Sunday, April 6, 2014

Congress for Sale?

Until a few days ago, campaign finance law limited how much money altogether any campaign donor could contribute to political candidates in any given year. Yesterday the majority of the US Supreme Court declared that such a limitation "intrude[s] without justification on a citizen's ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities," namely expressing one's opinion about a political candidate.
The Court's opinion recognized that there is “only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. Moreover the only type of corruption Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spen- ding large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in the effort to control the exercise of an officeholder's official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption.”
This passage is a direct quotation from the Supreme Court decision issued on April 2, 2014. Let's look at it.
1. Campaign contributions can either be exercises of free speech—the donors state their political preferences (and put their money where their mouths are)-- or be Quid pro quo corruption when the campaign funds are given in exchange for the politician's vote in a specific case.
2. Quid pro quo corruption is further identified as wielding“ control over the exercise of the officeholder's functions.” One very important function of officeholders, elected representatives in federal, state, or local legislative bodies is to pass legislation. If a representative changes his or her votes to meet the desires of a large contributor to electoral campaigns, we have a case of quid pro quo corruption.
That's fair enough.
But the Court adds that
3. A campaign donor who gives generously to a candidate's campaign but does not ask for specific votes to meet the donor's political agendas is not engaging in corruption. The campaign donations should be counted as a case of speech protected by the Fist Amendment.
But how do we distinguish between a bribe I give to an elected representative and a campaign contribution? That is surely the key question here. We try to limit monetary contributions to political campaigns because we think that the large donors buy influence over the votes a representative will cast. Citizens widely believe that large campaign donations are, in fact, not expressions of political opinion but are plain and simple bribes.
The Court will have none of that. Unless the donor is buying the representative's vote outright, there is nothing to worry about.
But how do we know that?
Most obviously, rarely, if ever, are there explicit deals made, committed to writing-- unmistakable records of unambiguous corruption. It is, in most cases, very difficult to tell whether the donor is buying votes or just uttering political opinions. The court seems to believe that unless there is an unambiguous record of the representative promising to vote certain measures up and down in accord with the donor's demands, campaign donations are just expressions of political opinions.
But consider this. You are an elected representative. Campaigns are every year more expensive. You spend an inordinate amount of time fund raising. If it were not for a few individuals who contribute as lavishly to your campaigns as the law allows, you would not be able to get reelected. So if your big donor calls to have lunch, you will find the time. Just a friendly lunch; you talk family, you gossip a bit, and, yes, your donor lays out the case for some legislation he cares a lot about. Will you have time to listen to a lobbyist in the donor's employ who makes a very good case for this legislation? Yes, of course.
You vote as your donor had hoped you would. He may give you an investment tip or two. [Recent news stories had it that more than half the members of Congress are millionaires. How did they earn that much money?]
What happened to the other side in this issue? Did you have a chance to listen to people who oppose your donor's position? Too bad, that you were too busy but of course the demands on a politicians time are really crazy.
In the view of the majority of Supreme Court justices this is not corruption. It is constitutionally protected political speech.
Is that naïve . . . or corrupt?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why are we so poor?

Americans like to describe themselves in superlatives. According to one of them ours is the “richest country in the world.” That is not literally true, but we are among the countries that are better off.

But at the same time we are chronically short of funds. Our roads and bridges are poorly maintained. Our education system is underfunded. Buildings need better maintenance. Class sizes are growing while teachers continue to be laid off. College and University faculties shrink while the bulk of teaching is done by temporary teachers who are overworked and underpaid. Ours is becoming a MacEd system.

The most obvious explanation of this state of affairs is that our tax rates are significantly lower than those in other developed countries. For every dollar paid in taxes in other developed countries, Americans pay 75 cents. (Obviously, such comparisons are complex and very controversial). While the official tax rates for American corporations are much higher than, say, in Europe, significant numbers of huge multinational corporations, whose profits run into the billions of dollars, actually pay no income tax at all.

But then we run into some perplexing facts. The US outspends other developed countries on education but ranks lower than all of them in educational test results. We spend more but get poorer results. The same in true in health care where we spend enormous sums for no more than mediocre results.

Our constant shortage of funds may be due not only to how we collect money for the government but also on how we spend it.

The controversies about comparative international tax rates are insignificant compared to those about the explanations for our failure to spend education and health care money effectively. It clearly seems that we waste a whole lot of money compared to other countries. Ask any ten people for an explanation of that and you are liable to get at least twelve different answers.

But then there is also the question of what we spend our money on. The two largest items in our national budget are social services--for the poor, the elderly, the sick—and the military. Here we encounter some startling figures. Of the $1750 billion the whole world spends on the military, the US spends 39% or $682 billion. The US has soldiers stationed on all continents with the lowest number in Africa.

Our perpetual shortage of funds has many causes. We do not pay enough taxes. We do not spend our money wisely. We maintain an empire that is more expensive than we can afford.

How can we resolve any of these problems, about how we tax, how we spend, and how we try to control the globe? We cannot agree on the answer; we cannot even agree on how to frame our questions.

The fiscal crisis is just one more symptom of a deep-seated deficiency. The nation has no common values. Our dedication to equality and liberty has become a formulaic ritual barely concealing a wide range of different agendas. Deeply divided, we are unable to form effective policies. Reforms like the Affordable Care Act are immensely complex schemes cobbled together to please groups with inconsistent agendas. Private insurance companies, out for maximum profit, are yoked together with public spirited advocates for the sick and the poor to form a byzantine system that is bound to be inefficient.

But such Rube Goldberg contraptions are needed in a country that has lost the ability to have a reasonable national conversation on anything. We all look first to what is best for  us. No one cares about the common good—about what might be good for all--and so we cannot agree on anything.

The financial poverty of the country is a fitting symbol for its loss of public spirit. We are impoverished above all when it comes to caring for our children, the sick, the elderly and the poor. We fail in our efforts to make a good life for ourselves because we have lost sight of the fact that anyone of us can only be well off, if all are.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The War on Women

I recently visited one of the Middle schools in town. I discovered that the school day still begins with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance ” . . . with Liberty and Justice for All.” But that is political propaganda. For half the students, the girls, the prospect for liberty and justice is pretty dim. Not only is their liberty seriously restricted by the epidemic of rapes, of other sexual assaults and harassment, but their hope for justice is dim as long as our legislators are unwilling to stand up for them.
This thought is prompted by a random collection of news stories in the last few weeks.
The Army is investigating sexual abuse allegations against an officer who trains military prosecutors who handle sexual and physical abuse cases, a defense official said Thursday.
Once a rising star among the US army’s top battle commanders, Brigadier General Jeffrey A Sinclair is now fighting sexual assault charges that could land him life in a military prison if convicted. The general who faced serious prison time was let off with plea deal.
Pentagon officials announced in May that sexual assault incidents have increased by 35 percent between 2010 and 2012, bringing the annual total to 26,000 cases of some type of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault last year. The results came via an anonymous survey.
Active-duty female personnel make up roughly 14.5 percent -- or 207,308 members -- of the more than 1.4 million Armed Forces, according to the Department of Defense. One in three military women has been sexually assaulted, compared to one in six civilian women, according to Defense. According to calculations by The Huffington Post, a servicewoman was nearly 180 times more likely to have become a victim of military sexual assault (MSA) in the past year than to have died while deployed during the last 11 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a pilot who was also the inspector general of the 31stFighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to one year in military prison in November. His charges included “abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman,” the Air Force Times reported.
But last month, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force base, dismissed the sexual assault conviction – even though there was plenty of evidence of the defendant’s guilt. On Feb. 26, the case was dismissed and Franklin even recommended Wilkerson for a promotion, the New York Times reported.
Nor is this an exclusively North-American phenomenon.
Violence against women is "an extensive human rights abuse" across Europe with one in three women reporting some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15 and 8% suffering abuse in the last 12 months, according to the largest survey of its kind on the issue.
Horrifying gang-rapes in India have been in the news repeatedly in recent months.
Not only is women's freedom seriously restricted by the ubiquitous threat of sexual assault, but their hope of receiving justice is dim. Existing legislatures are unwilling to see that justice be accessible to all, even women.
The case of Lt.-Col. Wilkerson whose conviction of sexual assault was overturned by his commanding officer, prompted legislation in Congress to exclude commanding officers from getting involved in sexual assault complaints. That piece of legislation, intended to provide a bit of justice for women victimized, recently failed to pass the US Senate.
The Texas legislature adopted new restrictions on abortions. There were 44 facilities that performed abortions in Texas in 2011, abortion providers said. There are now 24, they said. When the law is fully implemented in September, that number is expected to drop to six.
While it is customary to praise the heterosexual family as the cornerstone of our society, the prevalence of violence in families is being overlooked.
• In 2008 females age 12 or older experienced about 552,000 nonfatal violent victimizations (rape/sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated or simple assault) by an intimate partner (a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend).
• In the same year, men experienced 101,000 nonfatal violent victimizations by an intimate partner.
• The rate of intimate partner victimizations for female s was 4.3 victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older. The equivalent rate of intimate partner violence against males was 0.8 victimizations per 1,000 males age 12 or older.
            Is it not time to get serious about liberty and justice for all?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mass Producing the Citizenry

One source of our great wealth is the capacity to mass-produce commodities. The computers, cars, cell-phones, and the like can sell cheaply because they are produced in very large numbers. More and more persons can buy these glittering toys and tools as they come off the assembly line, indistinguishable, one exactly like the other.
We would not want our children, and the next generation that is growing up, to be similarly indistinguishable from each other. Every human being is, in some way, unique. Each of us has capacities all our own that are different from those of our neighbor. If these capacities are developed, we all turn out to be unique. Each of us can make special contributions to our lives and the lives of those around us. Our lives will be enriched by the great variety of skills and knowledges each citizen contributes. Life will be more interesting, richer in possibilities.
But these differences must be fostered. We do not have them at birth. If we fail to encourage them, citizens grow up to be very much like each other. They turn into mass produced persons very similar to the commodities we buy.
Our society is rapidly developing into a huge machine to mass produce human beings, because it is not willing to allow and to encourage each child, each young person, to develop their differences from every one else, to be a person in his or her own right.
Yes, there are some private schools where classes are small and have enough teachers to address each child individually, to perceive the special ability of each and to help nourish those individual gifts. But the public schools most of our children attend are large, classes are large. Here crowd control, laying down clear rules of behavior and making sure that every child conforms are much more important. Moreover, thanks to supposed government education experts and masters of mass-production, like Bill Gates, children are constantly drilled to pass tests—the same tasks for every child. Our education ignores individual differences and trains children to be very much like each other.
These children are reared to become consumers of the identical commodities produced by our factories. They learn to judge each other by their consumption, by wearing the right jeans or sneakers. Capacities that set each child apart do not matter. Having the right clothes, the same clothes worn by many other children, does.
Often the parents of these children work for very large organizations. They are hired and evaluated by superficial criteria because in these large organizations there is no time to get to know employees and to appreciate them for their individual gifts. Instead they pass standard tests, they are judged by whether they dress like others, whether their conversation is familiar. Being different is not a recommendation. Conformity is.
It is Oscar night when we find out what are the most popular movies. The push is to see the movies watched by the greatest number of people. There are best seller lists of books and we are encouraged to read the books read by most other people. There are obvious economic interests in the background: publishers want to sell as many copies as they can of any book they have on their list. Oscars and similar prizes, best seller lists are ways of increasing sales. For the citizenry they are another push toward homogenization.
If you go to buy clothes, the sales person may well urge you to buy that shirt you seem to like by telling you that it has sold very well. Many people liked it. So you should like it and buy it too.
The pressure towards conformity is strong in politics too. Candidates for public office need to get large numbers of votes; more than their competitor. They cannot afford to offend anyone. You can best not be offensive to anyone's sensibilities by only saying whatever everyone else says on any given topic. The less distinct your statements are, the better. The more wishy-washy the candidates, the more likely that they get elected.
Accordingly, it is best to be in the middle of any disagreement. Any opinion or statement that someone labels as “extreme” is a problem. Extremists have no chance of being elected because they are not like everyone else.
With every year we more and more come to resemble those gadgets we buy. Differences between us disappear or are ignored and shoved aside instead of being developed and encouraged. The people you talk to are more and more like you. We become progressively more interchangeable. It matters less whether anyone of us is alive or dead because there are many persons still alive who are just like me. As we become more interchangeable and anonymous our lives lose in value.
Individual human life matters less and less as human beings are more and more like machine products, one just like the next one.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The privatization dogma.

It is a pretty universally accepted dogma that privatization of government functions saves money. Unfortunately that dogma is false. Here is one example:
Here is an interesting problem encountered by the Federal Government. The Feds outsource a significant proportion of their checks on new employees to a private firm. A private firm investigates a job applicant's previous employment, criminal records, trustworthiness in financial transactions, etc., instead of the Federal Government itself..
The argument in favor of this outsourcing is simply that private companies are competing with other private companies for the job of vetting the applications of new government employees. As a result of this competition, the private companies are likely to work harder for less money than the government agency might have done. The leaders of the private company have their eye on the bottom line. They must control costs in order to compete successfully with other businesses applying for the same job. In order to control costs, their employees must be exceptionally productive. Stated in plain English, private companies must drive their employees to work hard for as little money as possible. The leadership of a government agency, on the other hand, is not under those kinds of competitive pressures. They are more likely to treat their employees better because it is in their interest to have loyal and content people working for them.
Competition will increase productivity and save money. That is the outsourcing story.
This morning's report, however, suggests that often private companies meet their profit goals not by increasing their employees' productivity but by submitting shoddy work. It turns out that the company that is vetting a large number of employee records in Washington, DC has, for years, submitted reports based on incomplete or even nonexistent investigations.
Notice what happened here. The government sends its job applicants' records to a private company. After a while some government employees begin to be suspicious of the investigative reports they are receiving, and start their own investigations. We now have both a private contractor and a government agency doing the investigating job. Quite obviously that is horrendously inefficient. Privatization has struck out.
Privatization is by no means always more efficient than jobs being done in-house in the government.
But there is more to be said. The private companies can make money only if they lower their costs. A favorite way of lowering costs for businesses is to cut wages of their employees or to cut the number of employees and increase the workload of those remaining. Both will increase the number of citizens seeking, for instance, unemployment benefits, or perhaps medical care for stress and overwork. If we do not focus our consideration of privatization excessively narrowly, we can see that the supposed savings from privatization are going to be, in many cases, illusory.
It has become a dogma in many circles that government outsourcing is more efficient and saves money. Like many dogmas, this one is very often false.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Third War

From the American perspective, the war in Iraq is just about over and the war in Afghanistan seems to be coming to an end in the foreseeable future. It is not clear that we achieved our objectives in either one, if only because the objectives have always been very unclear and remain so.
But what about the third war, you may ask.
Everyone talks about the "War against Terrorism" but most people take that to be some kind of metaphor. But that is a mistake. The war against terrorism is as real and damaging a war as any others we have fought.
The war against terrorism differs from the other two wars in that occupying large areas of a country are not at issue. But the occupation of Iraq or of large areas of Afghanistan has never been an end in itself. It was merely a means towards undermining the enemies' ability to attack us and to reduce our ability to have our way. In the War on Terrorism, the other side has an army in the field, the by now significant number of suicide bombers who have done serious damage to us. We, being very rich, are able to lose fewer lives because we use unmanned airplanes to kill the enemy and we use overwhelming computer power for intelligence.
In this third war, as in the other two, it is very unclear whether we are reaching our objectives. The government tells us that more than 50 potential terrorist attacks have so far been prevented. But of course that information is secret and so we cannot know whether to trust this government claim. We certainly have good reasons for being skeptical.
But the losses to our side have been significant. They are not only the physical attacks such as, especially, 9/11. The war on terror has claimed our democracy and our Constitution.
Were it not for Edward Snowden and others equally brave, we would not know about government surveillance. There probably are still a number of different facets of this war which we have not heard about. Quite obviously citizens cannot deliberate about a government policy they don't know anything about. The entire war on terrorism is the product of specific branches of the government, such as the NSA and the CIA and others. The public has not been asked what it thinks about those projects. The public in fact has systematically been deceived and lied to about this war. There has been no democratic decision-making with respect to or democratic supervision of this third war.
The decision to go to war is one of the most serious that a people can take. We have been deprived of that decision. Our democratic participation has been denied.
I am well aware that there are lawyerly justifications of all of that, that rest on legislation passed in the hysteria after 9/11. But were our government officials interested in maintaining our democracy, they would have seen the need for a new discussion of the war on terrorism, now that, twelve years later, we are somewhat calmer in contemplating 9/11.
But the government clearly is very ambivalent about saving our democracy. It is equally ambivalent about honoring the Constitution.
The Constitution protects citizens against random surveillance. But this morning's newspaper reports that our government, in cooperation with the government of Australia, recently listened to the communications between the Indonesian government and an American law firm the Indonesians had retained to advise them in trade negotiations.
The Constitution also guarantees everyone accused of a crime a fair trial before a jury of his or her peers. So far, the US government has killed four US citizens by means of drone strikes. Only one of those, Anwar al-Awlaki, was accused of a crime. The other three were innocent, they were killed by "accident."
Last week, the government was reported considering killing another US citizen without a trial. The policy of killing American citizens without trial apparently still stands.
We can only hope that, in the future, democracy and the Constitution will regain their former importance and will be fully restored to their rightful place in the life of this nation. But at the moment it appears that the war on terror has done extremely serious damage to our country.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Drug Crisis in Vermont

    The governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, in his state of the state address focused on the alarming increase in drug addicts in that state. Heroin addiction is becoming a serious problem in a land of green hills, small villages, roads winding through the woods for miles and miles.

Biologists, psychologists and sociologists have studied the phenomenon of drug addiction for a long time. By some accounts there are more than 40 distinct theories that offer to explain addiction to opiates. But we are no closer to finding ways of reducing the number of people whose lives, and that of their families, are dominated by opiate addiction.

The intense search for solutions to the addiction problems encourages a focus on the problems of addicts that sets them apart from the general population. It tends to lead us to ignore the problems that addicts share with people who do not get addicted. One reason for using opiates is because in some way or another a person is deeply unhappy or depressed for long periods of time. Life is not rewarding, they feel worthless, or feel that others think of them so.
Many people in this world suffer from depression. Some end up addicted; some not. But they are all unhappy. This epidemic of unhappiness needs to be confronted. We need to look fearlessly at the misery that is a large part of life in America.

We live in the richest country in the world. People all over the world are amazed at how even poor people live in the United States. But it is not clear that we, as a people, are less subject to profound discouragement, to depression, to low self-esteem, to feeling excluded or disrespected than people in poorer countries. In international surveys of citizens’ satisfactions with their lives, the US ranks 12th from the top, the countries where inhabitants are most satisfied.

Why is that?

One reason is obvious. For a significant percentage of Americans, life is s struggle every day. They are poor because their earnings are low and therefore they do not get much respect, or they do not get much respect, for one reason or another, and are therefore poor. As long as we do not make equality real in the US, significant numbers of people are going to find life extremely difficult.
Living well includes a lot more than doing a job and spending the money you earn. Since many jobs are not challenging the worker’s abilities and malls resemble each other a great deal, the life of the worker-shopper often lacks excitement.

Here is a second obvious reason for an epidemic of sadness, boredom and depression. We are very rich. But we do not spend any of our resources to make work life more interesting for anyone. Should we not devote significant wealth and our technical sophistication to making work more interesting and to burden machines with the dull, repetitive tasks? How long are we going to put corporate profits ahead of the dull work life for so many working people?

But there are other reasons why many people--drug users among them--are depressed, bored, aimless. Observers commenting on drug abuse in northern Vermont say that for young people in these really small villages, life is difficult because “there’s nothing to do.” People get into trouble because they are bored.
Where there are no bars, nightclubs, theaters, museums, major sporting events to entertain you, you need to entertain yourself. We have made entertainment, excitement with one's life, into one more commodity, something you buy. As a result we are not educating our youngsters to learn to entertain themselves.

They do not leave school  as avid readers. They do not leave school eager to participate as citizens. They have not learned to like learning; they will not take free on-line courses, or learn new skills. We have not taught them to think about their lives; conversations about the good life are not part of our social existence.
I am not blaming the people who are bored and aimless. The blame belongs to all of us who acquiesce in a society that values only what can be bought and sold. Such a society does not teach the skills that are important: making your life as good as circumstances allow. We say over and over that education must prepare people for  work. We are overlooking, that if no one helps us learn how to live well, we may well end up being pretty miserable.

The drug crisis in Vermont or elsewhere lifts a corner of the cover spread by official optimism over the widespread discontent in America. It brings us, as a society, face to face with our impoverished values. We care too much about earning money and spending it; we  care too little about equality, about the quality of work and give no thought to speak of to thinking about how to live well.

We are profoundly mistaken when we define success as being rich or being a celebrity. Our goal should be to live a life that gives us ample reasons for ending every day grateful for having been alive, for having been active, having done well, learned something new. After spending time in a job that provides some challenges, we might whittle,  make music, tell old stories, or invent new ones. We could knit and sew, put on plays, read together, read tarot cards, or make a family tree. We could play with our children instead of buying a tablet for them on which they can play games by themselves.