to increase the likelihood that official positions will not become entrenched bunkers of power occupied by professional politicians. Pursuant to those goals, the corporation could offer initial financial help for willing primary candidates.
I have no experience with raising political money. If I were seeking money for this project, I would go to Wall Street and Hollywood. I assume that people who depend on the stock market for income are uncomfortable with the kind of uncertainty and instability generated by Norquist’s captives. I also assume that some activists in Hollywood would, at least, listen to a pitch for this kind of political strategy. Beyond that, I would have to rely on others more knowledgeable about how to go about raising the necessary funds.
At the stated rate, $50,000 would be available for each target district. I don’t think the money should be handed over to each candidate. First, they might just pocket it. Second, they wouldn’t know how to spend it intelligently. It should be used to pay filing fees and to buy services available to all of the challengers, like office rent, telephone service, second-hand furniture, professional advice.
Finding and recruiting the primary candidates will be the most difficult part of this strategy. If possible, the help of a Republican professional campaign consultant should be enlisted in the effort. This may not be possible and broaching the subject with such an operative will risk blowing the entire scheme. There may, however be such an operative who honestly opposes Norquist’s effect on the Republican brand and who will be willing to act as an adviser. A chance to participate in twenty different primary election campaigns might be a way for a professional consultant to make some money.
I don’t know anything about the ethical code for political consultants. I can imagine an arrangement like this: The consultant might draw up a contract stating that he or she would advise ten different primary candidates in the same primary, subject to the following rules: No advice would be given concerning any negative campaign strategy or public appeal aimed at any primary candidate other than the incumbent candidate. Each of the consultant’s candidates would be entitled to the benefit of the consultant’s time and talent. A good faith effort would be made by the consultant to afford equal effort to each client. One way this might be done is for the corporation to sponsor a two-day weekend school, taught by the consultant, about how to conduct a primary election campaign. Attendance would be limited to challengers and every effort would be made to avoid publicity.
To summarize: The objective is to have the following ready before GOP primary season begins: Well done opposition research on each target incumbent Congressman or Congresswoman. A list of at least ten people in each target district who are willing to become primary candidates against the target incumbent. $50,000 or more seed money available to each of those target districts. Perhaps the part-time services of at least one professional campaign consultant for each target district.
Finally, I want to express my profound hesitancy about publishing this idea. I have seen and heard lots of cockamamie grand plans and schemes to change the world, establish world peace or reform American politics. I’ve regarded them, as you may regard this one, as either nutty, pathetic or just harmless fantasies. I well understand that this effort may qualify in those categories. In my own defense, I offer the following:
I am convinced that the Norquist hold on Congress must be destroyed because I don’t see how our country can be governed without reasonable measures concerning revenue and expenditures. The United States is, in some ways, like a business. Without effective ways of acquiring money, it cannot function. Without the ability to provide necessary services to protect and sustain its citizens, it should not function. When the Congress serves as a gate-keeper that sabotages these functions, our “checks and balances” system becomes a garrotte.
Ordinarily, we can rely on our democracy to solve these problems. If a set of ideas causes extensive harm, the next election will repudiate those ideas and rationality will prevail. The enemies of our government have devised a by-pass work-around to thwart that safety valve: They have created islands of voters who, because of selfishness or ignorance or both, believe that the functions of our government should be transferred to corporate business and unregulated markets. They have succeeded in creating enough of these barrier islands to disable both our government and the democratic system that protects it.
Based on these beliefs, I think something must be done to destroy these barriers. I have described how I would proceed if I were thirty instead of eighty-one. I don’t know whether or not I would succeed. My record does not inspire optimism. I would not suffer from pride of authorship. I would seek advice from others and would accept all ideas that offered chances of success. I would not, however, pay attention to those who offered only despair and hopelessness. I think the problem is serious and the time for planning a solution is now.