Monthly Archives: November, 2012

Of Billionaires and Deficit Scolds

faces_of_class_warfare

People are lying to us. Very wealthy and very powerful individuals have decided as a first recourse to lie. Not as a last recourse, but as a first, right out the door. They begin with the lie. “Social Security is an entitlement”. That’s a lie. We pay for it; each of our paychecks pay for it. It’s ours, not there’s, not the treasury’s, ours. But that’s just one of their lies. They are lying about the nature of our economic situation; about who is responsible for our current debt, and about who is most able to pay for it. They are not deluded nor are they dumb: They are just lying.

Who are these people? They are represented by an organization entitled ‘Fix the Debt’ whose business is anything but. They are a bipartisan pack of CEOs, organized around principles of ‘austerity’ for everyone but themselves and their political hacks and funded in part by former private equity magnate Peter G. Peterson’s foundation. They have pledged to push for austerity during the lame duck congressional session, and beyond. Peterson (buddy of Erskine Bowles (D) and Alan Simpson (R)—our courageous ‘bi-partisan’ cat food commission leaders ) has spent nearly half a billion dollars in recent years pushing his austerity agenda. The man is no slouch when it comes to lobbying to starve the poor and enrich the rich: a reverse robin hood for the ages.

According to the Institute of Policy Studies the ‘Fix the Debt’ organization is made up of “71 CEOs who lead publicly held companies….[These CEOs] have amassed an average of $9 million in their company retirement funds. A dozen have more than $20 million in their accounts. If each of them converted their assets to an annuity when they turned 65, they would receive a monthly check for at least $110,000 for life. The Fix the Debt CEO with the largest pension fund is Honeywell’s David Cote, a long-time advocate of Social Security cuts. His $78 million nest egg is enough to provide a $428,000 check every month after he turns 65. Forty-one of the 71 companies offer employee pension funds. Of these, only two have sufficient assets in their funds to meet expected obligations. The rest have combined deficits of $103 billion, or about $2.5 billion on average. General Electric has the largest deficit in its worker pension fund, with $22 billion.”

I want to repeat something that you might miss in that paragraph. Of the 71 companies represented only forty-one offer any type of pension fund to their employees—the rest presumably get to receive the unregulated munificence of ‘the market’—meaning their skimpy 401Ks—if they even have one. Of these forty-one (41) who offer some type of pension plan ONLY TWO (2) have sufficient assets in their funds to meet their expected obligations. These clowns—these fiscally irresponsible yahoos—who have now allocated millions for themselves while refusing to fund their own obligations to their own workers are the deficit scolds telling us how to put our house in order? Really? These are the megalomaniacs who are arguing that Social Security benefits are ‘too generous’ and are cautioning us about our ‘fiscal’ health? The very people who have NOT paid into retirement funds for their own workers?

As the report concludes, “as the debate heats up over whether to cut Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid in order to maintain federal spending and corporate tax breaks, companies with well-compensated CEOs who preside over underfunded employee pension funds invite a new round of questions about the motives, and methods, of the CEOs pressuring Congress and the White House to cut programs for the middle class.”

You think?

Sadly, this is nothing new. Though it seems more obvious than ever, if you pay attention.

The nation’s largest creditor is not China. It is the working people of America and their employers who collectively have amassed Social Security’s huge surplus through the weekly FICA contributions required by law. This wealth is the nest egg that will pay for swelling benefits as the baby-boom generation retires. Far from being broke or “sucking” billions from the Treasury, the Social Security trust fund will continue to accumulate larger and larger surpluses during the next ten years, reaching $3.7 trillion by 2022, according to the system’s trustees.

Jack Johnson

Advertisements

When Politics Meets Science

Excerpted from an APV policy brief prepared by our Sustainable Agriculture Task Force. APV will be lobbying the General Assembly and McDonnell Administration on this important topic during the upcoming 2013 GA session.

Atlantic Menhaden Fishery: A Disaster in the Making

FACTS and POLICY ANALYSIS BRIEF

Premise: In December of 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will set limits and benchmarks for commercial netting of Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay in Delaware, Maryland, and possibly for Virginia. The ASMFC has made recommendations on this critical fishery for over 30 years with limited success in maintaining or protecting the Menhaden population. Some important points that demonstrate why this is an extremely important issue:

The Atlantic Menhaden is a small fish that lives in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic Coastal waters that is not directly edible for people, but serves as perhaps the most important food fish in the major ecosystems in which it lives. Menhaden are the primary food source of the Striped Bass, Weakfish (Sea Trout) Bluefish, and serves as a primary food source for species as diverse as Bluefin Tuna, several species of migratory whales, any number of coastal birds, and even seals and otters. It is also a major filtering fish of the Chesapeake Bay. In short, the Menhaden is one of the most (if not the most) important species of fish in the bay.

The recommendations of the ASMFC will typically govern the menhaden fishery in those states where menhaden are commercially viable.

Maryland, the spawning ground and nursery for 75 percent of East Coast striped bass, does not allow commercial menhaden fishing in its portion of the bay.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia the menhaden fishery is governed by the Virginia General Assembly and Attorney General, thus making it the only state where politics governs a fishery.

Menhaden are the only fish exclusively regulated by the Commonwealth. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission provides the data and voting recommendations to the General Assembly. The VMRC commissions are composed of appointees representing the various interests: commercial, recreational, and charter fishermen, marine scientists, conservationists, and developers.

In 2006, Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, (the current governor) argued that the ASMFC had no legal standing to cap the harvest of menhaden in Virginia waters. In short, his written opinion as Attorney General stated that Virginia would not comply with ASMFC recommendations.

Attorney General McDonnell argued that the VMRC should add more commercial interests to the fisheries management committees to “balance” the interests. This would have resulted in a majority interest for the commercial menhaden fishery. Strong public and Non-Governmental Organization lobbying defeated this attempt.

Atlantic Menhaden fishing is exclusively commercial, with over 80% of the catch ending up in Reedville, Virginia at the Omega Protein Corporation processing center. The remaining catch is used as bait fish in Chesapeake Bay crab and fish industries, and in New England as bait for lobster traps.

Omega Protein processes menhaden into primarily animal foods and feed, fertilizers, and fish oil supplement pills.

McDonnell’s rulings have almost exclusively benefited Omega Protein and their clients and constituents. In 2006 alone Omega, the only player in the bay menhaden harvest, gave McDonnell a total of $29,744 in campaign money and $62,000 to key state lawmakers. Over the last six years, Omega political contributions have increased dramatically, now estimated at a total of over $235,000.00 to all politicians and $60,000.00 to now-Governor McDonnell alone.

 

The most recent menhaden stock assessment indicates the mortality rate is past the threshold of overfishing and has moved increasingly towards overfishing indicators over the last 8-10 years.

The ASMFC opted not to legally challenge The Commonwealth of Virginia and extended a five-year cap on commercial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay by not one year, but three.

Nearly 60 years of menhaden stock assessment data has clearly indicated that the numbers of overall stocks, of successful maturation of the spawn, and of breeding stock fish are all in significant decline. Yet most state and regional agencies have concluded that this data is “inconclusive.”

Omega Protein has lobbied for the dismissal of years of collected data. The company who has the most economic interest in maintaining or increasing the intense harvest of menhaden hired two stock assessment scientists who participated in all levels of the discussions and clearly used the interests of their company to guide their opinions.

The Omega Protein Corporation has spent millions of dollars in their efforts to control the data and the discussion, hiring lawyers, attending Stock Assessment Committee meetings, participated freely in all the discussions, and going so far as to have their legal counsel attend recent meetings.

According to the Coastal Conservation Association, Omega Protein has “worked hand-in-glove with NMFS for 30 years.”

Omega Protein argues that: menhaden stocks are not down, menhaden are not overfished, menhaden are not important to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay, and a number of other claims that go against many of the findings of the scientific community.

NMFS now has concluded that stock assessment numbers of menhaden were inconclusive.

Policy Analysis: What this all means?

First, most of the scientific community has concluded that menhaden are either being overfished or are on the verge of being overfished in the Chesapeake Bay. Diverse interests from the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, Coastal Conservation Association, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia Beach Sport Fishing, The Sierra Club and others have all accepted this research as valid and based on good science.  It is a safe conclusion that a species as valuable and important to almost every aspect of the bay, as well as its long-term economic well-being, must be managed and sustained at all costs.

Second, it is very clear that the battle over the Atlantic Menhaden in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay is a political battle. Each of the sides are using science to make their cases, but the intense lobbying by a single industry in the face of the many diverse actors who seek to protect this resource defines the parameters of this struggle.

Omega Protein is spending significant sums of money to protect and increase their catch. They have their own set of scientific assessments. They do protect some and support the interests of some of the Commonwealth’s citizens, most directly those who work directly for the company on the menhaden boats, spotter planes, processing plants, and in the management ranks of the company. They also have the political support of local and state politicians, some of whom have natural affinity for OP’s right to produce and others who have accepted significant campaign contributions over many years.

On the other hand, the coalition of opposition to strong regulations on menhaden fishing is diverse and growing. Fishermen, both recreational and commercial, Chesapeake Bay advocates, and a vast array of conservation  groups, as well as those who fear that long-term economic interests will be wiped out for short-term gains, all come together as a stronger representation of the interests of both local residents and the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The loss of the menhaden to unsustainable levels would be an environmental, economic, social, and public policy disaster.

Recommendations to APV members and progressives:

Write to your representatives in Richmond. General Assembly Delegates and Senators, the Lt. Governor and Attorney General, and any lobby groups representing environmental issues, Chesapeake Bay issues, commercial or recreational fishing, etc. can use all the public outcry they can muster. Most petitions have been sent, but the General Assembly will have the opportunity to accept the ASMFC guidelines that the State of Maryland will implement. We can make them aware of the importance of the issue. We can make them aware of the fact that this issue will impact everyone in the state. Our position should be crystal clear:

Increased or deregulated Atlantic Menhaden fishing in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay is bad policy. It should be opposed at all costs.

There is no fiscal cliff and Erskine Bowles helped to create it.

There is no fiscal cliff and Erskine Bowles helped to create it.

Yes, the title is a wee paradoxical, but so is the logic behind the so called ‘fiscal cliff.’ A little history: the term ‘fiscal cliff’ was first used this year by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke when he warned of a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” that would hit us on January 1, 2013 due to a deal cut by Republicans and Democrats to raise the debt limit last year. But, as Paul Krugman has suggested, contrary to the way it’s often portrayed, the looming prospect of spending cuts and tax increases isn’t really a fiscal crisis. It is, instead, a political crisis brought on by the Republican’s attempt to take the economy hostage.

Last year the Republicans essentially extorted congress to agree to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by holding the (usually automatic) rise of the debt ceiling hostage. Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson (who headed up the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform a.k.a. The Cat Food Commission because its recommendations would lead to our seniors eating cat food) and other ‘deficit scolds’ enabled them by beating the drums for ‘deficit reduction’ at a time when deficit reduction was the last thing our economy needed. Central to their ideas was a conservative framework for limited government. They proposed three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar increase in taxes, instead of splitting savings equally between the two. Simpson and Bowles also appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss their proposals and at one point, Simpson explained his view that balancing the budget would require going “to where the meat is. And the meat is health care, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.” They were both in favor of cuts, either explicitly, using privatization or implicitly, by raising the age limit to enter Social Security to 69. They also favored lower tax rates across the board as a ‘guiding principle’… They didn’t get their way, but Republicans were able to use the deficit reduction fervor they helped to generate as cover to negotiate their draconian ‘fiscal cliff.’

So now, on January 1, about $400 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts will take effect. That’s $600 billion, or 4 percent of GDP, and that—everyone agrees– would be a drag on the economy.

Like most economists, Bernanke thinks that serious budget reduction in the middle of a recession / depression is a bad idea. In fact, turns out MOST rational people on Earth think budget reduction in the middle of a recession is a bad idea, too. Except folks who have another dog in the hunt, folks who aren’t so much interested in deficit reduction as they are in so called ‘entitlement reform’ (that would ultimately translate into the privatization of Social Security) and corporate tax relief; folks like Erskine Bowles.

Here’s something we need to understand –there is a Wall Street Wing of the Democratic party, and one of its most eager representatives is Erskine Bowles. According to Bill Black, noted economist and blogger at Naked Capitalism, Bowles along with Alan Simpson is allied with Republican Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson who has pledged a billion dollars in the effort to privatize Social Security called “The Third Way”.

Black writes, “The Third Way represents the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party and has pushed successfully for the worst domestic failures of the Obama administration, including continuing the Bush administration policy of granting the elite banksters whose frauds drove the crisis de facto immunity from criminal prosecution. … Third Way is also useful to Wall Street’s pursuit of other major priorities, including austerity and gaining access to tens of billions of dollars in freebie profits from beginning to privatize social security. Third Way’s specialty is spreading the faux “moral panic” that the safety net is the great threat to America.”

But here’s the thing. The safety net is no threat to America. The great threat to America is gutting our safety net, or, to put it more simply, the Third Way itself.
In fact, according to Jon Chait, the hazards of the fiscal cliff are greatly over rated in the short term. Going over the fiscal cliff and then doing nothing for another year would mean a huge tax hike and spending cut. But waiting until January would mean extremely gradual tax increases and spending cuts, ones that would not even begin to take place immediately, because Obama has the ability to delay their implementation. And even after they’re implemented, the effect would be gradual, and could subsequently be canceled out. “It’s like saying if you go three weeks without food you’ll die so if dinner isn’t on the table at 6 o’clock sharp terrible consequences will follow.”

So here’s how this could play out. On January 1, the Bush tax cuts disappear and everyone’s taxes automatically revert to the higher Clinton-era rates. At that point, the conversation changes: Suddenly we’ll be talking about cutting taxes on the middle class and maintaining them where they are now on the rich. And Obama can basically go on TV every single day and say that he’s ready to sign a middle-class tax cut any time, but Republicans are refusing to agree unless their rich pals also get a tax cut. Exit polls show that the public—both Democrats and Republicans– DO NOT want to give the rich a tax cut, and they are going to be angry that the GOP is holding their tax cut hostage unless Donald Trump gets a tax cut too.

So there’s no real reason to fear the fiscal cliff, at least not in the short term, unless, of course, you listen to the loud drum beating by folks like Erskine Bowles who recently wrote a hand wringing op-ed in the Washington Post deeply concerned about jumping off the cliff.

“Going over the fiscal cliff would mean allowing a massive and immediate cut to nearly every major government agency and activity, including those vital to our national security or economic growth. It would mean a large and immediate tax increase on nearly all Americans, not just the highest earners. It would mean a double-dip recession at a time when the economy is still very weak and many Americans are struggling to find work.”

Some of this simply isn’t true—the cuts would not be immediate. They would be gradual. The tax increase wouldn’t be paid until taxes were due and much could change—in fact would change— if the political calculus is handled correctly. The double-dip recession isn’t likely to occur, again, unless the Republicans remain intransigent on tax cuts for the middle class—which would be political suicide. But even if Bowls hyped paranoia was the case, why not simply punt on the fiscal cliff and continuing to add to the debt? Who exactly says the debt is such a great problem that it has to be dealt with NOW in the middle of a recession? Not Ben Bernanke. Not Paul Krugman. Not Joe Stiglitz. Not Bill Black. Not the vast majority of respected economists out there. Not anyone I know of reasonable intelligence. In fact, it’s only Erskine Bowls and his Wall Street buddies that think this is so important it has to be tackled right now.

Says Bowls: “simply punting on the fiscal cliff and continuing to add to the debt would be an even bigger mistake. It would show markets we cannot put our financial house in order.”

Did you catch that? The ‘markets’ –that is Wall Street brokers– might get nervous. I’m wondering at this point, how many friends in the broader community these Wall Street brokers currently have. One suspects Bowles has an interest in shading the truth. He was an investment banker before he entered politics, and he currently serves on the board of directors for both Morgan Stanley and GE. He was chief of staff under Clinton from January 1997 to October 1998, during which time he tried to broker a deal on Social Security with Newt Gingrich and would have succeeded if it weren’t for the Lewinsky affair. Opening up a grand bargain on what he refers to incorrectly as ‘entitlements’ is one of the fevered dreams of Wall Street denizens—and Erskine Bowles, both for profit and personal legacy. So Erskine may not be exactly impartial on this matter.

Luckily, we also have such noted impartial parties as the Wall Street Journal itself wailing about the dangers of the ‘fiscal cliff’ and opining that the President should take John Boehner’s generous offer “ to maintain the Bush tax rates for at least another year, ease the sequester for defense in particular, and in return GOP House leaders will be open to giving the President new revenue.”

Got that? Accept Bush tax cut for another year on the promise of ‘being open to… new revenue’ from….somewhere…but where? Apparently, that’s to be figured out later.

Sounds like quite the bargain.

The Journal also offers some advice to Obama as to how he can prove his good faith — by appointing a well-respected figure to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. You’ll never guess who the Journal has in mind:
“On the other hand, the choice of someone like Erskine Bowles, who led Mr. Obama’s deficit commission in the first term, would signal a desire for serious negotiations. Especially after the fiasco of the “grand bargain” talks of 2011, Mr. Obama needs a point man whom Republicans think isn’t a political hit man.”
But, in his own way, Bowles is certainly an opportunist, if not a political hit man. He’s a close friend of Peter Peterson, and the entire Third Way movement see him as key. That’s exactly the person you don’t want in office, or anywhere near these negotiations.

One of the most important reasons why more Americans support the Democratic Party than the Republican Party is the conventional wisdom that the Democrats guard our social safety net. If Obama and the Democrats, led by the likes of Erskine Bowles or other so called ‘centrist’ offer a grand bargain in which paid benefits programs like Social Security are in play it will be more than a political disaster; it will amount to a betrayal of all those who have elected him. The only people who win in such a ‘grand bargain’ are the denizens of Wall Street and their Third Way lackeys.

~by Jack Johnson

‘Bi-Partisanship’ just another word for nothing left to lose…

Before the ink is even dry on the election newsprint that declared a major victory for Democrats this week, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times liberal poster boy is claiming that now—right now!—is the exact moment the country needs to embrace (wait for it) ‘bi-partisanship’! With the exception of a few annoying facts—like a Democratic sweep of nearly every close toss-up state—the column could be the same he’s used for the last 5 years. It’s rather like the Republicans ‘ideas’ surrounding tax cuts. If the economy is booming cut taxes, it will boom more! If it’s ailing, that’s okay, cut taxes, that will stimulate the economy! It doesn’t really matter what the illness is, the cure is always the same. I had a friend in college who claimed smoking weed held the same magical properties. He eventually dropped out. Thomas Friedman should follow his lead.

Compromise, in particular unilateral compromise (which seems to be a Democratic specialty) with the current crop of far right Republicans is a preposterously bad idea for at least two reasons.

1—Although it might sound pretty (and all the beltway folks clamor for it like heroin) it’s bad politics. Any compromise with folks to the right of Attila the Hun will not be favored by a majority of Americans. How do I know this? We just gave the Democrats another 4 years and expressly denied Republicans that option based on this question. Winning a national mandate doesn’t mean we want to compromise with a bad idea from Republicans we just rejected; that means we want good ideas from Democrats implemented. That’s what election are about. And as some Republican famously said, ‘elections have consequences’.

2—It enables bad behavior. The Republicans are right now in the position of an addict or alcoholic that has finally hit bottom. Ever since Rove famously taunted the ‘reality based’ community, Republicans weaned on the ephemera of Fox News have preserved a kind of alternate universe of facts and ideas. Just as an addict or alcoholic will skid through life until something breaks– the car, the kid, their head—Republican’s alternate universe was shattered on November 6th. There’s probably no better sign of the cognitive dissonance in play than Karl Rove, the Republican’s rain maker, arguing with a Fox News pundit over the reality of losing Ohio. He just didn’t get it. He might never get it, but I suspect quite a few of his colleagues (and donors) have. So Republicans can either kick the habit or go back to their delusional ways. ‘Bi-partisanship’ at this point enables them to continue with the illusion that their ‘ideas’ are actually workable solutions. They are not. Neither politically nor practically. The core Republican idea—maybe the only real domestic idea they have had in the last 12 years–tax cuts for the wealthy– has created a disaster for our budget, a windfall for billionaires, and havoc for the middle and lower classes. Compromising on tax cuts for the wealthy is like being an enabler. As Nancy Reagan so calmly cautioned us years ago, ‘Just say No’.

Finally, even if a ‘compromise’ of some degree is necessary to avoid the artificially created ‘fiscal cliff’, you don’t start negotiating by conceding the need for ‘bi-partisanship’…You start with a firm assertion of what the majority of Americans want: Increase taxes on the wealthy (popular with Mitt Romney voters as well exit polls have shown), preserve cuts for those making less, get out of Afghanistan, safe guard Social Security, create and fund an alternate energy infrastructure that will grow jobs in the US and lessen the impact of man-made climate change, etc. If Republicans have ideas that will make these plans possible, by all means listen to them. But Obama needs to be firm in the referendum that has been delivered by this country. It was quite clear going into the voting booth that there was a fundamental choice between two ideas of governance. Obama and the Democrats represented the idea of the commonwealth, that our government was to be used to further the public good. The Republicans represented a call for limited government and further privatization. They lost—and, more importantly — their core idea of a diminished government in the public sphere lost. Americans want a government that helps them in times of need and emergencies, that protects them in old age, that provides healthcare and retirement benefits. Now, it’s time the party we elected acts like it.

~by Jack Johnson

Last Minute Museings on Election Eve

Twas the night before the election and all through the progressive house…

  • So it is election eve and like most rational people I am waiting with bated breath for this whole damn thing to be over. It is exhausting to say the least to have an election cycle that for all intents began on January 20th 2009 and has moved with a slow, relentless, pulverizing momentum that only enormous amounts of time and money can produce, until today it consumes everything in its path. I am done at so many levels with this election and yet whatever the outcome on Tuesday, I know that it will begin again almost immediately. Permanent campaigning is not, to borrow a phrase from my Occupy friends “what democracy looks like”.
  • We are being told again by both sides that this is simply the most important election in history and that any sense of cynicism and apathy about the process is a form of betrayal. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in voting, even in voting when I don’t like either candidate, but I think it is legitimate to ask if the vast majority of Americans are really being served by the election system we have now.
  • If I need to explain why Mitt Romney would make an awful president then you probably got to this blog by accident and should redirect to Gawker or NFL.com or whatever. Yes, Romney would be a disaster piled on the disasters that have come before and in that context voting for the president to keep Romney out of the White House is an understandable position to take in this cycle. My friends on what passes for the hard left these days make a good point that participating in the system merely gives the system legitimacy and helps to perpetuate it. By system, they often mean the WHOLE system, capitalism, democratic republicanism, hell private property etc. I don’t necessarily roll that way, but I feel like I do perceive a fundamental truth in what they say. As a progressive I often feel left out of the discussion within the large tent of Democratic politics. They make the right noises, but they often don’t come through for us and they are confident that we’ll show up to volunteer and contribute and vote for them because we don’t want the latest flavor of conservative crazy to win control of the government. We can look no further back than the presidency of George W. Bush for an example. Al Gore was not very exciting, and a lot of folks on the left especially after a pretty exhausting Clinton administration that had veered ever to the vanishing center, wanted to send a message… enter Ralph Nader and hanging chads and the Supreme Court and bam, there was George Bush. We were told that Bush and Gore were exactly the same and I suppose that from the vantage point of the Comintern they were, but the practical results were awful for our nation and for most of us as individuals, not to mention all the people around the world who died because we had the wrong guy in the White House. So yeah, elections matter. Gore, I am confident, would not have done what Bush did… But.
  • This has been a pretty bad cycle indeed. In 2008 a lot of people poured their hopes and dreams and their decade long frustrations into the person of Barack Obama and that vessel could not contain them. I think that Obama’s presidency has been competent in light of the challenges he faced entering office. He followed what more and more is looking like the worst presidency in at least 150 years and maybe ever. He inherited a nation in the midst of an economic collapse the likes of which had not been seen in 70 years, embroiled in two unpopular, failed wars and riven by a deep and abiding political schism in which one party seemed to be going more and more off the rails while the other muddled along trying to clean up the mess like the long-suffering spouse in an abusive relationship. I think the president is a decent person, I can’t help but like him at that level. He’s educated, deliberative and nuanced in his thinking.  And as a 52-year-old progressive, I got to do something in electing him that I honestly did not think would happen in my lifetime. I retain a residual affection for Mr. Obama that will not go away soon and that colors my perception of him. My friends on the left scoff at this sort of thing, but it is real and it is important, and of course I am also as susceptible as the next person to the US vs. THEM, often sports team conflated dichotomy that has come to be the central part of American politics: I acknowledge that I want Obama to win partially because I want to make the bad guys suck it!
  • So I’d rather have a second Obama term than a Romney term, but make no mistake, Obama has failed on several crucial fronts that I don’t think he had to, and I am deeply disappointed in him. I largely give him a pass on the economy; there are forces at work right now that no president can control and certainly not in one term with a do-nothing Congress. The original stimulus was too small by half and people knew it at the time, but the president still seemed to think that he could horse trade with the GOP in Congress or compel them through this famously strong rhetorical arguments. Much of the stimulus got wasted in useless tax cuts to try to woo people who already seemed to actively hate him personally. His policies and those of the FED and yes, the “bailout” (I know, I know), probably kept us out of the Great Depression part II, but the recovery has been weak and Europe remains in trouble and it feels like we missed a chance to change things for the better and make the people who caused this actually pay. We needed systemic change, an end to the failed policies of the last 3 decades and real economic growth based on higher wages and better benefits for workers and less on corporate profits. Obama should have been stronger in making the Democrats in Congress do serious work on banking and financial reform but he wasn’t, either because he couldn’t or he didn’t want to – pick your flavor. Dodd/Frank is a start of sorts, but it is very weak and could have been better just by going back to the rules that worked so well for half a century between FDR and Reagan. Maybe this wasn’t politically possible, but it sure would have looked better if Obama had not filled his administration with bankers from Goldman Sacks and other Wall Street insiders, as in the case with the economy and healthcare, perceptions matter, and it sure looked like business as usual to a lot of us on the left.
  • Healthcare is a case in point: Obama took his sizable election capital after 2008 and invested it in the first substantive healthcare overhaul since the 1960s. Obamacare is flawed, but it is a real step forward. It is also probably about as good a deal as the American people were likely to get despite the Democratic control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. But because the president didn’t want to make the mistake many thought that the Clintons had made in 1992, he decided to farm out the work to Congress which isn’t very good at writing or passing sweeping legislation anymore, unless it involves curtailing civil liberties. He also threw away a lot of what progressives wanted at the outset. He made deals with the pharmaceutical industry that kept them largely on the bench through this process which was smart politics but muddied his message. While Speaker Pelosi delivered the House without much problem, in the Senate we were treated to all the pork-barrel and Christmas tree lawmaking that Congress is infamous for. The president got a bill eventually but at tremendous political cost, and instead of being able to claim a victory he got slapped by just about everyone including progressive who were furious that he never even brought up “single payer”, not even to bargain away. Worse, Obamacare as it is now being called by everyone (I think the GOP may come to regret that choice of words), will be the last piece of major healthcare legislation for years to come. No one wants to fight that fight again on the Hill and so whatever chance we had at Medicare-for-all is gone for a decade or more and perhaps will have to wait till the baby-boomers are gone and the system readjusts.
  • Of course for many progressives it is the president’s abysmal civil liberties record that galls the most.  George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should have been impeached and removed from office, and they should have stood trial for war crimes for the things they did while in office. I don’t care about motivation or incompetence or whatever, the Bush administration has done terrible lasting damage to the concept of the rule of law in this country and just being remembered as a crappy president isn’t enough frankly. By that measure Barack Obama should also have a day in the docks. He promised to close Gitmo and never did. He claimed to end torture, but his administration has allowed a dangerous and continued opacity in intelligence matters and is perhaps even more secretive it is dealings in our new Cold War than the Bushies. I see no reason to believe them even if I am more inclined to support them. The drone war is a foreign relations and human rights disaster and has very troubling connotations for policing and surveillance in our own country. The security and surveillance state has only grown under this presidency and in signing the NDAA with its controversial language authorizing the president to selectively kill American citizen without charges or trial, we saw a further, shocking disregard for the Constitution (from a guy who taught constitutional law, for crying out loud), and constitutes a reasonable explanation alone for why so many progressives are seriously thinking about sitting the election out. What can I say to them? Romney would be worse? It’s clearly true, but is a lousy answer all the same.
  • But I can’t sit out the election because Romney WOULD be worse. A lot worse, I think. This president has been disinterested in pushing for action on climate change which is probably our biggest national threat going forward, but he has put more money into clean energy than anyone before him. I think we have a better chance to save Social Security and Medicare with Obama in the White House than Romney and Ryan. I think we have a better chance of avoiding more conflicts in the Middle East with Obama than Romney, who has hired the entire discredited Bush foreign policy team to advise him. And we have a better chance of keeping women’s reproductive choice legal, over-turning Citizens United, saving the EPA, getting equal rights for gay people, relying on science instead of superstition, and coming up with a sane immigration policy with Obama in the White House and Obama nominating the next couple Supreme Court justices.
  • So what do we do Wednesday? Both parties will begin gearing up for mid-terms in 2014 and of course the next presidential cycle in 2016. I am not exaggerating. As progressives we can bow out, we can sign the occasional petition and go to the occasional rally when it is something we feel strongly about and so then in 2016 we can lament that no one is talking about our issues. We can say, oh it is all too hard and everyone is a liar and if only we could be like Egypt or Spain or something. We can wring our hands and complain and wait for some new leader to come along… or we can do what many of us have started to do. We can continue to organize ourselves, we can join forces across ideology and special interest, we can use the levers of power and we can vote with our wallets and our feet as well as our ballots. You know this may seem odd, but for some time I have looked at the way the Christian fundamentalist community does its business with a certain sense of awe. In many regards, they are just awful, but they are very organized, they are relentless, they rebound quickly from defeat, they compromise when practical but they stick with their core goals and they are in it for the long haul. They support their friends and they punish their enemies in the extreme. Without wanting to be them, I can say that there is a lot to learn from them. So many on the left want a movement outside conventional politics, well the fundies tried that and it didn’t work; now they have largely co-opted the Republican Party and the conservative movement. They don’t have complete control, but they are a real force to reckon with such that the bankers and the apparatchiks have to deal with them. They fuel the Tea Party and they make sure their ideas, no matter how outlandish, get into the mainstream discussion, and they require adherence to the party line even when it means losing temporarily. They have their own media system, their own entertainment and business community that exist in a strange parallel universe to popular culture as a whole. They used to be mocked and taken for granted by the Republican leadership, who said what the hard right wanted to hear at election time and then did as they pleased. That is no longer the case and there are lessons for the secular left that bear learning if we are to get more out of our troubled relationship with the Democrats.
  • I know some folks want that separation. They dream of a European system where tiny splinter parties have outsized power. Good luck with that. Frankly, I’d rather have two large centrist parties where national consensus and compromise are the rule, than one where unreconstructed Bolsheviks and Neo Nazis can cast meaningful votes – but that’s just me. By the way, I don’t necessarily think that is what we have now, in fact I think we have a fun-house mirror version of that these days, and that won’t change until the GOP is punished at the polls for acting like spoiled, kind of crazy children and the Democrats learn there’s a price to pay for walking away from their base. I think we have to make Democrats take us seriously by offering them the carrot of our support with real strings attached and punishing them when they go astray. Part of this means building an infrastructure that finds and nurtures progressive candidates and gets them elected at the local level (which is how the conservatives do it), training them and cultivating them and building a structure that supports them when they are out of office as well. A lot of this sort of thing sounds too messy, too much like playing by someone else’s rules for my hard left friends who dream of general strikes and popular uprisings. In some ways, I’m with them. I’ve walked on picket lines and spoken at demos and I will again. But I also helped found APV because waiting for some organic moment when the dialectic shift and a new thesis emerges is not for me. I want to fight back, and to do that you need the right tools and you need to master the terrain. So I’ll be voting on Tuesday and I’ll be back at work on Wednesday whoever wins.

Scott Price

Spare a penny for the old guy?

Spare a penny for the old guy?

That disarming phrase has a marvelous arc of history behind it. Today, November 5th, marks Guy Fawkes night, a British celebration of a failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James the 1st of England and his Parliament. Traditionally, children made an effigy of “Gunpowder Plot” conspirator Guy Fawkes and paraded him down streets, asking passers-by to “spare a penny for the Guy.” They would then use the money to buy fireworks and burn the effigy on a bonfire.

Guy Fawkes –or Guido as he signed his tortured confession—was a recusant Catholic in protestant England. Outside of a rather macabre children’s rhyme (repeated below), there doesn’t seem much about a failed attempt by a dozen or so parochial Catholics to overthrow predominately Protestant England that would capture the modern imagination. Yet, V for Vendetta, a graphic comic strip of the events surrounding Guy Fawkes, breathed new life into the story in the 1990s. Drawing from the legend of Guy Fawkes, who was tortured and ultimately confessed to the gunpowder plot, writer Allan Lloyd re-introduced the rebel as a contemporary figure trapped in a post-apocalyptic London. The hero preserves his anonymity by wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as he carries out acts of ‘terror’ against a totalitarian state. In 2005, the comic strip made it to film which caught the popular imagination.

The hacktivist group, Anonymous, went on to adopt a version of the Guy Fawkes mask used in V for its effort to protest the Church of Scientology in what they referred to as “Project Chanology” (a response to the Church of Scientology’s attempts to remove material from a highly publicized interview with Scientologist Tom Cruise from the Internet in January 2008—an act Anonymous considered internet censorship). They used the mask to preserve their anonymity so that the Church of Scientology would be unable to retaliate against them individually.

But the mask, and the legend of Guy Fawkes traveled well beyond Project Chanology. On 23 May 2009, protesters dressed up as V and set off a fake barrel of gunpowder outside Parliament while protesting over the issue of British MPs’ expenses. Two years later, it inspired some of the Egyptian youth before and during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

During Occupy Wall Street – at least partially organized by Anonymous – and other ongoing Occupy protests, the mask appeared internationally. It became a symbol of popular revolution and the adoption by Anonymous caught fire. According to Time, the mask has become the top-selling mask on Amazon.com, selling hundreds of thousands a year. Artist David Lloyd who provided illustrations for the original comic book said: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.”

One of the more memorable moments in the film V for Vendetta was the recitation of the traditional children’s rhyme:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Indeed, it hasn’t. In fact, it seems a failed gun powder plot over 500 years ago has reverberated through the centuries touching the imagination of the internet generation, mobilizing viewers at a visceral level to reject political apathy and to enact a politics of resistance against any state that would seek to silence dissent. Unlikely as it sounds, the story of Guy Fawkes has touched us all. So spare a penny for the old Guy… He deserves it.

~~~~~~