October 22, 2016 § 2 Comments
Trump’s Premature Whining About Voter Fraud
It appears we have avoided the disaster of a Trump presidency. He has declared, as he has always done in the past when his mendacity, dishonesty and childish bullying has proved unsuccessful in some venture: He will sue everyone who has challenged him and find some public venue where he can continue to vilify the journalists and others who have exposed him to the public.
It is appropriate, therefore, to begin unraveling his claims that his rejection by the voters means that the system allowing them to judge him is “rigged” and riddled with “voter fraud”.
In his raving about this, he adorns his lies with the label of the Pew Research Center, a well respected source of information about many issues, including politics and voting. As usual, however, Trump misstates and skews the statistics he uses to mislead his adoring fans into thinking that Pew Research agrees that millions of voters vote multiple times by having multiple voter registration credentials; that a large number of voters are using credentials of dead people; that millions of voter credentials are inaccurate (implying some nefarious plot to “rig” an election) and on and on and on ad nauseaum.
I will cite some reliable sources in the remainder of this brief post so that you can read for yourselves accurate information about problems with voting in America. There are problems, but one of them is not voter fraud.
Multiple Voter Credentials
It is true that many Americans have multiple voter credentials, but the reason is that many Americans have qualified to vote in one State and then move to another state, where they qualify themselves to vote without canceling the credentials obtained in their previous residence state. There is no evidence this is motivated by or results in voting more than once in any election. It is only evidence that few of us see any reason to cancel our voter credentials when we move.
Inaccurate Voter Credentials
It is true that our system for recording and preparing voter credentials is antiquated and should be modernized and simplified. Addresses, birth dates and other information is often recorded inaccurately and, when the information is copied to official records from the paper forms filled out by the registrars, there are multiple opportunities for errors. There is no evidence this leads to voter fraud. It does, however, cause unnecessary expense and often interferes with the voters’ access to a ballot on election day.
Voter Credentials remaining on the Rolls After the Voter Dies
Because of the wide variation in the way voter rolls are maintained, those records often retain records of voters who have died. This does not, however, result from efforts to vote fraudulently and there is no evidence that it leads to fraudulent voting.
Common Sense is a Strong Reason Why Voter Fraud is Very Rare
Simple cost/benefit reasons argue against the kind of voter fraud focussed on by Republicans and candidates like Trump. All states have criminal laws against voter fraud as well as against facilitating voter fraud. So adding a single vote in an election is a foolish risk, given the likelihood of detection and the tiny benefit obtained.
Employer intimidation and control of employee votes is a far more efficient way to exercise control over voters than individual voter fraud. And, of course, the Republican lawmakers know very well how to limit and discourage voting in precincts well known to contain Democratic Party voters. They accomplish that by making the process of obtaining voter credentials as difficult as possible; limiting the period of time when early voting is available; stationing armed police near voting locations where the relations between the population and the police is notoriously fraught with suspicion and fear; changing locations for voting to make it more difficult for voters in known Democratic Party precincts to vote. These are tried and true methods for manipulating access to voting and getting away with it under the guise of “ballot security”
The Truth in a few Documents
The Washington Post has done an extensive investigation into the size of the “voter fraud” problem. Here is what they discovered:
The Pew Research Center has produced a report on voter problems in America. They do not include “voter fraud” in their report because it is not part of the problem. Here is a summary of their report:
The Brenan Center for Justice has sponsored an extensive study of voter problems in America. Here is a copy of their report.
It seems likely that Trump will lose this election. I don’t believe, despite his bombastic threats, he will file lawsuits against the women he has abused. He won’t do so because, if he does, he will be deposed under oath and, when he lies, he will be committing felonies. And, he will be facing prosecutors in Hillary Clinton’s Department of Justice.
I do believe he will find some TV platform to continue his assault on American justice, the American Constitution, American journalism and the American political system. A centerpiece of that campaign will involve the kind of lies and deception that the above cited sources address and disapprove. That is my reason for this post. Fortunately for all of us, my research did not require more than an hour or two on the internet. Our technology has armed us with easy access to the truth. Unfortunately it has also armed with our enemies with megaphones for their lies.
September 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
The Difference Between Approval and Advocacy
A recurring theme of my life as a trial lawyer and a political activist is the separation of my personal beliefs and standards of morality and integrity from those clients and politicians for whom I have worked. One anomaly of our culture is the general understanding that a doctor’s treatment of a patient is not presumed to imply any support or agreement with the personal habits, morality or beliefs of the patient. But lawyers and political organizers are often presumed to share those qualities with the politicians and clients they represent. To me, this is an irrational distinction.
I once was invited to address a college class. I talked about some of my work. I invited questions afterward. One persistent one was: “How can you defend someone you know to be guilty of a crime?” “If you don’t belong to any organized religious denomination, does that not leave you with no moral guidance?”
In other words, these young people had successfully completed a public education and some college study without learning anything about the fundamentals of our secular society based on our Constitution. They apparently knew nothing about the adversarial principles on which our criminal justice system is based. And, far more important, some of them believed our society consists of those with religious faith and a remainder consisting of libertines.
As I watch and listen to the present political debates I realize this ignorance deeply affects our political system.
The Bankruptcy Issue
I detest almost everything related to Donald Trump: his arrogance, his mendacity, his willful ignorance, his encouragement of every aspect of the racism, bigotry and sexism endemic as a disease in our culture.
What I don’t share is the repetitive mention of his multiple bankruptcies as evidence of his recklessness and dishonesty. I can trace my reaction to some episodes in my past.
When I was trying lawsuits for a living I did not discriminate against wrong doers and clever schemers who used their superior knowledge of the law to cause damage to others. I never facilitated their nefarious activities. I never lied to courts or other lawyers to protect them. I never knowingly permitted them to perjure themselves on the witness stand or otherwise under oath (e.g. as in depositions). But, if they obeyed my instructions and made satisfactory arrangements to pay me for my work, I enthusiastically defended them in court. My only exceptions were murderers and child molesters: The former because I did not want the responsibility for the life of a client; the latter because I knew I could not put my feelings aside and do a proper job of defending them.
When I was hanging out in courthouses, there was a type of East Texas sharpie who made a handsome living exploiting loopholes in the law. One was a person who analyzed the descriptions in land titles to find instances where there was a gap between the legal description of a tract of land and the legal description of an adjoining tract. The result was a piece of land that was not legally conveyed to anyone. It was called a “variance”. If the gap was located in the middle of land leased to oil companies where oil was being produced, the schemer would acquire title to the “variance” part and then sue to claim a portion of royalties paid to the other record owners.
One of the first times I went to court was as co-counsel with Ralph Yarborough in a case in which we represented one of these guys. We lost, but neither of us had any qualms about doing our best to defend him. Judge Yarborough, as I called him then, based of his short tenure as a district judge, had represented this client in previous legal matters.
Several years later, I represented a different type of East Texas character with similar but different ways to exploit the law. The fellow had a portable drilling rig. He hauled it to Columbus, Ohio, obtained a lease on some land, and began drilling for oil or gas. He invited local people to invest in this enterprise by advertising his effort and holding bar-b-ques and other kinds of public events on some land he rented near Columbus. Many of the local residents, who had never seen anything like the kind of show this guy staged, eagerly invested in his project. He was charming and his Texas accent and swashbuckling style was a big hit.
The drilling ended with a dry hole and everyone lost their investment. He loaded up his equipment and hauled it back to Texas without paying for the drilling costs and material he had obtained on credit. So, the suppliers who were stiffed brought a fraud suit in federal court in Houston. I represented the miscreant.
When I went to Columbus and deposed some of the local investors I was surprised to learn they still recalled with relish their adventure with the “Texas oil man”; regaled me with stories of how much fun they had and expressed concern about the suits. I also deposed some less enthusiastic victims of this failed enterprise.
When the case went to trial before a federal judge in Houston, I established that the corporation to which the subject unpaid-for items had been sold was a separate corporation with no assets. When that became apparent, the judge interrupted the proceedings and asked the lawyer for the plaintiffs: “Didn’t your clients consult Dun & Bradstreet or some agency to determine the credit worthiness of this corporation?” When the lawyer sheepishly admitted the answer was “No.” , the judge terminated the proceedings and dismissed the case.
My client was happy and I, having been paid for my work, was happy. I did not lose any sleep considering whether it was wrong to represent this client.
So, when I hear Trump accused of dishonesty because he left unpaid workers, suppliers and others unpaid when his casinos in New Jersey went bankrupt, I have no standing to shame him. I don’t know the details, but I suspect he was not foolish enough to make himself personally liable for those debts. So far as I know he merely used one of the basic pillars of capitalism: It’s perfectly all right to cheat people if you are smart enough to utilize corporate limited liability laws and the bankruptcy laws to do it. There are plenty of ways to remedy this problem but, until we do, we can’t complain when capitalist pirates use the system we have.
The Criminal Cases
I did not specialize in criminal law, not because I didn’t like it, but because most of the people I worked with, union workers and staff members, were not criminals. Their offenses were drunken escapades, strike violence episodes, family violence episodes, and other kinds of misdemeanors and non-lethal felonies. Most of them were settled with plea bargains. Some did go to trial and I had a pretty good record. I don’t recall any innocent defendant I represented but our legal system is designed to permit conviction of a crime only if all constitutional safeguards have been satisfied.
The system is, correctly in my opinion, based on the principle that guilty persons escaping punishment is preferable to allowing innocent persons to be found guilty based on unpopular conduct or overzealous prosecution. In recent decades, as a result of some very dangerous Supreme Court decisions, this fundamental principle of criminal justice has been severely weakened. I am hopeful some future legislation and appointments to the Supreme Court will undo the damage done to the safeguards against lynch law justice.
I suppose some may regard this post as a confession but I offer it as an effort to call attention to efforts to mislead Americans about the Constitutional protection that protects us all. This is important because the common law of stare decisis as applied to our legal system means that every time the Constitutional safeguards against unwarranted criminal prosecution are weakened, the loss of those safeguards applies to all of us, not just the individual whose case occasions that loss.
July 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
Today I spent five or six hours at a “Summit Meeting” of activists and organizers working for Wendy Davis’s campaign. I thoroughly enjoyed it; met some interesting people; learned some digital tricks about political organizing and listened to some very smart, articulate youngsters present some very smart ideas about how to prepare for and execute an effective get-out-the-vote [GOTV to the cognoscenti] program.
Wendy Davis attended the meeting and made a rousing speech.
The organizers convinced me they have an amazing database of potential supporters, complete with voting histories and other clues to the likelihood that, if they vote, they will or will not probably vote for Wendy Davis. Those who issued the invitations to this meeting presumably had access to this database. [I was invited because I have done some phone-banking and hobbled around a neighborhood one Saturday afternoon with a third-year political science major from Harvard who is spending the summer doing some field work with Battleground Texas.]
My problem is: I looked over the audience, probably about 150 people from Harris, Ft. Bend and Montgomery counties, and saw only four or five Chicanos, none in leadership positions. When Wendy spoke, she said nothing about the migrant children flooding our Mexican border or the vicious and callous reaction of the Tea Party-dominated Texas Republican Party. Here is a link with some information that apparently has been overlooked by the Davis campaign. Chronicle
The irony of the experience, at least for me, was that the meeting was held in the Ironworkers union hall on Dahlia street in the East End of Houston. The route to that location is along Lawndale, a major street in that part of town, where the signs on the shops and restaurants are in Spanish and the area is obviously a Hispanic neighborhood.
I made my pitch to a couple of the organizing staff and they listened politely. I, of course, have no credentials to be giving advice to political organizers, but I do so anyway. I am very tired of living in Texas under the domination of jackasses like Rick Perry, Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. And it seems obvious to me that, unless Wendy Davis can interest Chicanos in her campaign and can overcome their notorious failure to vote in off-year elections, she cannot be elected.
Well, enough about that. My friend, Dave Shapiro, who constantly shops the Cloud for pertinent political commentary and generously emails his finds to his friends, sent me an article in Politico Magazine, written by Doug Sosnik, a political consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Here is a link: Sosnik
In this article, Sosnik sounds the alarm that the Democratic Party is in danger of being “taken over” by liberals. He writes that the Blue Dogs are being replaced by “populists” who may even be able to force Hillary to move leftward. Horrors! He apparently believes that the days of “triangulation” and the DLC may be gone forever.
Sosnik cites polls showing that Americans have lost faith in their government. He concludes, based on this evidence, that the “big government” policies of political liberals may be a doomsday prescription for the Democratic Party unless the leftists can “reconcile” their ideology with less government.
I think this reasoning is nonsense. Working class Americans have every reason to distrust government based on the policies of Sosnik’s old boss and the Bush policies that took over where Clinton left off. Thomas Pikkety has furnished a boatload of data to show that unregulated or inadequately regulated capitalism leads to steadily increasing degrees of wealth inequality that enriches the few at the expense of the many. Clinton’s repeal of Glass-Steagall was the exact wrong way to prevent Pikkety’s nightmare scenario. His reckless facilitation of NAFTA style globalization only added to the destruction of American working class economic health. Here is a link to an article that catalogs some of that story: Glass-Steagall [I have written about this at some length in a post entitled “The Bankenstein Fiends”.]
Economic justice in America will not be restored by weakening government. It will be restored by government policies designed to benefit the ninety-nine percent who don’t have tax loopholes and 15% capital gains rates, whose taxes are withheld from their wages without benefit of clever accounting tricks and overseas hiding places. It will be restored by pro-union policies that protect the right to organize and bargain collectively with company ownership. It will be restored by programs that hire workers to rebuild infrastructure. That will not happen if economic policy is left in the hands of private corporations and billionaires and politicians beholden to them.
In other words, government will be trusted when it becomes trustworthy. And that doesn’t equate with indifference to the plight of ordinary Americans.
October 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
First, a Correction Notice
I have made some corrections to my last post (www.bobsremonstrance.com “A Mind Meld, a Grok and A Couple of Reactions”). The substance has not changed, but I have removed two or three “that”‘s that escaped my notice when I originally edited it. “That” is a word almost always as useless in a written piece as “you know” in a conversation. I ordinarily excise the “that”‘s that creep in but, this time, I missed some.
Also, in memory of my high school English teacher, I cleaned up a sentence in the part about “Crime and Punishment”. I originally wrote: “The novel is an engaging description of a part of Russian society, set in St. Petersburg.” My only excuse is an aging brain. The sentence now reads, “The novel, set in St. Petersburg, is an engaging description of a part of Russian society”
Finally, I removed the redundant word “mental” from my effort to describe Styron’s long window into the mind of Peyton. I wrote that he described her “mental musings”, as if “musings” could be other than “mental”. So “mental” is now gone.
Is There A Conspiracy?
I have long considered those who interpret current events as the product of conspiracies to be CooCooBirds. So, with great hesitation, I present my version of the present struggle over funding our government and paying our bills. I hope I am wrong, but the evidence seems persuasive that we have among us a cadre of powerful and wealthy individuals who want to convert the democratic republican government of the United States of America into a plutocratic corporate oligarchy.
American Business Community: Has It Been The Dog That Didn’t Bark?
I have a friend who never tires of rebuking his liberal comrades for claiming and assuming that the GOP is the party of business. He insists that the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party has separated it from the interests and policies of American capitalism. As he analyzes the issue it reminds me of the epic struggles within the labor movement in the 1930’s when factions allied with the Communist Party sought leadership roles. There were some unions in which they had some success but the newly organized CIO, notably the Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers, fought back in a series of epic convention battles. The Communists were effectively drummed out of the labor movement and never gained any significant power in unions. My friend contends that the relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP is similar to the Commies versus the CIO.
In the last week the press has reported that agents of the Chamber of Commerce and some representatives of Wall Street’s financial community met privately with House Speaker Boehner and other GOP leaders. They expressed alarm at the prospect of a government default if the “debt ceiling” is not raised. In apparent response, Boehner stated he will not allow that to happen. The Tea Party members, led by Ted Cruz continues to threaten a default. It remains to be seen how this will play out. Boehner’s statement is interesting. He is not promising that his party will not threaten a default; just that they won’t allow a default. How kidnapping extortion works when there is no threat to shoot the hostage is a mystery.
Those who insist GOP policies no longer align with those of the capitalists point to these reports as confirmation of their argument. I see the matter somewhat differently. I perceive the Tea Party as the latest iteration of a movement, attitude and set of policies that have roots planted long before they acquired the clever “Tea Party label . They can be summarized with three words: Hate the Government.
This history can be traced through rhetorical artifacts. In 1978, Alan Greenspan told a Finance Committee, “”Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.” A Wall Street Journal article quoted a Reagan staffer who summarized the idea with a bumper sticker quip, “Starve the Beast”. St Ronnie, in his 1981 inaugural address, said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Norquist stated the goal plainly: “I simply want to reduce it [the govenment] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bath tub.” The Great Communicator told his adoring followers, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.”
These ideas, repeated and elaborated over and over by hate radio hosts like Limbaugh, Hannity and dozens of others scattered throughout the country, embedded themselves in mainstream consciousness and had powerful effects. I believe they relate to the present political climate and the outsize influence of the “Tea Party” in the same way that the Taliban’s ideas related to the advent of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. This “hate the government” policy is to our democracy as the dogmas of Sharia are to Muslim ideas of government. It is true that the Taliban does not represent the policies of the majority of Muslims. Most Muslims do not favor government run according to Sharia law.
Unlike the labor movement, however, the Muslim/Arab community, while some representatives have disclaimed allegiance to Al Qaeda, has mounted no vigorous public opposition to the growth of that extremism. Recent developments in Egypt reflect how timidly and ineffective such opposition has been.
And, also unlike the labor movement, the American business community, far from denouncing the growing political clout of these government haters, have favored, with generous financial support, candidates who have based their campaigns on these “hate the government” policies.
Why Did the Business Dog Not Bark?
I began by asking myself why the corporate business community would permit the Republican Party to threaten the stability of our financial system by failing to make timely interest payments on our debt. I assume the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, the other controlling owners of Big Oil and the complex of Wall Street banks and hedge funds could exert a powerful influence on the policies of the GOP should they choose to do so. They have certainly paid handsomely for that kind of access. So, intimately involved as they are in the domestic and international financial markets, why would they allow a US default that would do immediate and long term damage to the reputation of U.S. bonds? To oversimplify, why would they want to damage the ability of the U.S. government to borrow money at low rates of interest?
When I stated the question in this simple way, I caught a glimpse of the answer: If their goal is to weaken and, if possible, destroy the ability of the U.S. government to create and maintain programs that protect ordinary working class citizens from the turbulence of unregulated capitalism, they would prefer that the funding of such programs be dependent on the power to tax, not the ability to borrow.
Government, like private enterprise, cannot grow if it lacks access to borrowed money at reasonable interest rates. Powerful corporate businesses are intuitively and invariably opposed to taxes and government regulation. The Supreme Court has enabled such interests to wield virtually unlimited power to favor obedient politicians and to punish disobedient ones. Thus armed, they probably are confident they can prevent large tax increases. And, if taxes must be raised, they have shown impressive ability to insure they are levied against the middle class, not the corporate ruling class.
I believe the silence and indifference of the business community to the growth of these ideas has resulted, in part, from changes in the nature and makeup of that community. The wealth and power of American capitalism has become more concentrated in the financial system. Engine Charley Wilson’s claim that “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” seems quaint in today’s America. General Motors owes its existence to a Democratic Party president and a financial life preserver tossed by the government. Wall Street banks have become so powerful and so capable of capsizing the American economy that the Attorney General has pronounced them “too big to fail and too big to jail”.
I believe the present conspiracy is the result of a very long train of events that were engineered by a relatively small group of people who were active in business, but who did not comprise the mainstream of business leaders. They created think tanks, institutes, foundation-funded university and college chairs and fellowships. They promoted candidates whose rhetoric identified the federal government as the enemy.
The complicity of the mainstream business community consists, I believe, in its enthusiastic embrace of the results of these political tactics. They have eagerly applauded the destruction of the labor movement. They have railed against fair taxes. They have bitterly opposed reasonable regulations. They have contributed large amounts of money in support of candidates who preached hostility toward the government in which they sought elective office . The business community has, like Dr. Frankenstein, created a fiend they did not fully understand or expect.
We will soon discover whether American capitalism will forswear its Faustian bargain with the Tea Party and force a return to rational politics. Regardless of the brash claims of independence by the Tea Party office holders, I believe if they were told that pursuit of their destructive policies would net them a few hundred million dollars worth of opposition when they run for re-election, their devotion to principle might wane. So long as the opposition of Wall Street is limited to “tut tut” and “shame on you”, I agree with the Tea Partiers: “These guys are not for real.”
Safe Havens for Domestic Political Terrorists
During the past ten years, using arcane political ploys, too complicated to attract the attention of ordinary voters, the corporate plutocrats and their client state office holders have created a network of what the British once called “rotten boroughs”, voting districts composed of like-minded constituents who would return representatives to Congress regardless of how dramatically their views differ from those of the majority of Americans. These were and are safe havens for the Tea Party caucus. They are the American Afghanistan. In Texas this was engineered by Tom Delay, a creation of corporate lobbyists.
Who Are These Terrorists? What Do They Want?
The carefully crafted political climate in those districts has enabled the election of a group of Congressmen who regard government as the enemy. They are not anarchists. They favor government policies that protect property rights, provide for an expanding military force and other services that facilitate business activities. So far as concerns such functions as the “safety net” and promoting the “general welfare”, they regard such expenditures as charity, inappropriate for taxpayer support.
The above described political strategy and policies have been accompanied by an effective media campaign powered by Fox News and talk radio. An echo chamber has been created in which a significant percentage of our citizens live and work. There they are relentlessly bombarded with reasons for hostility toward their government, especially the federal government. So-called “social issues” like abortion and gay marriage are featured. The Bill of Rights is interpreted to be important as protection of gun ownership and property rights, but as a hindrance to apprehension and punishment of suspected criminals. Above all, taxation to pay for relief from poverty is denounced as theft and an invitation to moochers and lazy loafers. Government regulation is blamed for interfering with the pursuit of profits and healthy competition.
Federal laws enabling workers to bargain through labor unions have been gutted. There is no “labor movement”; only a few vestigial survivors of the struggles that occurred during the first half of the twentieth century. The only effective organizations capable of exercising significant influence on national political policy are private corporations. Political party organizations are generally ineffective. Political candidates create ad hoc organizations that disappear after elections.
What If They Prevail?
The end result of these developments is easy to envision. If the policies they represent prevail, the decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of ordinary Americans will not be made in the halls of government in Washington D.C.. They will be made in the board rooms of a few corporations with enough power and money to control lower tiers of lesser corporations whose success depends on access to capital and favorable treatment by the tycoons of finance. The profit motive and free market capitalism will replace any thought of empathy, compassion or fairness as determinants of government policy. Workers with no bargaining power, facing fierce competition for jobs, will be forced to accept whatever employers choose to offer. The “Iron Law of Wages”, rejected as morally unacceptable by Ricardo, will become the hallmark of American labor policy.
We’ve Seen An Earler Version of This Movie
Our history offers a preview of how this looks. In the early 1900’s a few powerful business giants controlled the railroads, the coal, the iron and the Wall Street banks that, in turn, operated the United States as a corporate subsidiary. This was the age of the “Robber Barons”.
That earlier period of institutionalized selfishness and greed did not permanently change our country because its victims fled westward into the still sparsely populated frontier of our vast land. Also, in the 1920’s, the Wall Street casino, operating without any significant regulation, created a gigantic bubble of exuberant greed that finally popped. FDR and his brain trust cleared away the wreckage and established a new system based on a balance between capitalism and government. That effort was aided by the financial stimulus required by our mobilization to fight WWII.
How Did Domestic Political Terrorism Become a Political Strategy?
Fifty years later, led by Ronald Reagan, the government began dismantling the balance established by the New Deal. He began by attacking labor unions. He used his office to demean and discredit every government program designed to alleviate poverty and enable the underprivileged to enjoy a reasonably comfortable middle-class life. He used his skills as an actor to spin yarns about “Welfare Queens”. He inspired a generation of government haters to follow his example and design ways to foster distrust and hostility toward the United States government.
This effort, in the past five or six years, has emboldened a group of angry ideologues, calling themselves the “Tea Party”, to claim the right to set minimum standards of political purity for the Republican Party. Like Al Qaeda, they are so loosely organized that identifying their responsible spokesmen is difficult. They have an agenda, but no formally elected or appointed leaders. They operate like free-ranging enforcers of their ideology. They have demonstrated their ability to intimidate members of the GOP holding public office who, if they stray from the dictates of the Tea Party, find themselves opposed by primary candidates more aligned with its dogmas. Ted Cruz, a first-term Senator from Texas, is their Supreme Leader. His current fatwah requires a jihad against the Affordable Care Act.
In 2011, the President and the leadership of this terrorist group made a deal. It was in the form of a promise to make a deal. They promised to reduce the federal deficit by a stated amount by January 1, 2013, and, to insure that they would bargain in good faith on ways to achieve that goal, they agreed that, if they failed to keep that promise, a group of budget cuts would be imposed in ways thought to be so irrational as to be unacceptable to either political party.
The negotiations that followed revealed that, contrary to expectations, the domestic terrorist group declared they were agreeable to the irrational budget cuts and, hence, would not agree to any reasonable alternative. On January 1, 2013, an impasse occurred and the damaging budget cuts took effect in March, 2013. The domestic terrorists were emboldened by what they regard as their successful strategy aimed at weakening and crippling the federal government, thus fulfilling their promise to the electorate in their Afghanistan districts. They learned that, by focusing on sabotage rather than governance, they could not only survive, but exercise power.
The similarity of this recent history to the strategy of the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Russian revolution is remarkable.
What Happens Next?
I think, during the next few weeks, this domestic terrorist group will mount an assault on the financial system of the United States by forcing a default on our bonds. If they are successful, the economy may gradually slide into a new form of recession. This time, weakened by the debt default, the government may not have the ability to counter the faltering economy with financial stimulus money. Any chance of moving forward with gun safety laws or immigration reform will disappear. The wish list of America’s most powerful and ruthless corporate enemies of the federal government will become the agenda of the Tea Party’s next fatwahs.
If this happens, it is difficult for me to believe that it will occur by accident. It will convince me that there has, indeed, been a well thought out and deftly executed conspiracy to take over our government by a corporate plutocracy. I know this sounds like Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society in the 1950’s railing about the “communist threat”. I only hope it proves to be as goofy as that.
September 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
My Lucy’s Football Complaint
In July and August I spent too much time reading, thinking and writing about my country’s policies and activities that were, to me, depressing and shameful. During the Bush-Chaney-Rumsfeld-Yoo years I was angry but not depressed. I was comforted by the hope that their excessively wanton brutality would produce a commensurate degree of righteous reaction that would propel forward the forces of justice and decency.
When Barack Obama was elected I was thrilled. I thought a man of conscience and intelligence would use the ingenious organizing ability that produced his victory to transform the Democratic Party into a political coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation. He took office when the financial power brokers had been brought down by his predecessor. They were coming to Washington, hat in hand, desperate to avoid an implosion.
I assumed , as a student of history, he would recognize that he was in a position similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became President when the policies of Herbert Hoover and the Republicans had capsized the American economy. FDR used that crisis to change the relationship between capitalism and government and to brand Hoover and the Republicans for decades as the enemies of working class Americans.
Instead, Obama used the power of government to pay off the debts that profligate Wall Street bankers had incurred, restore the auto industry, and leave working class Americans without jobs or forced to accept deep pay cuts and menial work to avoid starvation. Far from identifying and branding those responsible for the economic debacle, he made speeches and spoke at press conferences about “looking forward, not dwelling on the past.”
Obama and his team used government generosity to enable Wall Street bankers to recover quickly from the near bankruptcy of their casino. The bonuses and multimillion dollar salaries have climbed to galactic heights. This was done regardless of how politically unpopular it was. No political price was regarded as too high to accomplish this feat.
That attitude was in sharp contrast to the cautious and timid attitude toward other politically difficult projects: Changing labor laws to enable and encourage the resurrection of the labor movement was not even considered – much too difficult- now is not a good time-etc. etc. etc. . Insisting on solving our health care problem by extending Medicare, one of the most popular government programs in the history of the United States, to all. No, that might be branded as socialism – not practical – would never pass in Congress. Well then, if the insurance industry must be left to make useless profits from providing health care, how about a “public option” to place limits on how egregiously they can sabotage the distribution of health care? “Well, we tried that, but couldn’t get enough votes.”
The one political strategy that was never considered: Propose fair and just policies. If they are not adopted, continue to insist on them. Attack those who oppose them. Praise and reward those who support them. Never stop organizing and attacking. Relentlessly target the leaders of the opposition. Name them. Take pains to distinguish them from those who are merely stupid, ambitious or both; they may choose to abandon their opposition, especially if it appears likely to lose.
President Obama is a reasonable person. I think his fatal flaw is his belief that proposing reasonable solutions to problems will win arguments. As a trial lawyer, I shared that belief and, more often than not, I found that juries were more likely to favor the litigant who presented a reasonable argument rather than one who relied on bombast and assaults on the credibility and good faith of the opponent. It didn’t always work, but my average was respectable. I really had no choice. Like Obama, I was never able to sell myself as a shouter, a bully or a fist-shaker.
Political contests, at least those in which I have been actively involved and the ones that have been waged in Washington for the past five years, are wars, not trials. There are few rules and the rules that apply are routinely ignored. The folk description of them is that they are fought by people “down for money, marbles and chalk.” Obama’s obsession about avoiding the stereotype of the “angry black man”, I think, led him to begin negotiations with ruthless and unprincipled demagogues with compromises that, if they were ever appropriate, should have followed, not preceded, a hard fight. I think he brought a knife to a gun fight.
His soaring rhetorical claim that we live, not in blue states and red states, but in the UNITED STATES, was a noble effort to moderate political conflicts. He should have recognized, however, that it did not describe the kind of political viciousness that characterized the political arena of Washington D.C. in 2008 – 2013,
At my age, I am not naive about politicians. No elected official has proved satisfactory to me. Ralph Yarborough came close and my admiration for him more than compensated for every instance when he did such things as sponsoring James Latane “Soapy” Noel, his college room mate, for appointment to a federal judgeship in Houston, who turned out to be an abysmal failure when Houston’s public school integration depended on his judgment. Lyndon Johnson fought every effort to create a viable and dominant liberal Democratic Party in Texas. Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” cleverness spawned the Democratic leadership Council and NAFTA without any protection for the rights of workers, not to mention his enthusiastic embrace of of Wall Street deregulation. My experience with these men taught me, once again, that Democratic Party politicians can do just as much damage as Republican politicians. Even Hubert Humphrey, after a lifetime of dedication to liberal ideals, ran for president wearing LBJ’s Vietnam warbonnet after claiming the nomination in Chicago during a police riot.
So, I have callouses on my backside from running full-tilt toward Lucy’s football during political football games. That’s why Obama was so depressing. I thought we had, at last, elected a steadfast Lucy. Like they say, “There’s no fool like an old fool” Or, as I’ve often said, “like an Old Fart Lawyer.”
The Affordable Care Act
I am hopeful that the ACA will not be a “train wreck”, as predicted by its critics. I am sure the GOP will do everything it can to sabotage it and call attention to every negative aspect of its implementation. The fact that thousands of Americans die each year due to lack of health care makes the stakes too high for betting against it, a mere detail that will have no influence on those who want it to fail. The only human life that concerns them is life in the womb.
Having said that, I believe the ACA is a solution that would have made sense in 1942, but is inappropriate in 2013. When millions of men were withdrawn from the workforce to fight WWII, America was in desperate need of manpower to produce the goods and services vital to the war effort as well as the sustenance of the civilian population. Competition for workers was fierce. Wage levels were frozen. So, employers, primarily industrial employers, began offering health insurance as an inducement to attract and retain workers.
During the New Deal years, as a result of the Wagner Act, many industrial workers were represented by unions. So, a pattern of negotiated arrangements for job benefits was developed. Neither employers nor unions wanted to create machinery for handling and adjusting claims, so a large health insurance industry was created to handle this new demand for health insurance.
If the ACA had been adopted then, it would have been a sensible legislative regulation of these new arrangements. Dramatic changes have occurred since then. Many of those industrial giants no longer exist. The vitality of unions has disappeared in the face of changes in federal law and a failure of the Democratic Party to insist on protection of the rights of workers to organize for collective bargaining. What we now have is a giant insurance industry, regulated lightly by state governments, and employers free to make choices regrading health insurance for their employees, usually free from any significant bargaining through unions. The Employment Retirement Income Security Act, usually designated ERISA, does not require employers to make health insurance available to its employees, It does include some requirements if the employer chooses to do so. It does not, however, prescribe minimum levels of benefits which must be offered.
Another dramatic change occurred when Medicare was created to guarantee health care for those over the age of 65. That law has become a model of government service and is wildly popular. It proved that government can establish and implement a successful program providing health care to a large population, even a population of elderly people whose health care needs are well above those of the general population. Choosing to leave health care in the hands of insurance companies instead of extending an already established model government program was dumb.
Having stated my now-irrelevant bitch, I acknowledge at least two positive developments resulting from the flawed process that produced the ACA. First, the Republican Party has obsessively and enthusiastically branded itself as opposed to the law. That means that, when the law becomes effective, and millions of Americans discover that they have access to health insurance at prices they can afford, they will, perhaps, begin to question their loyalty to Republican politicians who tried to prevent it. I am not sure about this. American voters are notoriously willing to vote for politicians whose policies are harmful to them. This masochistic stupidity is an endemic mental disability linked to American politics.
The second positive result is that Barack Obama has, finally, responded with some degree of anger and moral outrage to the attacks on the ACA . This morning, September 26, 2013, less than a week before the ACA becomes an active program affecting every American, after years of hysterical assaults by the GOP, thousands of hours of lies about the law, and a twenty-hour harangue by a Jackass Senator from (of course) Texas, our President, in a speech to a community college crowd in Maryland, displayed a little bit of outrage and struck back. He didn’t name anybody. He wouldn’t want to spoil the collegiality he enjoys as he works with his “friends across the aisle”. But he did mention that the Republicans have been lying about the ACA. That is a step forward.
Here is my hope: Americans have now been promised health care. The promise has been made by their government. When the insurance industry allows its greed to interfere with providing that health care, the people will demand action from the government. At some point it will become so obvious that even American voters will realize that health care for which government is responsible should be managed and administered by government. The ACA will transition to Medicare. As usual the question is: How much pain will be necessary to energize the electorate to demand it?
A Mind Meld and a Grok
As stated, after reading about the NSA trashing of the 4th Amendment; the secret FISA court and its secret jurisprudence, I was angry and depressed. The consensus seems to have been accepted that, given our modern technology, we are doomed to submit to government’s limitless access to our private lives, all in the name of protecting us from a constantly expanding array of terrorists in a state of boundless and endless martial law.
I followed that investigation by reading Jeremy Scahill’s book describing the government’s “global war on terror” in which the bombing of innocent civilians is accepted as collateral damage. Bypassing the Bill of Rights and assassinating American citizens without warrant, indictment or trial is explained as an acceptable tactic in the GWOT. “Signature strikes”, firing missiles and dropping bombs on people based on the “life pattern” of some in their midst is said to be justified on the basis of the probability that terrorists will be killed.
These revelations about the policies of my President and my country depressed me. After a few days, I tired of thinking about them. One of my favorite bumper stickers states, “Reality is for People Who Can’t Handle Drugs and Alcohol”. I am one of those people, so a bottle of Jack Daniels was not an option.
I remembered that, for most of my life, beginning in Elementary School, I was almost always in the middle of reading a novel. That changed a few years ago and I began reading non-fiction. I decided I needed a break from all this serious stuff. I needed to escape.
Crime and Punishment
In 1997, my mother-in-law, whom I loved and admired, gave me a handsomely bound copy of “Crime and Punishment”, Fyodor Dostoevsky”s psychological novel. It had lain unread on a bookshelf for sixteen years. I chose it to begin my recovery. Dostoevsky was a remarkable person. He was a dissident in the 1850’s. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death. He and two other prisoners were taken to the prison yard, tied to stakes, a firing squad was assembled and the first two of three orders were given to carry out the sentence, when a messenger from the Tsar arrived breathlessly to announce that their death sentences had been commuted to terms of imprisonment in Siberia.
[Spoiler Alert. I assume that most of you have read this classic, so this is probably unnecessary. But, the following paragraphs will disclose the ending of the novel.]
Dostoevsky became a popular writer after surviving that term of imprisonment. “Crime and Punishment” was published in 1861, when our civil war was beginning. The main character, Rodion Roskolnikov, a young penniless lapsed student, uses an axe to kill an old lady who operates an amateur pawn business, as well as her mentally disabled sister who unexpectedly witnesses the murder. The novel describes Roskolnikov’s struggle with his conscience and the fear that ultimately drives him to confess to his crime and accept imprisonment in Siberia. The novel is actually two narratives. One is in Roskolnikov’s head and the other one involves his family, his friends and a number of protagonists in the government’s criminal justice establishment.
The psychology is presented in terms of a philosophical conflict. Roskolnikov initially tries to convince himself that he is a member of an intellectually superior group of people, whose talents entitle them to ignore ordinary rules of conduct applicable to their inferiors. He tries to analyze his crime as the just sacrifice of a couple of worthless women in order to enable him, a person of significant potential, to survive. This hubris is a barrier that prevents him from having an intimate relationship with either his male friends or a young woman, Sonya, who falls in love with him.
The novel, set in St. Petersburg, is an engaging description of a part of Russian society. There are lengthy passages describing Roskolnikov’s thinking, similar to “stream of consciousness” narration, except that it is written in the third person rather than as a transcript of the thoughts going on in Roskolnikov’s head.
Reading the book had its desired effect. For several hours I was in Russia, feeling the cold, tense as the main character edged closer and closer to a resolution of his inner conflict, while a parallel effort was going on as a smart law enforcement official came closer and closer to trapping him.
After his confession and banishment to Siberia, Sonya moves there to be with Roskolnikov. Finally, after several years, he accepts her love, casts aside the heartless intellectualism that kept him aloof and alone, accepts responsibility for the crime he committed and becomes an adult human being.
Lie Down in Darkness
Over fifty years ago, Larry Goodwyn gave me a priceless gift. He told me about William Styron. I read his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness when I was thirty-one or two. As part of my recovery from too much reality, I re-read it. It still blew me away. The astonishing thing about it is that Styron wrote the book in two years at age twenty-two to twenty-three. How he managed to acquire, at that young age, the knowledge and insight to describe, in words carefully crafted and filled with imagery, the musings, dreams and fears of a fifty-year-old woman and her twenty-year-old daughter, is beyond my understanding. I don’t pretend to have that ability, but Styron’s descriptions have the feel of absolute authenticity. As I re-read them, at age 82, having had lots more experience with lots more people of different ages, than Styron had time to have had when he wrote this novel, his descriptions were believable to me.
His writing was compared to Faulkner’s. I don’t know about that. To me, the tenderness and understanding of human fears and weaknesses he describes made me think of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night . After grabbing me and telling me a long story about death and loss and love and betrayal, Styron ends his novel with a penultimate section, forty-nine pages without a paragraph break, in which he transcribes the thoughts in young Peyton’s head. Unlike Dostoevsky, Styron does not stand aside and write about what Peyton is thinking. Peyton herself lets you into her head and allows you to think with her, feel with her, remember with her.
Grok and Mind Meld
A.E. Heinlen invented the term grok in his novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction fantasy based on a Martian who visits Earth. The visitor has the ability to relate to another person by communicating between his own and his or her minds. The process is called groking. It obviously enables a degree of intimacy otherwise impossible to achieve. As I read Crime and Punishment, I realized that Dostoevsky was enabling me to relate to Roskolnikov’s mind,, rather than merely with his actions and statements. It reminded me of Heinlen’s groking.
Styron, on the other hand, took me a step closer than Heinlen. Throughout his novel, and especially in the 49-page internal monologue, he enabled Peyton and I to communicate through a mind meld, a Vulcan ability introduced to Earthlings by Spock, an officer in the Starship Enterprise, commanded by Captain Kirk.
I don’t intend to escape from reality permanently but I have decided to temper my dabbling in reality by vicariously experiencing other people’s lives through the pages of well-written, or just moderately well-written (I’m not very discriminating when it comes to fiction) novels.
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.