Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Salt of the Earth

I just watched “Salt of the Earth” for the first time, a 1954 film you may have never heard of. It was banned in this country because the writer, producer, and director were blacklisted for "communist sympathies." The film is about a real-life mining strike and uses mostly real miners and their families in the cast which creates a strong feeling of realism. Set in New Mexico, it’s largely about the struggles of Latinos to be treated equally with Anglos. But unexpectedly given the year the film was made, it also depicts the struggle of the women to be treated equally with men. The women take over the picketing when the Taft-Hartley law is invoked making picketing by the strikers illegal. They're arrested, go to jail, and through their defiance and strength win the strike.

It's hard to watch a film like this and not feel disheartened by the thought that all the sacrifices made by millions of laboring people have been squandered in the last 30 years as we have turned our backs on the unions, demonizing them as the cause of American loss of global competitiveness.

The local sheriff was portrayed as the errand boy of the mine owners, completely at the company’s bidding. Recently someone sent me a YouTube video of a peaceful protest of Bradley Manning’s imprisonment at Quantico prison being threatened by heavily armed police. I wrote my friend: “why are the police always on the side of the bosses? Why are they never on the side of the people?”

"Salt of the Earth" is available from Netflix and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why is Standard and Poor's Being Taken Seriously?

Yesterday Standard & Poor's issued a warning to the United States that it might downgrade the rating of our country's bonds if our politicians can't come to an agreement on our budget problems. The major media reported this story without comment, as if there was no question about the standards and reliability of this credit rating agency.

What a short memory this country has, and it seems to be getting shorter every year. It was only two and a half years ago that the economy was falling off a cliff, and a major contributing factor to the crisis were the credit rating agencies, like Standard & Poor's, that had given AAA ratings to junk, including those mysterious collateralized debt obligations.

My first reaction was that this was a manipulation of our political process by a financial company. When I looked up S&P on Wikipedia, there is a claim that the company did exactly that in Ireland a couple of years ago:

In April 2009 Standard & Poor's called for "new faces" in the Irish Government, which was seen as interfering in the democratic process. In a subsequent statement they said they were "misunderstood".

Monday, April 18, 2011

Campaign Finance Reform is the Only Issue That Matters

In the last couple of weeks it's become common knowledge that GE has payed no federal income tax in recent years. But GE is just one of many U.S. corporations that have learned to play our political system for gain, that is, to make contributions to political campaigns and employ lobbyists, and in return get loopholes in the tax law written specifically for their company. Public Campaign has an article on their website, The Artful Dodgers, that exposes a long list of corporations that have paid no or very little federal taxes in the last few years. In addition, the article details the amounts of their contributions to politicians and their payments to lobbyists. The list includes energy, transportation, and telecommunications companies and banks. For example, Exxon:
Exxon is also one of America’s most flagrant tax avoiders. According to a report by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the company made $19 billion in profits in 2009 but paid no federal income taxes. In fact, “it actually received a $156 million rebate from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), according to its SEC filings.” Perhaps some of that money was recycled back into the government. Over the past ten years Exxon’s PAC and employees have made $5.7 million in federal campaign contributions, with $433,000 of it going directly to members of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. It also spent $137 million on federal lobbying expenditures over that same period to make sure its voice was being heard as loud as its money.

The article's conclusion is that the only solution is to get money out of politics:

Elected officials across the political spectrum are talking about the need for shared sacrifice to reduce our deficit. Both Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and President Obama have talked about getting rid of special interest tax loopholes. But, talk doesn’t equal action. And it’s not going to happen as long as well-heeled companies like G.E. or Chevron are able to use millions in lobbying and campaign contributions to advocate for the creation of loopholes and tax breaks, and against their closure. Reforming our tax code won’t happen when every line in it has a special interest that will push back against any increase. Perhaps the blame rests on the systemic barriers to change, though, and not Congress’ seeming inability to come to agreement on what to cut.

Main Street Americans can’t hire big lobbyists or donate thousands in campaign cash to politicians. If corporations continue to purchase access and influence, they will continue to have a head start in avoiding paying their fair share. That leaves our nation’s debt and annual deficits unfairly heaped on the backs of everyday Americans. That’s why Congress must address the way campaigns are financed. One such proposal is the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 750, H.R. 1404), which would allow candidates to run competitive campaigns for office without relying on wealthy donors to fund their campaigns. With Fair Elections, candidates can rely solely on people back home to pay for their campaigns, freeing them to make decisions based on what’s right, not what will affect their campaign bank account. Only then might we see government of, by, and for the people—not the tax-dodging, big corporations who fund campaigns today.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Americans Are Not Stupid

Newsweek recently published an article called “How Dumb Are We?” about Americans’ ignorance of our own political system—38% of the 1000 people polled failed the US Citizenship Test (take the quiz). Although it’s easy to tut-tut over how awful things are, and the magazine encouraged that thinking with the inflammatory subtitle "The country's future is imperiled by our ignorance," I thought the very last paragraph of the article (which most people probably didn’t make it to) was very revealing.

Stanford communications professor James Fishkin has been conducting experiments in deliberative democracy. The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget. “The problem is ignorance, not stupidity,” Hacker says. “We suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The American people are not stupid. As I said in an earlier blog post, the more information people were given during the health care reform debate, the more they supported single-payer plans. But our politicians do not want an informed populace. They want an ignorant populace so the people don't get in their way. Political campaigns are not about issues and ideas, they are about the manipulation of voters' emotions by PR masters. Noam Chomsky has quite a lot to say about how democracy is impossible with this kind of manipulated populace in his new book "Hopes and Prospects." He observes that the public relations industry, in Advertising Age, named Barack Obama the marketer of the year for 2008:
The industry’s regular task is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices, thus undermining markets as they are conceptualized in economic theory, but benefiting the masters of the economy. And it recognizes the benefits of undermining democracy in much the same way, creating uninformed voters who make often irrational choices between the factions of the business party that amass sufficient support from concentrated private capital to enter the electoral arena, then to dominate campaign propaganda.
Our ignorance serves the interests of the plutocratic elite who control this country. The Newsweek article has some other explanations for American's ignorance, given by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. He argues that our political system is quite complex compared to most European countries' parliamentary system, so it's inherently difficult to understand. Mr. Hacker also blames the high level of poverty in this country--poor people are poorly educated. His last point is that our ignorance of politics stems from our reliance on market-driven television programming rather than public broadcasting, which “devotes more attention to public affairs and international news, and fosters greater knowledge in these areas.”