Friday
May262006

Second Things Second: End lobbying as we know it

Years ago, I was sitting at a table talking with the members of a jazz band from L.A. It was just after the videotape had come to light showing twenty L.A. cops beating the daylights out of Rodney King. We had been discussing it for a while when I noticed that the drummer, a Hispanic guy, was silent. I asked him his opinion and he said, “The only difference between Rodney King and anyone else is that he happened to have a camera pointed at him.”

The investigation of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramhoff is like the video of Rodney King in that respect. The consternation and disgust of those who are paying attention to the Abramhoff case would cause their skulls to explode if they were fully aware of the everyday system of corruption we call lobbying.

We should ask ourselves, who has the right to lobby Congress? According to the US Constitution, it is we, the people of this country, and nobody and nothing else. I say “nothing” because a corporation is a thing, not a person.

Corporations have tried to obtain the rights of persons since nearly the beginning of this nation, and have succeeded in practice, although not truly in law. Back in the 1880’s, the clerk of the Supreme Court added his own spin on a decision that has been wrongly accepted ever since as legal personhood for corporations. (Read Thom Hartmann’s excellent book “Unequal Protection” for the details.) Their well-financed minions have swarmed the capitol before and since, distributing favors, junkets, and money. Their interests are mostly at odds with those of the American public. I’ll repeat: The Constitution guarantees political rights to U.S. citizens, period. The extension of political rights to things such as corporations has contaminated our experiment with democracy, and we need to clean that up.

Lobbying should be limited to two types. First, individual U.S. citizens and groups of U.S. citizens, unpaid, on their own time, have a constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Second, given the distances of most Americans from Washington D.C. and the time pressures of everyday life, we must allow paid lobbyists representing groups of U.S. citizens to express the views of those groups to Congress, under certain restrictions. The primary restriction is monetary. These lobbying organizations must be limited to collecting donations of no more than $50 per person per year. I discussed this limit in another essay on campaign finance. The purpose of the $50 limit is to prevent tiny groups of wealthy people from drowning out the voices of large groups of ordinary people. The corollary restriction is that these citizen’s lobbying organizations cannot receive funding, support in kind, or guidance from any corporation or foreign government.

The first amendment to our constitution prohibits the government from making any law “abridging” “The right of the people……to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The financial limit could well be interpreted as an abridgment, but it also could be interpreted as a guarantee. In practice, the absence of such a limit has resulted in the voices of the people in general being drowned out by the voices of corporations and a microscopic minority of wealthy individuals. The uncontrolled flow of hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts is as effective an abridgement of our constitutional rights as a repeal of the petitioning clause of the first amendment. Looking back at the long acceptance of various wrongheaded supreme court decisions, I see a tough fight on this point, but a much needed fight.

I’ll repeat my call from an earlier essay: We need a movement dedicated solely to political and electoral reform – campaign finance, lobbying, conflict of interest, voting rights, voting districts, paper ballots, and candidate registration. I’d say that campaign finance and the integrity of the actual voting process come first. We need to put our multitude of issues on the back burner and deal with the fundamental political problems that keep us from making progress. The system as it stands is specifically designed to defeat us.

(See my earlier post, "First Things First," for thoughts on the priority of campaign finance reform.)

Monday
May222006

You don't have to be crazy to run this place, but it helps

I submit the following in honor of the jury deliberations in the trial of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.

Back when I was in engineering school, I sat next to a guy in one class who had served in the Navy aboard a nuclear sub. He told me about the battery of psychological tests he had to go through before being approved to serve aboard a “Boomer.” His conclusion was, “If you were crazy enough in the right way, you got in.”

I am beginning to think the same way about corporate management. A few stories have come together for me. Recently, I was talking to my representative to the state legislature. The traditional business interests had come out against net metering, the law that allows people with solar power to run their electric meters backwards and get credit with their utility. This would account for about one ten-thousandth of our state power supply. On the other hand, an amendment had gone through allowing the electric utilities to jack up their prices instantly depending on fuel costs. Not a peep from the business community. My rep was in a meeting with some Chamber of Commerce types and asked, “What gives? Net metering has a microscopic effect and you protest. Fuel cost adjustment could bankrupt you and you couldn’t care less. Explain this.” The business execs explained that net metering was government interference with the market, while fuel cost fees were market economics. So they would be willing to be bankrupted as long as it was done according to market principles? Exactly.

This is a relatively benign example of the phenomenon. The classic case (mentioned previously in this blog) is that of the executives at Ford who left the Pinto on the market, despite a defective fuel tank. They decided that it was cheaper to pay off the families of the few dozen people who would inevitably burn to death in rear end collisions than to recall the cars and replace a support bracket. Place that moral decision before a hundred ordinary citizens and 99 of them would say “Recall the car, and be quick about it!” The hundredth would be under the supervision of mental health professionals.

Then there are the executives at Union Carbide who decided that they could save money on safety measures at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. Thousands died when that plant blew up, and thousands more will suffer for the rest of their lives. There are the oil company execs behind a leaked internal memo on global warming. They admitted that global warming is happening but proposed that government action could be delayed by a vigorous PR campaign. And so it goes, with high level executives authorizing the clearcutting of 400 year old trees, the spewing of toxic chemicals into our rivers, the sale of deadly consumer products, and the degrading of workplace safety with resulting carnage. Consider Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, Halliburton and their ilk, or for history buffs, Standard Oil and Peabody Coal. Sure, there are exceptions, more in the ranks of smaller businesses, but I get the feeling that a lot of what looks like virtue is really lack of opportunity.

Joel Bakan, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, wrote a book (which became a movie) called The Corporation. Its thesis is that the corporate “person” behaves like a human psychopath, remorselessly pursuing its own interests at the expense of others. Given our experiences with corporations, it is a convincing thesis. It presents questions, though. Where do these people come from, the top executives who make these decisions? Do they lack a moral compass from childhood, or is it stripped from them later? Is it the very structure of the organization that discourages them from moral behavior?

Most likely it is the usual combination of factors that bring out the worst in people: In most cases, a system of exclusive schools selects individuals with ruthless ambition and a sense of entitlement. In business school they are trained to make decisions according to math, not morals. At work, they are surrounded by and competing with like-minded peers, guided by the amoral rules of financial return, with a diffused sense of responsibility for physically and temporally distant consequences.

The final factor is the quasi-religious ideology of mythical “free markets” and “ideal consumers” with “enlightened self interest.” The corporate executive bent on some act of social or environmental destruction can justify his actions with a reference to the holy ur-text of capitalism, Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.”

We shouldn’t be surprised at insanity in an expensive suit. Between nature, nurture, and working environment, how could these people be anything but crazy? A culture predicated on financial return above all will select, in a Darwinian sense, those fit for making money at any human cost. These are the people who successfully dance the line between public piety towards the common good and private actions to beggar their workers, despoil the environment, and cheat their government. These are the people who carefully skid along the edge of the law, pushing over into crime when the odds are right or using campaign finance (bribery) when the odds are against them. These are the compartmentalized minds that spend their weekdays striving to pad a military contract or further cut the pay of some starving sweat laborer, and spend their evenings and weekends trying to instill strong moral values in their children.

What separates them from the disheveled individual living on the street or in the back ward is wardrobe, personal hygiene, and the way their fantasy world meshes with our own. Our own fantasy world is in turn created by the corporate media, designed and promoted by these same dignified, respected, well dressed sociopaths. We can continue to see the form and ignore the content, or step outside the storyline and recognize that madmen can be charming. Then we can address the legal and social structures that put these morally compromised creatures in power.

Tuesday
May162006

Ethical Receivership

I read an amusing short story by Peter De Vries* about a man who wanted to run out on his wife. He decided to declare moral bankruptcy. He declared to his family and all his friends that he was unable to meet society’s moral obligations, and that he would pay up at the scale of ten cents on the dollar. It all backfires on him, of course.

Still, the concept of moral bankruptcy as a parallel to financial bankruptcy is an interesting analogy. It relates to corporate malfeasance and the possibility of revoking corporate charters. A number of people are advocating the strengthening and rigorous enforcing of laws concerning corporate charters and the public good.

This is an appealing prospect, given that

1) The piddling fines demanded of corporations by the government are considered by said corporations as merely the cost of doing business, and
2) Corporations seem to be competing for some kind of anti-Nobel Prize in fraud, environmental destruction, and political corruption.

The problem with the death of a corporation, however deserving, is that it is group punishment for the actions of a few.

Remember the flaming Ford Pinto? Ford executives did some cold-blooded calculations and decided that it was cheaper to pay off the families of a few dozen human sacrifices than to recall the model and replace the fuel tank bracket. It was the moral equivalent of firing a gun blindly into a crowd, but the corporate being of Ford remained at large, building cars and making profits. What if the corporate charter had been revoked? The stock would have been rendered worthless, the assets sold off, and tens of thousands of people thrown out of work. Therein lies the problem. The people stitching the upholstery on the bucket seats weren’t guilty of anything. Likewise 99% of the Ford employees, and all the employees of the subcontractors and other businesses that benefited from the operations of Ford Motor company.

That is where moral bankruptcy comes in. A company that can’t meet its financial obligations can be forced into bankruptcy. In cases of criminal behavior or gross mismanagement, control of the company is surrendered to a government trustee. The company goes through a regulated process of financial restructuring to put it back on a sustainable fiscal path. Why not create the same process for corporations that are unable to meet their moral obligations to society?

When a corporation accumulates enough points on its license, so to speak, it would be subject to a legal proceeding and declared morally bankrupt. The Moral Bankruptcy Court would axe offending management and associated henchmen, minus golden parachutes, and prosecute them. Trustees would take over the operation of the company and put in place policies to promote future lawful behavior. The company would be subject to ethical audits on a regular basis for a designated period of years. Meanwhile, the company would manufacture products, employ people, and contribute to the economy. Just like financial bankruptcy, there would be a period of years where another bankruptcy proceeding would not be allowed. During this period the corporate charter would be on the line.

Moral bankruptcy laws would fill the gap between fines as a cost of doing business and the complete destruction of an economic engine. It would keep C-level executives looking over their shoulders as they make the economic calculations that drive corporate policy. It could gain us corporate accountability without the injustice of punishing line employees. It would also make for amusing headlines: “XYZ Corp declared morally bankrupt.”

*The story is titled "Forever Panting," written for the New Yorker in 1963. I recommend that you find it in the excellent book "Fierce Pajamas," an anthology of humor writing from the New Yorker.

Monday
May152006

Ding, dong, the witch is dead.....ok, indicted

I don't want to make a habit of "me too" posting, but this bit of news, from Jason Leopold at Truthout, is worth a post and a little dance around the room, pumping one's fist in the air. It seems that Karl Rove has finally been served his papers by Patrick Fitzgerald, on charges of perjury and lying to investigators.

The effect of this on the Bush administration and the GOP will be considerable. The White House will take a PR hit on multiple fronts -

Another criminal in their midst
Another bit of evidence that they knew they were lying about Iraq
Another indication that they care more about politics than national security
Another distraction from their agenda

On the functional front, Rove will be too busy trying to save his buttocks from the mighty boots of Patrick Fitzgerald to pay much attention to the GOP "Dirty Tricks in 2006" campaign.

The third PR point, politics vs. national security, hasn't been emphasized enough. Follow down the chain of events from the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, and the damage looks substantial. She was NOC, non-official cover, meaning that she was posing as a private citizen, meaning that she had no diplomatic passport to protect her if she got in trouble. Ok, so she was at home at the time, but the company that served as her cover was still out there doing business, possibly with another NOC operative working there. She had spent more than a decade building up the cover and the confidence of her contacts in the Middle East. All of that investment is down the tubes.

Looking to the future, the CIA will have much more trouble recruiting sources. If these potential sources think that the White House might vindictively out the person trying to sign them up, would they bite? It's a simple progression: The operative is outed, then the host business is suspect, then anybody who made contact with anybody at the business is suspect, then the local source finds himself in the basement of the local police station receiving non-therapeutic electroshock.

This from an administration and a party that have been staking their decaying reputations on the concept that they can protect us better than the Democrats.

So, getting back to Rove, "Turdblossom" should consider himself lucky to be facing only perjury charges. Considering that Fitzgerald is reputed to consider perjury as not just a serious crime, but also a personal insult, maybe not so lucky.

Thursday
May112006

First Things First: The Money Filter

Are you "Pro-Choice" or "Pro-Life"? For or against gun control? Hip to affirmative action, or not? Is the environment a concern for you, or an annoyance? No matter what your stance on the hot-button issues, you probably believe that this country should be governed by a representative democracy, with equal political rights for all.

Too bad.

About one out of every 800 of us has political influence so great that it amounts to veto power over the other 799. This is the power of campaign donations. Call it the money filter.

Just to get started in a primary, an aspiring congressperson or senator needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. The candidate who spends the most money in a congressional primary is almost guaranteed a win. According to recent Public Interest Research Group studies, the high spender has a 90% chance, and generally outspends the competition 4 to 1. One could consider this the financial manifestation of the popular vote, except for the fact of who actually donates.

90% of these “hard money” donations come from people who can afford to donate a sum between $500 and the legal limit of $1000. These people constitute the 0.12% of voting age Americans at the top of the economic ladder, with incomes ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions. Many are corporate executives who bundle their $1,000 donations with colleagues and donate strategically to influence legislation.

What this means is that potential candidates with opinions that appeal to wealthy people in general and corporate executives in particular can raise that essential few hundred thousand in $1,000 increments. Often this involves no more than a few days in a room with a phone, an assistant, and a stack of donor profiles. Potential candidates with opinions that offend wealthy people will have to raise that amount in small donations, perhaps $20 at a time, from people who need that money for groceries. The more a candidate's opinions favor the wealthy, the faster and easer the fundraising. Go back to those 9 out of 10 odds for the high spender and consider the probability that the second and third place spenders were also dependent upon large donations. This economic imperative is an effective filter, virtually ensuring that anyone who ends up on a ballot will promote policies at least acceptable to the economic elite.

On the other end, staying in office requires equal mountains of cash. Mounting a successful campaign for an incumbent Senator in a large state means raising about 20 million dollars. That means a fundraising average of $9,100 a day over six years. That also means maintaining a pleasant relationship with those thousand dollar donors.

What should we do about this? First, we need to get a bill through congress that lowers the limit for all political contributions to something that virtually all Americans can afford. $50 comes to mind, roughly ten hours at the federal minimum wage. This should apply to all political contributions; to candidates, political parties, PACs, 527's, and any other entity that participates in the electoral process. (Apologies to MoveOn.com and its ilk, but face it, you are being outspent a hundred to one.) Second, we need a matching fund process that multiplies these small donations, so that candidates will actually have enough money to buy airtime and hire staff. Third, we need a low ceiling on the amount of personal money a candidate can spend. Otherwise we will have a handful of multi-millionaires doing what they do now: buying their way into races with tens of millions of dollars. Someone else will have to believe in them to get their candidacies off the ground.

An obvious question is how much this public financing will cost. If we financed every federal race, replacing all the private money now donated, it would be roughly four billion dollars per election cycle. Think of it as the cost of a handful of those B-2 bombers that the Air Force didn't want, but got ordered up anyway. Compare it to our $500 billion-plus military budget, the roughly $70 billion that the IRS fails to collect from wealthy individuals each year, or the $160 billion we hand out yearly in corporate welfare. Buying back our government will be cheap compared to the cost of letting a few CEO's choose like-minded policy makers.

In Vermont, we have campaign finance rules that could be a pattern for wider use. One feature is that candidates can get $225,000 in public funds for a statewide race by raising $35,000 in donations smaller than $50. A measure like this, on a national level, would make candidates dependent upon the favor of the many, not the wealthy few, and give populist challengers a path into the system.

Of course, the people who would have to pass this legislation are all creatures of the present system. The big money game has worked well for them. That is why we need a political movement that crosses many of the usual political boundaries. It would be a political equality movement analogous to the Civil Rights movement, but money, not race, would be the issue. Other issues should be put on the back burner. The promotion of policies in the general public interest is virtually useless at this point, given the stacked deck on Capitol Hill. We must all become single-issue voters and campaigners for a couple of election cycles. We must tell our elected representatives that if they don't absolutely toe the line on campaign finance reform, we'll vote for someone, anyone, who will. Even if a set of single-issue representatives passed one real campaign finance bill and idled for the rest of the term, they would be more useful than the economically filtered group now in place.

This isn’t about liberal vs. conservative, or pro-choice vs. pro-life, or anti this vs. anti that. It’s about real democracy vs. window dressing. It’s about creating a system of government where Bill Gates and the guy who mows his lawn are political equals, as promised in our constitution.

The elimination of big money from our political system won't completely reform our political process. Instant runoff voting would open the field to third party candidates, and rational, uniform requirements for getting on state ballots would reduce the staying power of incumbents. We need to simply outlaw electronic voting and vote counting. Still, removing the money filter is the necessary step, before all other steps, to move this country towards a real democracy.