Justice Here and There

The good news this week is that George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, has been arrested and charged with second degree murder. In case you have somehow missed this story (vacationing on Mars, perhaps?), here’s the Christian Science Monitor’s story summing it up.

So we now have justice for Trayvon – not in any cosmic sense, since it’s hardly just that he is dead – but in the narrow sense that his killer is facing the legal consequences of his act.

Across the world, though, much injustice remains. In Bahrain – a close ally of the United States, and the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet – a leading human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been in prison for over a year for his part in leading the pro-democracy movement that began February 11, 2011, in that country as part of the Arab Spring. The Daily Beast has the full story here.

Al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike since early February, protesting his imprisonment, his mistreatment, and the continuing brutal oppression of the government of Bahrain – a supposedly “constitutional” monarchy, but in reality an absolute dictatorship of the self-styled “royal” family.

Activists, human rights advocates, and governments around the world have demanded al-Khawaja’s release. He is a Danish citizen, and Denmark has asked that he be repatriated, but Bahrain has refused. (The law says they should agree, but they have simply stated that the law does not apply in this case.)

Last week al-Khawaja seemed to be near death. He has now been moved to a military hospital and is being fed by an IV tube. Perhaps that will keep him alive – I hope so – but his condition continues to be critical. And the injustice remains. He should be released unconditionally.

Public outcry brought justice for Trayvon. Let’s hope it brings freedom for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Cahill Indictment – Let’s Not Condemn Coakley Too Fast

If you’re not in Massachusetts, this may not be of interest, but I’ve got to say something about the indictment yesterday of Tim Cahill, former State Treasurer of Massachusetts, on charges that he tried to use state resources – specifically, the advertising budget of the Mass Lottery – to support his failed campaign for Governor in 2010.

Reaction has been mixed – some have supported it as getting tough on corruption, others have condemned Attorney General Martha Coakley as overreaching. All politicians try to look good before elections, after all, so this seems to be more of the same. Some have even charged that Coakley is doing the same thing herself – prosecuting a politician in order to help her own chances of running for Governor in 2014. (However, she took herself out of that race yesterday, and probably doesn’t need any bolstering to win another term as AG.)

What I say is – let’s not rush too judgment. We haven’t seen the prosecution case yet, but there are hints that there may be specific features of it that move Cahill’s actions from “politics as usual” category to “corruption.” Two of these hints are:

  1. There may be evidence that campaign staff had discussions with Cahill about when and where to run the ads for maximum political effect. If true, this was clearly illegal. Campaign staff should not have any influence over how state resources are used.
  2. The charge is that these ads represented 75% of the budget for the Lottery. If that’s really true, there’s a strong case that Cahill went too far. Even if what is meant is 75% of the advertising budget, rather than the whole Lottery budget, it seems high. Looking good is one thing, distorting state activity is another.

Neither of these charges has been proved. We haven’t seen any evidence yet. But I’d keep an open mind, not condemn Coakley.

Democrats: Be Careful What You Wish For

There are convincing reports that Democrats in both Michigan and Ohio took Republican primary ballots in order to vote for Rick Santorum, who had solicited their votes in Ohio. Since it seems unlikely that many Democrats actually prefer Santorum to Romney, they were probably being mischievous – trying to stick the GOP with a weaker candidate in order to make an Obama victory more likely.

What a high risk strategy! Just suppose it works, that Santorum becomes the Republican nominee for President. Then suppose that, as seems very likely, Greece defaults after all, and the European economy collapses, bringing on a second wave of the Great Recession. We might well find ourselves looking at President Santorum and several steps closer to authoritarian rule in America.

Democrats, be careful!

Sandra Fluke, Birth Control, and the Catholic Church

I’ve never heard of Dan Mitchell before, but apparently he’s a libertarian blogger. He’s also, apparently, an idiot. In this post he characterizes Sandra Fluke as wanting the government to pay for her birth control.

That might be a good idea, but it’s not what this controversy is about. Anuone who thought for 10 seconds would realize that this has nothing to do with the government’s paying for birth control. To sum up the obvious:

  1. Sandra Fluke is a student. Students are required to pay for health insurance as a condition of enrollment. That’s true today in Massachusetts, under Romneycare, and it will be true for the whole country once Obamacare is fully in effect.
  2. The Catholic Church, which owns Georgetown University, wants to take Sandra Fluke’s premium money, but deny her birth-control coverage. Note that this does not lead to a premium reduction, since covering birth control lowers health care costs rather than raising them.
  3. So what the church is saying is that it should be able to force its own beliefs on the students and employees of the universities (and hospitals) it owns, and should still be subsidized by our tax money (and universities are heavily subsidized – not just by grants, but federal financial aid and tax exemption for all their real estate).

A more intelligent libertarian view would be that our tax dollars should not go to subsidize sectarian institutions. If Catholic (or other religious) universities want to get all that federal aid, they should follow the same rules as everyone else.

Hospitals Are Not “Religious Institutions”

Wow! I haven’t posted for a long time – so to get my feet wet again, here’s a quick comment on the current controversy over whether Catholic hospitals and universities should have to cover contraception in their employee health insurance.

The bishops are arguing that this requirement violates their religious freedom. In my view, freedom of religion applies to – religion! It does not mean that a church can run a business – and these days, hospitals and universities are businesses above all – and avoid obeying the law.

If a Catholic order offers free care as a mission, that is a religious activity. If the Catholic church owns a big hospital, hires people who are not Catholics to work there, offers care to the general public, and charges much the cost of that care to the government – that is not a religious activity. It is a business activity, and should follow the same rules as everyone else.

Similarly, if a group of Jesuit priests runs a seminary to train future priests, that is a religious activity. If they run a big university with athletic teams, faculty and staff from all religious beliefs and non-beliefs, and high tuition – that is not a religious activity.

It seems pretty clear to me.

The Problem with “Payroll Tax” Cuts

As Congress debates a third round of the so-called “payroll tax cut,” more members have at least begun to acknowledge that this tax is what pays for social security. In fact, it is much more commonly referred to as the “social security tax,” the label used on my pay stub, and probably on yours as well. The first two times, hardly anyone in Congress even mentioned that this had anything to do with social security.

The problem, of course, is that the social security trust fund is predicted to run out in 2043. With less money in, it will run out sooner – unless the money lost through the tax cut is replaced by money from somewhere else. This time, at least, the President’s proposal is to replace the funds with a new tax on those with annual incomes greater than $1,000,000.

At this point, extending the tax cut is probably a good idea, if it’s paid for. While I don’t think the original cut provided much of a stimulus, ending it would take money out of everyone’s pocket, and probably would hurt the economy. However, there are some problems, and we should all be aware of them.

Social security falls into the broad category of social welfare: government programs that help everyone maintain at least a minimum standard of living. However, there are two kinds of social welfare program, often classified as social insurance and social assistance.

Social insurance programs are paid for by individual contributions, usually in the form of a tax. People become eligible for the benefits by participating in the contributions. Social security and Medicare are social insurance programs, as is unemployment compensation (with the proviso that the tax in this case is paid by the employer, not the employee).

Social assistance programs are paid for by general revenues. People become eligible for the benefits because of economic need. Medicaid and Transitional Assistance for Needy Families (“welfare”) are social assistance programs.

So there are two important differences between social insurance and social assistance. The former is contributory and universal; the latter is noncontributory and means-tested. However, there is another important difference, generated by the first two: social insurance programs are popular, while social assistance programs are not.

The popularity of social security and Medicare come from the feeling that we have earned them. By paying into them over the years, we create a sense that we are getting back something we paid for. This makes it very hard for anyone to suggest repealing them. “Welfare” and Medicaid are far less popular; in fact, TANF has been almost eliminated, and Medicaid is cut whenever there is a budget crisis.

The risk in changing the tax basis for social security is that it will come to be seen as a social assistance program, one that taxes the rich to pay the poor. Obama’s proposal does not get us there, but it is a small step in that direction. We should proceed with caution.

Forget the Supercommittee, Just Raise the Debt Ceiling!

The possible failure of the so-called Super Committee is being trumpeted as one more piece of evidence that Congress is unable to do its job. Twelve members of Congress – 6 from the Senate, 6 from the House, 6 Democrats, 6 Republicans – have so far been unable to come up with an agreement to cut the federal deficit by a specified (large) amount of money. They still have a couple of hours, but as of now it seems that they are going to report failure – triggering huge automatic cuts in both domestic and military spending.

Certainly, Congress is dysfunctional right now. But it is important that we remember that the “problem” assigned to the Super Committee is purely and completely fictitious; or rather, it is created by Congress.

Last summer, the total federal debt reached the statutory debt ceiling set by Congress in the past. In order to keep the US out of default, Congress needed to pass a law authorizing additional borrowing (NOT additional spending; this was simply authority to borrow money to pay the bills, including interest on past debt, that had already been incurred).

Normally, this is a simple housekeeping matter. Congress simply votes to raise the debt ceiling, and things go on as normal. In this case, however, the Republicans in Congress chose to risk destroying the credit of the USA in order to score political points; and the Democrats played along, pretending that the debt ceiling couldn’t be raised unless there was also a tax increase on the rich.

Don’t get me wrong, the rich should pay more taxes – but it is simply not true, as the Democrats in Congress have been saying, that we can’t pay for federal programs unless we raise taxes.
We can; we just need the authority for the government to borrow.

The country’s most pressing need is not to cut the deficit; it is to create jobs. It is worth borrowing money to do so – more jobs means more income, means more income tax, more revenue to the government, and the ability to pay down the debt in the future. So we need a higher debt limit in order to let the government create jobs.

The Super Committee was threatening to cut social security and medicare, so it’s good they failed. It’s especially good when we consider that they were completely unnecessary in the firt place.

In Greece, in Italy, in the United States, Another World Is Possible

The news from Europe is horrible. First Greece, and now Italy are being told that they have to give up any semblance of democracy and put bankers directly in charge of their government. At one point it looked as if Greece was actually going to get a banker, Lucas Papademos, as its new prime minister. That isn’t happening (at least as I write this), probably because the symbolism was too eerie – but it might as well happen, because the banks are running the show.

Why? The answer we are getting from the mainstream politicians, the mainstream media, and the bankers themselves is that There Is No Alternative (a phrase Margaret Thatcher used so much that people started calling it TINA). Greece has to keep using the euro, the banks that own Greek bonds have to be paid (even the plan to pay them only 50% requires their voluntary cooperation), the Greek state has to be gutted, and the Greek people have to suffer huge losses of jobs, income, pensions, and health care.

Why? Different answers are given. Some are just mindless: “That’s just the way it is,” or “That’s how capitalism works.” The slightly more substantive answer is usually something about investor confidence. If investors think their money is at risk, the argument goes, then they won’t invest, and where would we be?

Well, probably we (or Greece, or Italy) would be better off. After all, it was the investors who got us into this mess. If Greece took control of its own currency (which would mean going back to the drachma), they could direct public resources into work that meets real human needs. Or if the government wouldn’t do that, the people could (that’s what happened in Argentina during their last crisis: investors shut down factories and pulled out of the country, whereupon groups of workers seized control of the factories and repoened them). People making decisions to meet human needs, rather than to profit investors – that’s what democracy looks like!

Does this sound utopian? Sure! It is utopian. It’s an attempt to visualize another world, to show that there is an alternative, another world is possible! That is the message of the demonstrations in Athens, Cairo, Madrid, New York, Oakland, and everywhere else. We can’t accept the claim that their is only one way to do things. Another world is possible, another world is absolutely necessary, and it is up to us to figure out how to get there.

I’ll try to suggest some details, including historical examples, in future posts. This is just to get the ideas flowing.

Greek Crisis Shows the Power of Protest

Critics of the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Everywhere movement argue that the movement needs to have a positive program to succeed. The events going on in Greece right now suggest that they are wrong.

The Greek protest movement has been (and is) much larger and more militant than anything in the US. However, it is similar to Occupy Wall Street in one important way: it is a protest against the domination of politics by the 1%, not a call to implement a particular program. The protesters reject austerity — deep cuts in social services and jobs — as a solution to the financial crisis caused by the banks. They do not, as far as I can see, prescribe a different solution; rather, they demand that politicians find one.

These protests have already forced an important concession from the banks: they have agreed to take a big loss, 50%, on their loans to the Greek government (or rather, they have been told that they have to do so by the German and French governments). However, this settlement, announced late last week, still demanded that Greece impose the “austerity” program.

Prime Minister Papandreou, seeing the depth and strength of public opposition to austerity, suddenly announced that he would call a referendum on the plan, which had already passed parliament. This was a second victory for the protest – actual democracy! Letting the people really decide if the cuts were the best solution. How radical!

Too radical for the EU, it turns out,and maybe too radical for Papandreou’s cabinet. As I write this, it looks like he may be forced out. One rumor is that elections will be called – another victory for protest and democracy. However, there is also talk of turning the government over to a banker, Lucas Papademos, which would certainly be a victory for the 1%.

What we have to bear in mind here is that austerity is not the only solution (if it is a solution at all). The crisis is largely caused by Greece’s being on the euro, so that it cannot control its own currency (see my earlier post, “Why Greece Is in Trouble”). I’ll leave the details to the economists, but Greece could go back to the drachma, devalue, and tell the banks who are holding it to ransom to either accept payment in devalued drachmas or else face default.

That may or may not be the best solution (and many variants are possible) – and the decision belongs to the people of Greece, not to me (and certainly not to Angela Merkel). That decision could be made either by Papandreou’s proposed referendum or by a snap election. My point is simply that there are solutions that let the Greek people take back their democratic sovereignty.

The Occupy movement can learn a lot from this. The important thing to do right now is not to focus on a particular solution to the jobs crisis. Nor is it to rally behind a set of candidates. The important thing is to demand that the politicians stop serving the banks and start serving the people.

Politicians Should Stop the Moral Posturing about PACs

I’m still working on my definitive analysis of the origins of Occupy Wall Street – but meanwhile, I just have to say something about political action committees (PACs), the bêtes noires of American politics.

Alan Khazei just announced that he is ending his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Scott Brown for the US Senate. Press reports on his announcement tended to say that he had tried to show a good moral example by refusing to take contributions from PACs; in an earlier campaign debate, he had challenged his main opponent, Elizabeth Warren, to do the same (she declined).

I have just one thing to say about refusing PAC contribution. It’s totally phony!

To see why I think that, let’s consider what a PAC is. The first PACs were actually organized by labor unions. (I bet a lot of you didn’t know that!) Unions were prohibited from making campaign contributions with  funds from member dues, on the grounds that a given member might not support the candidate getting the contributions. On the other hand, it was vitally important for unions to get pro-labor candidates elected; so they invented a new form of organiztion, the AFL’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), and the CIO’s Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC). Members made voluntary contributions — small ones, since we are talking about working people here — to these committees, and the committees were then able to make larger contributions to candidates. The labor movement thereby became an important force for progressive politics.

Prior to the Citizens United decision, corporations were also prohibited from making campaign contributions – so they, too, began to use the PAC form. Most PACs are now based on corporations, but there are many labor PACs, environmental PACs, pro-choice PACs, and many other PACs devoted to progressive causes.

PACs are highly regulated – they have to keep track of all donors, and can give a maximum of $5,000 to a candidate in any one election. When you look at the many ways money enters politics, PACs are actually one of the cleanest.

Some of the less clean ways of contributing:

  • Bundling. A fundraiser collects a lot of individual checks, each payable to a candidate’s campaign committee, and hands them over to the campaign in a bundle. Each individual has stayed within the legal limits, but the bundler has effectively contributed $100,000  or so.
  • Direct expenditure. Instead of contributing money, a contributor pays for ads directly – supposedly without consulting the candidate, but that part of it is very had to enforce.
  • Advocacy spending. Instead of buying ads telling someone to “vote for” or “vote against” a given candidate, the ad attacks a candidate’s issue position, and concludes “call Congressperson X and tell (him or her) what you think of this support for a disgusting policy!”

In comparison to those practices, PACs are clean and well-regulated. The should not be the form, it should be the substance: is a candidate supported by investment banks, or by working people? To simply refuse contributions from PACs, but not refuse individual contributions from bankers, is pure hypocrisy.


p.s. If this has whetted your interest in campaign finance, here are a couple of useful books: