Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Elizabeth Drew writes in the NY Review of Books:
With each election come innovations in ways that the very rich donate and the candidates collect and spend increasingly large amounts of money on campaigns. And with each decision on campaign financing the current Supreme Court’s conservative majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts in the lead, removes some restrictions on money in politics. We are now at the point where, practically speaking, there are no limits on how much money an individual, a corporation, or a labor union can give to a candidate for federal office (though the unions can hardly compete).
Today a presidential candidate has to have two things and maybe three before making a serious run: at least one billionaire willing to spend limitless amounts on his or her campaign and a “Super PAC”—a supposedly independent political action committee that accepts large donations that have to be disclosed. The third useful asset is an organization that under the tax code is supposedly “operated exclusively to promote social welfare.” The relevant section of the tax code, 501(c)(4), would appear to be intended for the Sierra Club and the like, not political money. But the IRS rules give the political groups the same protection.
The contributions to these last groups have come to be called “dark money” because the donors can remain secret. The very wealthy can contribute to such dark money groups in the knowledge that people won’t know who is trying to buy a candidate.
At this stage of the campaign, while some politicians are ostensibly still agonizing over whether or not to run, the would-be candidates are engaged in setting up the “independent” fundraising groups that will support them; they aren’t even bothering to call mere millionaires. And the idea that campaign contributions aren’t intended as a quid pro quo is fast crumbling.
Fortunately for the candidates, given the way the benefits of the economy are concentrated there’s an adequate supply of billionaires—people who enjoy investing in a candidate, in whom they may actually believe, and whose gratitude would be most useful if that candidate were to win. Meanwhile, the billionaire can indulge in name-dropping, in the reality or illusion of being on the inside of a campaign with the prospect of access to the candidate who ends up in the Oval Office.
With enough money behind him or her, even a preposterous candidate can at least for a while be a real factor in the nominating contest. The billionaires sometimes seemingly come out of nowhere. Few had heard of Foster Friess, who suddenly popped up in 2012 supporting Rick Santorum—a seemingly improbable prospect for winning the presidency given his retrograde social views and his reputation for having been a brash but mediocre senator. Friess, a business investor and evangelical Christian conservative, kept Santorum in the primaries for a lot longer than would have been reasonably expected. Friess himself became famous when, defending Santorum’s opposition to contraceptives, he asserted that women (“gals”) could stave off pregnancy by putting an aspirin “between their knees.” He is now supporting Santorum again for the 2016 race.
The erratic but seldom boring Newt Gingrich, never a serious candidate for the presidency, came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2012, but with the help of the billionaire Las Vegas–based casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, he swept the important South Carolina primary and seemed to truly believe that he could win the nomination.
Thus, a single exceptionally rich person can distort the nomination race, meanwhile confusing candidates into thinking that they’re more popular than they are. Of course other factors can play into the successes of the well-backed candidate: Gingrich benefited from what were seen by many as strong performances in debates.
Adelson’s prominence in 2012 as well as his generosity to congressional candidates has made him one of the most powerful people in the country. His wealth is estimated at over $35 billion, and he and his wife, Miriam, a dual citizen of Israel and the US, are fervent supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive policies. Adelson is reported to have spent at least $92 million on the 2012 election. As a casino owner, Adelson unsurprisingly also seeks a ban on Internet gambling. Lindsey Graham, said to be nearing an entrance into the 2016 Republican free-for-all, is the principal sponsor of this Adelson cause in Congress. Graham recently told The Wall Street Journal, “I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding.”
As early as March 2014, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and John Kasich flew to Las Vegas to appear before a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition—the pilgrimage was to seek Adelson’s favor. Christie had to apologize to Adelson for having referred to “occupied territories.” Walker let the group know that he owns a menorah. This year a larger number of Republican candidates trooped to Las Vegas. Adelson pressured the donees to support Netanyahu’s position against the nuclear deal with Iran.
Most of the candidates for the nominations for 2016 have their pet billionaires. Hillary Clinton has more than one. Among them so far are Alice Walton of Walmart and Marc Benioff, a San Francisco businessman who supported Barack Obama. All contributed early to Clinton’s Super PAC, Ready for Hillary. For now, to give the impression that her campaign is supported by the ever-expanding idea of who the “grassroots” are, donations to Ready for Hillary are limited to $25,000. Clinton also enjoys the support of some Hollywood billionaires, such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Haim Saban, an entertainment executive worth an estimated $3.4 billion who has been generous to the Clintons in the past and is another supporter of right-wing Israeli policies. The big money for Clinton is expected to go both to Priorities USA, a Super PAC that backed Obama but is now switching to support her and will spend dark money on ads, and also to another group, called Priorities USA Action, that won’t be hiding its contributors.
Clinton’s side hoped to scare off serious rivals for the Democratic nomination by letting it be known that she planned to raise a staggering $2.5 billion for her campaign. . . [that is, she planned to buy the nomination, pure and simple; does anyone believe that this amount of money does not have some serious strings attached? Perhaps the title should be “How money ruins our politics.” – LG]
Interesting article by Pam Martens and Russ Martens:
Manipulating Americans to organize or protest against their own interests is the sine qua non of big corporate front groups. These groups are alternately known as astroturf organizations because the grass in “grassroots” is fake turf.
Just how fake that turf is came into crisp perspective on April 2 when Christine Stapleton, an investigative reporter at the Palm Beach Post, revealed that a protest rally called by the Tea Party of Miami and Florida Citizens Against Waste used paid actors from the Broward Acting Group as faux protesters. (Watch a video here.)
The fake protest was in response to more than 100 real citizens turning out the prior month to demand that the South Florida Water Management District, a state agency, exercise its option before it expires to purchase 48,600 acres of corporate land owned by U.S. Sugar, a huge sugar cane grower in South Florida. According to studies and experts, the land purchase is vital to preventing marine life die-offs in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River basins and along the Indian River Lagoon.
Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Tropical Audubon Society, explained what’s at stake: “The purchase can solve the problems of getting sufficient water for the Everglades and greatly reducing the damaging pulses of polluted fresh water to the northern estuaries while delivering much needed clean water to the southern estuaries.”
Corporate front groups do not want to see more land owned by government because with it comes the ability to regulate it against pollution. The Tea Party’s mantra against “big government” is a pseudo cover against government regulation of big business. The Koch brothers involvement in the modern Tea Party movement is by now well known. Much less understood is just how far back the roots of our Faux Democracy under Koch brothers’ financing extend.
On February 8, 2013, the health professionals’ journal, Tobacco Control, published a comprehensive report on the roots of the Tea Party, dating it to the 1980s. The research was funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), a Federal Agency and titled ‘To Quarterback Behind the Scenes, Third Party Efforts’: The Tobacco Industry and the Tea Party.
The authors reveal that Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), which split into Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks in 2004, “was co-founded in 1984 by David Koch, of Koch Industries, and Richard Fink, former professor of economics at George Mason University, who has worked for Koch Industries since 1990.” According to the report, “CSE supported the agendas of the tobacco and other industries, including oil, chemical, pharmaceutical and telecommunications, and was funded by them.”
Long before the Tea Party attracted media attention, CSE started the first online Tea Party in 2002, calling it the US Tea Party. The NIH-funded study shows that between 1991 and 2002, Philip Morris and other tobacco companies gave CSE at least $5.3 million.
CSE was a pure Koch-created organization and considered an integral part of the Philip Morris strategy to thwart Federal regulation of cigarettes and second hand smoke. The study shows that Philip Morris designated CSE a “Category A” organization for funding and it was assigned its own Philip Morris senior relationship manager.
In 1994 and 1995, Philip Morris and other tobacco companies launched an assault, using nonprofit front groups including CSE, to undermine the credibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which was attempting to regulate second-hand smoke. One Philip Morris memo in late 1994 indicated that CSE and other front groups were working “to define the FDA as an agency out of control and one failing to live up to its congressional mandate regarding regulation of drugs and medical devices.”
Beginning in December 1994, the memorandum stated, “these groups conducted an aggressive media campaign toward these goals, incorporating the issuance of policy papers, conducting symposia, filing petitions with FDA and taking other steps to keep the public and media focus on the agency.” CSE developed a 15-page strategy document for gutting the FDA’s funding and keeping it under withering media glare.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the largest tobacco companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The government charged that the tobacco companies engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking, distort the dangers of secondhand smoke, and target the youth market as “replacement smokers.”
After a nine-month bench trial, on August 17, 2006, Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a 1,683 page opinion. The Court found that “Cigarette smoking causes disease, suffering, and death. Despite internal recognition of this fact, defendants have publicly denied, distorted, and minimized the hazards of smoking for decades.”
The Court also found that lawyers for Big Tobacco had played an unconscionable role in the conspiracy, writing: . . .
Corporations will do absolutely anything, including actions that are immoral, unethical, and/or illegal, in order to protect and increase profits. Corporations, as persons, are total sociopaths. The only entity that can control (and punish) them effectively is the government and the only entity that can protect the interests of their workers are unions. Thus corporations have made it a priority to destroy unions and take control of the government so that they will be able to do as they please. And they are succeeding. (One major component of the strategy is to destroy education, substituting in its place vocational or occupational training.)
One reason it’s hard to get a true and accurate account of what is happening: the wealthy do not allow certain topics to be discussed. Robert Reich explains:
Not long ago I was asked to speak to a religious congregation about widening inequality. Shortly before I began, the head of the congregation asked that I not advocate raising taxes on the wealthy.
He said he didn’t want to antagonize certain wealthy congregants on whose generosity the congregation depended.
I had a similar exchange last year with the president of a small college who had invited me to give a lecture that his board of trustees would be attending. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t criticize Wall Street,” he said, explaining that several of the trustees were investment bankers.
It seems to be happening all over.
A non-profit group devoted to voting rights decides it won’t launch a campaign against big money in politics for fear of alienating wealthy donors.
A Washington think-tank releases a study on inequality that fails to mention the role big corporations and Wall Street have played in weakening the nation’s labor and antitrust laws, presumably because the think tank doesn’t want to antagonize its corporate and Wall Street donors.
A major university shapes research and courses around economic topics of interest to its biggest donors, notably avoiding any mention of the increasing power of large corporations and Wall Street on the economy.
It’s bad enough big money is buying off politicians. It’s also buying off nonprofits that used to be sources of investigation, information, and social change, from criticizing big money.
Other sources of funding are drying up. Research grants are waning. Funds for social services of churches and community groups are growing scarce. Legislatures are cutting back university funding. Appropriations for public television, the arts, museums, and libraries are being slashed.
So what are non-profits to do?
“There’s really no choice,” a university dean told me. “We’ve got to go where the money is.”
And more than at any time since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, the money is now in the pockets of big corporations and the super wealthy.
So the presidents of universities, congregations, and think tanks, other nonprofits are now kissing wealthy posteriors as never before.
But that money often comes with strings.
When Comcast, for example, finances a nonprofit like the International Center for Law and Economics, the Center supports Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner.
When the Charles Koch Foundation pledges $1.5 million to Florida State University’s economics department, it stipulates that a Koch-appointed advisory committee will select professors and undertake annual evaluations.
The Koch brothers now fund 350 programs at over 250 colleges and universities across America. You can bet that funding doesn’t underwrite research on inequality and environmental justice.
David Koch’s $23 million of donations to public television earned him positions on the boards of two prominent public-broadcasting stations. It also guaranteed that a documentary critical of the Kochs didn’t air. . .
Those who follow my shaving posts will know that I reject the common linear ordering of razor performance (from mild at one extreme to aggressive at the other) in favor of a two-dimensional model, with one axis rating comfort and the other axis rating efficiency—and that turns out to work well, since comfort and efficiency are relatively independent. There are indeed razors that are both very comfortable and also very efficient—and those are the razors to get.
But politics does seem to lie on a linear continuum, from liberal to progressive, and Paul Krugman has a good blog post explaining why (and why, incidentally, Rand Paul’s presidential chances are tiny).
Do read the post, from which this brief note:
Why is American politics essentially one-dimensional, so that supporters of gay marriage are also supporters of guaranteed health insurance and vice versa? (And positions on foreign affairs — bomb or talk? — are pretty much perfectly aligned too).
Well, the best story I have is Corey Robin’s: It’s fundamentally about challenging or sustaining traditional hierarchy. The actual lineup of positions on social and economic issues doesn’t make sense if you assume that conservatives are, as they claim, defenders of personal liberty on all fronts. But it makes perfect sense if you suppose that conservatism is instead about preserving traditional forms of authority: employers over workers, patriarchs over families. A strong social safety net undermines the first, because it empowers workers to demand more or quit; permissive social policy undermines the second in obvious ways.
And I suppose that you have to say that modern liberalism is in some sense the obverse — it is about creating a society that is more fluid as well as fairer. We all like to laugh at the war-on-Christmas types, right-wing blowhards who fulminate about the liberal plot to destroy family values. We like to point out that a country like France, with maternity leave, aid to new mothers, and more, is a lot more family-friendly than rat-race America. But if “family values” actually means traditional structures of authority, then there’s a grain of truth in the accusation. Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.
Adam Gopnik has an interesting piece in the New Yorker:
The word “norm” seems to have crawled out of the swamps of sociologese, and into the public conversation, almost becoming the word of the week. Right now, it’s a way of saying that following (or fixing) a law isn’t enough: to do the right thing you have also to follow the unwritten rules, the accepted underlying practices, the norms, of societies and institutions. The Times’s David Brooks, in praise of a new book by the Harvard professor Robert Putnam, wrote a column recently arguing that we can’t solve the problem of poverty with cash handouts and good government alone—the social norms of the poor have to change, or be changed, first. Those social norms, like the expectation that, having made a woman pregnant, a man should marry and support her, are, Brooks writes, more important than any other element in making poor people rich, or at least richer. (Jill Lepore, to be sure, writing for this magazine, drew different conclusions from Putnam’s book.)
In an ironically parallel move, the same Republican moralists who condemn the poor, or their politicians, for not enforcing social norms were accused all week of betraying an essential constitutional norm themselves—in this case, that you don’t effectively tell the nation’s enemies to ignore its twice-elected leader. Their pay-no-attention-to-the-President letter to the Iranian government wasn’t illegal, much less “treasonous,” but it certainly and grossly violated an unwritten but widely understood norm of political behavior. It wasn’t that no one had ever done something like this before. It was that there had been an assumption that it wasn’t remotely doable. That’s what made it a norm. If Barry Goldwater had written a letter to Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis insisting that anything J.F.K. promised to do to resolve it should be ignored, it wouldn’t have just seemed destructive. It would have been unimaginable.
That’s the difference. A law is something that exacts an announced cost for being broken. A norm is something that is so much a part of the social landscape that you wouldn’t think, really, that anyone could break it. Laws are plans, like the city grid, that must be followed; norms are landmarks, like the old Penn Station—you don’t think anyone could tear them down, and then someone does.
Political norms matter because any constitutional arrangement known to man can break down if it isn’t played by the laws as well as by the rules. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” a great Justice famously said, but in truth any constitution can become a suicide pact if people ignore what’s left unwritten in it. If people choose not to buy the basic premise, the joke won’t land. Any social arrangement can disintegrate as much from misuse as repeal. If, as has happened in many an empire, the army figures out that it can buy and sell the emperors, pretty soon you no longer have an empire, or at least no longer much of an emperor. One shockingly violated norm of American constitutional practice was the old one against impeachment on a party-line vote. It’s always been the case that a simple majority in the House can send an American President to a Senate trial, with all the costs that involves. It was just taken for granted that no one would try this without bipartisan support and the likelihood of a conviction. Back in 1998, the Republicans decided to do it anyway—Why the hell not, the country’s booming and can run itself—at a cost that is still not fully understood.
The social norms that Brooks writes about matter a lot. Putnam’s great accomplishment, in his earlier books about the social roots of democracy, including “Bowling Alone,” was to make the case that civil society did indeed precede democratic institutions. Learning to play nice with others before you ever saw a voting booth was the best guarantee that the voting booths would remain open. The number of glee clubs or volunteer firemen in a community was a better guide to how well they adapted to democracy than any other metric.
Putnam’s earlier work certainly presupposes a feedback between prosperity and sane social practices. Do societies get rich because they have good norms, or do sound norms spread when societies get rich? One needn’t be terminally wishy-washy to think that a virtuous circle sets in, in which more money makes for more social peace (and more stable families), even as social peace and stable families help people make more money. Certainly, no one doubts the vicious circle of poverty producing social despair, with social despair producing more poverty. Isolating norms away from the booms and busts that help make them happen is as odd as isolating spare change from the pockets in which it sits.
So norms like playing well together really do matter. But they are a lot more plastic and locally enforced, less organic and hallowed, than can sometimes seem plain. The sociologist Howie Becker spent a career documenting all the ways in which norms are not just malleable over time but a lot more fragmentary than the people with power choose to believe. There are norms alongside norms sitting by norms around the corner from other norms. Reefer smokers follow them as tightly as prohibitionists. Willie Nelson obeyed as many as Nancy Reagan; they were just harder to spot through the smoke. Some social norms that are taken to be obvious in certain times and circles (homosexuals should be prosecuted, blacks and whites shouldn’t marry) turn out to be intolerable, and others that look trivial (people should go bowling with each other) turn out to be indispensable. Which one is which often becomes apparent only after they’ve been altered.
One way to get poor people to act like rich people is to give them more money. Prosperous societies have fewer social problems than poor ones, and when poor societies become more prosperous they generally become more placid. What the right wing is really asking is how you get poor people to act like rich people without actually giving them more money. That is a harder question. But the idea that there’s a causal connection between things like sexual permissiveness and social harm is obviously fatuous. The most astonishing change in American life in recent times has been . . . .
One can think of a variety of reasons, most not very complimentary to the politician. Taking pains to hide or destroy the record of what s/he has done in office makes a prima facie case that the actions are reprehensible and would not withstand public scrutiny. That concealing or destroying records is so common speaks volumes about the state of political corruption in the US.
Here’s a ProPublica Muck Reads email:
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been on the defensive ever since the New York Times first reported that she used a private email account for government business. In light of the imbroglio, we decided to look at the email escapades of other politicos for this week’s MuckReads.
Since news of Clinton’s use of private email for White House business broke, an aide to Colin Powell says he “might have occasionally used personal email addresses” to correspond with staff and officials during his tenure as Secretary of State.
The Bush Administration admits that as many as 22 political advisers to the president, including Karl Rove, used their Republican National Committee email accounts for White House related business. At the time, the RNC automatically purged emails after 30 days. Later, a White House spokesperson reported that as many as 5 million emails could have been lost from the White House’s official server.
A Mar. 4, 2015 report from NBC News finds that between 1999 until early 2007 Jeb Bush used his own private email server for official business as Florida Governor.
Two former aides to Gov. Scott Walker, while he was Executive of Milwaukee County, used a private Internet network to conduct campaign work. They are later charged with illegally campaigning on government time.
In 2011, Sarah Palin releases more than 24,000 pages of emails sent from a private account while she was Alaska governor, responding to public records requests made in 2008. The emails reveal less-than scandalous details of her life including her early attempts to meet John McCain, a draft ghostwritten letter-to-the-editor in response to criticism against her and plans to see a controversial Christian pastor in Juno, Alaska.
Scott Gration, US Ambassador to Kenya, resigns in Jun. 2012 just before the publication of an Office of Inspector General report that found he had “repeatedly violated diplomatic security protocols at the embassy” by using a private email account for official business, according to the Washington Post.
The Record releases a cache of emails sent from personal accounts between top Chris Christie aides that reveals their plan to create a traffic jam over the George Washington Bridge possibly as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee who refused to endorse Christie in the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election.
ProPublica finds that top advisers to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo conduct government business through personal email accounts including Howard Glaser. ProPublica recently obtained emails from Glaser in which he touted his ” significant, critical, and current input” on a deal that weakened rules to prevent misdeeds in the mortgage market.
Amy Knight has an interesting report in the NY Review of Books:
Last week, when Russian authorities rounded up five Chechen suspects in the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, it appeared the Kremlin was following a predictable path. After offering numerous far-fetched hypotheses about who committed the murder and why, the Russian Investigative Committee settled on the same explanation it has put forth in numerous past political murders, including that of Anna Politkovskaya: the Chechens did it.
According to the usual pattern, the suspects would then be expected to confess, a motive would be concocted—in this case, that Nemtsov had made statements against Russian Islamists—and the crime would be declared solved. But hardly anyone in Russia seems to believe that this is why Nemtsov was killed, or indeed, that these suspects, if they were the killers, acted on their own. Instead, the arrests have led to new speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder. They also appear to be causing an internal struggle within the government itself—a struggle that could help explain President Vladimir Putin’s absence from public view for over a week.
Russian authorities have accused one of the five Chechens, Zaur Dadayev, of organizing the crime, but even if he did, it is unlikely that he would have decided to do so on his own. Dadayev was a deputy commander of the crack “North” battalion, which is based in the Chechen capital of Grozny and is under the patronage of the authoritarian Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin loyalist. Many commentators think that Dadayev would not have undertaken such a bold assassination—in the center of Moscow just minutes from the Kremlin—without Kadyrov’s explicit orders.
But the chain of command would have to go higher than the Chechen president. Although Kadyrov runs Chechnya like a fiefdom, and has for years cracked down on his enemies with impunity, even reportedly using death squads against them, his powers have clear limits in the Russian capital. On Friday, I spoke with Akhmed Zakaev, head of the Chechen government in exile, who is based in London, and he stressed that Kadyrov would never embark on a mission to kill such a prominent figure as Boris Nemtsov without Putin’s approval. Kadyrov, he said, “can do what he wants in Chechnya, but not in Moscow or Russia. It is most likely that Nemtsov was assassinated because it was Putin’s wish.”
Yet even if Zakaev is right, it is hard to explain why Putin would then go out of his way to praise Kadyrov in public. On March 9, just two days after the arrests of Dadayev and the other four Chechens was made public, the Kremlin announced that it had awarded Kadyrov a medal of honor for his service to the Russian state. (Amazingly, at the same time, Putin also conferred a medal of honor on Andrei Lugovoy, the prime suspect in the fatal 2006 poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer who was an outspoken enemy of Putin. As it happens, a British public inquiry into the Litvinenko murder is now taking place, in which Lugovoy’s name has been coming up almost daily.)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately dismissed the timing of the two awards as a coincidence. But to many observers it looked like . . .