Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mock the Vote

Vote goddammit!

Tuesday, November 5--less than a month from this writing--is Election Day. Will you be voting? Be honest: Did you even know there is an election this year?

The question is not meant to be rhetorical or even judgmental. The fact is a majority of eligible voters will not bother to vote in their town or city's municipal election this year. The few who do vote (the so-called "super voters" who reliably vote in every election) will do so with little prior knowledge of the candidates, the positions they are running for, or the bond or referendum questions on the ballot.

Yet, we insist on priding ourselves as citizens of the "world's greatest democracy."

Odd-year and biennial midterm elections produce notoriously low voter turnout. For example, about 41 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections. While this number is on par with recent statistical voting trends, at under fifty percent it is hardly evidence of a healthy democracy. Contrast this with voter turnout in Canada which is regularly between 70-75 percent. In other industrialized countries, turnout is well over 80 percent. (In countries like Australia voting is mandatory, a policy I am not entirely opposed to.)

Indeed, 2010's piss-poor voter turnout--what political analysts term the "enthusiasm gap"--allowed the right-wing Tea Party to take control of the House of Representatives. Here in Maine, it led to the election of Gov. Paul LePage, and a temporary Republican takeover of the state legislature. As I write this, the federal government is currently shutdown thanks to these right-wing zealots. So do not tell me voting does not matter.

Turnout was slightly better in last year's presidential election, which was close to 58 percent according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Still, this means some 93 million eligible voters did not cast ballots. And many of those same voters who stood in line for hours--many voting for the first time in their lives--will not bother this year, largely because it is not a presidential race.

And, contrary to popular opinion, voter apathy is not limited to young people. Last year while working on my friend Asher Platt's campaign, I talked to several Baby Boomer-aged individuals who told me flat-out, "I don't vote." One elderly woman told me she had never cast a vote in her life.

Sorry America, but it needs to be said: This is fucking pathetic.

Given the myriad forms of civic engagement one could undertake, voting is hands-down the absolute easiest. It is the most entry-level form of citizen involvement. For most Americans, it is their only form of involvement. If we cannot be bothered to exercise our right to vote, we may as well proclaim the Founding Fathers' experiment in democracy a failure, pack it up and go back to Britain. Nothing more to see here, folks. Show's over.

Americans, it seems, have simply become so fed up with politics in general, they have collectively thrown up their hands in disgust. They have decided politics--both at the national and local level--is too corrupt, nasty and mean-spirited to deserve our time. And while one cannot really blame the average citizen for arriving at this conclusion, this cynical attitude is not a solution to the problem. It is a surrender.

Furthermore, this disgusted indifference is exactly the sort of attitude many in Washington want us to have toward elections and politics. The fewer informed, knowledgeable citizens who show up to vote on Election Day, the better, as far as they are concerned. How else to explain how deranged congressional representatives like John Boehner, Ted Cruz and LePage are elected (and re-elected) in the first place?

Apathy is not a solution. Fed up with your local government? Run for office yourself. My friends and Green Party colleagues, David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue did just that. They are now serving their third terms on the Portland City Council. On Nov. 5, Portlanders will have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in the city, largely thanks to Marshall and the Portland Green Independent Party's efforts.

If anything, this year's municipal election--in which Portland voters will fill two at-large City Council seats, and two positions on the School Board--is actually more important than last year's presidential race. Yes, you read correctly: More important. Why, you ask? Because these are the municipal offices that exert the most influence and authority over our neighborhoods, community and daily lives.

Furthermore, the members of your local school board and town council are residents you can actually meet with. They might even be your neighbor. This means you have far greater access to them than you do the president or even members of Congress. You can potentially influence them on local issues or laws that are important to you. When President Obama visited Maine last year, it cost $10,000 just to dine in the same room as him. I can visit State Rep. Ben Chipman for free.

All of that being said, should we regard voting as the "be-all-end-all"? Absolutely not. As citizens we need to get in the habit of being civically-minded all year round--not just during elections. We also need more parties so voters can actually have choices in the voting booth. And yes, campaign finance reform, both at the national and local levels, is an urgently needed remedy to our calcified, two-party duopoly.

But even if all of these reforms were enacted, none of them would make a difference if "We the People" cannot be bothered to vote.

Conservatives who proudly proclaim that, "Freedom isn't free," are half right. While I dispute the sentiment's implication that continued freedom necessitates constant military "defense" throughout the globe, I do agree that maintaining democracy requires some sustained effort on our part. I think Howard Zinn put it better: "Democracy is not what governments do," he once said, "it's what people do."

I intend, Dear Reader, to up bright and early on Tuesday, Nov. 5 to cast my ballot. I expect to see you there.

If you like this blog post please share it widely on The Internets (which, according to the late Sen. Ted Stevens, is a "series of tubes.") And if you really liked it, and want to read similar ones on a more regular basis, consider making a donation via the PayPal button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated. This is non-commercial, radical journalism you won't find on NPR.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Myth of Congressional Gridlock

On the major issues of our time, Democrats and Republicans march in lockstep.

I joked with friends recently that, with the government currently shutdown, we should kidnap all the members of Congress, tie them up and lock them in a storage unit somewhere, and replace them all with Greens. Well, I was mostly joking...

The government shutdown, which has left 800,000 "non-essential" government employees furloughed, and others forced to continue working without pay, offers another opportunity to dispel some popular myths about so-called congressional gridlock.

Conventional wisdom (i.e. "objective" corporate news-reporting) defines 21st century politics by a Congress in perpetual "gridlock" wherein "neither party" can agree on anything. Both the Republicans and Democrats, we are constantly told, have become so polarized that the U.S. government is locked in constant stalemate on pressing issues from immigration, and the economy to gun control and health care. "Both parties" the elite corporate talking-heads assure us, have been hijacked by the more "extremist" elements of the far right and far left.

This is actually true for one party: The Republicans.

Indeed, I think it is fair to say we have never witnessed a more radical incarnation of the GOP--a party that, it is worth recalling, began as a third-party. Today's Republicans are so bat-shit crazy it is easy to see how so-called "centrists" like Maine's Susan Collins and recently retired Olympia Snowe look moderate in comparison.

And make no doubt about it: Blame for the government shutdown lies solely with them. Regardless of what we may personally think about it, "Obamacare" is, for better or worse, the law of the land. It has been upheld by the Supreme Court. House Republicans need to accept this fact and quit wasting legislative time passing pointless measures to repeal it.

Yet, claims of a comparable extremist shift in the Democratic Party are ludicrously empty. While the Republicans embrace their more radical members, effectively allowing them to become the face of the party, the Democrats do just the opposite--they suppress  and undermine them. (Cases in point: Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Russ Feingold and Jesse Jackson.)

This is why, strategically speaking, I do not believe it is possible for progressives to "take back" the Democratic Party, their primary focus for the last decade. True progressive members like Feingold and Kucinich have been trying to "take back" their party for years now, and the fact that both have been booted out of office speaks to how effective their efforts have been.

At the end of the day, both parties agree on far more than they disagree. When it comes to broad, overarching issues of war and peace, the primacy of the free-market, Wall Street bailouts, the surveillance state, tax-cuts for the wealthy and overall servitude to corporate power, the Democrats and Republicans march in unyielding lockstep.

Or, as Noam Chomsky explains, "In the U.S. there is basically one party--the Business Party. It has two factions called Democrats and Republicans which are somewhat different, but carry out variations on the same policies."

As the Socialist Worker notes in a recent editorial ("Washington's Warring Brothers," 10/01/2013), the media coverage of the shutdown, "obscures how far to the right both [parties] have traveled together over the years."

The editors write:

They agree on imposing sweeping cuts in most government programs, though not the Pentagon; they differ on how deep the cuts should be. They agree on a health care system where the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex calls the shots; they differ about parts of a law designed to preserve the industry's profits and power. They agree on a system where Corporate America piles up record profits by driving down the living standards of working-class people; they disagree only on the details of how that system should operate.
The problem is not that Congress is "broken." The federal government works just fine. It is just not working for you and me. It is working for Wall Street, the one percent and the military-industrial complex.

There is, perhaps, no better example of the two parties' homogeneity than the health care "reform" law--The Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare"--at the center of the shutdown. Whether the ACA--which amounts to little more than an unnecessary bailout for the corporate health insurance industry--is "better than nothing," or a "step in the right direction" is beside the point. Claiming the ACA is "better than nothing," is a bit like arguing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is "better than" NAFTA. Either way, rapacious multinational corporations benefit at the expense of working-class people.

The ACA, and more specifically, the concept of the individual mandate, was born in the chambers of that bastion of conservative lobbying, The Heritage Foundation in the late 1980s. The first politician to successfully implement the law at the state level was then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2006. In fact, during Bill Clinton's attempts at health care reform in the 1990s, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich touted the individual mandate plan as the Republican alternative.

Call it what you will--"Obamacare," "Romneycare," "socialism"--but the law, with its Friedmanesque emphasis on "consumer choice," was originally cooked up by free-market conservatives.

In other words, if Republicans truly hate Obamacare as much as they claim to, they only have themselves to blame for it. Indeed, there was something almost absurdly Orwellian about watching Romney campaign against Obama last year by attacking his signature health reform success.

The law forces Americans to buy the private health insurance companies' defective coverage. It does little to control premium and co-pay costs. And, due to the ever increasing cost of private insurance, it will leave out some 3,000 low-income Americans who simply cannot afford to buy in. Those Americans will face penalty of a hefty government fine--essentially criminalizing them for being poor.

Additionally, a number of states led by Republican governors (including Maine) have opted out of the ACA's Medicaid expansion provision, which, in Maine alone, would have benefited 37,000 uninsured residents. Originally a mandatory component of the law, the Supreme Court ruled last year the Medicaid expansion could only be considered constitutional if presented as an optional feature.

The New York Times, in a recent editorial ("A Population Betrayed," 10/03/2013), lambasted the 26 Republican state governors, calling their decision to forgo Medicaid expansion "outrageous." The editors further criticize, "These 26 states would rather turn down incredibly generous federal funds that would finance 100 percent of the expansion costs for three years and at least 90 percent thereafter than offer a helping hand to their most vulnerable residents."

Paul LePage should consider himself fortunate the Maine constitution offers no provision for recalling state officials. Just saying...

I know, I know--This law was the "best the Democrats could do." Single-payer health care simply is not "politically feasible." We should just shut up and be thankful for what we have.


The Democrats passed the ACA with solid majorities in both the Senate and the House. Throughout the health care debate (such as it was, with single-payer activists getting arrested and all), they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. They were actually on the right path with their original plan for a public-option--already a compromise from single-payer, but still a closer step in that direction than the ACA is. But, in typical fashion, the Dems promptly compromised away the compromise. The bill they ended up passing was not Plan B, but Plan C. If holding an honest, up-or-down vote on single-payer when your party holds a Congressional majority and the presidency is "impossible," it is only because the Democrats have no desire to ever hold such a vote.

In the end, like the Republicans, they prefer to maintain a for-profit, corporate health system that incentives death and disease. Can't afford health insurance? Then you'd best heed Florida Rep. Alan Grayson's sardonic advice: Die quickly.

So ignore the media's "blame-game." Both parties are beholden to corporate paymasters first and foremost. Any crumbs of reform they happen to toss our way are incidental and, ultimately, too little to make a serious difference.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Great American Stickup

Five Years Later, Wall Street is Still Winning

Five years after Wall Street crashed the global economy and caused the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the "Too Big To Fail" financial behemoths are riding high on a wave of unprecedented recovery while the rest of us are worse off than ever.

For all the initial shock and outrage at Wall Street's destructive excess, five years later, Congress has enacted few meaningful, enforceable financial reforms, Wall Street CEOs are once again raking in record salaries, and not one banker has gone to prison. The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine seems to sum things up best: "How Wall Street Won."

Has nothing changed?

As Ralph Nader points out in a recent editorial for The Huffington Post ("Five Years Later: Wall Street is Still At It," 09/20/2013), "One would hope that, five years later, our country would be on the road to economic recovery."

"Yet many of the worst excesses of Wall Street remain," he writes. "...Wall Street and the big banks are even bigger, richer, and more powerful than they were in 2008 when U.S. taxpayers bailed them out of their self-inflicted crisis."

Nader was one of a handful of economic critics who warned, early on, that Wall Street's reckless behavior and arrogant risks could well lead to another recession. But he and his colleagues were promptly ignored or ridiculed by the corporate media. (Nader's latest book, a compilation of recent essays and Op-Eds is sardonically titled, Told You So.)

Five years later, nearly all of the "Too Big To Fail" banks that caused the Great Recession (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to name a few), are again thriving, while minimum-wage workers have not had a raise in three decades.

Real wages, adjusted for inflation, have remained stagnant from their 1972 peak. This, despite the fact American workers are working harder than ever. Major employers like Walmart cynically exploit what remains of our beleaguered social safety net by paying their employees dirt-cheap wages and actively encouraging them to apply for government assistance. Indeed, what does it say about U.S. business culture when the average Walmart employee cannot afford to shop at Walmart? As a result of these businesses' stinginess (Walmart being just one example), taxpayers end up footing the bill to help provide for low-wage workers.

This is not free-market capitalism. It is corporate welfare.

I have made this point numerous times on this blog, but I will state it again as it does not seem to be sinking in:

Corporations--not the bedraggled, greasy-looking panhandler begging for money on the street corner--are society's real Welfare Queens. We, as taxpayers, are essentially paying their employees for them--and they do not even work for us! Why welfare-loathing, libertarian conservatives refuse to support a living wage for all is perhaps one of the most paradoxical inconsistencies of modern politics. I ask in all seriousness then, when will these lazy corporations and their mega-millionaire CEOs start pulling their own weight and stop freeloading off the rest of us productive Americans?

Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate remains stuck at an anemic 7.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' August jobs report. And that is just the "official" rate. The actual unemployment rate (what the few economists who bother to report on it refer to as "U-6"), according to Forbes' Dan Diamond, is closer to 15 percent. This statistic includes the dozens of frustrated women and men who have given up looking for work entirely. As Diamond notes, this real unemployment rate has doubled from 2007- 2009.

To wit: Most of my friends my age are either desperately searching for work, or underemployed at low-wage jobs that do not utilize their college education. According to a story earlier this summer in The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram ("Special Report: Maine's Top Jobs," June, 2013), the jobs with the highest expected growth in the foreseeable future are exclusively in health care or retail.

In the wake of the Great Recession, working-class Americans feel the "American Dream" is increasingly out of reach. It is time to wake up to the truth, America: Unregulated, free-market capitalism has failed the majority of us. It's time to reboot the system and install a new operating system.

Indeed, this was the sentiment in the wake of the Great Depression. After the economy tanked and hundreds of Americans lost their life savings, the general consensus was that capitalism had failed. Many left-leaning citizens began to talk openly and candidly about the need for social-democratic reforms, if not outright socialism. Novels like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath painfully and vividly portrayed the human costs of capitalism's insatiable thirst for ever greater profits.

Yet, save for a tongue-in-cheek Newsweek cover story, the 2008 financial collapse has not brought about a similar rethinking of capitalism. The only time the "S-word" was uttered by elite, cable television news hosts was to ludicrously claim then-candidate Barack Obama was running on a "socialist" agenda. (If only!) As it turned out, this smear campaign failed miserably and Americans overwhelmingly elected Obama president twice. Once in office this "socialist" president proceeded to stack his cabinet with wealthy bankers, businessmen, and other corporate servants, including the union-busting Rahm Emanuel. Some socialist.

But all is not lost. There was one good thing to come out of the recession. No, not Dodd-Frank--Occupy Wall Street. Despite its obvious structural flaws and its failure to engage the political system, Occupy's contributions should not be undermined. We can credit the Occupy movement with reigniting the debate on class-struggle. Two years after its launch, we still routinely use terms like "99 percent," and "one percent" to talk about wealth inequality. The future, I believe, lies in some fusion between Occupy Wall Street and the Green Party.

Until such a political-protest hybrid emerges, we will have to do our best to scrape by however we can. After all, it's Wall Street's world. We just live in it.