My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

I was thinking about writing a post based on recent statements by Sen. Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah) and Sen. Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa), but an actual writer beat me to it.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

With Republicans well on their way to passing a dramatic overhaul of the tax code, they have presented to the public a sweeping, comprehensive vision not just of what taxes should look like, but of what government is there for, what our obligations are to one another, and even how each of us should think about our value as human beings. This is a moment of uncommon clarity.

…. Let’s start with Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who made this comment on the estate tax:

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Right now, the first $5.5 million of any estate is not subject to the tax. Because of that, fewer than one in 500 estates owes any tax at all. So Grassley is saying that 99.8 percent of Americans lead contemptible lives of waste and folly, while only that remaining sliver of the extra-wealthy have shown the virtue that should win their heirs the ability not to pay taxes on the fortunes bequeathed to them. The Senate bill would double the tax’s exemption, while the House bill would eliminate the tax entirely; depending on how the final version turns out, Eric Trump may finally be free of the fear that he’ll have to pay taxes on his inheritance.

Now let’s turn to Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who explained why, despite his support of a bill offering trillions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, we absolutely must start slashing the social safety net immediately:

“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.”

… There isn’t much political advantage in saying that if you die with less than $5.5 million in assets, like nearly all Americans do, that means you were lazy and self-indulgent, while only the wealthy have proven their moral worth by the size of their bank accounts. So when someone says something like that, you can be pretty sure he’s expressing his actual beliefs….

Those are value judgments, rooted in how Republicans tend to view the worth of different people. They operate on the presumption that the economic system is fair, and the results of that system provide a measure of different people’s virtue. If you’re rich — even if you got rich by choosing the right parents — they presume that you deserve to be taxed as lightly as possible, while if you’re in need of the kinds of help we offer low-income people, then it reflects a moral failing. If we give you any help at all, it should be as grudging as possible, accompanied by stern lectures and even rituals of humiliation like drug tests.

Their tax bill, and their upcoming assault on the safety net, will weave these principles more deeply into our laws. And these principles are their real rationale; ignore all the practical claims they make about the explosion of economic growth these tax cuts will supposedly produce, and how the benefits will trickle down to everyone, and how it will all pay for itself. Those arguments are transparently bogus. A recent survey of 38 prominent economists found that only one said the tax bill would significantly increase growth…

Confronted with this comprehensive debunking of their practical claims, Republicans are undeterred and undaunted. That’s because they’re driven by a moral imperative, one that says that no matter what effect cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations might have on the economy, it’s just the right thing to do. It rewards the virtuous, and you can tell who the virtuous are by how much money they have. If you’re asking why they wrote the bill the way they did, that’s just about all you need to know.

Meanwhile, our law-and-order president (sexual predator D. Trump) has endorsed former judge Roy Moore, who will probably join Grassley and Hatch in the Senate later this month:

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My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing….

Is It Bad Enough Yet? Yes, It Is

“Is It Bad Enough Yet?” That’s a wonderful title for an article by Mark Bittman about where we are today:

The police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.

You get it: This is the United States, which, with the incoming Congress, might actually get worse….

The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that’s the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent…

Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse….

When underpaid workers begin their strikes by saying “I can’t breathe,” or by holding their hands over their heads and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they’re recognizing that their struggle is the same as that of African-Americans demanding dignity, respect and indeed safety on their own streets….

Increasingly, it seems, there’s an appetite and even unity to take on the billionaire class. Let’s recognize that if we are seeing positive change now, it’s in part because elected officials respond to pressure, and let’s remember that that pressure must be maintained no matter who is in office. Even if Bernie Sanders were to become president, the need for pressure would continue.

“True citizenship,” says [Saru Jayaraman of U.C. Berkeley]— echoing Jefferson — “is people continually protesting.” Precisely.

So warmest congratulations to the fast food workers and Walmart employees demanding a living wage and to the thousands who have marched or stood silently in protest because black lives matter. It’s all connected.

And enough is enough. That’s what Senator Elizabeth Warren said this week. Listen to her talk about Citigroup’s stranglehold on the Federal government and why we need to break up the biggest banks. It’s only 10 minutes and it’s worth watching and sharing.

We can’t directly vote against Walmart or Citigroup, but we can boycott them. Don’t shop at Walmart until they institute a living wage and don’t use a Citigroup credit card or checking account until they’re small enough to fail, because, yes, it is bad enough. 

The Criminals Who Poison Our Elections

Anybody with the sense God gave a goose understands that Republican efforts to stamp out voter fraud are really an attempt to reduce the number of Democratic voters. Here’s what’s been happening in Georgia:

[The Republican] Secretary of State publicly accused the New Georgia Project in September of submitting fraudulent registration forms. A subsequent investigation found just 25 confirmed forgeries out of more than 85,000 forms—a fraud rate of about 3/100ths of 1 percent [in decimal terms, that’s a rate of 0.000294].

Meanwhile, a group of civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit claiming that thousands of registration forms submitted this summer still haven’t been recorded in Georgia’s voter database, “nearly all of them belonging to people of color in the Democratic-leaning regions around Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus”. State and county officials, however, said they have already processed all of the applications sent to them by the October 6 registration deadline, and anyway, there is no state law that requires properly-submitted registrations to be processed by any particular date. A local judge has declined to intervene, citing a lack of proof that the registrations have gone missing.

Then there is this detailed report from Al Jazeera America:

Election officials in 27 states, most of them Republicans, have launched a program that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls. Millions, especially black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk. Already, tens of thousands have been removed in at least one battleground state, and the numbers are expected to climb…

At the heart of this voter-roll scrub is the Interstate Crosscheck program, which has generated a master list of nearly 7 million names. Officials say that these names represent legions of fraudsters who are not only registered but have actually voted in two or more states in the same election — a felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison.

How does this Crosscheck program work? You can appear on the list as a suspected felon if your first and last name matches the first and last name of someone who voted in another state:

The actual lists show that not only are middle names commonly mismatched and suffix discrepancies ignored [such as Jr. or Sr.], even birthdates don’t seem to have been taken into account. Moreover, Crosscheck deliberately ignores Social Security mismatches, in the few instances when the numbers are even collected.

A statistical analysis revealed that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans appear on the list much more often than their percentage of the population would indicate, while white Americans appear less often. The reason is that there is less variety in the names of certain ethnic groups, and among those groups are African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, groups that all tend to vote for Democrats. (By the way, you can enter your own name at the Al Jazeera America site and see if you’re right to vote may be challenged.)

If you’ve watched enough Fox News, you might conclude that the hordes of Democrats who poison our elections by illegally voting in more than one state don’t use the same birthdates or Social Security numbers when they register to vote in this state and that, so why bother matching on those criteria?

Or you might infer that America does indeed have a criminal element bent on interfering with the electoral process. Unfortunately, the most crafty and dangerous members of this criminal conspiracy are Republican officials whose job it is to administer elections.

PS — Paul Krugman wrote an excellent column the other day called “Plutocrats Against Democracy”. I suggest reading the whole thing, which isn’t very long. It ends this way:

But now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy.

Professor Krugman is an optimist. He thinks the plutocrats haven’t already won.

Dreaming About Democracy

In a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill uttered one of the best-known and most profound witticisms on the subject of democracy, although he was apparently quoting someone else:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

Benjamin Franklin was responsible for the other best-known and profound remark on the subject. One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 recorded the following exchange in his diary:

A lady asked Dr. Franklin, Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? A republic, replied the Doctor, if you can keep it.

Churchill and Franklin summed up the situation quite nicely. Few people these days (at least around here) question whether some kind of democracy is the best form of government. Most of the discussion now regards whether we’re losing our democracy or have already lost it.

In that vein, one of Salon’s writers, Andrew O’Hehir, published an article a few days ago called “This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like”. O’Hehir argues that our democracy is hardly a democracy at all and, furthermore, it’s unlikely to get any better (more democratic) than it already is:

We have to consider the possibility that the current state of American politics, with its bizarre combination of poisoned, polarized and artificially overheated debate along with total paralysis on every substantive issue and widespread apathy and discontent, is what we get after 200-odd years. It’s not a detour in the history of Jeffersonian democracy but something closer to a natural outcome. We also must consider that our version of a democratic system is not, in fact, designed to reflect the will of the people … but to manipulate and channel it in acceptable directions.  

On O’hehir’s view, those who believe our dysfunctional democracy might one day evolve toward a more democratic ideal are as misguided as the defenders of the Soviet Union who thought the state would eventually wither away and be replaced by a truly egalitarian form of communism. Given the influence of money in our political system and the increasingly bizarre politics of the Republican Party, it may in fact be too late for America to become less oligarchic and plutocratic. O’hehir may be right about that.

Still, he doesn’t suggest anywhere in the article that Churchill was wrong and we should prefer aristocracy or anarchy instead. He only argues that democracy is a fantasy, which seems to imply that we should all relax and accept our politics for what it is, a tool of the rich and powerful meant to keep the rest of us in line. Why try to elect better politicians or advocate particular reforms if nothing is going to improve? At this point, our best strategy might be looking for refugee status in Scandinavia.

Assuming that Sweden and Denmark aren’t realistic options for most of us, it seems to me that we might as well do what we can to make America more democratic, even if we can’t do very much. It isn’t out of the question that there will be a reaction in coming years to the right-wing onslaught of the past several decades. It certainly seems possible that we could one day institute real campaign finance reform, for example. We could make it easier for everyone to vote. The Fairness Doctrine that once called for broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on important public issues could conceivably be resuscitated and even strengthened. We might make the tax code more progressive again. Regulations that interfere with the most rapacious forms of capitalism might be adopted. It isn’t impossible that labor unions will reverse their recent decline.

It seems unnecessarily pessimistic to conclude from the past 30 or 40 years that we might never have another New Deal. Or too assume that corporate capitalism can never be replaced by democratic socialism, even in the United States. Human institutions do evolve. Maybe it will take a crisis of some sort. Or maybe we just need to help. 

Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally remind ourselves why democracy is worth fighting for. To quote the great American philosopher John Dewey:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is … a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together, [which] is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in political power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living…. Democratic political forms are simply the best means that human wit has devised up to a special time in history. But they rest upon the idea that no man or limited set of men is wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent; the positive meaning of this statement is that all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them.  [“Democracy and Educational Adminstration”, 1937]

Republicans on Supreme Court Make Plutocracy Official

In their latest effort to make America’s status as an oligarchy (sub-class plutocracy) official, the five Republicans on the Supreme Court have now decided that wealthy people will be able to give as much money as they want to political parties and groups of candidates. According to the New York Times, the Republicans ruled that:

Overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

So, rich people will now be able to give millions of dollars every two years to the political party of their choice, without going to the trouble of setting up supposedly independent political action committees. In addition, rich people will now be able to give millions of dollars directly to candidates every two years, so long as they don’t give any candidate more than $2600 for a single election.

The $2600-per-election limit wasn’t killed off today, but it will be eliminated as soon as the Republican justices gets their chance. That’s because the Republicans on the Court claim, in the Chief Justice’s words, that “there is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” And by “participate”, of course, the Court means “use one’s financial resources to elect and influence as many politicians as possible”.

It’s now official, therefore, that the most basic right in our democracy is no longer the right to vote, a right that should belong to rich and poor alike. Now the most basic right is to “participate”. Anatole France once pointed out that “in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” In the same way, the law in the United States now allows rich and poor alike to give millions of dollars to the candidates of their choice and buy as much political advertising as possible, all in the name of freedom of speech.

Treat money as speech, discourage low-income voters from voting (as Republican politicians are doing in every state they control), and do whatever possible to encourage financial inequality (let’s get rid of the death tax!). It’s an amazingly clear agenda. Replace government of the people with government of the few and make sure the few are the rich!