Friday, April 05, 2013 11:18 AM
With an increasingly small fraction of wealthy Americans
buying and selling elections, power has never been more unequal in Washington, says Lawrence Lessig in a new TED Talk. And the problem goes way beyond the 1 percent.
Everybody seems to agree that there’s too much money in
politics. According to a Demos poll during the last election cycle, more
than 80 percent of Americans agree that “corporate political spending
drowns out voices of average Americans,” and more than half would support a ban
on all corporate donations. What’s more, opposition to laws like the Citizens United decision is equally
strong among those on the left and the right.
But knowing that the system is rigged is different than
understanding exactly what’s behind it. With Super PACs and “independent
expenditures” veiled from public knowledge by Citizens United and other laws, how do we know what’s really going
For activist and academic Lawrence Lessig, it all comes down
to the Lesters. That is, the 144,000 or so Americans that are rigging the game
for the rest of us—roughly the same small number of Americans who are named Lester. These
are the guys making big donations to Super PACs and hiring high-powered
lobbies. They’re also the guys members of Congress are trying very hard to impress—as
Lessig adds, federal politicians spend somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of
their time just trying to raise even more money from the Lesters.
But wait, it gets worse. The Lesters may have more political
influence than most of us can fathom, but they’re no match for the real movers
and shakers. The ones who are really in charge are the .000042 percent—that’s
exactly 132 Americans—who made 60 percent of Super PAC contributions in 2012. I’m
gonna let that sink in a little…
But don’t worry, there is hope. There are plenty of
proposals for fairer elections already on the table, and no shortage of public
support. The key, says Lessig, is to remember that the barriers to real change
are not insurmountable—just political.
To learn more, check out his TED Talk below:
Image by Kevin Dooley,
licensed under Creative
Friday, October 12, 2012 2:16 PM
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about what would happen if we reach the fiscal cliff (or slope or obstacle course) later this year. Unless Congress acts before January 2, the argument goes, large-scale automatic cuts in government spending will likely trigger a new recession, whether or not Obama is reelected. A handful of programs like Medicaid, Social Security, and SNAP, are exempt from cuts, though Medicare will take a hit. Some of the bigger cuts will be in defense, farm subsidies, and student loan assistance. If all this happens, says the CBO, look for unemployment to rise above 9 percent, and the economy to plunge into deep recession next year.
How would sequestration affect state budgets? Check out this infographic from the Pew Research Center to find out. States are where some of the worst pain will be, says Pew’s Jake Grovum, especially in education. Oddly, while big-ticket safety net programs like Social Security and Medicaid are off-limits at the federal level, automatic cuts will slash state services like WIC, and some may cease to exist. Special education will see a $1 billion cut nationwide.
So why aren’t we more worried? Because it’s probably not gonna happen, says Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum. At least not all once. Whether or not Congress can ultimately reach a deal, the problem won’t come to a head in January. This is a “fiscal slope,” not a cliff, Drum says, and big changes like these take a lot of time. Congresspeople are great at procrastinating, but thankfully, they probably have until sometime in spring to avert disaster.
Economist Dean Baker agrees. “Contrary to the image conveyed by the metaphor, pretty much nothing happens on January 1, 2013 if there is no budget deal in place,” he writes in Beat the Press. In fact, concern over impending (but completely avoidable) doom makes the deep cuts Republicans are pushing that much more palatable. Waiting until the Bush tax cuts expire (also January 1) would put the Democrats in a far better negotiating position, says Baker, and would not lead to immediate recession.
And sequestration is by no means the only economic disaster we need to avert this year, says Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse at the Economic Policy Institute. A handful of big stimulus measures are also set to expire at the end of 2012, and that loss would be even greater than a sequestered budget. On January 1, emergency unemployment benefits, along with tax credits for students, parents, and low and middle income workers (all powerful fiscal multipliers) are set to expire. If Congress averts sequestration but lets these programs go, about 1.6 million Americans would lose their jobs by 2014. What we’re dealing with, says Bivens and Fieldhouse, is not so much a fiscal cliff as a series of potential—but not inevitable—pitfalls. Hence, the “fiscal obstacle course” metaphor.
And whether or not sequestration actually kicks in, there’s a more immediate reason to be concerned about the automatic cuts, says Policy Shop’s Katherine Stone. With sectors like defense on the chopping block, private contractors are already planning to make cuts of their own. Lockheed Martin has floated the idea of laying off more than 100,000 workers by the January deadline, and other contractors are not far behind. If that happens, the companies are required by law to issue notices to their workers 60 days in advance—and that just happens to be November 2, the Friday before the election.
That hundreds of thousands of workers could get a pink slip four days before we go to the polls could be a disaster for the Democrats, says Stone, and they know it. Already, leading Dems have urged companies not to issue lay off notices on November 2, and the Office of Management and Budget has even offered to pay employers’ legal fees, should they be penalized for doing so (arguing that sequestration still may not happen). Not long after, Republicans including John McCain and Lindsey Graham fired back that the government had no right to condone violating the law, and threatened legal action against recalcitrant firms. “All this is ironic given that sequestration was a bipartisan compromise,” says Stone. Whether or not the lay-off notices turn into an October, or November, Surprise, we’ll have to wait and see.
Image by Powerruns, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 04, 2012 11:58 AM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
It’s been a tough few weeks
for the forces of climate-change denial.
First came the giant
billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it:
“I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland
Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw
attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming
aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew
attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable
hard-hitting campaign from a new group called Forecast
the Facts persuaded many of the corporations backing Heartland to
withdraw $825,000 in funding;
an entire wing of the Institute, devoted to helping the insurance industry,
calved off to form its own nonprofit. Normally friendly politicians like
Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner announced that they would
boycott the group’s annual conference unless the billboard campaign was ended.
Which it was, before the
billboards with Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden could be unveiled, but not
before the damage was done: Sensenbrenner spoke at last month’s conclave, but
attendance was way down at the annual gathering, and Heartland leaders
announced that there were no plans for another of the yearly fests. Heartland’s
head, Joe Bast, complained that his
side had been subjected to the most “uncivil name-calling and disparagement you
can possibly imagine from climate alarmists,” which was both a little rich --
after all, he was the guy with the mass-murderer billboards -- but also a
little pathetic. A whimper had replaced the characteristically confident snarl
of the American right.
That pugnaciousness may return: Mr. Bast said last week that
he was finding new corporate sponsors, that he was building a new small-donor
base that was “Greenpeace-proof,” and that in any event the billboard had been
a fine idea anyway because it had “generated more than $5 million in earned
media so far.” (That’s a bit like saying that for a successful White House bid
John Edwards should have had more mistresses and babies because look at all the
publicity!) Whatever the final outcome, it’s worth noting that, in a larger
sense, Bast is correct: this tiny collection of deniers has actually been
incredibly effective over the past years.
The best of them—and that
would be Marc Morano, proprietor of the website Climate Depot, and Anthony
Watts, of the website Watts Up With That—have fought with remarkable tenacity
to stall and delay the inevitable recognition that we’re in serious trouble.
They’ve never had much to work with. Only one even remotely serious scientist
remains in the denialist camp. That’s MIT’s Richard Lindzen, who has been
arguing for years that while global warming is real it won’t be as severe as
almost all his colleagues believe. But as a long article in the New
York Times detailed last month, the credibility of that sole dissenter is
basically shot. Even the peer reviewers he approved for his last paper told the National
Academy of Sciences that it didn’t merit publication. (It ended up in a
“little-known Korean journal.”)
Deprived of actual publishing
scientists to work with, they’ve relied on a small troupe of vaudeville
performers, featuring them endlessly on their websites. Lord Christopher
Monckton, for instance, an English peer (who has been officially warned by the House
of Lords to stop saying he’s a member) began his speech at
Heartland’s annual conference by boasting that he had “no scientific
qualification” to challenge the science of climate change.
He’s proved the truth of that
claim many times, beginning in his pre-climate-change career when he explained to readers of the American
Spectator that "there is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen
the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease
for life.” His personal contribution to the genre of climate-change
mass-murderer analogies has been to explain that a group of young
climate-change activists who tried to take over a stage where he was speaking
were “Hitler Youth.”
Or consider Lubos Motl, a
Czech theoretical physicist who has never published on climate change but
nonetheless keeps up a steady stream of web assaults on scientists he calls
“fringe kibitzers who want to become universal dictators” who should “be
thinking how to undo your inexcusable behavior so that you will spend as little
time in prison as possible.” On the crazed killer front, Motl said that, while
he supported many of Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik’s ideas, it was hard to
justify gunning down all those children—still, it did demonstrate that
“right-wing people... may even be more efficient while killing—and the probable
reason is that Breivik may have a higher IQ than your garden variety left-wing
or Islamic terrorist.”
If your urge is to laugh at
this kind of clown show, the joke’s on you—because it’s worked. I mean, James
Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has emerged victorious in every Senate
fight on climate change, cites Motl regularly; Monckton has testified four
times before the U.S. Congress.
Morano, one of the most
skilled political operatives of the age—he “broke the story” that became the Swiftboat
attack on John Kerry—plays rough: he regularly publishes the email addresses of
those he pillories, for instance, so his readers can pile on the abuse. But he
plays smart, too. He’s a favorite of Fox News and of Rush Limbaugh, and he and
his colleagues have used those platforms to make it anathema for any Republican
politician to publicly express a belief in the reality of climate change.
Take Newt Gingrich, for
instance. Only four years ago he was willing to sit on a love seat with Nancy
Pelosi and film a commercial for a campaign headed by
Al Gore. In it he explained that he agreed with the California Congresswoman and then-Speaker of
the House that the time had come for action on climate. This fall, hounded by
Morano, he was forced to recant again and again. His dalliance with the truth
about carbon dioxide hurt him more among the Republican faithful than any other
single “failing.” Even Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts actually took some action on
global warming, has now been reduced to claiming
that scientists may tell us “in 50 years” if we have anything to fear.
In other words, a small cadre
of fervent climate-change deniers took control of the Republican Party on the
issue. This, in turn, has meant control of Congress, and since the president
can’t sign a treaty by himself, it’s effectively meant stifling any significant
international progress on global warming. Put another way, the various right wing billionaires
and energy companies who have bankrolled this stuff have gotten their money’s
worth many times over.
One reason the denialists’
campaign has been so successful, of course, is that they’ve also managed to
intimidate the other side. There aren’t many senators who rise with the passion
or frequency of James Inhofe but to warn of the dangers of ignoring what’s
really happening on our embattled planet.
It’s a striking barometer of
intimidation that Barack Obama, who has a clear enough understanding of climate
change and its dangers, has barely mentioned the subject for four years. He did
show a little leg to his liberal base in Rolling Stoneearlier this spring
by hinting that climate change could become a campaign issue. Last week,
however, he passed on his best chance to make good on that promise when he gave
a long speech on energy at an Iowa
wind turbine factory without even mentioning
global warming. Because the GOP has been so unreasonable, the president clearly
feels he can take the environmental vote by staying silent, which means the
odds that he’ll do anything dramatic in the next four years grow steadily
On the brighter side, not
everyone has been intimidated. In fact, a spirited counter-movement has arisen
in recent years. The very same weekend that Heartland tried to put the
Unabomber’s face on global warming, 350.org conducted thousands
of rallies around the globe to show who climate change really affects. In a
year of mobilization, we also managed to block—at
least temporarily—the Keystone pipeline
that would have brought the dirtiest of dirty energy, tar-sands oil, from the
Canadian province of Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
In the meantime, our Canadian allies are fighting hard to block a similar
pipeline that would bring those tar sands to the Pacific for export.
Similarly, in just the last
few weeks, hundreds of thousands have signed on to demand
an end to fossil-fuel subsidies.
And new polling data already
show more Americans worried about our changing climate, because they’ve noticed
the freakish weather of the last few years and drawn the obvious conclusion.
But damn, it’s a hard fight,
up against a ton of money and a ton of inertia. Eventually, climate denial will
“lose,” because physics and chemistry are not intimidated even by Lord
Monckton. But timing is everything—if he and
his ilk, a crew of certified planet wreckers, delay action past the point where
it can do much good, they’ll be able to claim one of the epic victories in
political history—one that will last for
Bill McKibben is Schumann
Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate
a TomDispatch regular,
and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
@TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Image by Ansgar
Walk, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 06, 2012 1:28 PM
In July 2010, Pew Research Center released a report
on the online habits of Millennials. The experts involved in the study, who
were mostly academics and leaders at companies like Google and Microsoft,
concluded that social networking will only grow in importance despite privacy
concerns. In particular, many argued that sites like Facebook had created new
social norms around which the barriers
between “public” and “private” information were being recast. The study
echoed a controversial statement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg made
earlier in 2010—that, among young people, privacy
is no longer a “social norm.”
That argument may be a
little harder to make today. In addition to debates over Facebook privacy
settings, over the past several weeks, controversies have erupted in a number
of states over employers
and schools asking for Facebook passwords from applicants, employees, and
students. And while everyone seems to agree that those employers are
overstepping their bounds, actually doing something about it is tougher than
you might think.
For one thing, legislation is woefully outdated,
says the Electronic
Center, or EPIC. The
closest thing to a law protecting online privacy is the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986—a good 10 years before
widespread Internet use, not to mention smartphones and other new media. So
most of the law’s provisions apply only to landline phones and physically
stored data, rather than the smartphones, social media, and “cloud” storage
that have become such a large part of 21st century life. For
something like email, the rules are complex and cumbersome, reflecting an early
understanding of the technology, says the Center
for Democracy and Technology. If you happen to store your email on a home
computer, it is fully protected and requires a warrant to be searched. But if
you use a cloud computing service (say, Gmail), anything you store online can be
accessed without a warrant. That includes webmail, photo sharing sites like
Flickr, spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs—basically, much of what now makes
up many people’s personal and professional lives.
The rules for social
networking sites are even more complicated. While law enforcement generally needs
a search warrant to access a suspect’s social network account, they can do so without
the knowledge of the suspect, reports GOOD.
Facebook actually seems to be alone on this policy, as Twitter and Google have
their own rules about notifying their users of law enforcement action. In fact,
Twitter had to fight for its notification rule against a federal court ruling
in Virginia. And,
according to EPIC, at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has an
ongoing program of setting
up fictitious user accounts on Facebook and Twitter to follow suspects’
posts (also without their knowledge).
Whether or not the DHS
program is legal or constitutional is not all that clear. Without more relevant
legislation, no one really knows where to draw the line—high courts being no
exception. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard two cases on email privacy, and both
times, they chose
not to address constitutional privacy issues, reports the National Legal Research Group. Wrote
Anthony Kennedy in the first case’s majority opinion: “The judiciary risks
error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging
technology before its role in society has become clear.” The implication
apparently being that until innovation stops and lets us take a breather, we
should be careful about fleshing anything out too much.
To be fair, Congress has
(half-heartedly) taken up some of these issues. Late last month, Democratic
Congressman Ed Perlmutter proposed an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act
called “Mind Your Own Business on Passwords,” says The Atlantic. While the
amendment—which was almost immediately voted down—did not address government
snooping, it would
have prohibited employers from asking for workers’ passwords on sites like
Facebook. The strange reality is that, because of the vote and Facebook’s
own reaction to the controversy, the social networking site now has
stronger privacy rules than the U.S. government—at least when it comes to
That fact should be pretty
alarming. But if we go back to Zuckerburg’s “social norm” argument, it does
make some sense. Because technology moves so quickly, and because it has such a
big influence over our lives, it’s easy to simply accept new customs and rules
without seriously thinking about their impact. The Facebook password cases are
unique because they don’t involve government agencies or third parties breaking
and entering to access private data. Rather, they involve users willingly
giving up their privacy when pressured by people in positions of power.
The real danger here is
that social media are still very new, so if a practice like that became more
accepted, it could be difficult to undo. Laws and court rulings can be
repealed or overturned, but social norms can be much more permanent. Challenging
them might mean rethinking our place in the brave new interconnected
Research Center, The
Guardian, Electronic Privacy
for Democracy and Technology, GOOD,
Legal Research Group, The
Image by rpongsaj,
licensed under Creative
Tuesday, November 16, 2010 12:27 PM
Under the Democratic-led Congress, action against climate change went essentially nowhere. Under the coming Republican-led Congress, it appears to be headed backward.
Republican Illinois Representative John Shimkus, who according to the New York Times Green blog stands a dark-horse chance of chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has gone so far as to suggest that climate change won’t destroy the planet because God promised Noah it wouldn’t. His 2009 comments, recounted here by London’s Daily Mail, sent a shockwave of amazement through the progressive and environmental blogospheres:
Speaking before a House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing in March, 2009, Shimkus quoted Chapter 8, Verse 22 of the Book of Genesis.
He said: “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”
The Illinois Republican continued: “I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it is going to be for his creation.
“The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.”
Speaking to Politico after his comments went viral, Shimkus stood behind them, clarifying that while he believes climate change is occurring, he thinks it’s folly to spend taxpayer dollars trying to stop “changes that have been occurring forever.”
See Shimkus’ 2009 remarks on the Bible and climate change in this video:
UPDATE 11/19/2010: At least one brave Republican in Congress concedes that global warming is real and should be aggressively addressed. There’s a problem, though: He’s just been voted out of office.
Sources: New York Times Green, Daily Mail, Politico
Thursday, September 25, 2008 10:33 AM
The country’s recent financial crisis has left Americans panicked and angry. My prevailing thought whenever I hear the ever-climbing tab of the bailout—after a colorful expletive or two, of course—is always “Where is that money going to come from? And where is it going?”
The likely answer to the first question is unfortunate: the taxpayers, of course. The Republicans, who hate taxes and government regulation, have ensured an unprecedented magnitude of each by woefully mismanaging the country’s economy.
The answer to the second question is trickier. And it may remain vague, as Kagro X points out at Daily Kos. For the Bush administration, oversight and transparency are like kryptonite, and the president has become notorious for, as Kagro X puts it, “threatening to use his veto crayon to force Congress to pass bills exactly as he wants them, accepting no changes.”
Bush only has four months left in office, but Kagro X is worried the president will still find a way to misappropriate $700 billion. “When you're talking about a guy who 'lost' $9 billion in cash in Iraq, you kind of have to wonder whether he's even going to use the money for its intended purposes.”
That we are bailing out private institutions with public funds is deplorable enough. But Kagro X believes the situation will only be worsened if we hand over the money while Bush is still in office.
If there were any justice in the world, the price for the bailout would be Bush and Cheney's resignation. No, it won't happen, but it should. Instead, almost no matter what approach is ultimately adopted, we'll be throwing (at least) $700 billion into the hole with nothing but crossed fingers to guide us through. The best oversight regimen in the world doesn't help you with people who don't think they have to answer subpoenas.
There is hope: “Thankfully, Congressional Democrats (and some Republicans, too) have for the most part balked at the notion that the bailout should come in the form of a blank check.” Let’s hope that Congress refuses the president this sort of absolute economic power during these final dark days of his presidency.
Image by Tracy O, licensed by Creative Commons.
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