Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Occupy

I keep hearing talking heads act dumbfounded by the current Occupy Wall Street protests/sit-ins. Really? Is it truly that much of a mystery?

Some of the nit picking is due to the lack of a simple, easily packaged mission statement that will fit in a headline. After all, that's the only thing most news shows and pundit parades have time for. They want a one sentence description they can wrap their pea brains around so they can then pontificate.

You want to know what it's all about? Try this little exercise. Google (or Bing, if you like) US unemployment statistics for the last few years.  National deficit estimates, mortgage foreclosure statistics and personal bankruptcies for the last year, just as a start. After you've spent a little time with those happy articles, search for US corporate earnings, middle class earnings of the last decade and earnings of the top few percent over the same period. Does anything strike you as strange about all this? Notice a trend?

Well, it sure seems odd to me and the crowds of people meeting for the Occupy Wall Street protests! It's odd that many of the companies who caused the economy to implode, and were then bailed out by American taxpayers, are doing great! Earnings as high or higher than before they mugged the economy and bonuses hitting record levels. Now compare that to the financial status of the bulk of Americans.

What are they protesting? They, and I, are watching as the top tier is slowly sucking dry the real engine of the economy, the middle class. We see a financial system guilty of massive greed and corruption yet, with few exceptions, puttering along as if nothing happened. What are the Occupy protesters looking for? How about Justice for those who don't make 6 or 7 figure salaries? How about making those who do take responsibility for their actions? Or is that too much to ask?

2011-10-30: Matt Taibbi has a good piece on this subject over at Rolling Stone. I encourage you to give it a read.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dictator for a Day: Campaign Finance

As we drift into the election season I'm feeling that same old, sinking feeling I get every time the talking head parade begins. The feeling got worse after the Supreme Court's inexplicable 'Citizens United' decision a few years ago that all but wiped away any meaningful campaign finance restrictions.

Particularly over the last 30 years, our election system has become increasingly corrupted by money. Money in the hundreds of Millions of dollars floods into groups associated with candidates and political parties. Until recently there were a hodgepodge of campaign finance laws that made at least a valiant attempt to stem the tide of cash that surged into every election. But with one ruling, the now infamous 'Citizens United' decision, the Supreme Court swept most of them away. There are now only a few threadbare restrictions on the Who and How Much of campaign finance. Kind of like patching a dyke with a screen door. There are more than a few avenues and sleights of hand in place to allow anyone or any organization in America to donate without limit.

A great example is Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS. It's a so called 501(C)(4) group that not only can accept unlimited sums of money, but doesn't have to tell anyone where the money comes from. The only ghost of a restriction is that they are not allowed to coordinate with individual candidates, as if that's any functional impediment. GPS and its sister group, which does divulge its donors, spent roughly $71 Million in support of Republicans during the 2010 midterm. About 90% of GPS' total collections for that cycle, according to some sources, came from just a few Billionaires. For the 2012 elections they are setting a goal of $240 Million! That's just for two, supposedly independent, groups. If this kind of money, for the Right or Left, doesn't scare you, then you are not thinking it through to its logical conclusion.

This trend is toxic for a functioning democracy. The more money the wealthy and big corporations spend the more control they gain over the system. Sure we all still get a vote, but big money is gaining more and more control over who the candidates are, what we hear about them and what their policy positions are. Money determines what messages are broadcast into our family rooms and how often we hear it. Even a stupid idea, repeated loudly enough and often enough will start to take hold. There are just too many Americans who are either too naive or too lazy to look past the bullet points. They just let ads, pundits and party loyalty guide them blindly along the path without ever asking themselves if what they are being told even makes sense.

Just look at the 2008 financial debacle, if you don't believe me. Various parts of the United States financial industry destroyed the nation's economy and kicked the legs out from under much of the industrialized world. There isn't really even any debate over this fact anymore, aside from the question of whether it was a case of apathy or ignorance. But having done that, and then being rescued because we were all terrified of what might happen if the big banks actually failed all at once, they used every bit of pressure they could bring to bear to kill or weaken any attempt at true, meaningful reform. Even the financial reform bill that did finally emerge has been beaten and bloodied ceaselessly by Wall Street lobbyists to protect their astoundingly profitable casino. Actually, I should apologize as that's an insult to casinos who, unlike our banks, are required to actually have enough money on hand to cover all their bets. So even a blatantly obvious need to reform the banking system can't stand up to the massed checkbooks of that same industry.

If I was Dictator for a Day, the first thing on my list would be a Constitutional Amendment completely revamping campaign finance. Put simply, the days of big money control of US elections would be over.

First, no group, PAC, union or corporation of any kind could donate to political campaigns. Period. This would include these supposedly independent groups like Crossroads GPS. The only legal way to donate would be from individual citizen contributions.

Second, there would be a cap on individual donations, similar to current standards, with a $2500 per election cycle and $5000 per calendar year limit, adjusted for inflation in odd calendar years. Anyone found in violation of these limits would be guilty of voter fraud, face heavy fines and would be barred from donating to any candidate for at least one election cycle.

Third, each candidate would be allowed to create or hire ONE company/organization to manage the collection and disbursement of donations. They would all be licensed & renewed yearly. Their donation records would be available under normal Freedom of Information act rules. Anonymous donations would be illegal. Each group would face at least two random audits per election cycle. The audits would check general fiscal operations as well as take random samplings of donation records to confirm they are indeed real adult, US Citizens. Groups in violation of these rules, beyond a tiny margin for legitimate errors, would face draconian financial penalties, immediate cessation of campaign finance operations, a freeze on all funds and lose their license for a minimum of 2 years.

Fourth, candidates could not use their own personal funds for their campaigns. They would only be able to donate as individuals with the same limits.

Fifth, 'gifts' to candidates would be heavily restricted and fully public under Freedom of Information like rules.

I'm sure there are many details that would have to be ironed out or added, but you get the idea. This would go a long way towards leveling the playing field for voters. The wealthiest individuals and companies would no longer be able to simply buy elections. Sure there's no way to completely bolt the door shut, not considering how devious some of these people are. But it would make it much more difficult and if they were caught they would face more than a slap on the wrist. This amendment would also have the added benefit of preventing the waste of hundreds of Millions of dollars that could be put to far better use. Look, we have a big problem with our election system, but it's not yet too corrupt to reform. Unless of course we continue to ignore the problem till election day becomes nothing but a technicality to placate the masses.