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January 29, 2010

Corporations, Political Spending, & the Supreme Court

(Photos by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with legal experts Zephyr Teachout and Monica Youn about the Supreme Court's controversial ruling last week on the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court cited the First Amendment to strike down laws that restricted corporations and unions from spending funds from their general treasuries on political communications in periods shortly before elections and primaries. The decision has aroused passionate reactions from observers across the political spectrum about corporate influence on elections and whether money spent on political advertising should qualify as free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Zephyr Teachout, who teaches law and politics at Fordham University's School of Law, said:

"This is not just a First Amendment question. This is a question of what kind of society do we want to live in... Imagine a Senate race in a few years [if] efforts to break up the banks got into a high pitch, and a candidate recognizes that people in her state are very supportive of this effort to break up the banks, but the polls are close. So, she comes out with a strong statement saying 'I want a cap on how big a bank can be, in the billions.' That night, there can be ad hominem attacks funded by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley on her, directly paid, that cover the airways. Not only can that happen, but she knows that can happen. How likely is she to take on one of the most important economic questions that we have right now, how to structure our financial industry, when she knows the financial industry is already spending $400 million a year on lobbying?"

Monica Youn, who directs the campaign finance reform/money in politics project at New York University's Brennan Center for Law and Justice, said:

"The marketplace of ideas doesn't give anyone, any corporation or any individual, the right to buy an election. The First Amendment is an important part of our Constitution, but so is the idea that this is a democracy. This is a society based on the idea of one person - one vote, and our elections should not be marketplaces. They should be about voters. They should be about helping the electorate make an informed decision, and the electorate is not going to be able to make an informed decision if all they can see on the air, hear on the radio, are attacks ads funded by hidden corporate agendas... There's a reason our Constitution was set up the way it was, and there's a reason you can't buy an election, because we didn't intend for those who have the most money just to be able to get everything in the system the way they want it every time."

Progressive author (and former lawyer) Glenn Greenwald, who has appeared on the JOURNAL several times, has expressed qualified support for the Supreme Court's decision. On his blog, he wrote:

"I'm deeply ambivalent about the court's ruling... Even on a utilitarian level, the long-term dangers of allowing the Government to restrict political speech invariably outweigh whatever benefits accrue from such restrictions... The speech restrictions struck down by Citizens United do not only apply to Exxon and Halliburton; they also apply to non-profit advocacy corporations, such as, say, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, as well as labor unions, which are genuinely burdened in their ability to express their views by these laws... Laws which prohibit organized groups of people - which is what corporations are - from expressing political views goes right to the heart of free speech guarantees no matter how the First Amendment is understood... The invalidated statute at issue here exempted media corporations - such as Fox and MSNBC - from these restrictions, since the government obviously can't ban media figures from going on television and opining about elections (the way they do all other corporations)... It allowed the views of News Corp., GE, and Viacom to flourish (through their ownership of media outlets) while preventing the ACLU and Planned Parenthood from speaking out."

What do you think?

  • If you were a Justice on the Supreme Court, how would you have voted in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission? Explain.

  • Should Congress move to pass new laws regulating political spending from corporations and unions? If so, what would you suggest?

  • How are you and your community working to win political power for the people over deep-pocketed special interests?


  • Assessing Obama's State of the Union Speech

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers had a wide-ranging conversation with AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka about the relevance and agenda of the labor movement, as well as how unions are evaluating President Obama's performance in office thus far.

    Trumka had this to say about Obama's State of the Union speech on Wednesday night:

    "I think the speech was interesting in a lot of ways. [Obama] knows that there's a lot of anger and frustration out there, and he was willing to look at people and say 'you're an obstructionist.' He looked right at the Republicans and said 'you can't say no to everything and call that leadership.' He looked at the Supreme Court and said 'you made a bad decision that's gonna hurt this country. Corporations already have too much power. You just handed 'em more.' So, I think he's starting to understand and feel the anger, and I think he's willing to work his way through. Now, the question becomes will he do it on a scale that's necessary or essential to solve the problem... it has to be large scale... Our job is to make sure that his understanding of the anger translates out into a jobs program of sufficient size to solve the problem."

    Others expressed a less positive perspective on Obama's speech. The WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial board wrote:

    "If President Obama took any lesson from his party's recent drubbing in Massachusetts, and its decline in the polls, it seems to be that he should keep doing what he's been doing, only with a little more humility, and a touch more bipartisanship... On health care, Mr. Obama offered a Willy Loman-esque soliloquy on his year-long effort, as if his bill's underlying virtues and his own hard work haven't been truly appreciated by the American public. He showed no particular willingness to compromise, save for a claim that he was open to other ideas... Many of the President's opponents will welcome this failure to change because they sense partisan opportunity. But our guess is most Americans will be disappointed because they sense a Presidency that began with such promise but now finds itself at a crossroads and doesn't really know what to do--except to stay on the same road that got it into trouble."

    What do you think?

  • What was your take on President Obama's State of the Union speech? Did it change your opinion of his administration?

  • Were there issues that you wanted the President to cover that he did not address? Explain.


  • R.I.P. Howard Zinn

    On Wednesday, historian and activist Howard Zinn, author of A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, passed away at the age of 87. In December 2009, Zinn appeared on the Journal to discuss his film THE PEOPLE SPEAK and the continuing resonance of people's movements throughout history. We invite you to watch that conversation here.


    January 22, 2010

    Why Did Democrats Lose in Massachusetts?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with liberal academics Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Eric Alterman about why Democrats lost Ted Kennedy's former seat in Massachusetts' special election for Senate and how progressives should proceed from here.

    Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign, said that the significance of the Massachusetts election has been overstated, but that the loss reflects the failure of both the administration and its supporters in the general public to maintain the excitement of the campaign:

    "I think a lot of our emotions about this particular seat has to do with Senator Kennedy, the sense that Senator Kennedy was one of the first and strongest voices on health care, and that somehow replacing Kennedy with a Republican who is voting against health care or is likely to vote against health care is a very painful sort of shift.. The changes that may have been happening in the electorate may be these secular shifts that have occurred for some time. They're not just about the moment of this one question about this President... [There's been] a failure on the part of the Democratic Party writ large to tell a better story and just a more accurate story about what's going on... The brilliance of the Obama campaign had to do with creating a sort of outline figure of who Obama was - a figure of change, of hope, a representation of what America most wanted itself to be. But what was amazing was how at the level of very ordinary people, there was an opportunity to project onto Barack Obama all of your greatest hopes... The missing piece is that those same people who had such enthusiasm to tell a story during the campaign have failed to tell those stories during governing."

    Eric Alterman said that the Massachusetts defeat was due to a mediocre Democratic candidate and that President Obama has not fought hard enough to enact the progressive agenda:

    "[Massachusetts is] a liberal state. They went for McGovern. They have gay marriage. They elected a conservative to replace Ted Kennedy, who by the way replaced John Kennedy. It is shocking. The question is what's at the source of the shock. If you ask me, it's the fact that this President and particularly this candidate has not given people an inspiration to turn out the way these same people had an inspiration to turn out a year ago. Barack Obama carried Massachusetts by 28 points. That is a liberal state, and so it should be a shock to the system, but it's not a repudiation of everything that Barack Obama believes, and it's clearly not a repudiation of him for being too liberal, much less socialist. It's equally plausible, and to my mind more plausible, that it's a repudiation of his being unwilling to fight for the agenda that people thought they were electing him for."

    In his syndicated column, conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson argued that Democrats have alienated many voters by arrogantly pursuing policies opposed by a majority of Americans. He wrote:

    "In Plato's ideal society, philosopher kings and elite Guardians shepherded the rabble to force them to do the "right" thing... We are now seeing such thinking in the Obama administration and among its supporters. A technocracy -- many Ivy-League-educated and without much experience outside academia and government -- pushes legislation most people do not want but is nevertheless judged to be good for them. Take the Obama proposal for health care. A large percentage of Americans do not trust those who run the Postal Service to oversee the conditions of one-sixth of the U.S. economy... In fact, on a number of other major issues, polls show more than half of all Americans are at odds with the Obama agenda: more federal takeover of private enterprise, gargantuan deficit spending, and 'comprehensive' immigration reform, for starters... Why, then, does the Obama administration persist with such an apparently unpopular agenda? Like Plato's all-knowing elite, Obama seems to feel that those he deems less informed will 'suddenly' learn to appreciate his benevolent guidance once these laws are pushed through."

    What do you think?

  • Why did Democrats lose Massachusetts' special election for the Senate?

  • Do you expect Republicans to score more victories in November's midterm elections? Why or why not?

  • In the wake of the defeat in Massachusetts, what strategies should progressives pursue?


  • Powering America's Future

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talked with policy analysts Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle about how America's energy policy should change to reflect 21st century realities.

    Jean Johnson suggested that America's current dependence on oil is untenable even if one thinks the threat of global warming is exaggerated:

    "In China, until recently, not that many people had a private car. If the Chinese will begin to own cars the way we do, it would put a billion cars on the planet. So if you're worried about global warming, you have to think about that. And even if you're not, you have to think about a billion Chinese drivers competing with Americans, competing with the Europeans, competing with the Indians for the oil that we can manage to get out of the ground and transmit it around the world. It is not going to be good for the price or the reliability of energy here. We are heavily dependent - about 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels... There's only so much of it, it's expensive to get, and it's not going to be here forever. We need to get started on the alternatives."

    Scott Bittle argued that the energy debate has been too arcane for ordinary citizens to follow and laid out a few basic decisions that must be made:

    "One of the ways in which the debate that we're currently having is so unhelpful to most people in that everyone is talking about percentages and numbers. Should we cut greenhouse gases 20 percent or 17 percent? And it makes a huge difference between the two. Should it be based on 1990 or 2005? Should it be 350 parts per million of carbon? No, maybe it's 450 parts per million... And what it comes down to, though, are a few concrete choices. What kind of power plants do we wanna build? And everything branches out from that. What do we put in our cars? Do we wanna stay with a liquid fuel in our cars like gasoline or biofuels or liquefied natural gas?... Or do we move to electricity? In which case we need to build an infrastructure for that. We can do these things as soon as we make the choice for what we want to do."

    What do you think?

  • Does America need to wean itself off fossil fuels? If so, what energy source(s) should replace them?

  • How are you working to promote alternative sources of energy in your home, community, and the nation?


  • Michael Winship - Progressives: Don't Mourn, Organize

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "Progressives: Don't Mourn, Organize"
    By Michael Winship

    Tragic events continuing out of Haiti make all the bad news for progressives this week wither in comparison. Nonetheless, over these last few days, for liberals in particular, there has been no joy in Mudville - aka American politics.

    Just for starters: Thursday's Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates for corporate dollars dominating campaign advertising; the election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate, ending the Democrats so-called supermajority of 60 votes; and the subsequent collapse of health care reform as Democratic members of Congress scurried for the fire exits.

    For a moment at least President Obama must have felt like he was in one of those animated cartoons where the hero tries to rally his troops shouting, "What are we, men or mice?" and the response is a chorus of rodent-like squeaks.

    Add to this John Edwards confessing - finally - to paternity, and the withdrawal of Erroll Southers' name as Obama's choice to run the Transportation Security Administration after weeks of harassment by conservative Senator Jim DeMint (and the revelation that Southers had dissembled about incidents 20 years ago when he accessed a Federal database to investigate his estranged wife's new boyfriend). Yikes.

    Then, just to ice this cookie full of arsenic, comes news of the demise of the progressive radio network Air America. It was a misbegotten enterprise from the onset, intentions noble but its finances always in a state of jangling uncertainty (in the interest of full disclosure, I made regular appearances for a short while on their morning show, UNFILTERED, hosted by Lizz Winstead, Chuck D and Rachel Maddow - Rachel being the best and smartest on-air personage to have emerged from the entire Air America enterprise).

    Why progressive talk radio has been unable to counter the right-wing, talk radio juggernaut seems no great mystery. The nuance and diffuse nature of much liberal debate is unlike the bombast and accusation that sells beverages and shock absorbers. "Yes, but on the other hand" works great for NPR, God bless them, but not in the loud and confrontational world of commercial talk radio, where gladiatorial skills are more valued than dialectical ones.
    More important, Air America was never able to attract the big corporate dollars, its audience too small and, one presumes, because its politics did not gibe with the free market agenda of many large sponsors and their associates, the ones with the deepest pockets.

    Just look, for example, at the wallet of the conservative United States Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as "the world's largest business federation representing 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions." The Chamber bragged about the cash they poured into TV ads supporting Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race - more than half a million dollars' worth by last count - and said his victory "could pay immediate dividends by throwing into question the future of health care reform legislation pending in Congress." Check and double check.

    It's the opening salvo in their campaign to block just about any kind of reform by backing pro-business candidates in this fall's midterm elections - in all, the Chamber plans to spend a whopping $100 million dollars. Not that they have to buy any more members of Congress - as we've seen this past year, and especially this week, the Democrats and Republicans they've already helped pay for are perfectly capable of bringing the House and Senate to a compete standstill - witness health care, the cap-and-trade climate bill and the disinclination to truly step up to the plate on financial reform. All thanks in part to the lobbying efforts and campaign cash of big business, which, with this week's Supreme Court decision, will be all the more able to deluge the airwaves and Internet with an unending barrage of ads in favor or against the candidates and issues of their choice..

    But this is no time to run and hide. As the historian Simon Schama wrote in the January 19 edition of the FINANCIAL TIMES, the President "may actually need to respond to the unrelenting pressure from zombie conservatism, ravenously flesh-eating and never quite dead, not by turning on more consensual charm, but by taking the gloves off. With his bank levy - 'We want our money back,' he said - Mr Obama has belatedly begun to fight. Whether he can trade enough punches with the right before the November mid-term elections remains to be seen, but my hunch is that President Composure is up for a brawl."

    To do so, he will have to speak out forcefully and counter the bulldozing effect of megabucks with solid community support. A report last week by David Corn on the MOTHER JONES Web site was not encouraging, suggesting that the volunteer army of more than 13 million activists and donors that sparkplugged Obama's presidential campaign has been too often ignored or misused by the White House.

    An investigation commissioned by the crosspartisan group blog TechPresident.com found that as far as advancing a progressive agenda goes, the effort that arose from the Obama campaign, Organizing for America (OFA), "focused more on supporting and thanking allied Members than pressuring resistant Democrats or Republicans." In other words, too many e-mail offers of OFA tee-shirts and wool hats and not enough boots on the ground canvassing and lobbying.

    This is no time to go wobbly, as Margaret Thatcher famously told George Bush the First. But given the events of this week, perhaps even more appropriate are the pre-firing squad words of that most famous Wobbly, radical and labor activist Joe Hill: Don't mourn, organize.


    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


    January 15, 2010

    Peace Through Education

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with humanitarian Greg Mortenson, best-selling author of THREE CUPS OF TEA and STONES INTO SCHOOLS, about his work promoting education and building schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Mortenson said:

    "I really think that fighting terrorism is based in fear, but promoting peace is based in hope... Peace is about hope, it's about compassion, it's about love. It doesn't mean we just go around the world holding hands and drinking tea and having peace. But I really do believe that there's a lot of power behind love and compassion and respecting and listening to people. Obviously there are atrocities happening, and we witness and hear about them daily. One thing I noticed, having met some former Taliban, is even they as children grew up being indoctrinated. They grew up in violence. They grew up in war. They were taught to hate... One thing we do is hire former Taliban to teach in our schools... They've become now our greatest advocates for education. They're willing to go out into the most volatile areas and promote education."

    Other voices have emphasized that the Taliban still represent a dangerous threat to the region. Another humanitarian working in Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes, told Bill Moyers a year ago that she believes many troops are necessary to protect Afghan civilians and maintain stability. She said:

    "At this point the Taliban kind of military campaign plan is effective enough that you do need troops to prevent them from making military encroachments that are really dangerous. You also need troops to protect the population from the Taliban. There are people who don't like the Taliban but may kind of knuckle under to them because, on the one hand, the government isn't doing anything better for them. And the Taliban are going to kill them if they don't visibly divide themselves away from the government. So you need to be able to protect people from that kind of an intimidation campaign, and that takes troops."

    What do you think?

  • Do you believe Greg Mortenson's work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan will contribute to achieving peace in that troubled region?

  • Do you think that missions like Mortenson's to promote education can affect other problems elsewhere in the world? Explain.


  • A New Decade

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talked with historian and columnist Thomas Frank about the state of the Union when President Obama took office last January and the lessons of the years he calls "a low, dishonest decade."

    Frank suggested that the scandals of the 2000s, culminating with the economic collapse in 2008, rooted from conservatives' excessive devotion to free markets and contempt for government. He said that Americans are now quickly forgetting the destructive effects of that governing philosophy:

    "Since 1980, in this country we have been in the grip of this pursuit of ever-purer free markets. That's what American politics has been about. That's what has delivered the awful circumstances that we find ourselves in today... The disease of our time is a sort of instant forgetting... If we go back to the decade that just ended... Think of all the crises and the disasters... what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Madoff scandal on Wall Street, and on and on... Those things have all been dwarfed by the economic disaster and the wreckage on Wall Street, but I would say that all of those things are of a piece and flow from the same ideas, and those ideas are the conservative attitude towards government... What conservatism is about in this country is government failure. Conservatives talk about government failure all the time, constantly, and when they're in power deliver government failure... The stuff we've been talking about today... [has] all been forgotten. The financial crisis had the effect of [putting] that stuff down the memory hole."

    Economist and columnist Thomas Sowell has argued that those blaming the economic crisis on government's failure to regulate may have forgotten that short-sighted government policies from both Republicans and Democrats contributed to the meltdown. He wrote:

    "After virtually every disaster created by Beltway politicians you can hear the sound of feet scurrying for cover in Washington, see fingers pointing in every direction away from Washington, and watch all sorts of scapegoats hauled up before Congressional committees to be denounced on television for the disasters created by members of the committee who are lecturing them... The idea is that it was a lack of government supervision which allowed 'greed' in the private sector to lead the nation into crises that only our Beltway saviors can solve. What utter rubbish this all is can be found by checking the record of how government regulators were precisely the ones who imposed lower mortgage lending standards-- and it was members of Congress (of both parties) who pushed the regulators, the banks and the mortgage-buying giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into accepting risky mortgages, in the name of 'affordable housing' and more home ownership. Presidents of both parties also jumped on the bandwagon."

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with Thomas Frank that the 2000s were "a low, dishonest decade?" Why or why not?

  • What should the role of government be in twenty-first century America? What are its capabilities and limitations?

  • What are the key lessons from the last decade that Americans should remember for the next?


  • Michael Winship: Global Cooling? Tell It to the Jellyfish

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "Global Cooling? Tell It to the Jellyfish"
    By Michael Winship

    There are certain newspaper headlines that catch your eye and stop you in your tracks. Like the NEW YORK POST's famous "Headless Body in Topless Bar." Or such tabloid greats as "Evil Cows Ate My Garden," "Double Decker Bus Found on Moon," and my personal favorite, "Proof of Reincarnation: Baby Born with Wooden Leg."

    Along similar lines, I was startled this week when London's DAILY MAIL published an article headlined, "Could we be in for 30 years of global COOLING?" Triggered by the unusual cold and snow in the United Kingdom over the last few weeks, the article began, "Britain's big freeze is the start of a worldwide trend towards colder weather that seriously challenges global warming theories, eminent scientists claimed yesterday."

    The story went on to reference various researchers and their institutions, including the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which reported, according to the Mail, that, "the warming of the Earth since 1900 is due to natural oceanic cycles, and not man-made greenhouse gases."

    This was followed by an article on the Fox News Web site with the headline, "30 Years of Global Cooling Are Coming, Leading Scientist Says."

    There are only two small problems, as was pointed out by Steve Benen on WASHINGTON MONTHLY magazine's "Political Animal" blog: "First, the National Snow and Ice Data Center said no such thing. The director of the NSIDC said, 'This is completely false. NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the DAILY MAIL.'" (Subsequently, both Fox and the MAIL removed the reference to the NSIDC in their articles.)

    Second, as proof of global cooling, both stories cited research conducted by Mojib Latif, a prominent climate modeler with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Latif's response to their reporting? "I don't know what to do," he said. "They just make these things up."

    Latif's work on climatology is complex and often difficult to understand, which is why the Fox and DAILY MAIL reporters may have his story mixed up - it wouldn't be the first time journalists have been confused by his findings. But as cogently interpreted by the physicist and climate expert Dr. Joseph Romm of the liberal Center for American Progress, "Latif has NOT predicted a cooling trend - or a 'decades-long deep freeze' - but rather a short-time span where human-caused warming might be partly offset by ocean cycles, staying at current record levels, but then followed by 'accelerated' warming where you catch up to the long-term human-caused trend. He does NOT forecast 2 or 3 decades of cooling."

    In fact, as Latif told the British newspaper the GUARDIAN, "I believe in manmade global warming... There is no doubt within the scientific community that we are affecting the climate, that the climate is changing and responding to our emissions of greenhouse gases."

    And if you don't believe him, ask the jellyfish.

    Jellyfish don't lie. Well, sometimes they lie - deceased and desiccated along the beach, which from strolling along various Eastern Seaboard shores is about the extent of my knowledge of them. That, and that Ogden Nash couplet, the one that goes, "Who wants my jellyfish? I am not sellyfish!"

    But according to the Associated Press, the jellyfish population is rising. The news service reports, "Scientists believe climate change - the warming of oceans - has allowed some of the almost 2,000 jellyfish species to expand their ranges, appear earlier in the year and increase overall numbers, much as warming has helped ticks, bark beetles and other pests to spread to new latitudes."

    This has led to all manner of consequences, some you would expect, others not. A 2008 National Science Foundation study found populations growing along the East Coast - in the Chesapeake Bay area, people are stung about half a million times a year. In the Middle East and Africa, swarms have jammed hydroelectric and desalination plants, forcing them to shut down. In Japan, the fishing industry is losing up to $332 million a year because jellyfish swarms fill the nets, crowding out mackerel, sea bass and other fish.

    The AP reports that in October, off the eastern coast of Japan, "Jelly-filled nets capsized a 10-ton trawler as its crew tried to pull them up. The three fishermen were rescued." I know this all sounds like something out of a Godzilla movie, but it's serious stuff.

    And speaking of jellyfish, here's a headline you may not see anytime soon: "Senate Passes Sweeping Climate Bill."

    Although in a January 14 speech to the Energy Finance Forum, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "Taking on the clean-energy challenge... may be the most important policy we will ever pass. And we cannot afford to wait any longer to act," the cap-and-trade climate bill that narrowly passed the House of Representatives back in June malingers in the purgatory of the Senate.

    And next week, Senator Reid will allow a vote on an amendment to the legislation lifting the Federal debt ceiling. Proposed by Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, it would block the enforcement funding of the Environmental Protection Agency, giving free rein to the coal industry and other big polluters to ignore the Clean Air Act.

    The activist group Credo Action, part of the company Working Assets, notes "You would think this would be easy to stop, but the vote is predicted to be close with many Democrats considering voting for the bill... The coal industry has been working furiously to close deals with senators across the political spectrum, including those who say they want to protect the environment."

    Jellyfish.


    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


    January 8, 2010

    Complex Issues & Public Outrage

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with two journalists from the progressive magazine MOTHER JONES about Wall Street’s power over Washington and why the public isn’t demanding more regulation of institutions that contributed to the economic meltdown.

    Political blogger Kevin Drum argued that laws concerning financial regulation need to be simplified and that the press doesn’t do enough to ensure that Americans are informed about Wall Street’s power.

    “It’s not that American bankers are greedier than anybody else’s bankers. It’s that our laws allow them to do things they can’t do everywhere else. We let them take advantage of the system... This stuff is very, very complex, and that is exactly the reason why you need simple rules to rein it in. Because the more complexity you have, the more loopholes there are, the more you can take advantage... One place where I think we should lay some of the blame is the media and the financial media... [The issue] is sort of down in the weeds, and it gets no attention... People don’t see it enough to get angry about it. You can’t get angry about something unless you’re told about it.”

    David Corn, MOTHER JONES’ Washington bureau chief, suggested that reforms are necessary but that the details of financial regulation may be simply too complex for the mass public to comprehend or make into an urgent political issue.

    “Ultimately, this is about knowledge. This is about information. This stuff is really complicated and convoluted. Try reading any one of these bills and figuring out what’s actually being said... It’s mystifying. These guys who know the rules – they know the language, they have the access, and they’re giving contributions to the people writing the rules – have all the advantages... A Democratic pollster told me, ‘Listen, if 99 percent of Americans can’t understand derivatives, you can’t regulate derivatives in our Democratic process.’ I think there’s a lot of truth to that; people have to understand it. If only the people who benefit from them understand what’s going on, they have the leg up, and there’s no way for average citizens to even enter the process.”

    What do you think?

  • Is financial regulation too complex an issue for the general public to mobilize around? Why or why not?

  • Would you like to see President Obama rally grassroots support for more financial regulation? If so, what measures would you like to see him pursue?

  • From National People’s Action to tea parties, many Americans are getting organized around issues of Big Business and Big Government. How are you and your community working for reform?


  • Michael Winship: California, Here We Come

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    "California, Here We Come"
    By Michael Winship

    A number of years ago, when I would travel to California on business with my friend the late journalist and comedy writer Eliot Wald, we always carved out time to visit a couple of those massive Los Angeles grocery chains, like Ralph’s or Vons.

    It wasn’t because we had a lust for retail or a massive munchie attack. Rather, we geekily would explore the aisles looking for the odd new products that had started in California, stuff we figured might soon migrate East. Like those big cardboard shades people prop up against the front windows of their parked cars to keep the interior from getting overheated. One of many brilliant California inventions descended from a long line of greats: the Hula Hoop and Frisbee, the Popsicle and Zamboni ice cleaning machine.

    Eventually, Eliot moved to LA, where he could continue the pursuit full time. I still feel it’s a nice place to visit, but why risk earthquakes or earning millions in the movie business?

    Nonetheless, I continue to watch out for California innovations and keep an eye on the store shelves when I’m there. The state remains a harbinger of things to come. These days, though, what California’s exporting – besides Chihuahuas to needy families east of the Rockies – is more disturbing.

    On second thought, those Chihuahuas are pretty unsettling, too. You probably heard the story – the tiny dogs became big in California after such movies as Legally Blond and Beverly Hills Chihuahua and because Paris Hilton frequently was seen toting one around. Now they’ve gone into turnaround; their popularity has plummeted and there’s a plethora of the diminutive pooches, seduced and abandoned. So they’re being airlifted away from California animal shelters and euthanasia to welcoming homes elsewhere, as long as they’re not on Homeland Security’s new and improved “no fly” list.

    But I digress. This week, term-limited Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his last State of the State address as governor of California and the prospects he outlined were not pleasing.

    Despite his calls for an overhaul of the tax system and a proposed constitutional amendment to reverse the amounts of money California spends on education and its penal system, the state still has a $20 billion deficit with which to deal, and as Michael Rothfeld of the LOS ANGELES Times noted, “Legislators have already begun sensing that as a lame duck [Schwarzenegger] is easy prey and openly disregard some of his wishes. Members of his staff have already been quitting, and replacements are hard to come by.”

    Sadly, this time what California has gotten hold of ahead of the rest of the country is total political dysfunction. In part it’s spurred by the requirement that anything having to do with taxes or the budget has to be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature. But it has been exacerbated by increased polarization and backbiting.

    As WASHINGTON POST columnist and blogger Ezra Klein – a Californian – wrote last Sunday, “The state let its political dysfunctions go unaddressed. Most assumed that the legislature's bickering would be cast aside in the face of an emergency. But the intransigence of California's legislators has not softened despite the spiraling unemployment, massive deficits and absence of buoyant growth on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact. The minority party spied opportunity in fiscal collapse. If the majority failed to govern the state, then the voters would turn on them, or so the theory went.

    “That raises a troubling question: What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?”

    We’ve seen the answer in the first year of the current Congress, and if early prognostications for the midterm elections are remotely accurate, it’s only going to get worse. Klein writes, “Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both. And make no mistake: Congress will need to do hard things, and soon…

    “No one who watched the health-care bill wind its way through the legislative process believes Congress is ready for the much harder and more controversial cost-cutting that will be necessary in the future…The lesson of California is that a political system too dysfunctional to avert crisis is also too dysfunctional to respond to it.”

    Once again, it’s time to climb to the battlements for comprehensive campaign finance reform, as money is fueling much of the lunatic partisan rancor that has us at impasse. What’s more, this idea of a Supermajority in the Senate – the abuse of the rule that 60 votes are necessary to end debate or nothing gets done, a notion that’s not in the Constitution (it calls for simple majority rule, except in limited cases such as an impeachment trial, expulsion of a member, treaty ratification or overriding a presidential veto) – has to go.

    Otherwise, nothing gets done. We may as well take our Chihuahuas and go home.


    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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