February 28, 2011

Morning Line: Stalling in the fast lane

Sam Smith

I can't prove it, but I sure feel it. The Obama administration in recent weeks seems to have stalled out. Right in the middle of the fast lane at rush hour. We've got the Mid East uprisings, the Madison protests, financial disaster - and the self-proclaimed voice of hope and change has turned into a whisper.

Not that we really need him. After all, most of what he's done hasn't been all that good, but it's hard to think of other times when so much was going on outside the White House and so little inside. My best theory is that Obama got where he is by going with the establishment flow, but now the establishment is under attack from all sides, and in some countries even being toppled. It's a hard time for a poodle of the elite to know where and when to pee.

Not that Obama is alone. After all, almost all of what was once considered our leadership is now incompetent, ineffective, indifferent or irrational.

Which leaves a huge space for something new. And which is why what's happening in Madison is so exciting.

So keep puzzling, triangulating, bipartisaning and other such harmless activities, Mr. President. And keep staying out of the way because the story is no longer yours.

February 23, 2011

Morning Line: Mock trial arguments in a real world

Sam Smith

Now that another judge has upheld the individual mandate clause of Obamacare - making it three in favor and two against - it would be hard for the Supreme Court to ignore the matter.

You will read a lot about this in the coming months, but there are a several things that probably won't be so clear:

- The mandate provision has already badly hurt the overall politics of the Democratic Party, the liberal cause and the effort for real universal healthcare, i.e. single payer. The popular resentment against the provision makes it one of the dumbest pieces of legislation passed buy Democrats in modern times.

- This is especially true since it has absolutely no morally arguable basis. The reason for the provision is - as even some Democrats have admitted - to give the private insurance companies enough of a guaranteed money flow so they wouldn't fight the whole bill. It is, in fact, one of the greatest non-military corporate earmarks in history.

- Its justification requires a dangerous and unsupportable twisting of the Constitution's commerce clause to suit the needs of the healthcare industry and the politicians they pay for. If it is approved by the Supreme Court, the number of things that the federal government can order you to do that have nothing to do with interstate commerce will explode.

The legal arguments for the mandate are a classic example of lawyers' distorted intellectual manipulation parading as moral logic. No one has previously thought the commerce clause gave the federal government the right to order someone to buy something, especially people who mostly weren't buying it because they couldn't afford it.

The early cases of the commerce clause included such obvious issues as the federal government's clear role in interstate waterways. But as late as fifty years ago, that same government's new boating safety act was crafted so as not to unduly infringe on states' options. In other words, on a matter of right that was infinitely clearer than the present case, the government acted with infinitely more responsibility.

Later, the commerce clause would be used by the New Deal and the civil rights movement to allow an equality of interstate commerce by American citizens, whether through a common minimum wage or the right to share a train station restroom with those of another color. An expansion of interpretation but a reasonable one.

The current twisting of the commerce clause is nothing of the sort and the sad thing is that, when the Obamites are all through with their arguments, they will lose no matter what happens at the Supreme Court because even they win the case, they will have angered a lot of people whose votes they need. They will have won the mock trial and lost some more elections.

February 21, 2011

Why labor unions are essential

Sam Smith

If you came of age in the past ten years and don't belong to a union or come from a family of union members, chances are most of what you've heard about these labor organizations has been, on balance, negative.

Which helps to explain why as late as a decade ago, two thirds of Americans approved of unions while today, less than half do. Go back to the 1950s and you'll find three-quarters of Americans liking unions.

The membership decline in unions has been as bad. Between 1973 and 2007, for example, the percent of private sector workers in unions declined from nearly a quarter to 7 percent.

In a 2007 Paul Krugman of the New York Times explained what happened:

||||| It's often assumed that the U.S. labor movement died a natural death, that it was made obsolete by globalization and technological change. But what really happened is that beginning in the 1970s, corporate America, which had previously had a largely cooperative relationship with unions, in effect declared war on organized labor.

Don't take my word for it; read Business Week, which published an article in 2002 titled How Wal-Mart Keeps Unions at Bay. The article explained that "over the past two decades, Corporate America has perfected its ability to fend off labor groups." It then described the tactics - some legal, some illegal, all involving a healthy dose of intimidation - that Wal-Mart and other giant firms use to block organizing drives.

These hardball tactics have been enabled by a political environment that has been deeply hostile to organized labor, both because politicians favored employers' interests and because conservatives sought to weaken the Democratic Party. "We're going to crush labor as a political entity," Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, once declared. |||||

Then the disastrous Ronald Reagan signed the White House up for the war against unions and it wasn't long before the corporate media was lending a hand, which has continued right to the present.

For example, in 2006 the Progressive Review checked on the number of paragraphs you had to read about the Delphi buyout before finding labor's view on the matter. The results:

New York Times - 26 paragraphs
Detroit News - 22 paragraphs
Washington Post -11 paragraphs in the news section and 27 in the business section.

Newspapers used to have labor reporters; they rarely do anymore. Instead even liberal public radio is filled with Marketplace but not a single program offering the other side.

And the news bias continues right down to coverage of the Wisconsin protests, as Dean Baker pointed out, citing a New York Times news article that referred to the "need for public employees to sacrifice."

And when the House Republicans tried to defund the National Labor Relations Board - a key agency founded by the New Deal - the story got covered by the Wall Street Journal and a few others (Google only lists 5). 176 Republicans had voted to support Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price (R., Ga.), who said that cutting the agency’s funding “can save taxpayer dollars and help protect American job creators from an out-of-control agency.” And most of the media just ignored it.

Further there has been a growing separation between union workers and the lifestyle and culture of an increasingly elitist liberal class that was once strongly pro-union but now can hardly get itself involved in basic economic issues.

That said, it is also true that unions have done far less than they should have to prevent their own demise.

Like every large American institution - from government to universities to non-profits - unions have become self-centered, more responsive to the needs of their leaders than of their constituents, unimaginative, bureaucratic, corporatized and stuck in the mud. And, yes, you can add in corruption.

They have failed to adapt to changing economics and culture. For example, they could have used non-union approaches to organize, educate and inspire the growing number of non-union workers, much as the AARP has done with senior citizens, using a combination of social action and social benefits. True, the Wal-Mart employees are not in the union but they won't even know how to begin without someone leading the way. Traditional unions have failed them.

One of the few labor leaders to even discuss this was Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council, as the NY Times' Steven Greenhouse described in 2008:

|||| [Ott] has an unexpected and unnerving warning for New York’s more than one million union members. He warns that their wages and living standards will be threatened unless the city’s unions do far more to lift the incomes and living standards of the city’s nonunion working poor, including restaurant workers, supermarket cashiers and taxi drivers. . .

“For a working class that is going to be making minimum wage or slightly above, what’s going to happen is that as taxpayers, that will create a social base for an attack on our own standards.”. . .

Mr. Ott sees two working classes in New York: a unionized one that is doing well and a nonunion one that is struggling to get by.

“You see a working class on the subway at 6:30 in the morning and you see them at 8:30 at night heading home,” he said. “They work in the back of restaurants, they clean buildings nonunion, they’re child care workers, they’re in retail. Frankly, I marvel that these guys can find a way to live in this city." ||||

Labor unions have also been largely indifferent to non-traditional relationships such as those of cooperatives, worker ownership, and worker participation at the board level. Too often, labor just seems to be trying to recreate the 1930s all over again.

A rare exception was news that the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a multi-billion dollar cooperative based in the Basque region of Spain, formed an alliance with the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial trade union in the U.S. The two announced that they would develop Mondragon manufacturing cooperatives in the United States and Canada that would "adapt collective bargaining principles."

Yet despite such faults and weaknesses, at the end you are left with one indisputable fact: nothing has been invented that has been as successful and positive in representing the needs and rights of workers as labor unions. Nothing. Even the lawyer in Washington or the stock broker on Wall Street should - if both decent and knowledgeable - give considerable thanks to labor unions for their weekends and vacations.

Let's review the bidding. Here, with the help of several sources, is a list of things that have been large part of significantly the result of labor union organizing and action:

The labor movement in the United States led the struggles to:

- The end of child labor

- The right of workers to negotiate with their employers over wages, benefits and working conditions

- The 8 hour work day and paid overtime

- Compensation for workers injured on the job.

- Unemployment insurance.

- A minimum wage

- Pensions

- Healthcare insurance

- :Paid sick leave, vacations and holidays

- Elimination of job discrimination by ethnicity, color, religion, sex or national origin

- Family medical leave

Further, if you look at the countries with the highest union membership - 57% to 82% in Scananvian countries, for example - you find that only a few - such as Ireland - that also make the list of countries in deep financial trouble.

While it would be difficult to draw a strict correlation, it is fair to say that nations that respect their workers are least likely to give the sort of freedom to rip everyone off that the American government has given Wall Street. At the very least, strong union membership exists because of values towards which any decent nation should strive.


Finally, there is that most tangible virtue, money, and as well as less tangible virtues - as :Paul Rosenberg discussed in Open Left last year:

|||| We all know that unions aren't as strong as they used to be. But how many of us realize that they are still creating America's middle class? The difference between a union and a non-union job doing exactly the same sort of work averages more than 25%. And for Latinos it's double that: 50%.

This is just a taste of the tangible difference that unions make. The tangible difference is the easiest to measure. But it's the intangible differences that are the greatest. Without the strength, unity and security that union solidarity provide, everything a working family has is always at risk, even the bonds of family. Parents can work all their lives providing for their children, only to see everything swept away by forces beyond their control. This happened repeatedly to millions of families throughout the 19th century, even though it was a century of fantastic economic growth overall.

Unions have helped to make that world utterly foreign to us--even for non-union workers, who enjoy many benefits and protections that organized workers helped to secure... such as Social Security and Medicare. And yet, that world of radical insecurity could well return again, if we forget what it took to put an end to it, what it took to create the world we know now.|||||

We have developed an economy in which an extraordinary proportion involves nothing but the manipulation of capital and in which another extraordinary proportion creates that capital without jobs for American workers.
 Until we revive our respect for labor - and its right to organize, be treated fairly, participate and agitate - then our downhill slide will simply accelerate. A country that invites its CEOs to the White House yet bans its labor unions from bargaining rights has no future.

It is as Abraham Lincoln said, long before the era of either unions or rogue capitalism: " Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration."

February 16, 2011

Recovered History: TWA 800 revisited

Sam Smith

I recently was discussing the TWA 800 disaster with someone formerly in the airline industry who had direct knowledge of situation and the plane. The conversation brought to mind something that has troubled me ever since: if the crash was due only to a design failure, why did it so quickly escalate the massive airport security with which we are all so familiar? And why did everyone from the president on down act as though it might have been a terrorist attack?

The plane went down in July 1996 off Long Island with 230 people aboard. There was enough official concern over the possibility of a terrorist attack that both the FBI and CIA conducted investigations. Neither found anything to challenge the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board that the incident was due to something, probably a short circuit, causing the explosion of flammable fuel in a fuel tank. The terrorist attack theory and another, that it was caused by misguided missiles from a US Naval vessel, would eventually be forcibly dismissed by official sources and mainstream media.

But a week after the crash, CNN reported:

|||| After consoling relatives of those who died last week in the crash of TWA Flight 800, President Clinton announced new steps Thursday to improve airline safety. Clinton said he does not know whether the July 17 crash that killed 230 people was the result of a security breach. Instead the measures were described as a response to increased anxiety over air travel prompted by the TWA crash and the ValuJet crash that killed 110 people May 11.

Clinton said authorities will hand search more luggage and screen more bags and that all airliners to and from the United States will be searched before takeoff. Every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time.

To improve airline safety and security, Clinton said he would order Vice President Al Gore will head a commission, and will report to Clinton within 45 days on additional security measures, including plans to use high tech machines to detect sophisticated explosives.

Clinton acknowledged the steps would increase inconvenience and cost for passengers, but he said, the safety and security of the American people must be our top priority.||||

Less than two months later, the presidential commission under Al Gore went into session and made recommendations just four days later, probably a record for presidential commissions that will never be broken.

Jack Cashill and James Sanders would write later:

||| The full commission held its first executive session on Sept. 5, 1996, and on Sept. 9 submitted its tough preliminary report to the president. The report advanced 20 serious recommendations to strengthen aviation security. The proposals called for a 60-day test for matching bags with passengers on domestic flights and a computer-based system of ''profiling'' passengers that, of course, immediately riled the ACLU.

Also proposed were ''vulnerability assessments'' at every commercial airport in the country, increased numbers of bomb-sniffing dogs, better screening and training of the workers who examined bags, and more frequent tests of their work. At a press conference on Sept. 9, Vice President Gore declared his strong support for these proposals. .

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, saying they are convinced that none of the physical evidence recovered from TWA Flight 800 proves that a bomb brought down the plane, plan tests intended to show that the explosion could have been caused by a mechanical failure alone.

Weeks before the Times had reported that "the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane off Long Island. . . .

In the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, several political insiders referred to the destruction of Flight 800 as a terrorist incident. But only one did it twice. That person is Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Appearing on Larry King Live on Sept. 11 itself, Kerry suggested that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by a terrorist act. On Sept. 24, on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the authors watched as Kerry casually recited a number of terrorist attacks against the United States, among them TWA "Flight 800." Like Larry King before him, Chris Matthews either did not catch the remark or chose to let it pass.

As security slows the process, travelers may find themselves spending more time in airports than on airplanes. In addition, some conveniences will be removed. Curbside baggage check in for international flights will be discontinued, and hotels will longer be allowed to deliver guests bags to the airport. ||||
Given everything that has happened since, including 9/11, it's hard to get back to the spirit of that time. I don't know what brought down TWA 800 but because of things like the foregoing I'm less inclined that many to dismiss the possibility that it was either a misguided Navy missile or an enemy attack. And I find myself wondering if, in fact, it was an terrorist attack and if this had been admitted by the government, how different the resulting American history might have been. We might not even have had 9/11. One will never know.

I do know that at the time, flying a plane was a lot simpler. I know that in part because of a story I wrote just two years after the TWA 800 crash. It sounds, by today's standards, quaint and satirical but clearly I had been surprised and seriously troubled because of the novelty of the experience. I was the first person I knew who had gone through this and it was rare enough that I would eventually get an apology from an aide to the president of U.S. Airways. The instigation was clearly TWA 800. The story won't go away and with its memory, the question keeps creeping in: what really happened to TWA 800?

Progressive Review, November 5, 1998 - The Progressive Review's editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour on Wednesday Nov. 4 as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist.

Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine convinced that the Quaker-educated Smith's computer and power supply box contained nitroglycerine. Despite admitting that certain brands of computers had been falsely interpreted by the machine, the security officials required former Coast Guard officer Smith to empty everything from his backpack. They also called two passenger service shift managers to the scene who ordered the 60-year-old Smith's checked bags removed from the aircraft and inspected for traces of explosives.

One of the bags carried clothes, the other contained copies of "Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual" (WW Norton, 1997, $14.95) for sale during appearances by Smith. The backpack contained considerable Carefree gum, various paperwork, as well as Richard Sennett's "The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism." In his book, Sennett notes that in all forms of work, people identify with tasks that are difficult, tasks that challenge them. In the new workplace, however, the machine has become "the only real standard of order. . . By a terrible paradox, when we diminish difficulty and resistance, we create the very conditions for uncritical and indifferent activity on the part of the users."

By the time the computer had been tested by a second machine, which also thought the Fujitsu laptop might be a bomb, Smith, who has never received even a speeding ticket before, began having intimations of imminent mortality as well as feeling deep humiliation and shock as hundreds of his fellow US Airways passengers walked by observing his plight. Efforts to engage the security personnel in normal human discourse produced but a stream of bureaucratic bromides such as "I'm just doing my job," "There is nothing I can do," and "I don''t make the rules." Efforts to stave off physical collapse by sitting on the table, however, brought a rebuke from one of the guards. At no time was any concern expressed for the needs or physical comfort of US Airways frequent flyer Smith.

Said longtime Washington journalist Smith, who was on his way to Kansas City to give several talks and interviews and take part in a conference of Green activists: "I was trapped in that post-Orwellian synergy of defective technology and incompetent bureaucracy. At a time when our highest public officials ignore the law with impunity, it appears that a citizen a few years shy of Medicare can no longer go about his business without being considered a terrorist. I was told that it was all being done for my own good, but I fail to see how being publicly terrified and humiliated by US Airways because it has bought some crummy techno-toy helps the war against terrorism. Any terrorist watching the incident would have been emboldened rather than chastened."

In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog happily nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox. Smith, who covered his first Washington story in 1957, was permitted to restuff his backpack and board the plane. Said Vietnam era veteran Smith, "A half dozen living human beings surrendered their will to a dubious creation of the late 20th century marketplace of fear, but the dog was smart enough to trust his own judgment. Officer Cox, to his credit, trusted the dog as well. As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Cox was the only one of those involved in the search who expressed more than perfunctory concern to Smith, visiting the plane before takeoff to do so. Flight attendant Brian M. Lindsay, who had observed the bizarre incident as he checked through security, also expressed dismay and checked on Smith's well-being several times during the flight. Smith says any legal action will be held in abeyance pending a colloquy he hopes to have with US Airways officials.

February 15, 2011

What a populist rebellion might look like

Sam Smith

The media tells you about the Tea Party, but not that, according to a recent poll, an equal number of Americans have similar positive feelings about socialism. Part of the reason is the deep conservative bias of the mass media, but it is also because progressives and liberals have not done a good job of promoting specific policies that people will appreciate and the establishment will fear.

Further, progressives and liberals have done a rotten job of reaching out beyond their own natural constituency to find the new supporters that change will require. They have been increasingly content - often quite smugly so - to remain in their nest attacking the right but failing to offer a decent alternative. In other words, they have forgotten the importance and skill of organizing.

Finally, as liberals have become more upscale they have drifted right in their political view, particularly demonstrated by growing indifference to the economic policies and philosophy that once defined them. The right has exploited this shift by distracting a logical constituency away from its own economic and social interests towards such matters as gay marriage and abortion.

But, as Egypt has reminded us, things do change. And since the bipartisan right - i.e. the GOP and Obama - are clearly failing at getting the country back on its economic feet, it's worth considering that how a populist rebellion might turn things around.

Here are a few suggestions:

- Repeal the upscale tax cuts provided in the GOP-Obama tax package. This alone would eliminate the need for Obama's deficit proposal for the next two years. Yes, it would be class warfare, but until the upper classes start behaving themselves, go for it.

- Press for the indictment of those criminally responsible for the foreclosure disaster. Fifty states are doing it and the feds should do it, too.

- Start a drive for a constitutional amendment for an elected Attorney General. 43 states have them and it's a major reason they're going after the banks now.

- Join the drive for a constitutional amendment to deny corporation the status of a human person in political matters.

- Oppose all deficit reduction programs aimed against lower and mid income Americans such as the cut in heating fuel assistance.

- Allow the government to become co-owners of troubled mortgages, just as they became co-owner of GM.

- Replace the high speed rail program with transportation and other public works programs that help ordinary citizens rather than the business class.

- Support instant runoff voting to increase the influence of the rightfully discontented in our nation.

- Pursue a strongly localist politics aimed at bringing decisions down to the lowest practical level. We need local democracy as well as local lettuce.

- Support public campaign financing.

- Get banks out of financially risky and speculative activities by restoring key provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act.

- Support cooperatives and worker-owned businesses.

- Establish state banks as in North Dakota.

- Start selective boycotts, probably the single most effective and underused organizing tool left in our increasingly oppressive society. The boycotts should be carefully chosen and include easy alternatives (e.g. Coke vs. Pepsi)

- End usury, starting with the prohibition of two digit interest rates on credit cards.

- Strong support for small businesses and strong regulation of large corporations.

- Increase taxes on business outsourcing to foreign countries. For example, over half of Americans support a tax on foreign customer service calls.

- End offshore tax havens

- Protect Social Security and Medicare

- Prevent employers from taking a tax deduction, loss, or credit if they downsize or cease operations in the U.S. and subsequently expand or reopen overseas

- Single payer health care

There are, of course, other important things we need to do like end the drug war and dismantle our failed empire with its huge military costs. But the list above is centered on one goal: doing the most for the most in ways that an ordinary citizen can understand and which involve the wallet, the shortest path to a voters' heart.

If progressives strongly pursue policies of economic populism, they will discover millions of new allies. If they continue to fail to do so, they can expect little but the continued collapse of their country.

February 14, 2011

Making the victim pay for the crime

Sam Smith

Add Obama's budget to numerous actions at the state and local level and one thing is clear about the current fiscal crisis: the victim is going to be made to pay for the crime and most of the perps will either get off free or actually come out ahead.

The media and pols are treating the crisis as though it were just another economic catastrophe, sort of like a hurricane or tornado. It is nothing of the sort.

It is the result of deliberate, reckless and wanton actions by those whose control over the economy vastly outstrips the aggregate power of ordinary citizens. And it is the result of deliberate, reckless and wanton actions by those whose control over the economy has substantially increased thanks to the deliberate undermining of legal protections designed to protect ordinary citizens, such as the bipartisan repeal (with Bill Clinton's happy signature) of the 66 year-old Glass-Stegel Act, an early step in recovering from the Great Depression.

Yet, while 50 state attorneys general - 43 of them elected by the people - have joined in an investigation of the subprime scandal (in no small part the result of the Glass-Stegel repeal), the main thing we have heard from the federal attorney general, Eric Holder, is a vague promise to look into the matter.

Aside from the fact that this strengthens the argument for an elected federal attorney general, it illustrates how indifferent the Obamites are to dealing with obvious criminal and civil offenses that have been committed in the guise of a "free market economy" by bankers and others.

One could, for example, argue that the RICO conspiracy laws should be used as forcefully against Wall Street as they are against drug dealers. Or consider this definition of the felony known as reckless endangerment: "A person commits the crime of reckless endangerment if the person recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person. Reckless conduct is conduct that exhibits a culpable disregard of foreseeable consequences to others from the act or omission involved. The accused need not intentionally cause a resulting harm or know that his conduct is substantially certain to cause that result. The ultimate question is whether, under all the circumstances, the accused’s conduct was of that heedless nature that made it actually or imminently dangerous to the rights or safety of others."

But nothing like this is about to happen in our corporatist Congress and White House. Instead, according to Obama's plan, heating assistance for the poor will be cut by fifty percent, the community development of poorer communities will be slashed, Pell grants will be cut, cleaning up the Great Lakes shoved to the back of the line and so forth.

In other words, the ordinary citizen - the victim of a major bipartisan fiscal felony - is going to have to pay still more while those responsible for the offense escape and/or find new ways to profit upon it.

In other words, the crime continues and gets worse.

February 11, 2011

We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now

Sam Smith

Opponents of the Supreme Court case that unleashed corporate funding of campaigns have largely concentrated on its effects upon elections. But it is becoming ever more clear that the Citizens United decision is corrupting the daily work of legislators every day at every level in American politics and can fairly be described as one of the worst criminal acts in our history. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.

To declare that a corporation has the rights of a human person is to create a form of segregation and discrimination based not on ethnicity but on wealth. More than a little of the mounting madness of American politics can be traced to politicians no longer caring what their voters think, but only about the views of a tiny, rich minority that controls their chances of holding office.

Take Maine, the state in which I live and one that has had a reputation for decency and forthrightness, especially in environmental matters. But backed by out-of-state corporate funding, the new rightwing governor, Paul LePage (who won with only 39% of the vote thanks to a Democratic-independent split of the rest) is proposing a series of fake reforms that are totally out of keeping with the traditions of the state.

What is both fascinating and scary about these measures is that not even your average Maine conservative was demanding them. So why push them?

Colin Woodard in the Portland Phoenix gives the answer:

|||| The governor has continued to insist that "most of the proposals" he developed came "directly from business owners and managers who have attended the Red Tape Workshops," but the wish list itself tells a different story: it literally has the marks of corporate lobbyists all over it.

The official copy of the wish list LePage submitted to the legislature has lobbying powerhouse Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios's distinctive eight-digit document tracking numbers stamped on each page, suggesting it originated not in Augusta, but at the law firm's offices at Portland's One City Center.

"For God's sake, if you're going to stab Mother Nature in the back, at least wipe your prints off before you drop the knife," said Representative Bob Duchesne of Hudson, the ranking Democrat on both the environment committee and the new regulatory-reform committee. . . "I think this shows the lobbyists created the list and gave it back to the governor."||||

Woodard notes:

|||| Lobbying disclosures on file with the state Ethics Commission show both PHRMA and Merck paid [lobbyist] Robinson to defeat the Kid-Safe Products Act, a 2008 law that phased out toxic chemicals in toys, car seats, baby clothes, and other children's products. The American Petroleum Institute and drug maker Astrazeneca paid [lobbyist] Aho to do the same. The governor's wish list calls for "revisions to prohibitions of chemicals and materials in products" saying that "if the state is going to regulate consumer products at all, it should only do so when clearly justified on risk-benefit or cost benefit basis.". . .

Another of [lobbyist] Robinson's clients, the Toy Industry Association of America, was among the out-of-state interests that tried to stop the Bureau of Environmental Protection from banning the use of Bisphenol-A in baby bottles, sippy cups, and other food containers last year. BPA has also been banned in the European Union, Canada, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Chicago; Wal-Mart and other major retailers have stopped selling baby products containing the substance. LePage's wish list seeks to "Repeal BPA rule and rely on federal EPA and FDA standards," which permit the substance.||||

Was this the result of a grassroots rebellion against safe sippy cups?

Said Amanda Sears, associate director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center: "Not a single Maine business testified in opposition to the regulations on BPA. The opposition to these proposals from these corporate lobbying firms is entirely about national precedent setting."

Adds Matt Prindiville of the Natural Resources Council of Maine: "I think you can safely say that there is unprecedented access for big out-of-state companies to influence legislative proposals in the state of Maine. . . Repealing these laws will not create a single job in Maine. There isn't a single Maine businessperson who says, 'you know, the reason I can't grow my business is that law that gets brominated fire retardants out of mattresses or BPA out of babies' bottles.' It's ludicrous."

Yes, ludicrous, but tragically real. And if this is the sort of thing that can happen in one of the nation's cleaner states, think of what goes on now in Illinois, California or Texas.

It couldn't be happening at a worse time. With budget crises as the foil, politicians at every level are using the economy as an excuse to do exactly what the big bucks have been demanding all along: cut social welfare, community services, attack labor unions, do away with health and environmental reforms and so forth.

Leading the con is our own president, Barack Obama. Billions for banks but a drastically failing foreclosure rescue program. High speed rail for the upper classes but a massive cut in heating fuel assistance for the poor. And so on into the ever darkening and ever colder night.

And at the heart of it all: the Supreme Court's decision to let corporations pretend that they are human persons, one of the most destructive lies ever concocted in American politics. If corporations were really persons, the ones now daily bribing our politicians would be in jail instead of in power.

There are things we can do about it, such as a grassroots rebellion including amending the Constitution to end corporate personhood. But in the meanwhile, don't let the politicians and the media fool you. It's not really about politics anymore. Your vote is now worth a fraction of what it once was. It's about bribery, the most successful form of bipartisanship in America today.

February 08, 2011

Personal to Bill Keller

Sam Smith

Whatever Julian Assange's faults may be, he has produced better stories than I have seen in the New York Times in a long time, he didn't trash his sources to maintain an overblown sense of respectability, and he didn't work for a newspaper that has supported two of the dumbest wars in American history, wars that have also helped disintegrate the American economy.

Further, if one were to share private information with anyone, it appears it would be far safer to do so with Julian Assange than it would be with you or your newspaper. In the latter case, we have now have the model of what can happen: the hand that feeds you is not only bitten but thoroughly trashed in your magazine. This is not only bad for you but for every journalist who relies on people trusting them enough to tell them things. In your effort at self righteousness you have harmed all journalism.

The proof of journalism is in the result, not in the NY Times personnel manual. For example, Frederic Douglass, Mark Twain, or HL Mencken could never gotten a job at today's NY Times, but they certainly were excellent at the trade.

Further, you folks aren't anywhere near as interested in investigative journalism as you pretend. Six years ago I wrote about this:

|||| The old media considers itself an exclusive institution like a club, church, or the Masons, entitled to judge internally how both members and pretenders are supposed to behave. The lack of respect shown by the new journalism to these rules appalls the anachronic press.

- The media used to be on the outside looking in. Now thanks to the rise of corporatism and journalistic social climbing, it has become part of what it is covering. The result is a severe loss of independence. For example, the term White House correspondent has become a contradiction in terms because even if a reporter tries to do a good job there, the slightest rebellion against the collegial rules of the palace puts the courtier parading as correspondent in danger of losing favor and sources. And what precisely do these sources provide? They tip the reporter off to a cabinet secretary's pending resignation but not, say, to his million dollars stashed in a Cayman Island bank. White House reporting has become a stenographic rather than journalistic activity, as has the coverage of other American institutions.

- The nature of the corporatized press limits the desirability of investigative reporting. A successful investigation is a risky way to climb the media ladder for the reporter and a threat to the next quarterly return for the boss.

But since you still need news, one way to make it seem as though you are doing something is to outsource your journalism to groups like the Center for Public Integrity or the Project on Government Oversight. Gone is the day when every reporter was meant to be a project on government oversight; now you let POGO do the investigation, you write it up, and if the story's wrong it's not your fault but POGO's. Nice deniability, just the thing a corporation likes. On a single day, for example, three reports by grantees of the Fund for Constitutional Government (on whose board I sit) were featured in the NY Times. Such groups have become a timid media's secondhand nose.

Groups like the aforementioned, independent investigators on the Internet, and lonely holdouts from journalism's past are all doing something much closer to what American journalism is meant to be about than the censored, spun, and desiccated version you find daily in the same elite media that pompously patronizes those who refuse to be servile sycophants like themselves.

The former, however, will increasingly get the story while the latter continue to tell you not to worry, everything's just fine or recite fairy tales about Iraq and why it needs invading. ||||

February 07, 2011

The Huffington-AOL deal

Sam Smith

The collapse of liberalism as a strong political voice got a new shove with Arianna Huffington selling her liberal readers to the corporate conglomerate AOL.

The news came just about two weeks after the New Yorker revealed that 80% of AOL's profits come from subscriptions and, as Consumerist put it, "75% of those users are people who subscribe to the dial-up service and don't need. Basically we're talking about folks who have another kind of ISP and don't realize that you don't need to pay AOL anymore if you're just using it for email. The group can be further divided into two sub-groups, the old, and the lazy."

Consumerist then went on to give a step by step process for canceling AOL "and saving some cash while still keeping access to your AOL email account."

In Daily Beast, Dan Lyons adds to the story, quoting Nick Denton of Gawker: "Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?"

Lyons continues:

|||| Much of AOL’s dysfunction was laid bare just one week ago when Business Insider, a blog, got hold of a leaked AOL memo called “The AOL Way,” which purports to instruct AOL’s hacks on how to practice their craft. It’s all about making stories based on traffic potential and profit potential. It’s all about numbers—and volume. It’s a depressing, sickening, embarrassing document. AOL’s hacks are expected to write five to 10 articles a day. . . Business Insider quoted one AOL 'journalist' as saying, “AOL is the most fucked up, bullshit company on earth,” and then adding that joining AOL was “the worst career move I’ve ever made.” ||||

This development also seems like another step in turning the Internet into something more resembling closed door cable TV - which has, for example, saved Americans from the curse of Al Jazeera - than the free and open system that cyberspace was supposed to be. AOL - like its younger version, Facebook - basically aims at keeping readers away from the full glory of the web and on its limited pages instead.

But there are political implications as well. As we have pointed out for a couple of decades, American liberalism has been in steady decline, trading in past goals for the illusion of power - e.g. Clinton and Obama - and becoming far more an elite iconography than a broad-based ideology.

Key to the shift has been the desertion of the former emphasis on economic concerns of most Americans in favor of a pseudo admiration of social equality that in fact mainly favors those well enough off to break glass ceilings but not those of the same gender or ethnicity stuck with cleaning wooden floors.

For example, the Huffington-AOL merger was announced just a few days after Arianna Huffington returned from participating in the Davos conference, perhaps the largest annual gathering on those most culpable for the world's problems. Or consider the fact that liberals went wild over Obama becoming president and didn't even notice that the Senate ended up without a single black member.

Huffington Post has some very progressive contributors and readers, but the overall tone of the operation has become increasingly merged in soul with the sort of people with which it has now become merged in legal agreement.

The sooner we recognize the true difference between today's liberalism and that of true populist, progressive, socialist and Green movements we will begin to recreate a left of meaning rather than of merely nice words.

February 01, 2011

Morning Line: The arrogance of hope

Sam Smith

Before liberals rant anymore about Judge Vinson's decision on the healthcare bill, they should read this footnote:

“I note that in 2008, then-Senator Obama supported a health care reform proposal that did not include an individual mandate because he was at that time strongly opposed to the idea, stating that ‘if a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house.’”

Assuming that Obama is a not a certifiable schizophrenic, then it seems yet another example of him saying one thing and then another for cynical political reasons.

This is not a nice trait, but worse is the arrogance that propels it. Did he really think no one would notice?

There is a similar arrogance hidden just behind the curtain in the whole healthcare bill. The bill has many good points; it will help many to get better healthcare. So why endanger the whole thing with a provision that the president himself said was improper just two years earlier?

That's not compromise but a narcissistic assumption that just because one has power and talks good, you can manipulate the game anyway you want.

Life, however, doesn't always work that way, and Obama and his team have endangered the healthcare of millions by their arrogance in this matter.

Of course, if 2012 arrives with the health care bill in limbo or the dumpster, Obama will undoubtedly blame it on the Republicans. But the truth is that Obama could have passed a more modest bill without a known fatal flaw. He could have expanded Medicare as much as was politically possible, but instead he decided to go with a constitutional sleight of hand that even he knew was wrong. History isn't kind to that sort of thing.