A Major Achievement

By: Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

A few months ago the House of Representatives passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, a meaningful reform of the way student loans are dealt with.

In my mind, this bill constitutes one of the Obama administration’s most important accomplishments.

To understand why, provided hereafter is an explanation of what the bill does. In recent years, the cost for college has increased tremendously, to the point where total expenses exceed per capita American income. Therefore the federal government encourages banks to loan money to students. These loans are guaranteed and subsidized by the government.

More below.

Unfortunately, private banks are not in the business to help students. Many private student loans can be compared to sub-prime mortgages; they charge exorbitant interest rates, add numerous fees (e.g. the origination fee), and often take advantage of vulnerable, low-information customers. Moreover, under Republican banking reforms, student debt cannot be wiped away through bankruptcy.

Federal loans are different. Because the government is not out to make a profit, government loans (e.g. Stafford loans, Ford Direct student loans) generally carry lower interest rates and no fees.

This bill proposes to end subsidies to private student loans; instead, the government will loan money to students directly. One only needs to read the above to realize the import of this.

There’s more good stuff. The law expands Pell Grant aid and links the scholarhship to a rate slightly higher than inflation, “so that these grants don’t cover less and less as families’ costs go up and up.” Previously, “that value [was] set by Congress on an annual basis, making it vulnerable to Washington politics.” Money is provided to community colleges, early childhood programs, and historically black universities. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which took me a week to fill out, is simplified.

It was disappointing to see that only six Republicans voted for the bill. On the one hand, their opposition is somewhat understandable. The reform expands the role of the federal government, which goes against Republican philosophy.

On the other hand, there is so little objectionable about education reform that the degree of Republican opposition still remains puzzling. Who does this bill hurt? Banks. I am sure many Americans would not be terribly sorry to see a law do that. And the vast majority of expert opinion agrees that the reform is necessary and helpful.

A final note. To date, the media has provided very little coverage of this bill. When the House approved a climate change law, it landed on the front page of the New York Times. Passage of this bill was news enough for half of Page 15.

This reflects a failure of the administration’s media operation. If more Americans knew about Obama’s education reform, I am convinced that his approval ratings would be higher. Progress on other priorities (e.g. climate change) would probably be easier-done. Obama should talk more about this bill.

State of the Union: What Obama DID Do, and Why We Should Be Proud

President Obama gave his first State of the Union address Wednesday night.  

The speech was certainly necessary, and not just for tradition’s sake. The speech came post-Massachusetts and at his one-year mark, where Republicans are trying to convince the public of our lack of progress. As a friend put it, the speech literally saved Obama’s political career.  

One of the most impressive parts of the speech, I thought, was when President Obama was commenting on our national debt, two wars, etc. and then said, “All of this was before I walked through the door.”

  It’s important for President Obama to remind the public that it was former President Bush’s failed economic (and other) policies that have led to our current recession and general “state of the union.”  

Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, recently wrote about this exact fact: that Obama needs to blame Bush more, just as Reagan blamed Carter, and theorizes that,

“Maybe he [Obama] still dreams of bridging the partisan divide; maybe he fears the ire of pundits who consider blaming your predecessor for current problems uncouth — if you’re a Democrat. (It’s O.K. if you’re a Republican.)”  

Though it’s true Obama was a bit shy in his accusation, perhaps for the reasons Krugman listed above, but I personally was proud he did say something.  

Another observation I had post-Address, was how many of my liberal friends were disappointed in the speech, critisizing (even after only watching half!), what Obama did and did not address, and how this was “not the President they voted for.”

It upsets me to hear this. I do not recommend Democrats to close their eyes and agree with everything Obama does. But I do think we need to support our Democratic president. Doing anything else makes us a divided front, an easy target. And at the end of the day, we need to appreciate that President Obama is a better president for us Democrats than, let’s say, John McCain and his conservative sidekick Sarah Palin. During the Bush administration, Republicans stuck by ol' W.. We should do the same with Barack. Let’s scare the Republicans off with our support.  

 If you missed the speech, see CBS's broadcast (in full) below:


The Supreme Court is political. Always has been. Always will be. Get real.

In my previous diary, Three big lies wrapped up in the Citizens United decision, I identified the following three lies:

(1) Money is speech.

(2) Corporations are people.

(3) Lies (1) and (2) are not the inventions of conservative judicial activism.

In that diary, I discussed the first two.  Now I turn my attention to the third–and beyond.

Something’s definitely up.  Another major disagreement with Glenn Greenwald.  This time it’s his piece, “Justice Alito’s conduct and the Court’s credibility”.  Glenn’s worried that Alito’s mumbling will undermine the Court’s credibility.  I’m praying that it will.  Glenn thinks the Supreme Court should be above politics.  I know that it never has been, and never will–but it can and should be a lot more honest about it, as should we all.  Which is why I’d much rather see an open display of the Court’s politics that everyone can see and react to accordingly, as opposed to the hypocritical pretense that they’re “beyond politics”.

Here’s a key passage from Glenn:

There’s a reason that Supreme Court Justices — along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff — never applaud or otherwise express any reaction at a State of the Union address.  It’s vital — both as a matter of perception and reality — that those institutions remain apolitical, separate and detached from partisan wars.  The Court’s pronouncements on (and resolutions of) the most inflammatory and passionate political disputes retain legitimacy only if they possess a credible claim to being objectively grounded in law and the Constitution, not political considerations.  The Court’s credibility in this regard has — justifiably — declined substantially over the past decade, beginning with Bush v. Gore (where 5 conservative Justices issued a ruling ensuring the election of a Republican President), followed by countless 5-4 decisions in which conservative Justices rule in a way that promotes GOP political beliefs, while the more “liberal” Justices do to the reverse (Citizens United is but the latest example).  Beyond that, the endless, deceitful sloganeering by right-wing lawyers about “judicial restraint” and “activism” — all while the judges they most revere cavalierly violate those “principles” over and over — exacerbates that problem further (the unnecessarily broad scope of Citizens United is the latest example of that, too, and John “balls and strikes” Roberts may be the greatest hypocrite ever to sit on the Supreme Court).  All of that is destroying the ability of the judicial branch to be perceived — and to act — as one of the few truly apolitical and objective institutions.

Greenwald’s first, most obvious mistake is placing the military and the Supreme Court into the same category.  The Supreme Court is the head of a branch of government.  It is inherently political, of necessity and design.  Of course its scope of power is limited–as is the case of all political actors under the Constitution.  And because it does not require re-appointment, but can suffer impeachment, it is a simple matter of common sense for it to speak and act politically largely through its own rulings.  But its justices can and do give speeches and write books.  Its disengagement from overt engagement in other forms of politics is not a Constitutional requirement, but rather a matter of custom and common sense.  Why act where it is least powerful, and most likely to be rebuked?

OTOH, the Founders were quite concerned about the politicization of the military, seeing the pathway of military power as the quickest way to despotism, and so they devised an elaborate system of divided power to try to neutralize it as a political entity–including giving states a role in training and arming the militias which were originally intended to largely take the palce of a traditional standing army.  (This is what the 2nd Amendment was actually all about: fine-tuning the balance of powers and responsibilities to keep military power in check.) Their efforts have been somewhat defeated over time, but the main impact has been to make the military and its civilian contractors into the most powerful special interest in the land.  Since their main political goal is simply self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement, they willingly conform to the outward charade of being non-political.  In partisan terms this is by the best bet: No one runs against them, even though they’re far and away the worst example of “waste, fraud and abuse” ever seen by the US Government.

Now on to Greenwald’s central mistake:

The Court’s pronouncements on (and resolutions of) the most inflammatory and passionate political disputes retain legitimacy only if they possess a credible claim to being objectively grounded in law and the Constitution, not political considerations.

This may well be true in one sense, but it is a patent absurdity in another.  If the term “political considerations” is intended narrowly, to cover partisan advantage (as in Bush v. Gore) but not ideology, then it is both sensible and largely achievable, which is part of why Bush v. Gore was one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time.  But Alito’s mumbling, whatever you think of it, had nothing to do partisan advantage apart from ideology.  And it’s precisely this broader meaning–of “political considerations” as matters of ideology that Greenwald essentially decries, as if it were possible to exclude ideology entirely from “being objectively grounded in law and the Constitution”.

In essence, Greenwald is arguing that judges should not be swayed by ideology–which is exactly what the conservatives had been arguing ever since Brown v. Board of Education.  Of course, what they really mean is that judges should not be swayed by liberal ideology.  Being swayed by conservative ideology is just peachy.  Greenwald may think this is just a problem of hypocrisy on their part, but it’s not.  It’s hypocrisy based on a lie, because it’s impossible for any judge to interpret the Constitution based solely on “being objectively grounded in law and the Constitution”.  There is both not enough in the law and the Constitution to enable one to do this–there are novelties that cannot be foreseen–and at the same time, too little–there are conflicts between different principles, and lines of precedent.

Rather than pretend that there’s an ideology-free ideal that we should all be striving for, there’s a much better alternative:  to talk frankly and openly about what people’s Constitutional and judicial philosophies are, rather than pretending that they do not exist.  Imagine that: honesty as a basic foundation for approaching the law!

A good example of what this might look like is the subject of the next section.

Partisan Entrenchment Theory

In 2001, in the Virginia Law Review article “Understanding the Constitutional Revolution”, Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson laid out a realist theory of how constitutional interpretation changes over time–a theory that is profoundly political, because it takes note of and seeks to systematically explore how the political process impacts the functioning of the courts over time.  As is often the case, a more succinct summary of their theory can be found in a later work, the 2006 Fordham Law Review article, “The Processes of Constitutional Change: From Partisan Entrenchment to the National Surveillance State”, where they wrote:

The initial formulation of our theory consisted of four basic points: (1) by installing enough judges and Justices with roughly similar ideological views over time, Presidents can push constitutional doctrine in directions they prefer; (2) partly for this reason the Supreme Court tends, in the long run, to cooperate with the dominant political forces of the day; (3)  not all Presidents are equally interested or equally effective in entrenching their views in the judiciary, and Presidents face different opportunities and obstacles that may enhance or limit their success; (4) finally, significant changes in judicial doctrine usually reflect larger institutional changes–like the growth of the administrative state–and broader political forces.

Turning back to the original, this passage is particularly crucial:

When a party wins the White House, it can stock the federal judiciary with members of its own party, assuming a relatively acquiescent Senate. They will serve for long periods of time because judges enjoy life tenure. On average, Supreme Court Justices serve about eighteen years.104 In this sense, judges and Justices resemble Senators who are appointed for 18-year terms by their parties and never have to face election. They are temporally extended representatives of particular parties, and hence, of popular understandings about public policy and the Constitution. The temporal extension of partisan representation is what we mean by partisan entrenchment. It is a familiar feature of American constitutional history. Chief Justice John Marshall kept Federalist principles alive long after the Federalist Party itself had disbanded. William O. Douglas and William Brennan, two avatars of contemporary liberalism, promoted the constitutional values of the Democratic party for decades, just as William Rehnquist has for thirty years now proved to be a patient but persistent defender of the constitutional values of the right wing of the Republican Party.

Partisan entrenchment is an especially important engine of constitutional change. When enough members of a particular party are appointed to the federal judiciary, they start to change the understandings of the Constitution that appear in positive law. If more people are appointed in a relatively short period of time, the changes will occur more quickly. Constitutional revolutions are the cumulative result of successful partisan entrenchment when the entrenching party has a relatively coherent political ideology or can pick up sufficient ideological allies from the appointees of other parties. Thus, the Warren Court is the culmination of years of Democratic appointments to the Supreme Court, assisted by a few key liberal Republicans.105

Partisan entrenchment through presidential appointments to the judiciary is the best account of how the meaning of the Constitution changes over time through Article III interpretation rather than through Article V amendment. In some sense, this is ironic, because the original vision of the Constitution did not even imagine that there would be political parties. Indeed, the founding generation was quite hostile to the very idea of party, which was associated with the hated notion of “faction.”106 This vision collapsed no later than 1800; among other things, the Twelfth Amendment is a result of that collapse and the concomitant recognition of the legitimacy of political parties. A key function of political parties is to negotiate and interpret political meanings and assimilate the demands of constituents and social movements; as such, parties are the major source of constitutional transformations. They are also the major source of attempts to maintain those transformations long enough for them to become the new “conventional wisdom” about what the Constitution means.

Now, I don’t agree 100% with Balkin & Levinson’s account.  For one thing, I spoke with Balkin last week, and came away with a very strong sense that his focus on institutional politics fails to pick up what I regard as some very important points.  Most specifically, I think that the way the GOP has used Roe v. Wade for mass mobilization purposes, but never quite managing to overturn it, has a good deal more significance than Balkin is willing to give it–which is not to say that he ignores it (and, indeed, I agree with much of what he does say, it’s just that I would say a good deal more).  But these differences are minor compared to the fairy-tale version of Constitutional interpretation to which Greenwald clings.

What isn’t minor, however, is my broader sense–going beyond Roe as a single, if major, rallying point–that conservative judicial ideology has been used as a core part of conservative movement-building in a way that has no real parallel in American history, and that is fundamentally dishonest, precisely because it claims the same sort of transcendent, apolitical neutrality as Greenwald appeals to.  Of course, it needs to be stated again that the conservative movement has been deeply hypocritical, while Greenwald is not.  Nonetheless, they do both subscribe to this narrative, which is simply and straightforwardly false.

To add some further nuance–which also further underscores the unreality of conservative claims about high principles, and objective interpretations–here’s what Balkin and Levinson had to say in 2001 about the actual contours of conservative jurisprudence, as opposed to their advertised fidelity to the innermost thoughts of the Founders, and the strictest of objectivity:

In the past ten years, the Supreme Court of the United States has begun a systematic reappraisal of doctrines concerning federalism, racial equality, and civil rights that, if fully successful, will redraw the constitutional map as we have known it.24 This newly vitalized majority has, to be sure, not rethought every part of constitutional doctrine-paradigm shifts almost never do that-but it has made an importantmark on constitutional law. And, not surprisingly, this same bloc of five conservatives handed the presidency to George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore. By doing so, they helped ensure a greater probability for more conservative appointments and more changes in constitutional doctrine. The conservative five are not through yet. They have selected a president to keep their constitutional transformation going.

However, five years later, the picture had changed somewhat, as they explained:

One can only assume conservatives like Calabresi were optimistic about George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency in 2000, believing that the Court was about to go much further in reining in-or at least significantly cutting back on-the New Deal settlement. This did not happen, however, and one cannot explain the failure to achieve either Calabresi’s hopes or our fears simply by the fact that Bush had no opportunity to alter the Court’s composition during his first term. We do not wish to say that no further changes in federalism doctrine are in the offing: We may see, either through statutory construction or through new constitutional doctrine, new limits on environmental protection.68 Nevertheless, after cases like Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs,69 Tennessee v. Lane,70 and Gonzales v. Raich,71 it seems fairly clear, at least as of 2006, that the “federalism revolution” has been substantially slowed, if not stopped in its tracks. There will be no return to what Douglas Ginsburg once called “the Constitution in Exile”-a pre-New Deal Constitution with sharply limited federal powers.72

The reason why things did not turn out as we feared flows from one of our own basic assumptions, even if, alas, we did not pay sufficient attention to it. The dominant national political coalition, now controlled by Republicans, simply did not want a serious rollback of the scope of federal power created in the wake of the New Deal. As Clayton and Pickerill suggest, Republicans, since their capture of Congress in 1994 and, even more so, since their recapture of the presidency in 2001, have “advocate[d] federal control over more policy areas,” even as Democrats now “advocat[e] even greater devolution of policymaking power.”73 This is an example of what one of us (Balkin) calls “ideological drift”-the changing political valence of political and legal arguments as they are repeated in ever new political and social contexts.74 In fact, political parties’ commitment to federalism throughout American history has often been opportunistic, premised on the current constellation of political forces. National politicians of both parties are most likely to support federalism (1) when it allows them to punt controversial issues back to state and local governments, thus avoiding responsibility; and (2) when they lack substantial control over the national political process. Conversely, they prefer national solutions when they have sufficient clout to impose them. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Republicans, upon controlling both Congress and the presidency for the first time in almost seventy-five years, would find national power increasingly attractive. Republicans sought to use the national government to favor their own projects and to promote their own regulatory agendas like tort reform, selective tax cuts, and partial privatization of Social Security

And they go on to point out that the change in the Supreme Court parallels what happened with the President and Congress:

Republican hegemony has not produced smaller government, but rather “big government conservatism,” which included the No Child Left Behind Act,75 a Medicare drug benefit,76 as well as hefty doses of pork for the favored constituents of the Republican Party, administrative regulations benefiting specific industries, and tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts. The national political coalition dominated by Republicans did not seek a weakened federal government with judicially enforced limits, but rather one that could use all of the constitutional powers of the post-New Deal era selectively to benefit its own favored groups and interests. One need only think of proposals for nationwide bans on human cloning and stem-cell research, the federal statute criminalizing partial-birth abortions, or the unsuccessful attempt by the Bush Administration to invalidate Oregon’s Dignity-in-Death Act through an unusually expansive interpretation of a federal statute.77

My underlying point here is quite simple:  Conservatives would never have gotten so far if they had talked honestly about what they intended with their judicial appointments.  The problem is not that the judiciary is political.  It’s that our politics is deeply rotten, and the political use of the judiciary–going back to the original animus aroused by Brown v. Board of Education–is intimately involved in the intentional cultivation of that rotteness.

Obama Walking the Moderate Tightrope

Four days off the State of the Union, and one year into the job, grades on both his speech and his presidency are still to be determined. To his administration's credit, they have perfected the art of not making anyone too angry, not counting the Tea Party. Wednesday's State of the Union reaffirmed his desire to do just enough to be reelected. The Two Obamas were in full force:

Populist Obama:

To recover the rest, I've proposed a fee on the biggest banks. Now, I know Wall Street isn't keen on this idea. But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.

 And Let's-Not-Piss-Off-Too-Many-Conservatives Obama:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will.

I gotta say I love a President who pushes himself as a cutting-spending-type leader when his freeze amounts to less than 1/6 of the federal budget.

Once again, Fighting-for-the-Middle-Class Obama:

It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. 

Conservative Obama:

And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.

Whatever happened to presidents fighting for those who elected them? Just once I would like to see President Obama have a plan to go after the banks, corporations, Republican obstructionists, lobbyists, and Fox News pundits, and stick to it. He mail fail, he may lose in 2012, but at least he would go down fighting for the good of the people.





Three big lies wrapped up in the Citizens United decision

There’s nothing original about them.  They’ve all been with us a good long while.  But there are three big lies wrapped up in the Citizens United decision.  Take them away, and there’s nothing left.  They are:

(1) Money is speech.

(2) Corporations are people.

(3) Lies (1) and (2) are not the inventions of conservative judicial activism.

I wrote an earlier diary that was critical of Glenn Greenwald’s take on the decision, but the basic thing wrong with Greenwald’s approach was that it flat out ignored the fundamental mendacity involved-not to mention what was going on behind the mendacity, what virtually everyone knows this decision is really about: brute power, not speech. Indeed, brute power that has the inherent ability to stiffle speech.

On Friday, it didn’t take more than a minute or so for guest, Monica Youn–who directs the money in politics project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice–to set the record straight:

BILL MOYERS: Now, comedians can be funny and journalists can be facetious, but in very plain language, who won the Supreme Court decision?

MONICA YOUN: Well, corporations clearly won this decision. I mean, essentially, what the court does is it awards monopoly power over the First Amendment to corporations. You can think about the last couple of elections as, you know, the slow rise of the grassroots. And as a result, the political parties, for the first time, had an incentive to start reaching out to small donors, to start cultivating grassroots organizing networks. And you saw what happened in the last election. Now, what the Supreme Court has done here is really a power play. It takes power away from the grassroots, and it puts it squarely back in the hands of corporate special interests.

It threatens to make these grassroots networks irrelevant. To say, you know, it’s no longer going to be worthwhile for, you know, parties to look for fundraising opportunities, $20, $100, even $2,400 at a time, if they can just have multimillion dollar support directly from corporate treasuries.

The problem with Greenwald’s type of analysis is that it takes the First Amendment argument seriously, it accepts the first two big lies identified above, rather than realizing that this decision is a reductio ad  absurdum refutation of them.  In contrast, Youn simply looks at what’s happening right in front of us.  It’s a classic case of “Who are going to believe?  Me, or your lying eyes?”  

The classic response that the solution to bad speech is more speech utterly misses the central point here:  One direct effect of this decision will be the prevention of speech.  Because money is not speech, and the taking of money from wealthy corporations will inevitably mean that other voices will be drowned out.  As Youn points out here, not just voters’ voices, but even small donors, just starting to be heard, will be increasingly ignored.  Why bother with them?  They don’t have anything the parties or the politicians really need or want.

There is nothing ideological about this.  It is simply a realist view of what the Citizens United decision is all about.  Saying, “The solution to bad speech is more speech” in the face of this reality-now, that’s ideological.  I have nothing against ideology per se.  In fact, I generally think it’s a good thing.  For the most part, it’s impossible to make much sense of the world without ideology in some form or other.  But when ideology blinds you to what’s right in front of your eyes, when ideology becomes, in essence, nothing more than an elaborated lie, then ideology becomes the enemy of truth.  And that’s what so-called “First Amendment absolutism” becomes when it accepts the two big lies that “money is speech” and “corporations are people”.

A bit later on, Youn gave a very clear description of what the Citizens United decision actually meant:

MONICA YOUN: But the problem with that is when you are talking about money being equivalent to speech. And corporations being equivalent to people. It’s as if you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to put an ordinary person in a boxing ring against a Sherman tank and that’s a fair fight. May the best fighter win.” You’re talking about artificial constructs that were built to accumulate money. That’s the purpose of a corporation. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as that economic inequality does not directly translate into political equality. There’s a reason our Constitution was set up the way it was. And there’s a reason that you can’t buy an election. Because we didn’t intend for those who have the most money just to be able to get everything in the system the way they want it, every time.

Beyond the fact that corporate money will tend to crush the importance of small donors on the front end, there are at least two other easy-to-see ways that limitless corporate spending will diminish speech.  The first is intimidation, the second is the monopolistic buying up of limited opportunities for commercial speech.  Youn discussed intimidation in a passage that occurred between the two  quote above, along with the other guest, Zephyr Teachout:

BILL MOYERS: But if I understand the decision, it doesn’t enable the chairman of Exxon Mobil, or the chairman of GE to write a check to Zephyr Teachout, who’s running for Congress from Vermont. It says she can spend as much money as they want to, in the, right up to the election. Right? Advocating that you be elected or defeated?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. Or, what happens more likely is candidates getting threatened and encouraged. It’s a much subtler form of corruption. Where your mind shifts to say, “Well, do I really want to take on that financial transaction tax if I know that Goldman Sachs is going to do an ad campaign?”

MONICA YOUN: And I think that the threat is going to be even more of an important weapon than direct, you know, “Vote for so and so who we like.”

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

MONICA YOUN: I think there’s going to be a threat of corporate funded attack ads against elected officials who dare to stand up to corporate interests. Corporations have basically been handed a weapon. And when you walk into a negotiation, and you know that one person is armed and is able to use a weapon against you, they don’t have to take out that weapon. They don’t have to even brandish it. You know that they have it. And every elected official who goes up against an agenda on regulatory reform, on climate change, on health care, will know that the corporation who, you know, he or she is opposing, can fund a, you know, a $100 million ad campaign to take him or her out.

The underlying point here is simple: Offering a bribe is a free speech.  Making a threat is free speech.  So is blackmailing someone. But none of them is protected free speech, because they involve criminal activity-activity that itself serves to stifle free speech.   Treating unlimited corporate funding as simply free speech and nothing more not only buys the underlying lie that money is speech, it ignores the fact that even just the potential of unlimited corporate funding is a de facto blurring of the lines, it is inherently an offering of a bribe and a making of a threat.  It could even be blackmail.  These are not mere possibilities that might occur.  They are inherent in the very nature of the vastly unequal power being given to corporations.

And, of course, that gets back to the “corporations are people” lie, which has been hovering in the background throughout most of this post.  The two lies are intimately connected, of course, since for-profit corporations exist for only one purpose: to make money.  That’s why they have so much money in the first place.  It’s the very essence of their existence.  Citizenship–the defining essence of the person as political actor–is entirely foreign to the essence of the corporation.

By way of contrast, non-profit corporations have be formed to serve a public beneficial purpose–such as furthering childhood education, running an museum, promoting medical research into a specific kind of disease, etc.  This doesn’t really constitute citizenship, either, but at least it takes a step in that direction, and by doing so, it makes all the more obvious what for-profit corporations lack in the way of genuine personhood as political actors.

We now turn to the other easy-to-see way that limitless corporate spending will diminish speech: the monopolistic buying up of limited opportunities for commercial speech.  This was addressed by John Amato at Crooks and Liars, in a piece coyly titled, “What happens when corporations buy the last three months of ad space for an election cycle?”

What happens?  Homer Simpson says, “D’oh!”  That’s what happens.  John is a little less blunt, a little more articulate:

I’ve had some experience with trying to buy ad space during elections, and as the days creep closer to one, the ad space becomes more expensive, for the most part. At least in my experience.

My question is what happens when Big Corp decides to buy up the last month, or two or three, of available ad space on all major media outlets for a particular election? That would have an incredible impact on either an election or like we have in California, a proposition. We saw what happened when the Mormons bought up a ton of air time in California to oppose Prop. 8

We need regulations in politics, just like we need them for Wall Street and just like we need them when you buy a car. Hopefully, Congress will act and pass much needed legislation to help preserve our Democratic process. It already is deeply flawed, but this ruling only makes it worse.

Although the lineup of personnel is a little bit different this time out, what we’re faced with here is very much like the invasion of Iraq.  The rationale is compelling-if all you listen to is one side.  If you hear both sides, there are gaping holes. But there are a certain group of liberals (without the air quotes this time) who think that despite the flawed motivations involved, it still advances something they believe in, and so they’re good to go.

It’s time we just sat back and trusted our lying eyes.

“Smart” is not enough: Looking for leadership. Looking for jobs. Obama illusion is wearing thin.

On Friday, MSNBC replaced Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show with a 2-hour special on Obama’s encounter with the GOP House caucus at their Baltimore retreat, with Kieth and Rachel being joined by Chris Matthews as well.  The consensus of all three was that Obama mopped the floor with the House Republicans.  But as I watched I had more than a nagging feeling that they were somewhat missing the point–even as Rachel kept reminding folks that Obama might well be missing the point.  Although not addressing them specifically, Paul Krugman brought things down to Earth when he wrote:

Look, Obama is a terrific speaker and a very smart guy. He really showed up the Republicans in the now-famous give-and-take. But we knew that. What’s now in question isn’t his ability to talk, it’s his ability to lead.

The problem is not just “leadership skills”–though those are problematic enough.  It’s having even the vaguest notion of what our goals and direction need to be.  In the same blog post, Krugman points out:

It’s all very well to say “we’re going to focus on job creation”. But what does that mean? At this point, no major economic programs have any chance of getting passed. Think of it this way: a year ago the question was whether the stimulus would be $700 billion or $1.2 trillion, now we’re talking about $30 billion jobs tax credits.

And he’s not just saying that because he’s a liberal.  Brad DeLong links to and quotes from former Bush Administration economist Keith Hennessey saying the same sort of thing:

What does it mean to focus on jobs?: The conventional Beltway logic is that the President used his State of the Union Address to “pivot to focus on job creation.”  We have been told for a week or two that job creation is policy priority #1…. Wednesday night the President “pivoted to focus on jobs.”

    That is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight.

I have a simple question:  What does it mean to focus on jobs?

I would presume that it means the President would propose new policy changes that are designed to significantly increase employment, and fairly quickly….

My back-of-the-envelope calculation… suggests that the President’s new Small Business Jobs and Wages credit will increase full-time employment in 2010 by 165,000 – 297,000 years.  By 2011, it will increase full-time employment by 264,000 – 594,000 years…. For comparison, remember that the U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since a year ago, and 7.2 million jobs since the beginning of the recession in December 2007.  297,000 is 4.1% of 7.2 million, so you’re talking about a policy change that at best would restore fewer than 1 out of 25 jobs lost since the recession began.

Since no one in the Obama Administration is likely to answer Hennessey, I will:  What it means to “focus on jobs” is to focus on talking about jobs… for a few minutes before turning to talk about something else.

THEY JUST DON’T GET IT!  Talking about jobs does not create jobs.  And just about everyone outside of Versailles knows this.

If they somehow think they are “dealing with” the repercussions of the MA Senate race, they are deluding themselves.  The problem is, quite simply that Keynesian economics works.  It’s not a matter of ideology, it’s a matter of fact.  And Richard Trumka made this point very directly on Bill Moyers Journal Friday night.  He seems to believe that Obama really gets it–and I think he’s 100% wrong about that.  But he himself understands what needs to be done:

RICHARD TRUMKA: …. So, I think he’s starting to understand and feel the anger. And I think he’s willing to work his way through. Now, the question becomes, will he do it on a scale that’s necessary or essential to solve the problem.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of scale?

RICHARD TRUMKA: That’s the issue. It has to be a large scale. We lost eight million jobs, plus we have two million that we needed for growth. So, we’re 10 million jobs in the hole. In order to do that, it’s going to take more than a little stimulus package or a little job bill. Because if all we do is the same thing that Japan did in the early ’90s. They would spend a little, look like they’re coming out of recession. And then stop and it would drop back down.

They did that for a whole decade. They lost a decade. And our country just can’t stand that. So, our job is to make sure that his understanding of the anger, translates out into a jobs program of sufficient size to solve the problem.

Boy howdy!  Even more than the FDR trying to balance the budget in 1937, the example of Japan in the 1990s is a major object lesson in what not to do.  One that virtually all of Versailles–including the Obama Administration–seems utterly oblivious to.

I’m really glad that Trumka nailed this–and I’m pleased with other things he went on to say:

BILL MOYERS: So, what are your economists, your experts, your scholars, your academicians telling you we should be spending for the jobs program that you’d like to see, that you think will really make a big contribution to closing the gap.

RICHARD TRUMKA: First of all, we have to extend unemployment benefits. You got almost six million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months. If they lose those benefits, they stop consuming. If they stop consuming, the economy contracts pretty significantly.

So, we have to extend benefits. And we suggested a year’s extension, so that everybody knows where they’re going to be. Second of all, we needed money for the state and local governments. They are going to have about $178 billion deficit. And if they stop spending, anything we spend on the federal side just negates one another. So, we have to make sure that we don’t lose education, like teachers, firemen, police officers, and all those jobs that are necessary. So, we think there should be aid to state and local governments.

We think there ought to be a major investment in infrastructure. We have a $2.2 trillion deficit in this country when it comes to our infrastructure. Bridges are crumbling. Schools are crumbling. Other places, roads are done. So, we need to make a major investment in that. And quite frankly, we think that the government ought to signal or say that they’re going to do that over a number of years.

Because if they do that, and say, “We’re going to make a ten-year commitment to rebuilding our infrastructure,” then they can bring in private funds. We can leverage that money and private funds will come in as well. The fourth thing we think we need in the short term is direct funding of jobs. I’ll give you a couple of examples. You go into an area where schools are, where the students are hurting, because of a low tax base. And you say, “I’m going to provide tutors.” Now, that creates a job and it helps a student with better schooling, better education, and being able to do better. And then the last thing the President announced he was going to do was that we think that we ought to use the TARP money to give to regional and community banks so that they can lend to small and mid-sized businesses that create that. And we think this year, we need to be on the range of at least $400 billion. That will get us about 4 million jobs back.

This should not be surprising.  Labor has routinely had a much better sense of what’s needed economically than anyone else–and for good reason: They represent the vast majority of people who can’t make out like bandits regardless of what happens to everyone else.  This forces a high degree of realism–something that virtually everyone else in Versailles is utterly immune to.

Now, I do have one problem with Trumka, and that’s that he seems to believe that Obama has gotten the message, and understands what needs to be done.  But nothing in his performance with the GOP House Caucus gives any inkling of that.  His basic line could be rendered as: “Hey, I’m to the right of Dwight Eisenhower.  What more do you want?”  And the GOP House Caucus shot back: “Eisenhower was a Commie dupe!”

They want to the right of Attila the Hun.

One thing, though, should be coming increasingly clear:  More and more, progressives generally, and netroots activists in particular, are going to have gain a new appreciation for the basic soundness, soberness and importance of labor thinking on economics and labor’s importance as a major force in setting this country back on the right track.  Too many younger activists, especially those with an online focus, have little understanding of labor that’s not badly distorted by the same delusional Versailles CW that they readily see through in almost every other area.  Labor is far from perfect, of course.  And it’s had its own problems from being too influenced by the thinking of Versailles.  But it has enormous under-recognized strengths as well, and if we’re going to weather the difficult struggles ahead, then forging strong bonds between the netroots and labor is going to be an absolute necessity.  There’s just no one else who’s got any sort of power who’s remotely close to having a clue what’s going on and what is needed for America, as opposed to Wall Street and Versailles.


On a related matter, Digby warns that progressives are fooling themselves to think that Obama did a good job in talking to the GOP reps:

It would appear people are extremely happy that Obama hit it out of the park yesterday in his appearance at the Republican retreat yesterday, so I’m in a minority of those who think it wasn’t all that. It’s not that I don’t think he performed well.  He always performs well. And he’s smart as can be, so I expect him to be able to parry lugubrious misrepresentations from idiots without any trouble at all. We liberals love that stuff.

Certainly, it is a welcome thing if he was able to please his supporters because they have been sorely disappointed lately and they deserved something to cheer about so I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade.  Morale is important and if he made people feel charged up that’s all to the good.

However, I remain concerned that the message is not as clear to the rest of the country as his supporters think it was. (“Don’t mess with Obama.”) I watched Clinton do this type of thing over and over again and it didn’t change the dynamic at all. He was personally successful, but liberal ideology was degraded every time he conceded something like “I think we raised taxes too much” or “the era of big government is over.” People loved his ability to out talk his accusers (in his case it was a real high wire act) but the agenda suffered greatly from his ceaseless efforts to cajole a psychotically  hostile opposition into working with him. It resulted in passage of center right policies and his own impeachment. But then he didn’t have a huge majority in congress either.

I suspect that average voters don’t see Obama being persecuted as Clinton was, or subject to non-stop calumny by a rabid Republican majority. The Republicans aren’t doing anything (and that’s the problem.) I think people see Obama conceding that he hasn’t been bipartisan enough and that he intends to keep trying.  And that will never be a winner for our side because all the Republicans have to do is continue to obstruct to prove him a failure.

That’s it precisely.  Instead of addressing the real problems that Krugman, Trumka, and even Bush’s economist point out, Obama gives us a Clinton rerun that needlessly compounds the folly of Clinton’s failed approach, and virtually assures its own failure.  And this is supposed to be smart?

Call it “outsmarting yourself”, call it “too clever by half,” call it whatever, but in the end, the smart thing to do is never to be smart, anyways.

The smart thing to do is to be wise.

A tiny sliver of reality about presidents and debt

This week, Rachel Maddow did an excellent segment on presidents and the debt:

There’s just two problems–not for Rachel, but for the entire Democratic establishment, and frankly the entire supposedly fact-checked and “objective” media: (A) What took so long?  and (B) Where’s the endless repetition?

As you can see from the following chart (same underlying figures the second chart in last weekend’s diary, “Everything Versailles says about the debt is wrong”) Republican’s haven’t engaged in responsible budgeting since Ronald Reagan rolled into town 30 years ago:

It’s not just that Republicans are “fiscally irresponsible.”  It’s that they’re constantly using Keyensian-style deficit spending to drive the economy, all the while claiming that what’s driving the economy is the “free market forces” they’ve “unleashed.”  Of course, Keynes never said that government should run deficits all the time.  They were supposed to run countercyclically–when non-governmental demand plummeted, the way it has since mid-2008. Running deficits all the time–not little ones–has a really bad effect on the economy, because it more than “unleashes” those magical “free market forces”, it gets them turbo-charged, intoxicated and headed right off the nearest cliff.

I don’t care how smart you are.  You can’t make good policy against a background chorus of constant lies.

Remembering Howard Zinn

In Quick Hits, RandomNonviolence  quotes Bob Herbert:

I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?

The answer to Herbert’s question is simple:  “Radical” comes from the Greek root “radic”, meaning “root.”  A radical is one who doesn’t mess around, but goes right to the root of the problem in seeking to set things right.  It’s one of the nicest things you can say about anyone, to call them a radical, like Howard Zinn.

One of the best tributes to the late Howard Zinn was heard on Democracy Now with Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Anthony Arnove.  Before turning to her guests, however, Amy replayed part of an  2005 interview with Zinn, where he talked about his experience as a WWII Air Force bombardier.  He went in thinking it was a “good war”, but in the end…:

HOWARD ZINN: Well, we thought bombing missions were over. The war was about to come to an end. This was in April of 1945, and remember the war ended in early May 1945. This was a few weeks before the war was going to be over, and everybody knew it was going to be over, and our armies were past France into Germany, but there was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them. Twelve hundred heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm-first use of napalm in the European theater.

And we don’t know how many people were killed or how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it’s OK. And only afterward, only really after the war when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood. And this is modern warfare.

In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place. And I think, reflecting back on that bombing raid and thinking of that in Hiroshima and all the other raids on civilian cities and the killing of huge numbers of civilians in German and Japanese cities, the killing of 100,000 people in Tokyo in one night of fire-bombing, all of that made me realize war, even so-called good wars against fascism like World War II, wars don’t solve any fundamental problems, and they always poison everybody on both sides. They poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides. We’re seeing that now in Iraq, where the minds of our soldiers are being poisoned by being an occupying army in a land where they are not wanted. And the results are terrible.

Then Alice Walker spoke:

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, Howard Zinn was thrown out of Spelman College-right?-as a professor, for insubordination, although recently they gave him an honorary degree, and he addressed the graduating class. Why was he thrown out?

ALICE WALKER: Well, he was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to eat where we wanted to and sleep where we wanted to and be with the people we wanted to be with. And so, he was with us. He didn’t stay back, you know, in his tower there at the school. And so, he was a subversive in that situation.

And, of course, the administration could expel the students for activism. And I left Spelman because I sort of lost my scholarship, but I had stayed. That was one of the ways they controlled us. And they tried to control him, but of course you couldn’t control Howie. And so, they even waited until he had left for the summer vacation to fire him, to fire him. They didn’t fire him face to face. But, yeah, he was, you know, a radical and a subversive on the campus, as far as they were concerned. And our freedom was just not that important to the administration. What they needed was for us not to rock the boat.

Here’s just a brief bit of Noam Chomsky had to say:

There had been some studies, you know, of the sort of actions from below, but he raised it to an entirely new plane. In fact, the phrase of his that always rings in my mind is his reverence for and his detailed study of what he called “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lead to those great moments that enter the historical record, a record that you simply can’t begin to understand unless you look at those countless small actions.

And he not only wrote about them eloquently, but he participated in them. And he inspired others to participate in them. And the antiwar movement was one case, civil rights movement before it, Central American wars in the 1980s. In fact, just about any-you know, office worker strikes-just about anything you can-any significant action for peace and justice, Howard was there. People saw him as a leader, but he was really a participant. His remarkable character made him a leader, even if he was just sitting on the-you know, waiting for the police to pull people away like everyone else.

And Anthony Arnove, co-author of Voices of a People’s History of the United States with Zinn:

Well, you know, Howard never rested. He had such an energy. And over the last few years, he continued to write, continued to speak, and he brought to life this history that he spoke about in that segment that you just aired. He wanted to bring a new generation of people into contact with the voices of dissent, the voices of protest, that they don’t get in their school textbooks, that we don’t get in our establishment media, and to remind them of the power of their own voice, remind them of the power of dissent, the power of protest. And he wanted to leave a legacy of crystallizing those voices, synthesizing those voices.

And he actively worked to bring together this remarkable documentary, The People Speak, which he narrated. He worked so tirelessly to bring that about. And, you know, I just felt so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him at all, let alone on this project, and to see that realized.

But, you know, Alice Walker talked about his humor, his sense of joy in life, and that was infectious. He really conveyed to everyone he came into contact with that there was no more meaningful action than to be involved in struggle, no more fulfilling or important way of living one’s life than in struggle fighting for justice. And so many people, myself included, but, you know, millions of people around the world, countless number of people, they changed their lives by encountering Howard Zinn-Howard changed their lives-reading A People’s History of the United States, hearing one of his lectures, meeting him, hearing him on the radio, reading an article he wrote. He really inspired people to create the kinds of movements that brought about whatever rights, whatever freedoms, whatever liberties we have in this country. And that really is the legacy that it’s incumbent upon all of us to extend and keep alive and keep vibrant.

And finally, Naomi Klein:

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, I wanted to bring Naomi Klein back into this discussion. I think it’s very touching we’re here at Sundance, where you were with Howard Zinn last year, as he premiered People Speak. But last night, after Howard died, we saw the New York Times put up the AP, the Associated Press, obit. The Times has something like 1,200 obits already prepared for people. They didn’t have one prepared for Howard Zinn. And this Associated Press obit very quickly went to a quote of Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, who once said, “I know”-he’s talking about Howard Zinn-“I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.” Naomi Klein, your response?

NAOMI KLEIN: I don’t think that would have bothered Howard Zinn at all. He never was surprised when power protected itself. And he really was a people’s historian, so he didn’t look to the elites for validation.

I’m just so happy that Anthony and the incredible team from People Speak gave Howard this incredible gift at the end of his life. I was at Lincoln Center at the premiere of People Speak and was there when just the mention of Howard’s name led thousands of people to leap to their feet and give him the standing ovation that he deserved. So I don’t think he needed the New York Times. I don’t think he needed the official historians. He was everybody’s favorite teacher, the teacher that changed your life, but he was that for millions and millions of people. And so, you know, that’s what happened. We just lost our favorite teacher.

But the thing about Howard is that the history that he taught was not just about losing the official illusions about nationalism, about the heroic figures. It was about telling people to believe in themselves and their power to change the world. So, like any wonderful teacher, he left all of these lessons behind. And I think we should all just resolve to be a little bit more like Howard today.

What the NYT doesn’t understand–what NPR doesn’t understand (as Oaktown Girl noted in Quick Hits), what none of the other offical sources understand is that their sniping at Howard is the highest praise they can give him.  He left a mark so deep that they just can’t help themselves.  They have to lash out at him.  Because he made a difference that they could not erase or undo.   And I think we should all just resolve to be a little bit more like Howard every day.  Because in being little more like him, a true radical, we are being a little more like our truest, most radical selves, grappling with the root of all things.

So here’s my question: What did Howard Zinn mean to you?  And what would it mean to you to be a little bit more like him every day.

Blanche Lincoln Calls Environmentalists Extremists

(Calling the League of Conservation Voters “extremist” is akin to saying the same about the AFL-CIO.  In doing so, Lincoln has indelibly branded herself as an extremist, and an enemy of core Democratic values. – promoted by Paul Rosenberg)

Crossposted from BlueArkansasBlog.com

I was really hoping that my next post would be a positive one. Unfortunately, Blanche Lincoln has made that impossible by calling the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) an “extremist” group.

The LCV named Blanche Lincoln as one of their “Dirty Dozen” who are not standing up for the environment in Washington.


LCV gave the moderate Democrat a lifetime score of 49 percent on environmental issues, the second lowest for any Democrat up for reelection this year.

“Most regrettable is the fact that Sen. Lincoln is walking away from her previous support for climate legislation – and given the scope, urgency and magnitude of this issue, she has more than earned a spot on LCV’s Dirty Dozen,” said Gene Karpinski, LCV president.

Blanche Lincoln used this as an opportunity to move further to the right and attack liberals and environmentalists as outside special interests.

The Hill

A “dirty dozen” designation may be a good  thing for Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), a Democrat facing a tough re-election in a conservative state. She gets to defend herself against attacks by a “Washington-based,” “liberal,” and “extremist” “special interest.”

In a five-paragraph response, the Lincoln campaign managed to slip in all those political pejoratives in reference to the League of Conservation Voters, which was responsible for the dirty dozen tag. The campaign reassured voters that “threats” from a “special interest” wouldn’t keep Lincoln from being a “strong and independent voice” for her state.

“Threats from extremist groups from outside our state tell me I’m doing something right for Arkansas.”

John Brummett questions if this is really smart politics. We can see first hand that she has abandoned her base on issue after issue.


The question is whether the rules aren’t so simple this time in Arkansas politics. It is whether the unpopularity of her party’s president and the widespread resistance to the health care reform initiative – and her own exasperatingly evasive style – have so eroded her support elsewhere that the farm and business communities can’t sustain her as she trades away the fervent backing of her party’s liberal base with its quotient of environmental activists.

Arkansas Democrats may have gone along with her in the past given that these anti-liberal statements and actions were only occasional annoyances in the past. However, they are a daily occurrence at this point. Her support among Democrats is so low right now that she faces a massive uphill climb just to get out of a primary (if a certain Democrat would get in the race), let alone the general election. As unpopular as Barack Obama may be in Arkansas, this does not explain her numbers at all. Mark Pryor is not anywhere near her low approval ratings. Democratic Governor Beebe is soaring in popularity with over 80% approval. This isn’t about an anti-Democrat feeling in general. It is about Blanche Lincoln.

Please help encourage Bill Halter to Primary Blanche Lincoln.

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