Category Archives: Supreme Court

In the Dark Cave of the Court

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Next to the Supreme Court that gave us the indefensible Dred Scott decision, this court  may be the worst.  One irony–and God, are there ironies to choose from here — is that the lifetime sinecure provided to the court, saving them from the influences of the ‘real’ world in a failed attempt at objectivity is probably enabling their agonized legalize. Their historically misguided Citizens United decision was the shot over the bow. That ruling purported to advance the cause of ‘free speech’ by allowing corporations the right to fund partisan politics—something which had been limited by the McCain–Feingold Act, essentially saying, “Um, no Wal-Mart, you can’t carpetbomb a locality with ads for or against a particular candidate.” But the majority apparently live on a different planet, or in an especially dark and warm place, where corporations — legal entities that have no purpose outside of profit-making—should be allowed the same rights as an individual.

But, of course, corporations are not individuals. They’re not even just groups of individuals. They aren’t social clubs, or coffee klatches, nor are they rock bands or churches. Corporations have one purpose—to make money, everything else they might do is ancillary. They have no morality, no feelings, no loyalty to anything but the bottom line. Unlike humans, they have limited liability, a perpetual life, and the ability to span the globe with resources at their disposal in some cases equivalent to a nation-state. One may as well confer individual speech rights on an ATM. But in the view of the majority, corporate players are just another grouping of citizens, the core of their legal purpose of no more concern than the human rights of a black man, like Dred Scott, say, circa 1857. We’d excuse a five-year-old for the easy confusion. But that the top legal minds in our country should be thus baffled? That’s an intellectual embarrassment.

And the confusion at the core of Citizen’s United just got amplified with the recent Hobby Lobby decision. Again, the majority plows the same field, this time assigning morality to  its favored legal construct, and now adding improved super powers in addition to speech; we confer on corporations the ability to have faith!  But, of course, Hobby Lobby the legal entity doesn’t believe in God or Allah or anything. It has no capacity for belief. Now the owners of Hobby Lobby may have religious beliefs, but the legal entity called Hobby Lobby is designed to make money without regard to religious beliefs. And, in fact, it does exactly that. Investing in contraceptive firms and trading with China which, in fact, has some of the highest incidents of abortion—government funded and occasionally mandated– in the world today. Even if we entertain the dubious concept that Hobby Lobby as a corporate entity can enforce its owners beliefs on its employees—or somehow use the corporate entity Hobby Lobby to channel those beliefs, we’d find ourselves with some glaring inconsistencies when we discover how those ‘beliefs’ actually played out in the market place. If “sincerely held beliefs” are the test for refusing to abide by Federal law, do they need to be even remotely consistent?

Apparently, Hobby Lobby gets it both ways: I refuse to fund contraception through Obamacare, but I will invest in a company for profit that produces those contraceptive devices.  That’s what you get for conflating an owner’s ‘moral taste’ with a legal entity that they happen to helm. Does moral inconsistency disqualify ‘deeply held’? Who determines what’s deep and what’s not? More importantly, who determines what’s religious and what’s not? The owners of the company? Would they perhaps be influenced to shade this opinion based on their own legal requirement to make money?

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a sweeping dissent raises the same issues, noting, rather drolly that “the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities.” As Stevens has noted as well, “Corporations have no consciences, no thoughts, no feelings, no beliefs, no desires.” Furthermore, the actual ‘harm’ to the religious believer is nebulous at best—the employer is not required to provide contraceptives, the insurance company is—along with a slew of other services. If the employer or employee doesn’t want to use contraceptives for religious reasons (or any reason, really), there’s no requirement that they do so. In fact, the coercion works the other way, forcing employees of a for profit corporation to essentially cow-tow to the religious beliefs of their owners. If an employer’s religious beliefs don’t mesh with the employees in this instance and they would want to take advantage of a universally available Federal program with direct health benefits, the owner’s religious ‘beliefs’ now trump all: the employee’s own religious beliefs, the employee’s right to healthcare and the force of Federal law.

Ginsburg rightly notes that the decision opens up a floodgate of questions and possible challenges, “Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious beliefs is offended by health coverage of vaccines? Or paying the minimum wage?” What about Scientologists? Christian Scientists? Rastafarians and Wiccans? Do they get to weigh in? Where exactly does it end? If the Court must decide which religion is valid and which is not, favoring one over the other, won’t that in fact touch on—and violate– the Establishment Clause? Only if you live in a very dark place, would you assume that a “sincerely held religious belief” –whatever that might mean–should trump the government’s own interests in fairly representing the people.

But maybe that’s the whole point of this exercise, at least for the majority. Maybe it’s all about a particular flavor of religion that they would like to see ascendant.  After all, Alito tried to tailor the ruling so just folks agitated by contraceptives are defined as ‘religious.’ Not peyote eaters or Rastafarians to be sure, but those guys with the swell beanie caps, who get little shivers of horror that a woman should have access to contraceptives regardless of her marital status; now that’s morality!

Ginsburg concludes with a statement that may well turn prophetic: “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield”… perhaps it’s because for far too long this Court has made decisions as if living in a cave.

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The Money Storm

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A day earlier it would have been April Fool’s day and everyone would have understood the McCutcheon decision that recently came down from the Supreme Court was a joke. Now, it’s still a joke, only no one is laughing.

How bad is it? Striking down the aggregate limits will flood our political system with new cash, but the seven-figure checks will go directly to candidates instead of super PACs. Without aggregate limits, one candidate, through the use of joint fundraising committees, can solicit contributions of more than $3.6 million from a single donor. For the record, $3.6 million is more than 70 times the median family income in America. Effectively one person will have the ‘voice’ of 70. This isn’t free speech, of course, it’s very expensive speech, and those with large bankrolls will continue to wield unwarranted influence throughout our political structure—only now it will be legal.

In the romantic version of our culture, we like to think that the United States will eventually get it right, but our nation has spent a long time maintaining income inequality and allowing our politics to reflect a kind of infantile belief in the ultimate goodness of aggregate cash. Steinbeck once famously said that there are no poor people in this country, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which at least explains the voting patterns of red states whose dire poverty levels should make them keen on redistribution, but who, inevitably, side with the wealthiest members of our society that so delicately place the boot upon their throat.

The justices—at least the five who voted out this decision—have no such conflict. They appear to earnestly approve of our growing plutocracy. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

McCutcheon, of course, has partnered with the Republican National Committee to bring this case before the Supreme Court, and fittingly, the Republican worldview is the ultimate winner. The message from the bench is pretty clear: if you want to have a voice in our society, become a millionaire. For those not lucky enough or ruthless enough to acquire wads of extra cash, your voice will be drowned to a whisper, and your wishes and needs will be addressed if and when they align with the needs of your friendly neighborhood Robber Baron.

Ari Berman writing in The Nation notes that the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are also the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

From the Nation magazine, consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

“• The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

• Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

• It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

Now consider what’s happened since the Shelby County decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

So we live in a country that expands the rights of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the political process, but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens to vote. We live in a country that applies a legal veneer to this duality under the ridiculous assertion of “free” speech, or conversely voter ‘fraud’ (where none exists). Dos Passos said this years ago in his epic USA trilogy and I’ll pass it along as a reminder to those temporarily embarrassed millionaires: “America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out, who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”

The legal wrangling at the Supreme Court obfuscates what’s happening on the streets of this country, so it’s past time to speak plainly again. We can start where Dos Passos ends: “all right we are two nations.”

Ironies Abound, or SCOTUS Knows Best

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Here’s an irony: a set of five, unelected, deeply conservative Supreme Court Justices known principally for railing against judicial activism voted to overturn an overwhelming renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act today based on the grounds that… “We know best.”

Or at least better… Apparently, five Republican appointed U.S. Supreme Court justices know better than the 390 U.S. House Members and 98 U.S. Senators who voted in favor of renewing the Act in 2006. And, yes, they also know better than the deeply Conservative President George W. Bush who signed it into law.

In their 5-4 decision the gang of five struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 —Section 4–which defines the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws. Thus, although Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless Congress can enact a new statute to determine who should be covered by it. Frankly, given the deeply conservative nature of our Congress, it’s doubtful this will get enacted any time soon, if at all.

Why the decision? Ostensibly, because an unrepentant county in Alabama complained about the curse of federal oversight even as they continued to enact racially discriminatory voting laws. That particular county was Shelby, Alabama, which, in another irony, was the state where the Civil Rights movement was essentially born and withstood its trial by fire in Birmingham.

In 2006, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan without complying with Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, leading to the loss of the city’s sole African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery. After a Federal review, and in compliance with Section 5, Calera was required to draw a non-discriminatory redistricting plan and conduct another election in which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat.

“Shelby County was and is the very kind of place for which the Voting Rights Act was written.” said an election official there, “So, it’s pretty unbelievable that this case has come from this community.”

Of course, Shelby County is not alone. If it were, maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem. But it’s not. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act has been invoked more than 700 times between 1982 and 2006.

So how did our gang of five manage to miss the pervasiveness of voter discrimination issues? Voter suppression is not exactly a rarefied concept, nor is it an accident. It is a tactic. And despite the contrary opinions held by the gang of five on our highest bench, voting suppression is as real as the six-hour long lines in minority voting districts in Florida last November. Those mile long lines and the incredible wait were the result of Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to 8. While they were at it, they also eliminated voting on the Sunday preceding Election Day. Viola! Making it that much harder for working class voters. In Ohio, Republican officials cut early-voting hours leading up to the November election. The week before that, in neighboring Pennsylvania, the Republican House Majority leader was caught on tape confessing that the new restrictive voting law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” In Virginia, new Voter ID restrictions were put into place as well. Overwhelmingly, these laws are an effort to reduce minority participation in their electoral franchise.

All over the country, in dozens of states, Republican lawmakers, fueled by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), enacted legislation aimed at suppressing the vote under the guise of eliminating that mind forged bugaboo of the right, ‘voter fraud’; without, of course, having any verifiable cases of voter fraud to point to, outside the ones of their own making. (For those who want to keep track, a great example of this was in Florida, again, where Republican’s hired Strategic Allied Consulting who are now facing third degree felony charges after admitting that they submitted dozens of forged voter registration applications last fall ahead of the 2012 election.)

Then of course, there are the redistricting efforts here in Virginia and all across the South. Some successful, others less so. Virginia’s own ignominious efforts– in which Virginia Republicans took advantage of long time civil rights leader Henry Marsh’s absence to push a redistricting plan through the state Senate–were ultimately scuttled.

Why?

Funny you should ask.

Out of fear of the Federal oversight provided for in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ultimately, the House Speaker determined that risk was too great and simply ruled the redistricting effort, “Not Germane.

That’s why this Supreme Court decision is such an intellectual wreck. Because the Voting Rights Act is not just monumental and historic, it is effective. It is the reason we have increased minority voter participation across the South–the key rationale Robert’s used in the majority decision to abandon it.

Here’s an additional kick in the teeth. All of the voting suppression mentioned above is happening with the Voting Rights Act still intact. What will happen when our Conservative Congress fails to effectively remodel Section 4?

As U.S. District Judge John Bates remarked last year in a voter suppression case out of South Carolina, the deterrent effect of Section 4 alone is enormous. Its mere presence has stopped lawmakers from pitching hundreds more dubious laws (like the kind floated in Virginia this past session).

According to a Brennan Center for Justice Analysis:

In the past 15 years, The Department of Justice (DOJ) has blocked 86 state and local submissions of election changes.

Forty-three of those objections occurred in the last decade. Thirty-one occurred since the 2006 reauthorization of Section 5.

In 2012, for example, a court blocked Texas’s statewide redistricting maps, finding the state enacted certain maps with the intent to racially discriminate against African-American and Latino voters. In the same year, Section 5 prevented implementation of two changes to the method of electing trustees of the Beaumont Independent School District in Beaumont, Texas. The first change replaced two single-member districts of the school district with at-large districts, from which it was highly unlikely that African-Americans could successfully elect their candidates of choice.

Just a few months later, Section 5 prevented other election changes that would have shortened, without notice, the terms of the three incumbent minority candidates, and treated the candidate qualification period as closed such that the incumbents would not have been able to run for re-election in their own districts.

This list goes on and on. None of these instances, and hundreds more, would have been prevented without an effective Voting Rights Act.
“In its ideologically motivated and divisive 5-4 ruling today in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court has drawn the teeth of one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, the Voting Rights Act.” said Scott Price, President of the Alliance for Progressive Values, “At a time when voter suppression is spreading once again across parts of the country with long histories of discrimination, this ruling sends a clear signal that the courts will look the other way while the franchise of minorities is infringed. By booting this issue back to a dysfunctional and moribund Congress that has nevertheless regularly reapproved the VRA, the Court has guaranteed that American citizens will find it harder to vote in upcoming elections. This is a shameful moment.”

Now, acts of minority voter suppression will have to be challenged after the fact, if they are challenged at all.

Yet,  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision that “Things have changed in the South. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”

In yet another irony, if they are rare, it is precisely because the Voting Rights Act prevented them.

“The Court,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent, “makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story.” And then she proceeded to outline the countless ways in which racial discrimination in voting practices is alive and well in Alabama and other jurisdictions covered by the law–citing actual evidence.

“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” Justice Ruth Bader Gingsburg read her minority opinion out loud from the bench in a stinging rebuke to the majority:

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and continues to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing out your umbrella in the rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Unfortunately, it is the minority voters across the nation who will suffer the deluge.

Darwin’s Angels

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Sometimes there are news stories so over the top, so outrageous, that you double-check just to ensure you haven’t lost your mind. At times these stories involve incredibly weird acts with peanut butter jars and human orifices, other times, it’s North Carolina legislators trying to write laws.

According to the Huffington Post, a bill was filed Monday, April 1st, by two GOP lawmakers from Rowan County, NC and backed by nine other Republicans (including the Majority Leader) that would effectively allow the state of North Carolina to declare an ‘established’ religion. The April 1st date could be indicative of the joking nature of the thing, but they appear to be serious as a heart attack. They use proud state secessionist type speech that we really haven’t heard since those Halcyon days of the Civil War (that Recent Unpleasantness, by the way, left over half a million of our fellow citizens dead or about 620,000 …keep that figure in mind, we’ll be coming back to it).

Here are the two relevant sections from the bill:

SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

Even those of us who aren’t lawyers—much less state legislators– are passingly familiar with the First Amendment and what is commonly known as the Establishment Clause. This clause expressly prohibits Congress from passing laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion in America. The North Carolina GOP’s argument, in all its simplicity, appears to be that the Establishment Clause does not apply to the states. Well, the kindest thing you can say is that the argument is courageous; in the same way that sticking your tongue to a steel pole in sub-zero temperatures is courageous. It’s not something you cheer: you just have to wonder what’s going on with that person. And you hope they get better soon.

As recently as 1971, a similar effort was soundly repudiated in Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court established the three-pronged test—called “The Lemon Test”— for determining when a state has run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:
• The law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose.
• The principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
• The statute or policy must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of government with religion.

The Lemon test, by the way, has been upheld as recently as 2005 –even under our extremely conservative SCOTUS in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union.

So passage of such a law in North Carolina has zero chance of surviving a constitutional challenge which apparently is beside the point. After all, this is the same state that continues to hold a provision in its State Constitution requiring that candidates for state office profess their belief in God. This despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) which held that such a law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. To wit:

“We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”

North Carolina’s response? … Crickets. They have not modified their State Constitution an iota in order to accord themselves with the law of the land.

This is a problem. It’s the same kind of problem we see in Mississippi where there’s a proposal to establish a state board with the power to nullify federal laws; and with legislation recently introduced in North Carolina by state Representative Larry Pittman (R-Concord), touting a state constitutional amendment that would allow for carrying concealed weapons to fight federal “tyranny.” Our own state, Virginia, is currently refusing millions in federal aid (even as we slash necessary local programs) in a pyrrhic effort to evade Obamacare, as if refusing federal funds for sick and poor people were a great and noble cause (right up there with defending slavery). All of these efforts are generated in a cloud of rightwing paranoia of the U.N. black helicopter variety. If they were merely childish, albeit costly efforts that would simply wither on the vine, it would probably be safe to disregard them, but what years ago would have been casually ignored as the lunatic fringe has now become the Republican party’s base. At the state level, this kind of rhetoric is quickly becoming standard operating procedure.

Progressives like to believe in an arrow to history, a teleological end point; but in reality for every few steps forward there are usually two or three steps back. Progress tends to be more evolutionary—in Stephen Gould’s sense of the matter– with bad or useless things hanging around that really shouldn’t— kind of like our appendices. Most gains are compromises with something slightly disingenuous or dysfunctional (think of Obamacare’s deep entanglement with an expensive and nearly useless private insurance overlay). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine what can ameliorate the poisonous assumptions that are being made at the state level today. These are not compromise positions, but deeply atavistic nonnegotiables that aim to undermine the whole. They are symptoms of a malaise that surfaced nearly 150 years ago, at the cost of over half a million lives, and look to be trending once again. I suspect, unless roundly ridiculed, it might come back like Nietzsche’s eternal return, or worse, like Newt Gingrich (God help us).

We can only hope that, like the infamous Darwin awards, these Southern statesmen will do the human race a favor by self-selecting themselves out of our legal gene pools—through foolish acts, like sticking their tongues to freezing steel poles, or forgetting who won the Civil War.

~~~

 

CAN PLASTIC BAGS BRING US TOGETHER? ~by Rhonda Hening

“That’s so ugly, isn’t it? That plastic bag stuck in the tree?”
“Yes, it really is a shame. Those bags get stuck in the trees in our park all the time.”
“Did you know that plastic bags are made with petroleum products?”
“No, I never thought about it before.”

… and there’s my opening. The conversation begins. 😉

No one likes to see plastic bags stuck in the trees of our parks, washing down our storm sewers, stuck to the exhaust pipes of our cars, or stinking until they shred, sloshing in the tides, visible and unsightly during our visits to the beach. When I have exhausted every other way to hold a conversation with someone who opposes my politics, we can always agree that those ‘tree bags’ are an eyesore. It’s a fail-safe opportunity for me to introduce a conversation about how plastics have really invaded our culture, and how plastic contributes, not only to the depletion of fossil fuels, but to the demise of our marine life as well.

Next, I ask them if they have ever heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s a concentration of plastic and other man-made sludge, estimated to be about twice the size of Texas (so far) and located north of the North Pacific Gyre. It’s driven and held in place by oceanic and wind currents. There are several garbage patches in our oceans, the Pacific being the largest of them.

The plastic and trash enter our waterways by storm sewer outlets, ocean vessel dumping, and various other methods. As it begins to photo-degrade, the plastics are reduced to smaller pieces (some microscopic), and the reduction becomes a toxic soup. The chemicals are consumed by fish, whales and dolphins, among other ocean life, and eventually it kills them. Birds that feed in ocean waters are also victims of the plastic garbage piles. We see their decomposed bodies on the shoreline. All that’s left is some feathers, a pile of bones, and … plastic.

(Here’s a great ABC News Video about it – Disposable Island)

This conversation evokes sympathy from just about everyone. Once I have touched on the dead marine and bird life, I throw in a fact that brings them back home. I ask if they’ve ever heard of method products inc., an eco-friendly company whose products are sold in many high-traffic variety stores. Though it doesn’t claim to be a “green” company, their brand is easily recognized by average shoppers. The method company collects plastic trash from the beaches of Hawaii and elsewhere, and recycles it to create the packaging for their cleaning products. Hopefully, I’ve given my conversation partner a thought or two about using more eco-friendly products.

Then, back to the bigger picture.

“You know, it’s really a shame that we produce so many plastics anyway. They use up much of the oil that we seem to find so precious these days.” That’s when I drop the F-bomb on them – FRACKING.

“Have you ever heard of fracking?” I find many people who are unaware of it, or at least the devastating environmental and health effects that result from it. I tell them about the studies and consequences of the hydraulic fracturing process – everything from man-made earthquakes to flammable “drinking” water from a kitchen faucet. We discuss the impact of Fracking on the people who live in surrounding communities, like cancer and brain lesions!  These studies indicate a need for strict regulation: “There have been over 1000 reports of contaminated groundwater since fracking began, and studies also link the extraction process to polluted air, disease and death in farm animals and wildlife in addition to humans. It is also connected to the increase in earthquake activity. Doctors have come out against fracking; it’s been banned in New Jersey, and other states are considering banning it.”

At this point, I am usually met with an incredulous, “Well, that doesn’t seem right!”

“I know!” I agree with them, and then I move to the most important part of the conversation. We need safety regulations, but lobbyists from oil companies, chemical companies and others, such as Halliburton, have swayed legislators who have exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing from some of our key federal environmental laws. “That’s why we have to keep corporations from having undue influence over our government and legislators. We need to reverse the Citizens United decision – you know?”

I have found some people who don’t know about the Citizens United decision or how it’s affecting our nation. I explain the Supreme Court’s ruling and that as a result, corporations now contribute to political interests without identifying themselves or disclosing their donations to the public. These massive donations, PACs and corporate lobbying groups have strong influence over our politicians, and ultimately our laws. They also pour money into media outlets and run dubious ads that influence voter’s choices. Because of the Citizens United decision, the voice of the American people has been pushed nearly out of the democratic process.

I invite them to write to their legislators about fracking and about overturning the Citizens United ruling, and mention that they can go to APV’s website, and use our link to identify their legislators. At that point, I can end the conversation without ever having spoken the words Republican or Democrat, and, yet, we are united in thought!

“Hey, can you give me a hand to get this plastic bag out of the tree? Thanks!”

~~~~~

Bravo! and thanks to APV board member, Rhonda Hening, for contributing this thoughtful post, and for her continuous devotion and active support for so many of the progressive issues confronting us today.

The Invisible Hand Pummeling Public Schools

 

I can’t think of a more despicable or far-reaching example of ideology being forced on Americans than the money-grabbing obsession with dismantling our time-honored public school system. School choice, vouchers, corporate scholarships, educational freedom – call it what you like – the privatization of public schools is a movement on steroids. Every day the states are hit with new bills to aid neoliberals in their goal to educate Americans “their” way. The means to that end vary for different blocs of support, but all roads meet where powerful people control and market information.

A generation or two down this widening road to schools with selective entry and exit for students, religious indoctrination and poorly regulated online learning for the masses, the real people of America, our strength, will rely on the free market crumbs that fall from the learning opportunities available to the elite. Trickledown education is in the making.

Bit by bit, new interpretations change the meanings of our laws. Remember how that happened in Orwell’s Animal Farm?

No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.

~~~~~

No public school shall proselytize except by students.

Remember when public schools were not missionary fields? Just yesterday, the Florida Senate advanced a bill to allow prayer led by students. Proponents of religion in schools call this one “a God-given loophole” – peer evangelism. And of course, as religion gains ground in public schools to appease the religious right (a targeted voting bloc), separation of church and state, a main and valid objection to privatization is being overcome. As the separation objection loses its punch, vouchers allowing taxpayer money to be funneled into private schools become six of one, half-dozen of the other.

In How religion is infiltrating public schools, Katherine Stewart highlights this Animal Farm type “modification” made by the Supreme Court differentiating school-sponsored speech from student speech, allowing students to proselytize on federal property.

In New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, South Carolina:

School-sponsored prayers routinely opened and closed assemblies and performances. Religious messages made their way into lesson plans, and religious iconography decorated the walls. Students were punished for minor infractions by being told to write out sentences proclaiming their faith in God.

A number of these activities … appear to be violations of the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution intended to maintain separation between church and state. And the school board admits as much in its proposed settlement of the ACLU case. Yet an even greater number of religious activities in public schools have recently become legal as a result of novel interpretations of the Constitution handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, had the administration of New Heights been a little smarter, it could have achieved its apparent goal of using the school’s position of authority to spread the word of God among its captive students without running the risk of being sued. Thousands of other schools across the country do just that.

All taxpayers shall contribute to public education unless they don’t.

Diverting funds away from the public schools through vouchers and other means will exacerbate every problem in the system, effectively breaking it. Defunding, attacking teachers and unions, etc., is the means. The golden rule in the neoliberal sweep to privatize the public good is: First, break it. Second, get paid to rebuild it in your own image. Third, funnel the money and benefits up to the top.

Money talks, regulation walks – The Cash Cow for Now  

How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools by investigative journalist Lee Fang, points out the astonishing amount of investment capital flowing into online education. The rush to privatize in this way by businesses and “philanthropists” like the Koch brothers, is pretty transparent. Rupert Murdoch called it “a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN) have been the pivotal organizations aiding in the campaign for virtual schools.

Since 2005, ALEC has offered a template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act” to introduce online education. (…)

SPN has faced accusations before that it is little more than a coin-operated front for corporations. For instance, SPN and its affiliates receive money from polluters, including infamous petrochemical giant Koch Industries, allegedly in exchange for aggressive promotion of climate denial theories.

It’s not a leap to assume that when corporations are in control of education, so will be information.

Typical of neoliberal fancy, virtual schools lack regulation and public debate. And without sufficient oversight or quality control, most online learning companies receive the same amount of taxpayer funding per-pupil as brick and mortar schools. Saving on the teacher-to-student ratio, costs for classrooms, transportation, meals, security, equipment, maintenance and other building support staff – and many other expenses associated with traditional learning, the profit margin for virtual education companies is so seductive that obscene amounts of their money is spent to lobby our lawmakers.

“Moe has worked for almost fifteen years at converting the K-12 education system into a cash cow for Wall Street. A veteran of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, he now leads an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education.” (…)

“In March, while busting the teachers unions in his state, Walker lifted the cap on virtual schools and removed the program’s income requirements.
State Representative Robin Vos, the Wisconsin state chair for ALEC, sponsored the bill codifying Walker’s radical expansion of online, for-profit schools. Vos’s bill not only lifts the cap but also makes new, for-profit virtual charters easier to establish.

Online learning in K-12 schools is still growing explosively, and public support for this arm of privatization is just baffling. Early on, it was promoted for computer literacy and otherwise unavailable courses, but that’s a distant memory. In 2006, Michigan stepped forward to become the 1st state requiring online learning for high school graduation, regardless of need.

If the public has been reticent in its opposition to online education, it may be because information on its success or failure to actually educate is hard to come by and often skewed. Its promotion has been framed to cover the bases, appealing to the voting blocs of rural communities, urban communities, home schoolers, the parents of children with special learning needs, and a myriad of “bully” and other social issues, including student acne. But the bottom line is profit for the few, poor education for the many.

While different issues continue to plague the most basic requirements for virtual schools to actually educate, they are not without some easily understood merit in the cases of some students. But one-third of our high school students drop out, and truancy issues usually precede throwing in the towel. Obama would like for the states to enforce education requirements to age 18. I think that would force many students into online study (a boon for business) where truancy is already a problem for students who have left traditional schools in favor of virtual classes, and where there’s no viable way to track online attendance.

To me, this doesn’t sound like an honest effort to educate; it sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme at the expense of education and the taxpayer:

“By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
(…)
The state audit of the Colorado Virtual Academy, which found that the state paid for students who were not attending the school, ordered the reimbursement of more than $800,000.

With retention a problem, some teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance.
Students need simply to log in to be marked present for the day, according to Agora teachers and administrators.” (emphasis mine)
Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

So, yes. Online learning would reduce class sizes in traditional schools. But as the public school system is being privatized, who is that intended to benefit? Corporations! And another neoliberal offering we hear a lot about these days would have the same effect: repealing child labor laws. I think it’s clear that the motive behind these efforts aligns less with the people of America caring for and educating our children, and more with washing our hands of the responsibility. Every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship. ~A. Gramsci

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~DCKennedy

Apple, Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers and Bernie Sanders?

People don’t buy what you do – they buy why you do it. ~ Simon Sinek

Senator Bernie Sanders, December 8, 2011
The Saving American Democracy Amendment

The Petition to Support the Saving American Democracy Amendment

One of the 10 most watched TEDTalks of all time:

DPKennedy

APV is a part of the Move to Amend Movement.

LOS ANGELES POISED TO BE THE FIRST MAJOR U.S. CITY TO CALL FOR END TO CORPORATE PERSONHOOD

Grassroots Momentum Builds Toward Passage of a Constitutional Amendment

LOS ANGELES, CA – Next week the Los Angeles City Council will vote on a resolution that calls on Congress to amend the Constitution to clearly establish that only living persons — not corporations — are endowed with constitutional rights and that money is not the same as free speech. If this resolution is passed, Los Angeles will be the first major city in the U.S. to call for an end to all corporate constitutional rights.

The campaign in Los Angeles is the latest grassroots effort by Move to Amend, a national coalition working to abolish corporate personhood. “Local resolution campaigns are an opportunity for citizens to speak up and let it be known that we won’t accept the corporate takeover of our government lying down,” said Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a national spokesperson for Move to Amend. “We urge communities across the country to join the Move to Amend campaign and raise your voices.”

Earlier this year voters in Madison and Dane County, Wisconsin overwhelmingly approved ballot measures calling for an end to corporate personhood and the legal status of money as speech by 84% and 78% respectively. In November voters in Boulder, Colorado and Missoula, Montana both passed similar initiatives with 75% support.

“We are experiencing overwhelming support for what may be a historic turning point in restoring a voice to the voters and setting an example for the rest of the country,” stated Mary Beth Fielder, Coordinator of Move To Amend LA. “This action would provide the basis for overturning the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.”

Move to Amend volunteers in dozens of communities across the country are working to place similar measures on local ballots next year, including West Allis, WI, a conservative suburb of Milwaukee where last week local residents successfully qualified a measure for their spring ballot.

Move to Amend’s strategy is to pass community resolutions across the nation through city councils and through direct vote by ballot initiative. “Our plan is build a movement that will drive this issue into Congress from the grassroots. The American people are behind us on this and these campaigns help our federal representatives see that we mean business. Our very democracy is at stake,” stated Sopoci-Belknap.

The campaign in Los Angeles is endorsed by a growing list of organizations including Common Cause, Occupy LA, LA County Federation of Labor, Physicians for Social Responsibility, The Environmental Caucus of the CA Democratic Party, Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, MoveOn LA, Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains, Democracy for America, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, AFSCME 36, LA Green Machine and California Clean Money Campaign.

Please join APV in support of the Move to Amend movement. We need your help!

The Alliance for Progressive Values ~ Giving your values a voice!

DCKennedy

Patriots’ Dream

Bill Moyers: “Our Politicians Are Money Launderers in the Trafficking of Power and Policy”

If you haven’t seen this heartfelt speech until now, it might be because it was hacked shortly after it went up on Thursday. The culprit probably wasn’t an Arlo Guthrie critic, so my guess is someone feeling protective of a broad group of plutocrats. Anyway, take the time while it’s still up to read this well-respected, time-tested gentleman’s assessment of what has happened to our country, and the lyrics he looked to for inspiration.

He speaks passionately about America’s plutocracy, “where political power is derived from the wealthy and controlled by the wealthy to protect their wealth.”

Moyers and many others believe it was a plan that got its big kick-off from Lewis Powell, Jr.’s confidential memorandum, Attack of American Free Enterprise System. A copy of it is in an earlier post remembering the manifesto’s fortieth anniversary. It’s surprisingly short for all the damage it’s done, whether or not Powell realized its horrific potential.

Another interesting, infamous memo, sent only to its wealthiest customers, was from Citigroup in 2005. In The Plutonomy Symposium Rising Tides Lifting Yachts, global strategist Ajay Kapur came up with the term “Plutonomy” describing our massive income and wealth inequality. He discusses the advantages for the wealthy almost gayly, advising patrons that “… these wealth waves involve great complexity exploited best by the rich and educated of the time.” The arrogance in the two-part memo is deafening:

This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “global imbalances”. We worry less.

Also, in part 2, on March 5, 2006, some of the no-nos for their beloved “Plutonomy” are shared. Though it wasn’t intended for the 99% to see, it’s interesting how their risk list stacks up today.

RISKS — WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks. For example, a policy error leading to asset deflation, would likely damage plutonomy. Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfranchisement remains as was — one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation on the rich (or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous [home-grow] laborers, in a push-back on globalization — either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments.

Copies of the Citigroup memo disappear quickly from the internet, but I found them for now. (Part One, Part Two) If those are taken down, there are excerpts in The Wall Street Journal and Daily Kos.

And then, of course, the lovely lyrics and song by Arlo Guthrie ~ Patriots’ Dream

DCKennedy

Unsinkable Ship

. . . a money class fleeces the banking system, while the very trunk of the national tree is permitted to rot and crash.
~Christopher Hitchens

A long time ago, someone handed me a fire extinguisher, doused and lit my English saddle, and suggested I aim at the base of the fire if I wanted to save it. Details aside, that’s what I thought of this morning when I re-read Vanity Fair‘s article by Christopher Hitchens, America the Banana Republic.

When it was reprinted all over the world in 2008, this article was not just a wake-up call … it was an alarm: a dire warning for the people of America, and its undeniable truth smacks even harder today. Nearly three years later, what have we done to reverse the course of a trend that was threatening “to put the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave on a par with Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Equatorial Guinea”?

Corporations still own the media and are now taking over the Internet. Free access to information, ideas and opinions is essential to Democracy, and the Internet was our alternate source.

The rule of law, a hallmark of Democracy, still doesn’t apply to persons of wealth and power or our government officials.

The Citizens United decision has corrupted the democratic process with corporate personhood.

We are still using electronic election equipment without verifiable results.

As I see it, the media, the rule of law and election integrity are so fundamental to democracy that without them, we are no longer a Democratic American Republic – and if we can’t maintain our own foundation of principles, it’s beyond arrogance to be forcing our system on other nations. It’s not enough anymore to say “our system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best there is to offer”. We’re dangerous. The world’s grandest banana republic also has the most powerful military in the history of the world and the people of America have lost all control over its expansive use.

Some simple truths need to be stated in every venue left for the people to see, and we need to heed the warnings and act now to change the course of history and the future of America.

Where do we go from here? If it were up to me, I would aim at the base of the fire and try to hit some of the above failures. One of the surest ways is to align ourselves with a grass-roots organization willing to work for American values.
DCKennedy