Archive for the ‘Campaign Finance Reform’ Category

Drawing Credit: Freakout Nation

[previously published at Examiner.com 3-14-12]

A conversation I had with an old friend yesterday should strike fear in the hearts of all Democrats.
“Hey, what’s with this Obama guy?” my friend asked.

“What do you mean?” I replied, trembling. I was reasonably sure if I heard one more usually apolitical friend spouting Republican talking points my brain would explode.

“You know, I used to like Obama,” my buddy explained, “but he wants to force everybody to buy health insurance.”

Obama the Tyrant

Fighting the urge to bury my teeth in his neck, I calmly explained to my friend that the mandate for everyone to purchase insurance was necessary to get insurance companies to agree to insure people with preexisting conditions. It was also the only way Obama and the then-Democratic majority in the legislature could get insurance companies to stop un-insuring people when they get sick and/or leaving them high and dry when their medical bills got too big. In other words, in order to persuade the insurance companies to operate their businesses in an ethical manner, the government had to promise them a whole bunch of new premium payers — that is, every adult in the country.

I looked my buddy in the eye and said, “Obama’s mandate was the only politically viable way to prevent 46,000 Americans per year from dying of lack of insurance and to reduce American bankruptcies by 60 percent — without denying insurance CEOs their polo ponies and summers in the Hamptons, of course.”

“Oh,” said my friend, clearly surprised by my pushback. “I guess I don’t really know that much about it.”

Repeat the Lie Long Enough…

In fact, until that moment, the only thing my buddy “knew” was that “this Obama guy” was tyrannically forcing Americans to buy insurance — whether they wanted it or not. Why? Who knows? It’s just the kind of thing tyrants do.

I suppose after months of Republican presidential contestants on TV repeatedly characterizing Obama and “Obamacare” as the Devil and the Devil’s work, respectively — repeatedly characterizing the Affordable Care Act as a government takeover, job killer and fast-track to Socialism — it shouldn’t be too surprising that some of the rhetoric managed to ooze through a few Americans’ “Wait, this makes no sense” barriers. The expected overturning of the law by five-ninths of the Supreme Court probably didn’t help much either.

But here’s the kicker: My intelligent, talented and usually reasonable friend also happens to be a quadriplegic. Due to a decade-old medical condition, he was one of those unfortunate, uninsurable souls with a preexisting condition when he fell and broke his neck three years ago. Needless to say, his finances were quickly reduced to zilch by subsequent operations, therapy and round-the-clock care. So today, Medicare and Social Security pay for his board and care at a convalescent/rehab facility in the Valley.

That my friend’s opinion of Obama and the Affordable Care Act — a law with such dramatic influence on his life — had been informed by the ravings of Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry is disturbing. That these soundbites might even have influenced his vote this November and prompted him to side with the party that has repeatedly vowed to straight razor the very safety nets that are keeping him alive — well, I’m hoping that our little talk will keep him from leaping off that particular bridge.

Citizens United

But if Romney, Santorum and friends were able to plant the Obama-as-tyrant idea in my friend’s head with just a few months of Republican primary news coverage, what will a sustained campaign of Citizens United-fueled, anti-Obama TV and radio commercials do?

This will be our first presidential election since the landmark Supreme Court decision made a present of our democracy to corporations and other special interests. It will be interesting to see how democracy holds up.

Already, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers are planning to spend $500 million to defeat Obama. Who knows how much money large corporations and other “one-percenters” are planning to contribute to the same end?

The Great Equalizer

Although Mitt Romney may very possibly be the least appealing, most gaffe-prone, no-there-there presidential candidate in modern American history, there’s no telling what kind of equalizer a half-billion dollars shouting, “Obama is an American hating, communist-fascist-despot-sissy-foreigner” over and over again for six months might turn out to be. Toss in a sluggishly recovering economy, a disappointed left and a weird, vestigial racism simmering in a disgraceful number of American hearts and it’s easy to see that this election will be no cakewalk for the president.

The big question in our new Citizens United world is how on earth do real, individual human beings fight back?

I don’t know.


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Gensler’s planned headquarters in the “Jewel Box”

It goes something like this: You are a large property management corporation that owns and manages zillions of properties throughout the country, including prime commercial real estate in Los Angeles.

Recently, the huge architectural firm, Gensler, has agreed to pack up their T-squares and move from their swanky Santa Monica location to your even swankier property at Flower and Fourth, known as the “Jewel Box.” Even though Gensler has already agreed to become your tenant, you’d like to up the good will quotient and sweeten the deal a bit — you know, a gesture more meaningful than a dozen roses, but less meaningful than a reduction in rent.

What do you do?

You get the City of Los Angeles to give — that’s give, mind you — $1 million of taxpayer money to Gensler to remodel their new digs.

Anatomy of a Hustle

Thanks to an investigation by the Legal Aid Foundation and solid reporting by Steve Lopez at the Times, emails between Thomas Properties exec Ayahlushim Getachew and Marie Rumsey, an aide to councilwoman Jan Perry, have surfaced, offering a bird’s eye view of corporate/government collusion in all its perfectly legal repulsiveness.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the exchange began last November with an email from Getachew.

“Do you have any available block grant available at CDD [Community Development Department] for a really great opportunity in the 9th [District]?” he asked. “What do you think?” 

“It is a bit of a long-shot but possible,” replied Rumsey. “What do you have in mind?”

“Confidentially, Gensler just agreed to move their corporate headquarters to our building. We are quickly and quietly working to make this a good move for everyone. I need about $1 million or more for tenant improvements…. Do you think that is doable? Can we work together on this?”

A Done Deal

I hate to ruin the suspense, but Rumsey’s answer was, “Yes.” In fact, Thomas Properties and Perry’s office worked so well together that the deal was virtually sealed that evening. Technically, they still needed the approval of Mayor Villaraigosa — which they received soon after — but essentially, with a few clicks of the mouse that night Los Angeles agreed to spend one million of its federal dollars to remodel Gensler’s headquarters.

For the moment, forget that the million bucks was supposed to be used for economic development and housing in low-income areas. Forget the asymmetry of the deal that got Los Angeles a promise of a whopping one job per $35,000. Pay no attention to the fact that the mayor of Santa Monica — Gensler’s former location — is ready to declare war on Los Angeles for headhunting its businesses. Even forget that both companies involved contributed to Councilwoman Perry’s campaign for mayor.

Focus instead on the money-grubbing mentality of these corporations. Thomas Properties owns and manages 12.6 million sq. ft. of Class A commercial property throughout America, including City National Plaza downtown, and Gensler takes in hundreds of millions per year, building everything from the City Center in Las Vegas to China’s Shanghai Tower, the world’s second tallest building. You’d think Gensler would be able to remodel one of its 38 locations with its own dough — or if it’s so darned important, Thomas Properties could give Gensler the remodeling as a house warming present.

But no, they are perfectly happy to let federal dollars earmarked for L.A.’s poor do the job.

Captains of Industry

This is the grubby behavior we’ve come to expect from large corporations. If it’s not B of A dreaming up a new $5 fee in the middle of a crippling recession, ARCO charging a fee for the privelege of buying its gas with an ATM card or Halliburton wiring American fighting troops’ living quarters on the cheap and dangerous, it’s two thriving corporations in Los Angeles hustling dollars out of a broke government for Persian rugs and Armani desks.

Corporate hustles big and small, relentless advertising and the blatant commodification of everything — from erectile dysfunction to religion — has increased the level of blatant corporate avarice to a point that makes top execs seem more like dime store shoplifters than captains of industry. In other words, if corporations really are people, they’re not people you want in your house.

Occupy Wall Street

It is exactly this “whatever we can get away with” corporate credo and its influence on government that has created the fox-guarding-the-henhouse madness nibbling away at our middle class and exactly what the protesters are railing against at “Occupy” demonstrations throughout the country and beyond.

Getting Big Money out of politics will not be an easy fight. It is so deeply entrenched in our system (and protected by the Constitution and the Roberts Court as freedom of expression) that we will need a constitutional amendment and a really big crowbar to pry it out. But, look at it this way; two months ago the issue of campaign finance reform was dead. Today, it’s all everybody talks about. Who knows — Occupy Wall Street just might become a really big crowbar.

Add your name to the 214,562 so far at Get Money Out

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Americans don’t watch TV shows anymore. We watch TV commercials and promos with 5- to 8-minute segments of the actual show thrown in every now and then for entertainment value.

If you happen to miss any of the commercials, don’t worry; the networks have reserved the lower third of the screen for advertisers and the networks themselves to hawk products and coming attractions in “embedded crawls” while the actual TV show is in progress. There’s nothing quite so enjoyable and conducive to the television viewing experience as some damned thing wiggling and waving at you beneath the TV show you’re trying to watch.

If TV Guide were honest, its listing for “CSI: NY” would read:
Thursday, 8:00-9:00 PM on ABC:
Geico
Ford
Cheerios
Target
Addiction Centers of America
And bits of “CSI: NY” squeezed into the top two-thirds of your screen every seven minutes.

By the time you get back to the program—after 5, 6, 7 commercials crammed into one single break—you’ve forgotten the plot line and the characters’ names. But it doesn’t matter anymore because you are now deaf from the hair-blowing volume of the ads. As you try to read the actors’ lips in a futile attempt to rejoin the story, your mind begins to wander back to the days when the viewer was considered a valued customer–not just a mark.

The Good Old Days

Commercial TV hasn’t always been this way. From the 1950s to the early ’70s, viewers, advertisers and the networks lived together in harmony. The implied message from the viewer: If you program good shows, we will watch them and we will tolerate a reasonable number of commercial breaks so you can earn enough money to program the shows and make a profit.

In a way, the arrangement represented a kind of mutual respect among all parties.

Back then, a typical hour-long TV show consisted of 52 minutes of actual show with eight minutes reserved for ads and promos. Generally, they would run two minutes of ads every 15 minutes or so. Quaintly, the show had the entire screen to itself.

Occasionally, the networks would cheat a little by cramming one or two extra ads into the hour. But that was OK because viewers frequently violated the unwritten agreement by leaving the TV to go to the bathroom (my dad) or by going to the kitchen to make something to eat during one or two of the commercials.

For the most part, however, it was a win-win-win situation.  We got to see our shows, companies got to sell us stuff, and for a few dollars and an almost-solemn promise to “serve the public interest,” broadcasters got to use the people’s airwaves and make piles of cash.

Fast-Forward

Today, with the average hour-long show containing 16-21 minutes of ads, the odds are 1-in-3 that you’ll be watching something other than “CSI: NY” when you’re watching “CSI: NY.”

Hell, you could build a bathroom during one of today’s commercial breaks.

This is television: the major interface between corporations and the public, where you’d think media conglomerates and advertisers would at least try to show their best, least mercenary face. But no, by the time you’ve watched a couple TV shows (including the end credits which have been squashed over to one side, or run at mach 3 to make room for even more commercials), you feel like you’ve been walking down a carnival midway with the loudest, most obnoxious carnies in the world hollering at you about low insurance rates, full-bodied beer and erectile dysfunction.

*

Update: It seems our legislature is actually trying to do something about the loudness factor with its Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM). According to the Washington Post, the Senate recently voted “to require television stations and cable companies to keep commercials at the same volume as the programs they interrupt.” Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Charles Schumer co-sponsored the Senate bill. Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo was the champion of our ears and sanity in the House.

Of course, there are still “a few problems” to be worked out before this becomes law. TV bigwigs have been saying for years that keeping commercials at a decent level is a difficult technical problem.

Bullshit.

If broadcasters are able to turn up the volume of commercials, they can certainly turn it down, I betcha. Anyone who has spent two minutes around audio gear knows that a little, inexpensive  device called a “limiter” or a somewhat more aggressive version called a “compressor” can keep any audio signal within a set volume range. I have both of these gizmos in my ancient-but-operational home studio, for Pete’s sake. There are also a number of fancier loudness mitigators on the market.  Britain has been using them to regulate the loudness of TV commercials in the UK for a while now; so can we.

Now that it looks like we’re about to take care of the volume problem, let’s take care of the volume problem. While Congress is in a frisky mood, it should escalate this people’s uprising by demanding a sensible limit on the number of TV ads. Something along the lines of the European Union’s 12 minutes per-hour limit would be a good starting point.

Hey, Americans might even start watching television again.

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[originally published in OpEd News]
Actually, there is no pat meaning or definition for the phrase “family values.” Like obscenity, I guess you just know it when you see it. 

Often used by social conservatives to conjure up a mythical America of yesteryear, the phrase evokes an era when everyone’s lawn was green, thick and well manicured, kids were obedient, and “Lassie” had no genitalia—long before liberals turned us into gay, pot-smoking abortionists, before minorities and women got so noisy and before movie stars said naughty words on screen.

Today many Republicans use the term as a weapon against same-sex marriage, legal abortion, the decriminalization of marijuana and a zillion other issues they find unacceptable.

To clarify our terms, I suggest we define “family values” as “valuing the American family.” “Republicans” will mean “the movers and shakers of today’s dynamic GOP.”

Valuing the Family… the Republican Way

To be fair, I think Republicans do value families — but only their own. Everybody else’s family is either trying to stay in the country illegally, getting rich and lazy on welfare, undeserving of a living wage, a terrorist cell, or immorally trying to become a family while being gay.

Though many Democratic leaders share the blame in the Great Stacking of the Deck Against American Families, these Democrats tend to be of the sneaky, corporate shill variety who are often at odds with American families’ wishes and their own party’s positions (see Public Option). Republicans, however, are very open about their willingness to throw the American family under the bus in the name of big business, bigotry, big business, bad judgment and big business.

There is really no reason—or enough room on my hard drive—to go into all of the sordid, headline-grabbing family values hypocrisies of such Republican pillars of wholesomeness as Sen. David “Escort Service” Vitter and Sen. Larry “Strokin’ in the Boys Room” Craigs. Though these indiscretions do highlight the dilemma of a party that professes to love America but can’t tolerate how Americans live, they are not the result of official party policy, as far as I know. Rather, it’s the official, loudly-touted policies of today’s lockstep GOP leadership that amply demonstrate the party’s disregard for the majority of American families.

With the possible exception of a proposed Wendell Willkie postage stamp, every major item on the GOP wish list would prove disadvantageous or downright devastating to most American families if ever put into effect.

Here are a few:

Deregulation

As homeless shelters burst at the seams with newly impoverished families, and old folks wonder how on earth they’re going to get through their golden years now that their 401(k) is in tatters and their home is worth borscht, Republicans are clamoring to let the Wall Street robber-barons who drove our economy into a ditch continue to speed along with even fewer rules of the road.

Rather than offering to commit public seppuku for creating the Reagan-Gramm deregulation free-for-all that made the Wall Street greed orgy and collapse possible, Republican enablers like Sen. Mitch McConnell and others call Obama a socialist for wanting more governmental oversight of the industry, whining in chorus that such intrusion into the private sector would kill jobs and stifle innovation.

Yeah, we saw the kind of “innovation” Wall Street is capable of.

By the way, whenever you hear a sentence containing any form of the words “job” and “kill” spoken by a Republican, remember who was steering the ship of state when the jobs began to die. You’ve got to admire Republican testicular strength, though—if nothing else—for even mentioning “deregulation” and “jobs” in the same sentence.

Anti-Unionism

For the last thirty years Americans have watched their wages shrivel while CEOs have increasingly taken home salaries and bonuses that would make the Sultan of Brunei blush. According to a University of California Santa Cruz study, the top 20% of households owned 85% of all privately held wealth in 2007—leaving the rest of us 80% to divvy up the remaining 15%.

Oddly enough, it was also during this time that Republican policies, votes and propaganda made it more difficult for workers to unionize. Organized labor has gone from representing one-third of America’s workforce in 1950 to just 11.9% in 2010. Union membership in the private sector is down to a feeble 6.9%. It’s no coincidence that Americans’ earning power accompanied that decline. Where did America’s middle class go? It committed suicide in the voting booth.

Yet Republicans continue to paint unions as enormously powerful bogeymen and have even ramped up their union bashing. Why? As organizations of and for working Americans, unions tend to favor Democrats. Republicans know if they can get rid of unions completely Democrats will lose the financial support and organizational strengths unions have historically given to Democratic politicians and issues. In the end, Republicans would have the support of Big Business and all the votes corporate money can buy while Democrats would be out on the street with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey.

Incredibly, Republicans have managed to get a surprising number of American workers—low skilled through professional—to swallow this anti-union codswallop. For these Americans, the image of collective bargaining has morphed from Woody Guthrie rousing a union hall with his guitar into Vito Corleone spraying the room with a sub-machine gun.

Apparently, these Americans have forgotten where living wages, worker safety, tolerable conditions and decent hours came from in the first place. Those who think these advances for American workers and their families came from the goodness of corporate hearts should be made to write “British Petroleum” 100 times on the blackboard, or at the very least, read this little heart-warmer about two high-level Massey Energy executives and their descent into the Upper Big Branch coalmine immediately after the mine’s deadly explosion. Heroic rescue attempt or an attempt to destroy evidence and rescue themselves from criminal indictments and billions in fines and civil judgments?

Anti-Same-Sex Marriage

By attempting to end these families before they’ve even begun, this Republican position affecting a large number of our countrymen and women may be the hands-down champ of blatant, Republican anti-family-ness. Good lord, fellas, I know this issue whips your Tea Party pals into a white-hot lather, but sometimes, reason, fairness and the U.S. Constitution must win over political expedience…mustn’t it…sometimes?

I really don’t think anyone with the power to reason still believes that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, a  naughty experiment or juicy flaunting of our moral code. No one really thinks that teenagers choose to be slammed into lockers by lettermen clubs, or look happily forward to the day they will tell their parents to “forget about grandchildren from me.”

So, what we have here is a major political party attempting to punish and marginalize a large segment of the American population by trying to prohibit them from doing what comes naturally: fall in love and get married. As gays and lesbians try to lead their lives despite cruel prejudice and religious dogma that holds approximately the same modern relevance as stoning your son to death for being a gluttonous drunkard (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), the Grand Old Party does its level best to keep anti-gay bigotry loud and alive by demanding prior restraint on would-be families with its Marriage Protection Amendment to the Constitution.

Lifting the Assault Weapon Ban

What can anyone say about this Republican wish and its potential effect on American families, other than “Lift the assault weapon ban?

Come November

The Republican Party’s long tradition of siding with big business over the American family continues to chip away at the average American’s earning power and standard of living. However, the damage a Republican controlled Washington could further inflict on American families isn’t limited to economics. When you toss in other family-unfriendly Republican positions on global warming, preemptive and continual war, education, reproductive rights and family planning, and their new jaw-dropper regarding unemployment insurance creating  “lazy” Americans, it’s not too difficult to figure out which party’s policies and worldview promote “family values.”

The truth is, until special interest money is removed from our electoral system, neither party will truly be the champion of the American family. Sadly though, with the Republican majority of the Supreme Court opening the corporate spigots wide with its Citizens United ruling, that heavenly day is likely to be a long, long way down the line.

Forced to choose between the two parties, however, the American family would be wise to go with the Democrats. The Grand Old Party is too darned busy trying to keep people from voting, selling American families to the highest corporate bidders, undermining the Obama presidency at the country’s expense and coming up with new and better ways of converting Americans’ lesser angels of fear and bigotry into political power to even care about how American families are doing.

For a scary trip down the Republican rabbit hole:
2012 Texas Republican Platform: A Frightening Look Inside the New Republican Brain

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Have American taxpayers had enough yet? Are they tired of having to foot the bill for industry-government collusion? Have the double-whammy calamities of the Great Recession and the Gulf disaster finally whipped everyone into a white-hot lather of collective rage, bellowing loudly for campaign finance reform NOW?

Well, not quite everyone.

As Democrats in the House and Senate try to enact the Fair Elections Now Act in time for the bill to affect November’s election, Republicans and big business are doing everything in their power to scuttle it. The bill, and its companion legislation, the Disclosure Act, would simply make it more difficult for corporations and unions to continue unduly influencing America’s electoral process.

Fair Elections Now would give candidates the option of running for office on a blend of limited public funds and a four-to-one match on donations of $100 or less, thus making grassroots support—not moneyed special interests—the new mother’s milk of politics.

The Disclosure Act would remove the secrecy that now enshrouds many large political donations. Under the bill, voters would know if BP Oil or the SEIU happen to bankroll a political cause, organization or candidate.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which, in effect, made a donation of our democracy to wealthy special interests, these bills are the very least—repeat: “least”—Congress should do.

Yet, Republicans are continuing on their well-traveled path of obstructionism by offering only sketchy support for the bills in the House and none in the Senate. Oddly enough, one of the few Republican supporters of the Fair Elections Now Act is the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina.

Whether these bills survive or not, Democrats would be well advised to make political hay out of their opponents’ foot-dragging on clean elections. The next time Michael Steele claims that his party is the party of and for the people—not big business—Democrats should be ready to pounce, waving Republican voting records in front of the cameras.

Why No Contingency Plan, BP?

Why didn’t British Petroleum have a contingency plan, like the plan other countries insist upon as a precondition to offshore drilling? Because “We, the People” didn’t force them to. Why didn’t “We the People” force them to? Because our representatives were afraid to bite the hand that feeds their campaign war chests.  In the current swap meet known as the U.S. government, voting for tough, loophole-free, safety regulations on Big Oil would have been considered bad-faith dealing, and extremely ungrateful.

BP, AIG, Exxon, Lehman Brothers, oil spills and financial meltdowns—only the names of the companies and types of disasters change; the reasons for the disasters remain the same: Corporate greed and a government on the take.

The Fair Elections Now and Disclosure legislation may be tiny steps, but they are definitely steps in the right direction.

Why doesn’t the GOP think so?

[Update] Open Secrets tells us that as of September 1, “The Fair Elections Now Act has not made it out of committee. And while the House passed the DISCLOSE Act in June, Republican senators have so far blocked it in Congress’ upper chamber.”

These guys know where their bread is buttered, don’t they?