Saturday, March 31, 2012

Occupy Maine Greets President Obama

Local news coverage of President Obama's visit Friday night, and the Occupy Maine "Soup-Or-PAC" demonstration that accompanied it. (Should not be interpreted as an endorsement of local NBC News affiliate, WCSH 6. I actually think ABC's "Channel 8" had slightly better coverage, but their news video seems unavailable for some reason.)

Health Care: Still Waiting for Real Reform

Nope, no judicial bias on this court.
I have been following the Supreme Court’s hearings on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act with a great deal of detached ambivalence. Cynical as it may sound, I do not particularly care what happens to the new health care law, one way of the other.

On the one hand, I do not like the individual mandate, which is essentially a massive giveaway to the greedy, for-profit health insurance industry. A friend of mine recently offered this metaphor for the individual mandate: “Our for-profit health care industry is like a burning building. But rather than vacate the building, or try to put out the fire, the government has made everyone come inside it. Now we’re all in the building, but it’s still on fire.”

But another part of me is concerned that if the entire law is rejected, we will be left with no other choice but to revert back to the status quo—that is, a corrupt system in which those who can afford health insurance receive coverage, while those who cannot, well…they had best die quickly as former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson put it two years ago.

The conservative Supreme Court is likely to declare the individual mandate unconstitutional. (As I noted in last week’s post, the current incarnation of the Supreme Court is the most conservative since the Harding administration.) What remains unclear at this point is whether the Court will only throw out that particular part of the law, or scrap the entire thing, altogether.

As columnist and editor, Robert Scheer noted this week, the Democratic Party largely brought this judicial challenge on itself. From the beginning the Democrats refused to even consider single-payer, universal health care as a possible reform option.

In fact, during Senator Max Baucus’s (D-MT) initial health care hearings, single-payer proponents were promptly arrested for voicing support for the measure. (Protests begin at about 6:00. Note Sen. Baucus’s snide, condescending joke about, “needing more police.” Typical Democratic behavior, if you ask me.)

As has become the party’s default practice, the Democrats began the health care legislation with a compromise—in this case, the “Public Option” concept. While the Public Option was not single-payer, it still would have been preferable to the bill that was finally passed. Given the cynical nature the entire “reform” process followed, one would be justified in thinking the Democrats intentionally offered up the Public Option (already a weak compromise from single-payer) as a token bone to placate progressives fully anticipating to later bargain it away in the name of “bipartisanship.”

Democratic apologists now defend the Affordable Care Act, claiming it was the “best they could get passed,” (this at time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, mind you). This is a pathetic cop-out. The for-profit, pay-or-die health care system in this country is fundamentally flawed. The current system needs to be dismantled and replaced with a national, healthcare-for-all structure. The watered down bill the Democrats passed is little more than a tweaking of the existing system. It is not reform.

Yet all may not be lost. In fact, the Supreme Court’s likely ruling against the individual mandate may actually present new opportunities for progressives to push for single-payer.

Nation reporter, George Zornick arrives at the same conclusion in a recent blog post (“If Mandate Fails, Single-Payer Awaits,” 3/27/2012). According to Zornick, there is no Constitutional gray-area when it comes to Medicare. He writes,

“There is no doubt about the constitutionality here [of adopting single-payer]—the government is clearly allowed to levy taxes to fund public benefits. Medicare, for example, is not challengeable on the same grounds as Obama’s health care reform. So if health care reform goes down, the next logical step may well be just extending Medicare to everyone.”

(Of course, Zornick then proceeds in the next sentence to repeat the mantra that single-payer/Medicare for all was not “politically possible in 2009.” Why it was not so, however, he does not explain.)

The state of Vermont is already experimenting with a single-payer-style health care program which it plans to slowly introduce within the coming years. If single-payer is good enough for Vermont, why not Maine? Indeed, the Democrats’ failure could create the perfect opportunity for a real, robust national discussion about single-payer, universal health care for all. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

GOP Strategist Frank Luntz Reacts to Occupy Wall Street

Frank Luntz is a leading Republican strategist specializing in the use of vocabulary in shaping public opinion. He was a major proponent, for instance, in replacing the phrase, "global-warming" with the less threatening sounding, "climate-change." He also changed the "Estate Tax," into the "Death Tax." It seems, according to this video segment of "The Young Turks," Republicans will soon be retiring the word "capitalism" as well. I'm not in the habit of re-purposing video content, but I found this one highly informative. 

For more on the use of language in shaping public opinion, I highly recommend viewing The Persuaders from PBS' Frontline series.

Deconstructing Corporate Personhood

Earlier this year, Portland resident Herb Adams gave one of the most theatrical assessments of corporations I have heard to date.

“History will tell you that one of the strangest sidelines ever wandered down by the Supreme Court was that of ‘corporate personhood’,” Adams spoke at a January City Council Meeting. “…Corporations now have all the rights of a human being, plus immortality. They do not breathe, and yet they live. They do not have children, but they can reproduce. They cannot die in war because we do it for them… Never born, they cannot die.”

Adams was speaking, of course, about the Supreme Court ruling, Citizen United v. FEC, which lifted the barriers on corporate campaign donations in elections. He was speaking in favor of a city resolution (drafted by yours truly) calling on Maine’s congressional delegates to support a Constitutional amendment overturning the controversial Supreme Court decision. (The resolution ultimately passed. Click here for the full story.)

Adams’ sentiments are summed up succinctly by the title of a new book by Jeffrey Clements: Corporations Are Not People. Clements, an attorney and cofounder of the progressive group, Free Speech for People, is on a crusade to restore democracy to “We the People.” His book—more an activist “how-to” manual than academic treatises—is billed as the “Definitive guide to overturning Citizens United.”  Consider it the Common Sense of our era. Yeah, it’s that important.

Clements traces the history, not only of the now infamous Citizens United decision, but also the efforts of uber-conservative Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to gradually lift business regulations, and further the concept of corporations as “people.”

Powell, like so many of his “small government” peers, believed corporations were unfairly hindered by onerous government taxes and regulations. In seeking to “level the playing field,” for corporate speech, one could argue Justice Powell engaged in the same sort of “judicial activism” constantly derided by Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. As with the myth of the “liberal media,” the Supreme Court is another venue where the right has succeeded in convincing Americans of a prevailing left-wing influence when, in reality, conservative views tend to dominate. In fact, legal scholars have called the Roberts-led Court the most conservative in modern American history.1

Clements charts how corporate “persons” used their newfound First Amendment rights, in one instance, to continue advertising cigarettes to children—even long after the harmful effects of smoking became public knowledge. In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down a 30-year Massachusetts law prohibiting cigarette advertisements within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. The court argued the tobacco company, under the concept of free speech, essentially has the right to tell lies about the negative health impacts of its product.

Elsewhere, Clements examines the case of the bovine growth hormone rBGH manufactured by Monsanto. The drug, which is designed to increase milk production, has been linked with numerous forms of breast cancer, and has been banned in every other industrial nation in the world. Every other nation, that is, except the U.S., where Monsanto has vehemently fought even the most modest efforts for milk producers to place health advisory labels on the milk cartons.

Clements describes the efforts of local dairy farmers in Vermont who attempted to place health warning labels on milk that had been treated with the potentially lethal drug. But Monsanto sued the farmers, claiming their free speech rights also gave them the right not to speak. The judge, ruling in favor of the corporate chemical giant, claimed “the people of Vermont had caused a ‘wrong’ to the industrial dairy manufacturers’ ‘constitutional right not to speak.’” Once again, the Supreme Court cast the corporate speakers as unjustly marginalized by citizens who simply believed customers should know what exactly is in the milk they are purchasing.

Clements also debunks many of the right-wing myths often repeated by free-market ideologues when defending corporations’ unrestricted First Amendment rights. The concept, for instance, that corporations are the primary job-creators in the country, and that any regulations and restrictions placed upon them hinders their ability to hire.

This, according to Clements, is a wonderful fiction. If anything, he argues, the reverse is true: Corporations have done more to weaken the economy and eliminate blue-collar jobs. He writes:

In the past decade, the United States has lost thousands of factories, and thousands more are on the precipice. By 2009, fewer Americans worked in manufacturing jobs than at any time since 1941. Most other measures of the American middle class are just as bad. Hours worked? Since 1979, married couples with children are working an additional five hundred hours (equivalent to more than sixty-two eight-hour days). Vacation time? We have by far the lowest standard for vacation time in the developed world… Affordability of housing? Ability to pay for college? Retiring with a safe pension? Health care? Most people have it much worse on these measures than thirty years ago.2

And giant corporate mergers typically result in massive layoffs rather than the creation of new jobs.

So what can we, as citizens, do to take back our country?

Clements ultimately proposes a Constitutional Amendment. (“The People’s Rights Amendment” would be the 28th amendment to the Constitution.) His book includes a number of practical resources, websites and information on how to join in this effort on the local level. Furthermore, Clements argues we need to redefine the purpose of a corporation. Corporations, he believes, should work to serve the public good—not to enrich their own CEOs and shareholders at the public’s expense.

Here in Portland, we have already begun that process with the City Council’s recent denouncement of so-called “corporate personhood.” Clements’ Corporations Are Not People serves as an instructive and educational guide to mapping out the next steps of this very difficult, yet highly urgent campaign.

"This is what corporate personhood looks like!"

1.      Liptak, Adam. “Court Under Roberts is Most Conservative in Decades.” New York Times 24 July, 2010. Web.

2.      Clements, Jeffrey, D. Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012. Print.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Snowe Job: What the Hell Happened to the GOP?

Call it a Leap Day double-whammy. Celebrated Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s abrupt announcement she would not seek re-election this November, coupled with the first major snow storm of the year left Mainers buried in a blizzard of both media coverage and the actual white stuff. In the words of Homer Simpson during the aberrant thirteenth month of the year, “Lousy Smarch weather!”

While the extent of Senator Snowe’s oft-lauded moderate conservative politics is often exaggerated, she has, nonetheless, proven herself an intelligent, sophisticated and commendable politician. In other words, she is everything the current incarnation of her party is not. And her departure from Washington begs the inevitable question: What the hell happened to the Republican Party?

And yes, it is the Republicans that are the major problem in Washington. It is important this fact is understood before going on. Mainstream news coverage routinely laments the partisan “gridlock” in Congress, complaining that “neither party can get along.” Snowe’s press release which decries Washington’s “atmosphere of polarization,” furthered this belief with her statement, “…I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us.”1

This lens that “both sides” (i.e. both Democrats and Republicans) are to blame for Congress’ seeming inability to “reach compromise” and “get things done” is more a result of the mainstream media’s misguided emphasis on “objectivity.”

The truth is, however, the GOP has moved significantly to the right in the past thirty years, while the Democrats continue to straddle the middle, if not center-right. This trajectory is confirmed by Keith Poole, professor of political science who charted every major House and Senate vote from 1879-2011. Poole’s findings, which chart the Democrats’ and Republicans’ votes on a liberal to conservative axis, reveal the latter party routinely voted along strict partisan lines far more often than the former, beginning around the 1980s.

Yet, while the GOP has shifted to the extreme right, there has been no corresponding Democratic trend to the left. In fact, as Nation writer George Zornick notes, “This analysis shows what we can see to be anecdotally true every day: while the Republicans are in lockstep behind privatizing Medicare, there isn’t even close to Democratic consensus that Medicare should be extended to everyone.”2 In other words, if Snowe is looking for someone to blame for the “gridlock” in Congress, she need look no further than her own party.

Indeed, the right-wing zealots currently running the House of Representatives are not your daddy’s Republicans. While the Democrats are no better, having largely adopted many of the right’s standard platforms--like tax-cuts for the wealthy, permanent war, and the constant rollback of our civil liberties—at least the Dems, for the most part, have not abandoned science, intellectual discourse and rational thought. The same cannot be said of the GOP.

Take the Republican presidential candidates, for instance.

With the sole exception of Rep. Ron Paul, all of the candidates believe a U.S. airstrike on Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities is a good idea. They all praise the supremacy of the “free-market,” yet not when it comes to ailing Wall Street banks. They constantly decry the national deficit, yet refuse to raise taxes on those most able to pay. They reject the scientific evidence of global-warming. And evangelical candidates like Rick Santorum wish to push their misogynist, homophobic Christian beliefs on the rest of us. These ideological hypocrites oppose abortion based on their belief in the “sanctity” of life, but have no problem initiating prolonged wars which leave thousands of innocent children maimed and slaughtered.

Perhaps worst of all is the GOP’s recent embrace of anti-intellectualism and ignorance (“death panels” anyone?) as best exemplified by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Donald Trump.

Compared to these nimrods educated, thoughtful moderates like Olympia Snowe look pretty darn good. No wonder both Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins have been derided throughout their careers by extremist colleagues as “RINOs,” or a “Republican In Name Only.”

Speaking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! last fall, Noam Chomsky called the right-wing extremism “astonishing,” and claimed it had “no analogue in American history.”

“I’m not a great enthusiast for Obama as you know,” Chomsky said. “But at least he’s somewhere in the real world.” He goes on to call the Republican presidential candidates’ idiotic views, “Off the international spectrum of sane behavior.”3

Again, this is not to let the Democrats off the hook. While President Obama does not garner media attention for making vapid, absurd comments, the policies he and his party pursue are mostly identical to those of the Republicans. But for frightened liberals looking to cast the “safe” vote for the “least worst” candidate (between say, Romney and Obama), it is not difficult to determine which of the two meets that minimalist (and, frankly, cynical) criteria.

All of which brings us back to Snowe’s decision to retire.

In the coming days we will no doubt read many an Op-Ed column painting the senior senator’s departure as indicative of how “broken” Washington has become, and lamenting why neither party can just get along. But I think Snowe’s leaving says something else about our political and intellectual culture—something far more frightening: The loonies are no longer at the gate. They have taken over the country.

1.      Steinhauer, Jennifer. “Olympia Snowe Won’t Seek Re-election.” New York Times
28 Feb. 2012. Web.
2.      Zornick, George. “Olympia Snowe and Misdiagnosing Gridlock.” The Nation 29 Feb.
2012. Web.
3.      “Noam Chomsky: 2012 GOP Candidates Views are ‘Off the International Spectrum of
Sane Behavior’.” Narr. Amy Goodman. Democracy Now. New York, 19 Sept. 2011. Web.