Monday, May 27, 2013

Getting Money Out Of Politics

These days many people makes it their goal to get money out of politics.

A few days ago, for instance, a number of Vermont State Senators called for a constitutional convention to pass an amendment invalidating the Citizens United decision. They, like many other well-meaning people today, focus most of their attention on the decision in which the Supreme Court gave rich people practically carte blanche to spend as much money as they please supporting their favorite candidates in elections.

But the focus on Citizens United is really counterproductive. It pays attention to one minor aspect of the role money pays in politics and by putting all of the attention on that one Supreme Court decision confuses everyone about the real problem.

Last week’s Sunday paper ran a long story about newly elected members of the House of Representatives in Washington. It recounts how the newly elected Congressmen and Women are raring to go to overcome the glaring failures of our current legislators ( and of course, of the President.) But they are pulled up short when they are told that they had to spend at least four hours a day raising money for their reelection.

This fact antedates the Citizens United decision. Some observers of Congress estimated a number of years ago that elected officials must spend as much as nine hours a day on the phone raising money.

No doubt getting an accurate number for the time needed for fundraising is extremely difficult. But getting money to get reelected is a serious task for all representatives. It prevents them from doing their job, which consists of writing bills, reading proposed bills, and informing themselves on issues they need to vote on. They are too busy raising money so they leave the bill writing and reading to the lobbyists.

But the problem of money in politics is even more extensive. There has been a lot of publicity about textile workers in Bangladesh who die when shoddily constructed buildings collapse or catch on fire.

The public has put considerable pressure on the large clothing chains who get their supplies from Bangladesh and China where working conditions are equally horrendous. The public wants these textile merchants to make sure that the workers are safe where they work, that their working conditions are healthful, and their pay adequate.

An article in the current issue of Boston Review retells the sad story of voluntary efforts of large clothing chains in the US and in Europe to improve working conditions in Asia. A careful study of these efforts by a MIT professor suggests that these efforts are, on the whole, ineffective. There are at least two different reasons for that:

The Western clothing chains are involved in intense competition with each other. They need to produce their clothing as cheaply as possible. They need to have a large range of different products and must be able to offer new designs on short order. Under those pressures, their efforts to improve working conditions in Asia remain lukewarm and intermittent. They cannot afford to make more robust efforts without reducing their earnings.

The governments in the Asian countries face a similar dilemma. They are concerned for the security and safety of their citizens. But they are also very afraid that if they demand better working conditions, which might raise the price of textiles, the production would be moved to a competing Asian country.

Asian textile workers are subject to regular disasters because no one is willing to spend the money or reduce the profits that would be necessary to guarantee safer working conditions.

A long time ago Calvin Coolidge said “America’s business is business” and that means “America’s business is making as much money as possible” even at the expense of the lives of young women in Cambodia and China and elsewhere in periodic building collapses and fires.

Here is the root cause of the excess of money in politics – whether that concerns electioneering or ensuring the safety of seamstresses in Asia. America’s business is business and so is the business of Canada, and Great Britain, and Sweden, and any other country you may think of.

Wherever you go, it’s profits over people. The Citizens United decision is only one small example of that. We will not take money out of politics until we’re serious about preferring people over profits.

Until then we have a long way to go.

Friday, May 17, 2013


I recently completed a series of conversations about democracy with a group of retired people. The average age was between 70 and 75. In their working life, these men and women had been doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers or business people.
We talked about different versions of democracy and about some of the shortcomings of actual democracies, including our own.
In a democracy all citizens are equal; every person has one vote. Everybody's ideas and needs are as weighty as those of any other citizen. But, the members of the group asked, is this democratic equality realizable in a society as unequal as ours?
That thought led to the main complaint: the role of money in politics. Citizens elect representatives to represent their desires and interests. But once elected, the representatives cater to the people with money, often living in different electoral districts, not to the people who elected them.
There are clearly many reasons for that: electoral campaigns tend to begin on the day after the previous elections. Campaigns are becoming more and more expensive. Rich people can flood campaigns with money thereby buying access to the Congressperson, if not the Congressperson him or herself. The others are left out in the cold, unheard, unheeded.
These were some of the topics touched upon in our conversations.
The last meeting was to be dedicated to a summary. Everyone was to bring in a problem and a suggestion for fixing it.
That conversation was complex and interesting. But as we came to the end of it, various people kept saying that, all in all, with all the difficulties we had touched upon, “the democratic system works.”
There was considerable agreement to that. After a series of conversations examining in some detail how the democratic system does not work, because workplaces are, on the whole, dictatorial and authoritarian, because the democratic system we have reflects the inequalities of our economy, and citizens are not equal participants in politics, everyone settled in with a happy sigh and agreed that, nevertheless, the system works..
I was struck by this complacency that made people say that money plays an excessive role in politics, that our government is, often not a government of the people, but is for sale to highest bidders but that nonetheless “the system works.”
That struck me as a gross contradiction. These were intelligent people. How can they say that the system works while they complain that they are not represented, that money again and again carries the day in Washington?
There are a number of explanations for this complacency: If we seriously believe that our democracy is in danger, we need to act. Being complacent is a lot less work.
Add to that, that while we tend to brag about our freedom and our democracy we also tend to believe, indoctrinated by periodic witch hunts like the McCarthyism of the 1950s, that it is unpatriotic to be critical of how our system works. It is true that we can be openly critical, much of the time, without being persecuted by the police. But our fellow citizens are not as tolerant.
The truth of course, is the opposite. Complacency betrays our institutions and our ideals.
Our democracy is in great danger. Not the least threat comes from the complacent “nevertheless the system is working.”

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cooperating with Terrorism 

The FBI defines terrorism as follows:
“There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as 'the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives'”
It is not easy to say who is a terrorist and who is not. Is Whitey Bulger, connected to 19 murders, a terrorist? It is not unreasonable to think that some of those murders were aimed at “terrorizing”, at seriously frightening the public or fellow gangsters. But Bulger probably did not have “political” goals in mind. He was not interested in weakening the government by creating widespread panic.
Were the shooters in Newtowne, CT. or Aurora, CO. terrorists?
Are the Tsernaev brothers terrorists? As soon as the two bombs went off at the end of the Boston marathon, reporters, police and all other people supposedly in the know were looking for the political connections of the brothers. None have been found so far.
Did the Tsernaev's try to scare people? Or were they just “acting out” in a spectacular and terribly destructive way?
But the experts and the general public alike have decided that the Tsernaev brothers are terrorists and as terrorists they will go down in our history.
Who is a terrorist or not is largely decided by the public, especially by the police, the FBI, Homeland Security. They will announce that this person is a suspect in terrorist acts, while that other one is just a mass murderer. The Tsernaevs are terrorists; Adam Lanza of Sandy Hook Elementary School is a murderer. The difference lies in the official law enforcement labeling not in the crimes committed.
It is we, the public, who make the crimes into terrorist acts.

Terrorism involves creating fear in as wide a public as possible.
In the recent Boston bombing, two young men set off two homemade bombs. People waiting at the end of the 26 mile marathon course screamed and ran or rushed in to help victims. Everyone was frightened. As the news spread, more people felt great fear.
TV, radio and the newspapers contributed to spreading panic. For the better part of the week, whenever I turned on the radio—my favorite source of news—I heard the anxious voices of newscaster repeating that they had no news, interviewing panicked members of the public, or spreading stories which later proved to be incorrect.
If the bombing was intended to frighten us (which is still not clear), the news media cooperated enthusiastically. I did not hear any news reporter who told the public that we are not easily frightened and that we will, therefore, carry on with our customary daily activities and ignore the uproar as far as we can. Instead of canceling their ordinary programs in order to maintain a high level of public anxiety, the news media should have consigned information connected with the bombing to back pages, or the news on the hour, and tried as much as they could to reestablish an air of normalcy.
There has been a great deal of praise for the professionalism of the various police forces on the scene. But at one point there were 9000 heavily armed men and women in Watertown, a town of 20,000 inhabitants. They were looking for one, certainly very dangerous, 19 year old.
Hardly a way of calming the public or reminding us that we do not scare easily.
Three people died. Many others were injured, a number of them seriously. Their pain is not alleviated by creating a general atmosphere of panic.
However difficult to identify, terrorism is a fact of modern life. We need to learn to resist the inclination to shout “terrorists!” every time we hear an explosion; we need to resist the impulse to be frightened. Media and police forces need to do their part to support the citizens' efforts to remain calm and carry on their daily lives unperturbed.
In the Boston bombing, police and media manufactured a terrorist event. They not only failed to help ordinary citizens to preserve their equanimity but cooperated with the bombers to create panic.