Monday, July 30, 2012

(Regular) Book Posting

The Loser Generation posts were fun, and I hope interesting.

They were so involved, though, that I've sort of forgot what I used to write about. Browsing back I discovered music reviews, movies reviews, various pop culture lists. It all seems to pale, really, even if I ended the Loser Generation series with a silly line from an old Donald Duck wartime cartoon.

One thing I found amusing is how infrequently I mention books on this blog, given what a role they play in my life. Most recently I stated that there were many 20th century classics I needed to get a handle on. That was in mid-November of last year, so it's been about nine months. Teaser Tuesdays have perhaps given a glimpse, but here's what I've gotten through since then (just from that list):

The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford
Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain
The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
A Passage to India, E.M. Forester
Death Comes to the Archbishop, Willa Cather
Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

13 books. Not bad, although many were quite short. Still short of a third of the total. When the new school year starts my time will also be more strained, so this may be the best spate of reading for a while. Those other books I read in that time, to help excuse the meager baker's dozen above, were:

Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk, Daniel Bernoulli
Une Semaine de Bonte, Max Ernst
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
Right Ho, Jeeves and The Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
The first nine volumes of Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis
Scott Pilgrim, Bryan Lee O'Malley
Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn
French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David
Understanding Physics, Isaac Asimov
The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco
Beyond Outrage, Robert Reich
Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello
The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo
Black Hole, Charles Burns
Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman
The Immoralist, Andre Gide
Ed the Happy Clown, Chester Brown
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot
On the Natural Faculties, Galen

As well as a few short writings by John Maynard Keynes and Susan Sontag.

Just making excuses? You bet. Three (Gide, Fo, and Pirandello) are part of another challenge to read more Nobel Prize winners. (Sinclair Lewis was a twofer.) It's also sort of cheap since two are plays and seven are graphic novels, if you include the Ernst.

But that's where I am. Currently I'm reading Hwang's translation of the I Ching, Years of Protest: a collection of American writings of the 1930s, and Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. No science or math at the moment, having just completed Galen Sunday, but the next will likely be polishing off Sussman's Structure and Interpretation of Computer Systems.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Ten

In the previous installment I brought together the various threads of my stories and concerns, which point to the need to create a third party. This Legislative Party would target specific Congressional and Senate seats which have proven to be friends of lobbyists over workers, prefer gaining power through donations rather than constituents, and help businesses recover faster than American citizens. Campaign finance reform, Citizens United, and lobbying work together to create a system where money is all-powerful in Washington. Subsequent to the last post, two major banking scandals have emerged in one week. We need something to keep the banks, and other powerful businesses, in line – and that would be government, if it was functioning. Since it is not we are reaching a point of democratic crisis, with the majority of our country’s population disenfranchised.

In this section I tackle the questions and concerns that follow on from declaring the need of a third party.

It won’t work. The money’s too powerful.

This is how a lot of the Loser Generation, and many Americans, feel. But the corporations haven’t taken total control – yet. We have a window in which if we make demands and use our remaining voting power we can change American politics, and deal a blow to the corrupting influence of money that is trying to silence us.

But the parties, Democrat and Republican, are going to fight this.

Yes, they probably will. Hopefully one or both of them will realize that the majority of the voting populace wants it, at which point they’ve little choice – and great incentive to the contrary – to ignore such a large number of potential supporting votes' demands.

If both parties obstinately fight, spread smears, scream on the airwaves, and attempt to inundate us with their slimy messages we do not have to engage with them. We can turn the commercials off, mute the radio ads, avoid the webpage banners. We know what they’re fighting for – millions of dollars in personal profits for their security, and power. Nothing they say to us will change that fact.

Can we really do this?

Yes. If we make it our national priority.

How do I know if my Representative is one of the bad ones?

We certainly don’t want to get rid of those individuals who have been fighting against the majority in the House and Senate to get these laws passed for us. If you want to know your Rep’s record go to:

Likewise numerous sites have done their homework and listed off the worst Reps in their eyes. If your Congressman or Senator is on one of those lists let them know you won’t vote for them unless they change their ways.

Oh no! My Rep is one of the bad ones! What do I do?

You have many options. Writing your Representative is sometimes effective, and even more so if you get a large number in your district or state to join you. Likewise you can start a petition to demand their support of these issues. They do listen – they want to keep their jobs. Examples abound of these sorts of movements flying in the face of corporate interests and winning for the voters.

Or, of course, you can get involved with the Legislative Party movement.

Um…there is no Legislative Party registered in my state.

Excellent! Then you may be just the person to start it.

Every state has different laws on how to form a party. Once you’ve established your state is in need of Legislative Party candidates then you will have to go through the specific state process of registering a party. Usually this means a certain percentage of voters have to say they’re interested in the formation of the party.

Like the letter drive or petition, these initial steps require investments of time and labor. As the party becomes reality it will have to link up with other states’ LP leadership, and then the hard work really begins. You’ll need to find people with experience in campaigns and activism. If you have this background, or are adept at getting these sorts of people together in a room, you’re ideally suited to take on this most critical problem facing America. If you have a different background, no worries, with enough hard work, patience, and drive, a dedicated group of individuals can get this started in their home state, and those with experience will find you out when you get big enough.

This series began with a reflection upon the Loser Generation. We seem ideally qualified to take this on. We’re many of us dissatisfied, working terrible jobs, or under- and unemployed. We’re adults now. Democracy is hard. Showing up with a sign somewhere isn't bad, but the corporations no longer care about those sorts of displays. We need to get in the game. There is a country at stake. If we lose then we will live out our lives in a country that exploits and marginalizes us. If we win then American fortunes, and our livelihoods, will begin again to improve.

This is our fight. A fight for freedoms. Freedom of speech. Freedom to vote. Freedom from want, and fear. Together we will keep democracy on the march!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Nine

Money in politics creates many problems that “losers” like us cannot hope to tackle on our own as long as the current system is in place. Let’s say your district’s Representative to the House has a bad track record. He supports lobbyists tangling up Congressional time, he consistently votes to raise his own salary, and wastes vast sums on getting reelected. What can you do about it?

To complicate matters – when the important matters do come up – he votes for what you would vote for. You agree with his views on foreign policy and boast of his domestic voting record on most issues. You fundamentally like his views, but do not appreciate his making Congress a club for the super-rich by encouraging lobbyists nor his being beholden to corporate interests.

Your option has always been to vote in the other guy. But why would you vote for a candidate who holds fundamentally different views? Moderate, conservative, or liberal, there’s little incentive to vote for a candidate who doesn’t reflect your opinions. Meanwhile your Party certainly isn’t going to replace the current Representative since he’s been reelected eight times in a row. You want someone who is like your guy, but who will work hard to make Congress more effective, not more dysfunctional —someone who isn’t part of the current money culture. You need an outsider; a new option.

Let’s call it the Legislative Party. It is the best hope we have to fixing our country. It doesn’t exist yet – but it could tomorrow, if we want it to. This party would run candidates specifically against individual seats, Democrat or Republican, who have a track record either of obstructionism or of pandering to moneyed interests. The Legislative Party would run individuals who were reflective of the constituency they were to represent. They’d be just like the candidate the district had always supported – except for their commitment to making Congress into an efficient, deliberative, lawmaking body. The Legislative Party candidates would be committed to getting bills passed quickly and professionally.

As members of the Legislative Party (LP), they would be pledged to introducing and supporting legislation to fix Congress. Three areas would be of their top concerns: Lobbying, the Citizen’s United decision, and Campaign Finance Reform. These problems must be addressed before Congress can change back to the more honest system it once was. On all other matters these candidates would vote based on their district’s preferences. Some would be conservative, some liberal, and, except for fixing Congress, would almost certainly not vote as a block. But when it came to fixing the Congress, they would be united with allies on both sides of the aisle.

(And Congress is definitely broken – to the point of crisis. For a body designed to create and vote on legislation is it surprising that now fewer days are spent voting?

“During the 1960s and 1970s, the average Congress was in session 323 days. In the 1980s and 1990s, the average declined to 278. But the days in session have since plummeted, with the likelihood that the first six years of the Bush presidency will show an average below 250 per two-year Congress.[1]

Nor are they spending this time in committee or subcommittee meetings. 5,372 such meetings in the 1960s and 1970s dropped steadily to 2,135 by 2005.[2])

The LP isn’t designed to run a Presidential candidate – it exists solely for the legislative branch of government, to ensure that the system is returned to efficiency and truly represents the human population, not the corporations.

In Supercapitalism Robert Reich concludes in his thoughtful and empirical study that forces like globalization and multinationals are here to stay, but that it doesn’t have to conflict with democratic process. The Legislative Party can be our stand to against those forces drowning out our voices.

We know, intuitively, that money tends to corrupt. But there is also plenty of evidence to back such a claim. “Since World War II, scores of lawmakers or their aides have been indicted or convicted of bribery, influence peddling, extortion and other crimes. And those were only the ones unlucky enough to get caught.”[3] In that time House has censured only five Representatives, three Democrats and two Republicans. Two have been expelled, nine have been reprimanded. Likewise three Senators have chosen to resign once expulsion procedures were begun, and four have been censured (including Joseph McCarthy). Abuses will not disappear, nor were all of them related to the role of money in politics – unfortunately a few scoundrels will likely always worm their way into the system by means of deception. But to ensure that they are then removed the rules must change, so as to not allow for incumbents to nearly always win their re-election, regardless of their actions. (Recall that over 90% of elections are won simply by the candidate with more money.) If bribery is doomed to be with us forever we can at least limit it to the fringes and smallest of donations. If strong laws are passed, and enforced, that have severe consequences for contribution irregularities this will become a reality. But how can we expect such action from those who deal with these sums, and have used these tactics, to achieve the offices that would enforce the law? How can we except campaign finance reform from people who got their position from the patronage of corporations?

Anyone who cares about their own future security, the future of the nation, the global economy – any interest in our future – needs to be concerned about Washington, particularly the Congress, being broken. The LP would seek to fix this most critical problem. Not every Representative and Senator is an enemy, for some have been trying in earnest to fix this. But this scheme is perhaps our best hope at restoring democracy to America, and rooting out plutocracy. It is at the same time both just as easy as going to the polls, and as difficult as uprooting an entrenched and powerful system. It will be a bitter fight – and those with money – the millionaires and billionaires, the corporations and those whose livelihood come from super PACs and lobbying – will pull out all the stops to ensure they continue to have power. The forces that will marshal against our Legislative Party will commit to everything shy of bloodshed to continue ruling the most powerful country on earth without us, constitutionally-minded American citizens, getting in their way.

One doesn’t have to be under 30 to want to change Congress; but since we’re both unemployed and, hopefully, motivated to make the U.S. and world a better place, we can lead the movement to fix Congress. Until the corrupting influence of money in politics is removed, and Congress is made more efficient, it will be unable to tackle the serious problems. Many Americans consider now to be a time of great crisis and upheaval. The crises that we’ll be facing in the years to come will undoubtedly be great, as is the case for any world power. If Congress is unable to work efficiently to solve these problems, then we will begin a twilight decline that future historians will trace back to the broken system in Washington. It is a threat as serious as the Civil War or the British burning the White House, but far more subtle. Yet if we – the voters, and the Loser Generation especially – choose to change the system, then the decline need not happen.  The voting-age youth make up one in six potential voters, a block too large to ignore. According to a Washington Post poll in January of this year, 2/3 of Americans are willing to vote for a third party, and half of our country thinks a third party is needed. This is no longer an eccentric, idealistic cause, destined to fail. This is what Americans want. This is a call to action. We have to start a movement not designed to battle for dominance of the beltway, but to fight for a fully functioning government.

[1] Mann and Ornstein, The Broken Branch, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[2] Ibid. (Mann)
[3] Parenti, Michael, Democracy for the Few, Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2002

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Eight

One of the recent most important Supreme Court decisions was Citizens United v. FEC. The country's youth, the Loser Generation, are disproportionately being affected by this recession. If they want to understand why they'll have less power and control of their lives than their predecessors they must understand the ramifications of Citizens United on future elections. First things first, some background is needed. The following is from a February 3rd article on ‘The Moderate Voice’:

“The original Federal Election Campaign Act in 1971 along with its subsequent amendments produced guidelines with the objective of legally limiting campaign contributions. As ways to evade these regulations were found, a further attempt to control runaway contributions, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold) was enacted. This was subsequently emasculated by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision two years ago.

“The impotence of the F.E.C. and indeed any government agency to limit campaign contributions has become more evident (and tragic) since the Citizens United ruling. Special interest money has been surging into so-called Super-PACs and independent organizations, some of them masquerading as social welfare advocates, to run attack ads against political opponents. The Supreme Court held that unlimited contributions by corporations and unions, as well as wealthy individuals, to these so-called “independent” organizations are permissible, based on the concept that political spending was a form of free speech. The use of 501(c)(4) non-profit affiliates by these organizations allows some donors to remain anonymous while they covertly influence elections with vast amounts of money. In those SuperPACs where donors are revealed periodically, it is often after the election has taken place, so that voters are not aware of where the money in support of a candidate came from.”

A decade ago, long before Citizen’s United had even been imagined, First Amendment scholar Martin Redish suggested in Money Talks that “Because money talks, there are many who wish to silence it.” Furthermore “To restrict the expressive use of money, or the use of expression for the purpose of making money, dramatically reduces the flow of information and opinions that form the lifeblood of democracy. Hence, such restriction contravenes core values served by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression.”[1] Let’s examine this argument, a sort of backbone for those who would ensure money stays fixed in politics.

Let no one ever try and deceive you by citing the Constitution without quoting its actual language. The First Amendment simply states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So we have to initially distinguish between Redish’s claim of ‘free expression’ and the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech. ‘Expression’ is a particularly vague term, as we all know. I can express myself through my speech or my actions, through modern dance or whispering to a friend. The First Amendment does not grant freedom of expression. The word ‘expression’ isn’t used in any context in the Amendment regarding speech, religion, assembly, press or petition. I can certainly express myself to a corrupt cop by slipping him a $20, but that’s not protected by the constitution. The notion that election money is somehow special or different from using money in other forms of influence is completely bogus, and most certainly was not sanctioned in writing by the founding fathers. Money doesn’t talk, any more than a corporation can talk. Both are powerful tools in the hands of individuals or groups of individuals, and therefore, as tools, can be used only to express what those manipulating want them to express.

In practice ‘expression’ has overrun the original statement. The Supreme Court in the 1990s cited that burning the American flag is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. Yet other attempts to invoke free speech have been struck down, such as incitement to imminent lawless action, or child pornography. What, exactly, is meant by ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’ these days are an intertwining, and somewhat complex definitions, fraught with exceptions and non-speech action. This capriciousness is the grounds upon which scholars such as Redish rest their arguments that spending money, in any quantity, as a form of expression is therefore acceptable practice. While it was almost certainly not the intention of the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create such a right is immaterial. The Constitution is a living document, as shown by the changing definition of the First Amendment, Prohibition, and fifteen other Amendments added since its signing. If we do not want free speech to include spending we are responsible for creating the pressure that forces government action. There have been many challenges to the definition so far, and many to come, and as such we must continue to redefine what free speech means to each passing generation.

Let’s delve into even deeper history, long before the founding fathers.

My initial response and reason for writing this was frustration and anger caused by the gobs of money choking our political process. This spark soon gave out to research, and nearly every book I read had a chapter titled or directly referencing plutocracy. ‘Plutocracy’ is a word I’d used often but hadn’t, in my own mind, distinguished from ‘aristocracy’. The former is government by the wealthy, and the latter government by the top tier of society. In the days of titles of nobility such was a crucial distinction, but no longer. A Policy Review article cited in Jonathan Chait’s The Big Con gives a great historical eye-opener:

“‘For example, at the death of Augustus (14 A.D.), the top 1/10,000 of the Roman Empire’s households received 1 percent of all income. In Mughal India around 1600 A.D., the top 1/10,000 received 5 percent of all income.’…But the numbers are less astonishing when you compare them to those in the contemporary United States…As of 2004 the top 1/10,000 Americans earned nearly 3 percent of the national income…”[2]

In 2012 U.S. household assets total $59 trillion – the top 400 Americans, according to Forbes, (less than even 1/10,000 which would be 30,000 people) are responsible for $1.36 trillion or about 4.3% of that. The top 30,000 simply must now be worth more than 5%. Our income disparity is greater than the Roman Empire or the ornate decadence built upon India’s caste system in the 16 and 1700s.

Compared to contemporaries or income disparity is greater than all but one country in Europe (including Russia), greater than Australia, and even greater than most of the Asian continent. Not to mention the other assorted countries such as Ethiopia and Nicaragua we discredit as being ‘developing’. With such an income disparity, the ability to pay unlimited quantities puts all the power in the hands of the rich. We can’t compete, in a recession, with $5, $50, and $100 donations if the Koch brothers, two individuals, can give hundreds of millions to their preferred candidates. If the Citizen’s United decision stands then a formalized plutocracy is inevitable.

These past three posts have painted a grim picture. Campaign finance is what determines winners and losers in elections, corporate lobbyists use their purchasing power to control the dialogue and legislation, and the wealthiest few can now subvert the democratic process to meet their wants. But I would not have written these as only a public exercise in indignation. In the next two, and final, installments we’ll look at how all Americans, and the Loser Generation in particular, can fix the American system.

[1] Redish, Martin H., Money Talks, New York, New York University Press, 2001.
[2] Chait, Jonathan, The Big Con, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Seven

A fundamental disconnect of the Congress with its constituents is that it is currently not reflective of America’s population, with fewer women and minorities than proportional to the real population, and little reflection of differing socio-economic backgrounds. Professionally it’s also not diverse: 1/3 of Congress is currently comprised of individuals with a legal background. Working-class Americans in office may have a very different perspective on how to get things done from the 47% – just under half of the Congress  that are millionaires (as of 2011). It is no surprise that, in an income bracket defined as the 1% of America, they represent moneyed interests with few pangs of conscience.

If we want to take back the Legislative branch we have to get ourselves into office and change the rules to end the plutocracy which has been on the rise for nearly forty years, and has in recent years swollen disproportionately in the favor of the wealthy. To do this will require tackling the lobbyists and corporation control of Washington.

For a good example of how Congressional representatives no longer are beholden to their constituents, and are instead beholden to lobbyists, look at the case of Bob Dole. “Senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.) worked hard for a billion-dollar tobacco subsidy, and received generous contributions from the tobacco industry. But tobacco is virtually an unknown crop in Kansas, the state that elected him, so whom was he representing?”[1]

Our view of lobbyists is generally people skulking around the halls of Capitol Hill, but this need not be the case. “Americans for Tax Reform, a non-partisan sounding, tax-exempt nonprofit organization, received a total of $4.6 million from the Republican National Committee, which it used to send out 19 million pieces of mail and make four million phone calls urging voters to support the GOP’s campaign against Medicare”[2] in the 1990s. These grassroots lobbyists, non-profits that are just tools of the existing parties, can then be seen to hold tremendous sway as well. Rather than traditional Washington lobbyists who get the ear of the Representative or Senator directly, grassroots goes to one of the critical sources of their power, their constituents, and tricks them into supporting bills and signing petitions they don’t really understand. A recent example was the SOPA/PIPA debacle, in which petitioners asked for help to “keep the Internet free” by the grassroots lobbyists who actually supported the new restrictions.

Here’s another nice example, from the January 2011 issue of the New Internationalist: “In the United States – where statistically one in three people are obese – the US Food and Drug Administration announced in 2009 that it would be issuing new front-of-pack labeling guidance. But industry appears to have stepped in first, with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute launching a voluntary front-of-pack labeling scheme in October 2010 to ‘fight against obesity’. Just how manufacturers like Cadbury, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo (all members of the GMA) plan to fight obesity without ditching the products on which their brands were built is unclear.” The GMA is officially a trade association, run out of Washington, and in 2006, for example, spent $1.4 million on lobbying  half to lobbying firms and half to in-house lobbying.

Americans are losing confidence in democracy.[3]

Lobbyists have been steadily on the rise in D.C. since the 1970s, then spiking in 1997 and climbing from about 11,000 to 33,000 in under a decade.[4] An example of this era’s explosion can be seen in Wal-Mart. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, explains the case:

“Wal-Mart had no full-time representative in Washington before 1999, and only a tiny political action committee, which contributed just $148,250 in 1998…Then came Wal-Mart’s equivalent of Microsoft’s anti-trust shock. Wal-Mart had long wanted to get into the banking business, figuring its millions of consumers would welcome the convenience of banking at Wal-Mart, and the company could make lots of money from banking fees. Wal-Mart hoped to use a loophole in a federal law that generally barred commercial companies from owning banks but exempted stand-alone savings and loans. In 1999 Wal-Mart found a savings and loan in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, that seemed the perfect vehicle. But the banking industry had been following Wal-Mart’s moves carefully. When Wal-Mart sought to buy the bank, the industry unleashed a team of lobbyists on Congress, and Congress abruptly pulled the loophole closed.”[5]

Reich tells of how Wal-Mart responded. $2.2 million was contributed in 2004, and it became one of the largest PACs in the nation. Another such massive lobbying campaign battle took place in 2006, this time with a Wal-Mart that knew how to play the game.[6]

Individual lobbying battles can cost vast amounts. In 2006 one such between the phone companies and internet firms, over net neutrality, cost $50 million in lobbying and advertising.[7] Pet issues can be deeply invested in. “In 1998 Exxon embarked on a campaign to give ‘logistical and moral support’ to any dissenter from scientific findings documenting global climate change, ‘thereby raising questions and undercutting the “prevailing scientific wisdom”’” and four years later they gave $225 million to Stanford so as to create the illusion of debate.[8] Exxon, while more of a friend to the Bush administration, has still spent over $50 million during the Obama administration so far.  To put that in perspective, $50,000,000 is equal to the salary of the entire Senate, The President and Vice-President, the nine Supreme Court Justices, and all of California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida’s Representatives in Congress, with money to spare.

Paul Ryan (R) and Ron Kind (D) are both from Wisconsin and both sit on the House Ways and Means committee, which has control over corporate tax loopholes. Is it any surprise that, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group in March of this year, they’ve each “received more than a 100 thousand dollars in campaign contributions over the past two election cycles from corporations that are using such loopholes”?

This is how campaign finance reform and lobbying are interconnected. The lobbyists aren’t just trying to get favorable bills passed through fancy dinners and campaigns for lucrative government contracts. They make sure key Representatives get hefty campaign contributions. For the Representative struggling to make $10,000 a week such contributions help ensure you get reelected, and are a very persuasive way to ensure favorable legislation for your patron. Unless you are independently wealthy (such as the late Ted Kennedy, who gave his Congressional salary to charity each year), you will probably have to find a corporate patron to support your political career. Combined with grass-roots lobbying as a de facto arm of party and corporate interests we have in place a  ridiculous feedback loop: corporations give money to parties and Representatives, who give contributions to grass-roots action committees and lobbyist organizations, who tell voters what to vote for, who, being misled, vote for corporate interests, sometimes over their own welfare. The Representative is then reelected, or the bill is passed, and the corporations and lobbyist firms begin a new parasitic cycle.

Contributions from lobbyists to campaigns are now virtually unlimited. Individuals can spend up to $2,500 – but corporations can basically spend whatever they want. In other words, through lobbying and campaign contributions, corporations are edging Americans out of the decision-making process. The ramifications and reasons will be seen in the next section, focusing on the scandalous Citizen’s United decision.

[1] Parenti, Michael, Democracy for the Few, Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2002
[2] Ibid. (Parneti)
[3] Reich, Robert B., Supercapitalism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
[4] Ibid. (Reich)
[5] Ibid. (Reich)
[6] Ibid. (Reich)
[7] Ibid. (Reich)
[8] Ibid. (Reich)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Six

Let’s start with looking at campaign finance reform and the money it takes to get things done.

The problem for many of us is scale. Two teachers making $45 thousand per year won’t earn six figures even with their dual income. For this couple, $200,000 is a lot of money. When governments deal in millions, billions, and trillions, it can seem incomprehensible to process. Running the government of the third largest country on earth costs vast amounts of money. For example, the U.S. spends about $700 billion on its military – the most of any country. China, which has five times our population, spends $120 billion, making it the second in the world. The U.S. spends $830 billion on Medicare and Medicaid. That number, in turn, is about half of California’s GDP; if California were a country would be the world’s ninth largest economy. The national debt, meanwhile, is a rising $15 trillion. Given these enormous amounts of money, should we, then, be concerned with a (comparatively) “measly” $5.3 billion dollar election?

A startling statistic: over 90% of recent House and Senate elections since the 1990s have gone to the candidate who spent the most money. Regardless of the relative amounts being spent on these elections, money in these elections is clearly playing the most important role in determining who wins elections. If you think a free market approach is an acceptable way of running Congress you still have to consider the consequences of constantly fundraising. Individuals can give up to $2,500 to a candidate. If our Representative requires $10,000 a week to get reelected, which is the national average today, then he needs at least four major personal contributions secured every week. A Congressman’s job is basically paid on commission. Instead of doing his job on the House or Senate floor he’s constantly trying to raise money. The consequence of the current system basically is designed to keep the Representatives from doing their job – legislating and debating the important and difficult questions facing the country.

Turning on the news, news commentary, and comedy news shows on the TV brings a familiar refrain: the government is too bloated, it isn’t nimble enough to effectively handle problems, and the bureaucracy is out of control. While this may be the case in other branches, or overall, it isn’t true of the House: constitutionally the proportion originally was one Representative for every 30,000 people. If this proportion held true today there would be 10,387 Representatives. An act in 1929 capped the size of the House at 435, with a little over 200,000 people per Representative at the time.  Now each Rep stands for an average of 700,000 people. Our legislative body comes down to 535 people in the Congress: .0001% of our population. Those who have the money to give to these very few hold tremendous sway and influence over an individual who constantly needs to raise money. Congress isn’t a bureaucracy so much as it is a bottleneck.

Nor does it reflect American opinions. The majority of Americans, across 19 polls, consistently prefer taxing the rich. A majority of Americans polled support gay marriage. Exactly half of the country supports legalizing marijuana, an all-time high. A majority of Americans favor government support for Planned Parenthood. If Congress were really reflective of America then Washington would reflect American attitudes and opinions – yet they don’t reflect this at all, and certainly aren’t passing legislation echoing our sentiments. In keeping with this trend it’s not surprising that a majority of citizens, regardless of affiliation, support campaign finance reform.

One of the most promising bills, the Fair Elections Now Act, was proposed in 2011 by a bipartisan group of Representatives. Limiting contributions to $100, the candidate would first have to get 1,500 contributions from their state to show support. After they’d proven their supported base they’d be given a fixed sum of about one million dollars, 40% to spend on the primaries and 60% on the main election. It would cost about $850 million to implement nationally – a far cry from the billions we currently waste on our elections.

Congressional money, of course, can come in forms more opaque. Consider in 2003 when Republicans attempted to bribe party members for their votes on a Medicare bill on November 23. So, too, are to be considered the periodic ethics scandals regarding finances on both sides.

So too have earmarks increased in recent years. In the mid-1990s an already troubling $10 billion was set aside for some 1,430 projects. Within a decade the number of such project passed by Congress had increased to 10,656, totaling $22.9 billion[1]. The figures are still in the $20 billion a year ballpark in recent years. By means of comparison $20 billion dollars is the total amount BP spent to clean up the Gulf Coast Spill, one of the worst and costliest environmental disasters in history. Or four times the entire United Nation’s annual budget.

The 2004 election is a good example of how wealthy candidates can rely on their existing assets to squeeze out any competition. Rodney A. Smith explains the situation in Money, Power & Politics:

“In December 2003, during the early stages of the 2004 presidential primary campaign, Senator John Kerry was mired in a crowded field with the support of only 9% of Democrats nationally. He was running a distant third in Iowa and was over 30 percentage points behind in New Hampshire, his cash reserves were running low, and his campaign was $3.8 million in debt…

“Caught in this do-or-die situation, Kerry quietly set up a $6.4 million dollar personal line of credit for his campaign, using his home in Boston as collateral. Immediately thereafter the campaign borrowed $2.8 million dollars in December 2003 and $3.5 million in January 2004, for a total of $6.3 million just prior to the Iowa caucuses. This quick injection of cash gave Kerry the financial resources he needed to win a come-from-behind victory…

“While neither Senator Kerry nor campaign did anything illegal or unethical in setting up a bank loan, this large infusion of cash at just the right moment vividly demonstrates the importance of money in politics, particularly to a campaign that’s struggling.” [2]

Smith, who served as the National Finance Director of the Republican National Committee, concludes that it would have taken a competitor, making phone calls under the best possible circumstances, working ten hour days, until mid-May to have raised the same amount[3].

The inability to defeat incumbents is also getting worse. Smith cites that the average length of a Congressional term, historically, has been 4 years, but as of 2000 it had swelled in the House to 14, and the Senate 18 years of service. Since the Campaign Finance Reform bill in 1974, the number of no-contest House elections has increased 15%, just as the number of semi- and not-competitive races have also each increased by 5%. These numbers are identical for the Senate.[4]

Arguably, then, campaign finance reform is the single most important problem to fix in the United States. Until the legislative branch reflects the people’s will we cannot claim to have a real democracy. I cannot over-emphasize the most important statistic in this whole problem: whoever has the most money almost certainly wins the election. Whoever the deep pockets want to win, therefore, will win. But the problem does not exist in a vacuum – it is intimately connected to the role of lobbyists. This, almost certainly most powerful role in Washington will be examined in the next section.

[1] Mann and Ornstein, The Broken Branch, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[2] Smith, Rodney A., Money, Power and Politics, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
[3] Ibid. (Smith)
[4] Ibid. (Smith)

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Five

As detailed in the last post, government is, or can be, the most important force in creating change in the United States today. Most members of the Loser Generation, regardless of other passions, are deeply concerned about the economy. The economy is only one of the grave problems we face as a nation. The mechanism by which these problems may be addressed and solved is supposed to be Congress. But right now, Congress is not addressing these concerns because its Members are seemingly incapable of competent action. At least 80% of our population disapproves of Congress’ lack of action and dysfunctional politics. Both sides of the national aisle can agree that it’s not doing its job at a critical time. One of the reasons for this failure is money in politics.

$4,200,000,000 was spent on the 2010 mid-term elections. The 2008 Presidential elections cost $5.3 billion. That’s more than three times the 2011 Education Department’s Race to the Top budget and the National Cancer Institute’s 2010 allocation to fight cancer, respectively. The lobbyist industry in Washington spent a cool $14 billion over the past four years that could have been better spent elsewhere. Compare the lobbyists’ spending to the salaries paid to the world’s top 50 athletes. Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and the rest combined made $1.408 billion in 2011. If these salaries were to stay the same for four years, these athletes would be paid $5.6 billion. Even these extremely inflated salaries are still just a third of what lobbyists spent in the same period of time. Politics and money are now paired in a way unseen before, excluding backroom corruption. The need for money to finance campaigns leads to continuous fundraising by American politicians, so they can survive to run again. A Representative needs to raise an average of $10,000 a week for two years for a reelection bid. If you’re not used to raising that much money every week of your life to keep your job, then in the present system, you’re not cut out for politics.

Campaign finance reform is opposed primarily by those who have the money, and by extension the ear, of certain Representatives. The wealthy continue to fight hard to make sure their candidate wins the election. Because he is theirs – bought and paid for. While some earnest Representatives are fighting this corruption, they are outnumbered and outspent. The only hope they can have is that the American people will stand up and fight back. But right now, the well-meaning Representatives are being pummeled, and the American people are doing nothing.

Besides campaign finance reform and lobbyists there are other difficulties that Congress must address in order to get the money out of politics and become more effective. Critically, the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Committee (2010), has led to overwhelming negative public reaction. How is it that 80% of Americans polled can disagree with a governmental action – 80% of Congress’ constituents – yet the unpopular and, as many scholars and politicians have said, dangerous, law can stand?  What’s more, this dangerous decision may well ensure that the 2012 election is the most costly on record.  As dissenting Supreme Court Justice Stevens put it:

“All that the parties dispute is whether Citizen’s United had a right to use the funds in its general treasury to pay for broadcasts during the 30-day period. The notion that the First Amendment dictates an affirmative answer to that question is, in my judgment, profoundly misguided. Even more misguided is the notion that the Court must rewrite the law relating to campaign expenditures for for-profit corporations and unions to decide this case.” (Emphasis in the original.)

The lawyer who fought to get Citizens United passed, James Bopp, has endorsed Mitt Romney. Santorum stated that opposition to the decision is “horrible.” Obama, in a reversal of an earlier decision, has created a super PAC (political action committee), a new type of fundraising machine created in 2010 that allows unlimited financing. The possible consequences for our Representatives who already are gathering $10,000 a week is mind-boggling.

This is where the Loser Generation comes in. One doesn’t have to be under 30 to want to change Congress; but since we’re both un- and underemployed and, hopefully, motivated to make the U.S. a better place, we can lead the movement to fix Congress. Until the corrupting influence of money in politics is removed, and Congress is made more efficient, it will be unable to tackle the serious problems. Many Americans consider now to be a time of great crisis and upheaval. The crises that we’ll be facing in the years to come will undoubtedly be great, as is the case for any world power. If Congress is unable to work efficiently to solve these problems, then we will begin a twilight decline that future historians will trace back to the broken system in Washington. The next three installments will underline the critical importance of campaign finance reform, getting rid of lobbyists, and the need to reverse the Citizens United decision. Until we address these problems America cannot get back on track, and our generation is going suffer the more for it. Yet if we – the voters, and the Loser Generation especially – choose to change the system, then the decline need not happen. We have to start a movement not designed to battle for dominance of the beltway, but to fight for a fully functioning government.