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“An Invitation To Oligarchy”: McCutcheon, And The Vicious Cycle Of Concentrated Wealth And Political Power

If wealth and income weren’t already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful “McCutcheon” decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be as dangerous. But by taking “Citizen’s United” one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.

Almost limitless political donations coupled with America’s dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses – thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.

That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent — all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.

It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. “McCutcheon” merely accelerates this vicious cycle.

As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.

Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire — such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state.

In America of the late nineteenth century, the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, prompting the great jurist Louis Brandeis to note that the nation had a choice: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few,” he said. “But we cannot have both.”

Soon thereafter America made the choice. Public outrage gave birth to the nation’s first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America’s first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.

The question is when do we reach another tipping point, and what happens then?


By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Economic Inequality, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“In Dire Demographic Straits”: The GOP’s New Voting Laws Are Nothing Less Than A War On Democracy

Can someone please explain to me why the New York Times’ top story from this past Sunday hasn’t provoked nationwide outrage?

Allow me to provide a handy summary: Having spent the last several years trumping up unsubstantiated charges of voter fraud in order to justify new laws and regulations making it more burdensome to vote in poor and minority (read: Democratic-leaning) districts around the country, the Republican Party has now changed tactics. In the name of enforcing the “uniformity” of voting rules, Republican governors and legislatures in a number of swing states have begun to increase the obstacles to voting still further. Some states are requiring that would-be voters show birth certificates or passports (which many poor people don’t possess), while others are curtailing the days, times, and places available to vote (which is particularly onerous for poor people who have little workplace flexibility and often lack transportation).

Let’s leave aside the spectacle of Republicans, usually our most fulsome champions of local control, suddenly banging on about the need for statewide uniformity in voting rules.

What’s far more noteworthy (and frankly pathetic) about these moves is that they’re a tacit acknowledgement by the Republican Party that it’s in dire demographic straits — and that one of the key pillars of its ideology over the last half-century is crumbling right before our eyes.

Ever since Richard Nixon claimed to speak for the “silent American majority,” the GOP has identified itself with the real America, the true America, the America of morals and faith and common sense, as opposed to the ersatz America of secular liberalism made up of judges, professors, journalists, and other elites who control the commanding heights of culture from decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood. These elites have a pernicious influence and do a lot of damage, Republicans have maintained, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the real Americans who find their natural home in the GOP.

This ideology of righteous majoritarianism received intellectual validation from the first generation of neoconservatives, who wrote during the 1970s about the emergence of a “new class” of liberal professionals whose moral outlook differed from that of the rest of the country. Then, the ideology contributed to the rhetorical populism of the Reagan Revolution. Later, in a purer, high-octane form, it fueled the rise of right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and the rest of a conservative media infrastructure that exists to continually feed the flames of partisan fury through a potent mixture of flattery, demonization, and identity politics. “YOU are the real and righteous Americans,” these outlets tell their loyal listeners and viewers day after day, year after year, “and THEY are illegitimate, immoral imposters who have usurped political power.”

The story was always an exaggeration, but it once had a certain plausibility. Reagan won re-election in 1984 with 58.8 percent of the vote. Millions of his supporters were lifelong New Deal and Great Society liberals who jumped parties to become the fabled “Reagan Democrats.” It seemed for a time like the silent American majority had finally found its voice.

But then the numbers started heading south. George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan with a softer 53.4 percent of the vote, and then went on to lose his bid for re-election in 1992. His son notoriously made it to the White House in 2000 despite losing the popular vote; four years later he won a majority — though, with only 50.7 percent of the vote, just barely. And it’s been downhill ever since.

The grassroots of the GOP and its media cheerleaders like to attribute the party’s losses in 2008 (McCain, 45.7 percent) and 2012 (Romney, 47.2 percent) to the party’s foolish decision to go with presidential candidates who were compromised conservatives. If only they’d chosen real Republicans!

But this is a self-serving fantasy. As John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have been arguing for years, with each election cycle providing confirmation of their thesis, the Republican Party faces a possibly intractable demographic problem — with its core voters (older white men) becoming an ever-smaller proportion of the electorate. This means that in the country’s only national election contest (the presidential vote), the popular margin is likely to swing increasingly in the direction of the Democratic Party. Unless, of course, Republicans can keep Democrats from voting.

But what about the GOP’s success at holding on to the House of Representatives in recent years? That, too, is a product of anti-democratic manipulation. The Democrats actually received more overall votes in House races in 2012 but failed to win control of the chamber because the GOP has used state-level redistricting to cram ever-greater numbers of Democrats into smaller numbers of districts, effectively decreasing their political power relative to their raw numbers.

Charming, isn’t it?

But also pitiable. Having built an ideology around the conviction that it speaks axiomatically for the real American majority, the Republican Party has become incapable of coping with evidence to the contrary — and willing to do just about anything, including subverting democracy, to maintain that fiction.

Republicans should be ashamed of themselves — and the rest of us should be disgusted.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, April 1, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, GOP, Voter Suppression | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Are Guns A Public Health Issue?”: Let Us Count The Ways…

Is calling guns a public health issue a political statement? That’s become the underlying issue in the nomination of the White House’s pick for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy. In 2012, Murthy sent out a tweet: “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue.” The NRA got Senators to hurl the words back at him during a confirmation hearing, and seems to have convinced not just Republicans but some Democrats to vote against him. Now nobody is talking about bringing his nomination to the floor.

Let’s leave aside the issue of whether a Tweet should be the grounds for an opposition campaign, and of whether Murthy, best known for running an advocacy organization to support Obamacare’s launch, is the most qualified person for the job. If the question at hand is whether it’s partisan to believe that gun violence should be under the purview of the nation’s top doctor, it seems the answer is no. As Lucia Graves at National Journal chronicled last week, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s surgeon generals, C. Everett Koop and Louis W. Sullivan, have professed the same view as Murthy without ruffling feathers. “Promoting reasonable gun policies does not make [public health professionals] ‘antigun’ any more than the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is ‘anticar,’” wrote David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health in his 2004 book Private Guns, Public Health.

Gun violence impacts health in all kinds of ways. There are the more obvious ones, like death and injury. As Olga Khazan pointed out at The Atlantic, suicide rates are higher in states where gun ownership is more common. In 2010, 19,392 people took their own lives with guns, while “justifiable homicides”—self-defense shootings that may have saved a life—numbered only 230. Over two-thirds of homicides and over half of successful suicides involve the use of a gun, and accidental gun deaths average about two a day. The U.S. spends $2 billion a year on medical care for victims of gun injuries; one out of three people hospitalized after shootings is uninsured, according to The Huffington Post.

Then there are the less obvious health effects of gun violence: Lead in the ground from ammunition. Loss of hearing from gunshots. Widespread PTSD that effects everyone from shooters, to victims, to bystanders. “Gun violence traumatizes whole communities,” Hemenway told me. This creates a cycle: “People with PTSD in inner cities often don’t have good access to mental health care, and it makes them more likely to be aggressive.”

Public health experts have a list of possible solutions that fall outside the most fractious debates over firearms. Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, has pushed for the engineering of “smart guns,” which could only be fired by their owners: No more weapons finding their way into the black market, or becoming deadly playthings in the hands of children. (The NRA has fought the new technology.) Teret’s idea would address both intentional and accidental gun hazards, but there are lots of ways to approach the latter—from mandated child safety locks, to features that would make it more obvious if a weapon was loaded.

Hemenway also suggested changing the culture around some aspects of gun use, as a sustained campaign did for drunk driving in the 20th century. “One of the social norms should be that it’s your responsibility, if you’re a gun owner, to make sure your gun is not stolen,” he said.

The power of the surgeon general lies mostly in the ability to shape public conversation, and to do so he or she needs to maintain a high degree of trust, on both ends of the political spectrum. But sometimes advocating for public health means wading into controversial issues, like AIDS or smoking, because people’s lives are at stake. That means a surgeon general must be ready and willing to speak out on all kinds of hazards, even ones with powerful constituencies behind them. Those can include carcinogens from cigarettes, poisons from pollution, and, yes, bullets from guns.


By: Nora Caplan-Bricker, The New Republic, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns, Public Health | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Three Feet Away”: Scott Walker’s Intimidation And Voter Harassment Program

There’s been a fair amount of attention lately on Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) newly imposed voting restrictions in Wisconsin, and for good reason. The governor’s latest measures appear to have only one purpose: making it more difficult for his constituents to participate in their democracy.

But last week’s new restrictions weren’t the end of Walker’s efforts. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

Election observers could stand a few feet from voters and poll workers, under one of a series of election bills Gov. Scott Walker signed in private Wednesday.

The law would allow observers to stand 3 to 8 feet from the table where voters announce their names and addresses and are issued voter numbers, or from the table where people register to vote.

Consider a hypothetical scenario. A college student in Madison stops by a table to register to vote, and as she goes through the process, an elections “observer” stands 36 inches away, just to ensure the rules are being followed to his satisfaction. Months later, when she goes to her local voting precinct, another “observer” – again standing just 36 inches away – will oversee the process as she picks up her ballot.

This scenario will now be legal in Wisconsin.

Why in the world would GOP policymakers in Wisconsin consider this a good idea? According to the article, “Walker’s office said that the law will safeguard the fairness of elections by ensuring observers can see how they are being conducted.”

Just think, Wisconsin not only held generations of fair elections without “observers” hovering around voters, but has enjoyed one of the highest voter-participation rates in the country. Little did state residents know how flawed their system was.

Democratic opponents of the proposal warned of intimidation, voter harassment, and according to one state senator, observers “breathing down the necks of poll workers.”

They did not, however, have the votes to stop the measure.

All of this is the latest in a series of election-related policies approved by Wisconsin Republicans. In 2011, for example, they curtailed early voting statewide.

Last week, Walker went further, curtailing early voting even further, eliminating weekend voting and ending evening voting after 7 p.m.

There was no reason to impose these new voter-suppression policies and the rationales proponents came up with were easily discredited.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Scott Walker, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Wishy-Washy Wonk”: Paul Ryan, Still A Total Jerk

Remind me not to get in a foxhole with Paul Ryan. At the first sign of trouble, he’ll pack up his gunny sack and head for base camp, running into the latrine to hide.

Or so I conclude from the budget he released this week. Remember how last year Ryan was reinventing himself as the true friend of “the poors,” as we ironically say in liberal blogland? Aside from being stunned that all those skewed polls turned out to be exactly on the money and he and Mitt Romney lost, he was also, we were told, chagrined and maddened that he came away from the 2012 campaign with a reputation as a pitiless Randian with a hole where his heart used to be.

So he set out last year to prove us all wrong. He hired a disaffected ex-Democratic wonk as his top social-policy guy. He was getting the great press you’d expect out of Politico, which loves Republicans Who Confound Liberals (“The new Paul Ryan,” last December 10; “Is Paul Ryan the GOP’s Next Jack Kemp?”, December 12; someone was asleep at the wheel on December 11 I guess). America would soon see the revealed truth: Government keeps poor people poor, bleeds them of the pluck and spunk needed to liberate oneself from the dependent-American community. St. Paul would save them.

Then came the CPAC conference a month ago, and he tells one little story, about the kid who didn’t want a free lunch, just a normal brown bag like the other kids, and he gets it wrong, and the real and true version of the story doesn’t remotely prove the point he wants it to prove in his retelling, and he gets hammered over it for days, and boom, he throws in the poverty towel. To blazes with those poors. Kicking them was pretty fun after all.

I jest, of course, with my chronology. But the budget he put out this week is nothing to laugh at. Or maybe on reflection it is something to laugh at. Why in the world does it exist, and what good do he and his fellow House Republicans think it’s going to do them?

In case you haven’t heard the basic skinny, it’s a budget that’s very pre-new Paul Ryan, characterized by the two features that have chiefly characterized all Ryan budgets: meanness and dishonesty. Meanness starts with the $5.1 trillion in cuts to domestic discretionary spending programs over 10 years, with steep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps, and—

No, wait. Let’s stop here and mull this food stamp cut. As you probably know, in last year’s farm bill negotiations, House Republicans proposed a $40 billion cut to food stamps. By the time the House and Senate agreed to a farm bill last month, that was whittled down to $8.7 billion over 10 years. That’s a small cut in percentage terms (about 1 percent). But even it takes $90 a month away from 850,000 poor families. Ryan’s proposed food stamps cut? $125 billion. More than 14 times the size of the already controversial current cut. As St. Paul sayeth, we rejoice in our sufferings.

Beyond that it’s the usual Dickensian gruel. Federal programs block-granted, which always means far less money and almost always means that governors can spend the money on some more rewarding and more agreeably ZIP-coded constituency if they want to. Huge education cuts. Big cuts to Pell Grants. Oh, and here’s a nice touch—college students would start being charged interest on their loans while still in college, so that now, on top of everything else, the Republican Party is getting into the usury business.

Now don’t think I’ve forgotten the dishonesty part. Obamacare, as you might recall from the aforementioned campaign, cuts $716 billion in payments to hospitals and such. You remember—Romney and Ryan pounded on Obama about that $716 billion. You’re killing the oldsters, and so on.

Well, Ryan’s budget would repeal Obamacare. And yet, it pockets that same roughly $700 billion in Medicare cuts as savings, and, as Sahil Kapur noted for TPM, it “uses the savings to meet its fiscal targets.” How dandy is that? Hate Obamacare hate Obamacare hate Obamacare hate Obamacare…Oh, but I’ll pocket that $700 billion, Barack, thanks, great idea!

I haven’t even mentioned the plan’s biggest political weakness, which is Ryan’s return, yes, to Medicare, to quasi-privatizing it for people under 55. Democrats, until this week wholly on the defensive, have now been handed a huge sledgehammer. The 7.1 million Obamacare enrollees takes the heat off health care for the time being and allows for a topic change. And so here comes Ryan, the very day after Obamacare enrollment closed, offering that topic.

Why? Why is he re-introducing the idea of tampering with Medicare in an election year? In fact, why even release a document such as this? And why, having released it, force all your members to vote on it within the next week or so, which Ryan and Eric Cantor vow will happen? As Greg Sargent pointed out Wednesday, eight House Republicans in six different states are going to have to vote for this Medicare- and Medicaid-killing budget (old people understand that “Medicaid” means “nursing home care”).

And, depending on how you rate these things, there are around 25 House Republicans who could conceivably lose to Democrats this November. Why force them to vote for this? Or maybe if you’re John Boehner you don’t force them to. You let them vote no. But then you lose! Then what a laughing stock you are! But you’ll probably get 218 votes one way or another. So fine—you’ve forced some people in vulnerable positions to vote aye, but hey, you’ve won the vote. Then what? Then nothing. Harry Reid’s Senate will not even take it up. So it’s all symbolism.

And this is the symbol the GOP wants to present? The party that destroys federal education programs, Medicaid, food stamps, and (in the future) Medicare? I suppose they think it’ll rev up their base. Will it really? This is the fifth Ryan budget by my count. They’ve all said in essence the same thing, and they’ve all gone the same place: nowhere.

I’d like to know, sort of, what’s actually in Paul Ryan’s head and heart. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. What matters with him, as with any politician, is what he puts on paper. And here we have it. If this is trying to help the poor, then what Putin is doing in Russia is pro-gay. At least we won’t have to read any more “Paul Ryan loves poor people” stories. So long, St. Paul.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Paul Ryan, Ryan Budget Plan | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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