7 Institutions That Have Grown So Monstrously Big They Threaten to Destroy America

AlterNet [1] / By Richard Eskow, June 21, 2013

Bigger isn’t always better. From the Tower of Babel to Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, that principle’s been enshrined in law and legend since the dawn of history. Have we forgotten the lesson?

Corporations, databases, storehouses of personal and institutional wealth all are expanding at ever-increasing speed, threatening to engulf our economy and our lives as they do. That’s the problem with Big Things: Once they reached a certain size, they keep on getting bigger.

Here are seven ways the runaway power of Bigger in finance and in data is threatening to overwhelm us all.

1. Bigger Corporations

Americans have known about the danger of overly large corporations since the founding of the Republic. “I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations,” said Thomas Jefferson, “which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

“The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspire against it in times of adversity,” Abraham Lincoln observed. “The banking powers are more despotic than a monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy.”

Even an unlikely populist, Grover Cleveland, said this: “As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear, or is trampled beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

Oversized corporate power is why Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. It’s why Theodore Roosevelt broke up the railroad. When businesses become so large that competition’s squeezed out, everybody suffers.

And yet today we’re confronted with the largest corporations in history, with predictable, even inevitable, results. In real dollar terms, the minimum wage is less than half what it was in 1968. One of the main reasons for that is that most minimum-wage employees work for large corporations [3] who dominate both their labor markets and the political process.

The Census Bureau [4] reported in 2008 that 33 million Americans—more than 25 percent of the total workforce—worked for corporations with 10,000 employees or more. The largest employer is Walmart, with an astonishing 1,400,000 employees, followed by the company that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, and then McDonald’s.

With that kind of clout it’s easy to keep wages low while doling out record payouts to executives and shareholders. Walmart, for example, paid $11.3 billion in dividends and share buybacks [3] last year. That comes to more than $8,000 per worker. McDonald’s shareholder payouts came to nearly $7,000 per worker.

What’s more, despite their PR campaigns, there’s no evidence that shoppers benefit by paying less for their goods. Walmart aggressively forces prices downward for its suppliers, sometimes below the cost of production. But the suppliers have to make up the difference somewhere, either by over-charging other stores or underpaying their own employees and suppliers.

Either way, it comes out of the public’s pocket in the end.

Companies like Walmart don’t create jobs, either. They take them from elsewhere, and frequently pay less in wages. A Pennsylvania study [5] found a correlation between the presence of Walmart and increases in county-wide poverty, which the authors speculated might have been because “Walmart stores destroy civic capacity in the communities in which they locate by driving out local entrepreneurs and community leaders.”

They can kill leadership at the national level, too.

2. Bigger Banks

The statistics on too-big-to-fail banks and financial institutions are staggering: The largest 0.2 percent of US banks—12 of them, altogether—control 69 percent of the industry’s total assets [6], while 98.6 percent of all banks held only 12 percent of assets.

The four biggest banks still control 83 percent of the derivatives market, and only 25 commercial banks—out of a total of 8,430 FDIC-insured commercial banks in the United States—control roughly 90 percent of the market.

With the exception of struggling Bank of America, the top five banks all grew even more [7] in the first quarter of this year. Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, co-authored a plan [8] to address the unfair advantage these banks receive because everybody knows the government won’t let them fail.

And while the mega-banks tell us that customers can benefit from their “economies of scale,” customers have not seen lower rates or charges as the result of their extraordinary consolidation.

These banks are holding the economy and the public hostage to their own possible failure. That’s why they—and the bankers who work for them—were publicly notified [9] by the Attorney General of the United States that they needn’t fear prosecution for their crimes. He later tried to walk that statement back, but he had only articulated a policy that had long been obvious among observers and lawmakers.

Our largest banks are becoming bigger than the law.

3. Bigger Investors

Holding companies, hedge funds, and other institutions own more and more of the private-sector economy. That includes groups like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, which invests in everything from pharmacies to retail chains to homes for troubled teens.

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding government contractors like his last employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, which is owned by a holding company called the Carlyle Group. Booz Allen brought the Carlyle Group $5.9 billion in revenue last year. In a classic example of Bigger in action, it also announced a new national security deal in February worth $11 billion.

Mega-investors like Bain Capital and the Carlyle Group aren’t like entrepreneurs or investors of the past, who put money and effort into businesses they believed in and then built them to last. They want their payouts on the shortest possible timeline, so they push executives at the companies they own to make the bottom line look as good as possible.

Sometimes that means sacrificing the long-term good of the company for a fast-buck payout to these holding companies. That may be one of the reasons why so many American corporations are giving out so much in dividends and share buybacks, rather than investing in infrastructure and employees.

When investors get Bigger, they insist on getting paid Faster.

4. Bigger Charities

It should be no surprise that all of this, along with government policies toward taxation and other matters, is creating runaway levels of individual wealth. And as a few individuals amass extraordinary wealth, even charitable giving becomes a bigger problem.

The philanthropic world is now dominated by a few players. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the mega-player, with more than $34 billion in assets. That’s more than the next three foundations combined. As of 2011 [10], the top five foundations held nearly one-third as much in assets as the top 100 foundations put together. As foundations and other philanthropies expand, charitable organizations which are outside their funding protocols are less and less likely to receive funds.

Some players get Bigger within a niche. New York’s Robin Hood Foundation, originally funded by hedge fund donors, was given a great deal of authority over small donors’ funds to aid the region’s victims of Hurricane Sandy. Like similar foundations, Robin Hood has occasionally been used as a propaganda tool [11] for arguing that government “can’t do the job.”

That’s not charity. That’s ideology.

Using aggressive sales tactics and rough elbows, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure came to dominate the breast cancer charity world. It became controversial after suing other charities that used some of the same phrases or symbols, even when they would have seemed to be in the public domain. (The word “cure” and the color pink were the subjects of two such lawsuits.)

The Komen group then abruptly defunded Planned Parenthood and other service groups, seemingly for political reasons. The resulting controversy helped the debate in one very real sense: it provided an object lesson in the dangers of Bigger, even in the world of charity.

5. Bigger Corporate Data

The recent NSA scandals have revealed the dangers of Bigger Data. But that phenomenon’s closely linked to Bigger’s other areas of overgrowth, especially in finance and investment. The scandal and controversy surrounding Facebook’s IPO (initial public offering) offered a glimpse into the intersection of Mega-Banks, Mega-Investors, and Mega-Data.

Every large enterprise is now pursuing bigger data. A new private study [12] suggests that there continue to be fewer corporate data centers in the United States, but that each is correspondingly larger. Highly centralized databases leave businesses, economies and societies more vulnerable to disruptions caused by accidents, natural disasters, or acts of terror.

The Big Data vendors include Twitter, Facebook and Google. But they also include niche forms of Big Data, like banking. Newly launched banking investigations involve something called “dark pools [13],” an alternative form of trading that takes place outside the normal stock markets. There is now evidence that the banks and service companies whose data platforms provide this service have been “front-running” trades, using customer information from their data systems to enrich themselves.

Even news organizations are entering the data-selling business. For $2,000 a month, Thomson Reuters offers a service called “ultra-low latency [14]” which gives subscribers access to key economic reports two seconds before they’re released to the public. As Business Insider notes, “two seconds in … trading time is an eternity.” That’s because stock markets are computerized Big Data operations, too, and transactions can occur at nearly light-speed.

Big Data corporations are typically currently valued well in excess of what its real revenues would suggest. That’s certainly true of Facebook, because the world of Bigger believes in the power of data—and Facebook has it.

Most Facebook users would probably say that its interface is hard to use. Its founders aren’t wealthy because they’re brilliant programmers. They’re not visionaries, either. They thought they were creating a relatively small set of social networks for colleges. But they stumbled onto something powerful—the power of data that users volunteered about themselves—and they exploited it aggressively before anyone else could compete with them.

That’s how the world of Bigger works. You don’t need to be the best. You need to be the first. Then you need to be aggressive in order to stay the biggest. The forces of Bigger will do the rest.

6. Bigger Government Data

Mega-data is changing our government, too. The Obama administration’s “Big Data Initiative [15]” suggests a mentality which believes Big Data is more useful than other forms of information.

Big Data has already created a national security apparatus of staggering proportions, as Dana Priest and William Arkin reported [16] for the Washington Post. Large databases can provide enormously useful information, but they can be a distraction too. As Priest and Arkin observed, “lack of focus, not lack of resources,” prevented law enforcement officials from stopping the Fort Hood shootings.

That can happen when too much data is presented without adequate screening. Reports from a smaller data initiative—perhaps even an old-fashioned warrant and search on the radical cleric with whom he was corresponding—might have been much more effective in preventing this tragedy.

We should learn from experience before assuming that the best thing to do with Big Data is make it even bigger. But that’s not the plan: Amazon, one of the corporate world’s biggest data players, has been hired to create a “private cloud” system for the CIA at a cost of $600 billion. That’s more than half a trillion dollars. For what, exactly? We don’t know. Perhaps to ensure that the same technology which keeps recommending those novels you don’t want to read guides the thinking of our intelligence community.

With Bigger Data comes greater temptation. Thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy’s review of [17] Freedom of Information Act documents, we now know that at least one national security “fusion center” strayed from its anti-terrorism mission in order to analyze data on citizens conducting peaceful protests. Why? Because Jamie Dimon, the CEO of Bigger bank JPMorgan Chase, was coming to town and didn’t want to confront protesters.

That’s how Bigger works. Money, data and influence can intersect in unexpected and harmful ways.

7. Bigger Cronyism

As institutions and databases become larger, the temptations of power become bigger too. The Carlyle Group has been able to use its money to attract government figures from both parties, including former President George H. W. Bush and several senior members of the Clinton administration.

For his part, former President Clinton dealt for years with billionaire Ron Burkle, who offered him what the New York Times described [18] as “the potential to make tens of millions of dollars without great effort and at virtually no risk.” For her part, former Secretary of State and leading presidential contender Hillary Clinton was on the board of directors of Walmart.

Big Power Often Follows Big Money

The Clinton, Bush and Obama Treasury Departments and regulatory agencies each became revolving-door operations for Wall Street. Officials and bank executives must have grown accustomed to seeing one another on the Acela train that runs from New York to Washington. The ones headed south are taking government jobs, where their friends will be well protected.

The ones headed north are cashing in.

Better

We’ve seen the spectacle of three former presidents, two Republicans and a Democrat, unable to resist the lure of big wealth. We’ve seen the 21st century’s two sitting presidents, one from each party, unable to resist the power of big data. With power increasingly corrupted by ever-bigger forces, who will speak for the individual citizens of this country?

Obama advisor Cass Sunstein attributes a wise quote to legal scholar Karl Llewellyn: “Technique without morals is a menace, but morals without technique is a mess.” But while Sunstein is presumably arguing against the latter, today’s more urgent and difficult task is to put an end to the former.

That’s why we need a new system of checks and balances. We need to recognize that Bigger needs to be tempered by fairer, that top-down control needs to be replaced with lateral decision-making, that a centralized financial, corporate, and government complex must never replace the smaller and more humane systems of democracy and small-business free enterprise.

The universe offers us a warning in the astronomical phenomenon known as a “singularity,” or “black hole.” If a star becomes too large, it begins to draw everything around it into its gravity field. Nothing can escape the hole around it, not even light. Then the star begins to collapse in upon itself, compressed by the irreversible force of its own mass growing greater and greater.

We don’t deserve Bigger, we deserve better.

See more stories tagged with:

bank of america [19],

finance [20],

nsa [21],

data [22],

Edward Snowden [23]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/economy/banks-america

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/richard-eskow
[3] http://nelp.3cdn.net/24befb45b36b626a7a_v2m6iirxb.pdf
[4] http://www.census.gov/econ/smallbus.html
[5] http://aese.psu.edu/research/centers/cecd/publications/poverty/centers/cecd/research/wal-mart-and-county-wide-poverty/full-study/view
[6] http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/01/28/1502421/chart-largest-bank-assets/
[7] http://www.ffiec.gov/nicpubweb/nicweb/Top50Form.aspx
[8] http://blog.ourfuture.org/20130313/a-smart-and-principled-plan-to-end-too-big-to-fail
[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/06/eric-holder-banks-too-big_n_2821741.html
[10] http://foundationcenter.org/findfunders/topfunders/top100assets.html
[11] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rj-eskow/tick-tick-tick-do-em60-mi_b_3248975.html
[12] http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS23724512
[13] http://www.businessinsider.com/fbi-and-sec-to-probe-high-speed-trading-2013-3?nr_email_referer=1&utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Business%20Insider%20Select&utm_campaign=Business%20Insider%20Select%202013-03-05&utm_content=emailshare
[14] http://www.businessinsider.com/latency-in-trading-2013-6#ixzz2WiFCtDV4
[15] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/big_data_press_release_final_2.pdf
[16] http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/
[17] http://www.prwatch.org/news/2013/05/12122/homeland-security-apparatus-fusion-centers-data-mining-and-private-sector-partner
[18] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/23/nyregion/23burkle.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2
[19] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bank-america
[20] http://www.alternet.org/tags/finance-0
[21] http://www.alternet.org/tags/nsa
[22] http://www.alternet.org/tags/data
[23] http://www.alternet.org/tags/edward-snowden
[24] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

The Two Political Parties Are Remarkably Far Apart on Basic Issues

By David Morris, Institute for Local Self Reliance, June 18, 2013 – The following content was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website [2]. posted on Alternet,org

Excerpt

The gridlock that plagues Washington leads many, fairly or unfairly, to lump together the two parties and declare a pox on both their houses.  But most state governments are not gridlocked. Just the opposite.  In almost two thirds one party controls both legislative houses (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature) and the governorship:  Republicans 20, Democrats 13. In these states, parties can translate ideology into policies virtually unimpeded.  An examination of these policies allows us to get behind the name-calling and 30-second sound bites and discover the remarkable difference between the two parties on fundamental issues.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats is not on the size of government but the purpose and goals of government.  Both parties believe in taxing heavily and spending lavishly when it comes to protecting our nation from external attack.  Both parties fervently embrace the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that among our “unalienable rights” are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  But their conceptions of security and liberty differ radically…What Democrats see as steps to enhance security Republicans view as steps that restrict libertyIt is important to note that these Republican actions often result less in a tax reduction than in a tax shift from income taxes to sales or property taxes that burden lower income households most heavily…One could hope that in 2014 the stark evidence emerging from state capitols about the difference between the parties can lay the foundation for a nationwide debate on the purpose of government and the ends to which collective authority should aspire that goes beyond the are-you-for-it-or-against-it attitude that contaminates and diminishes that debate.

Full text

The gridlock that plagues Washington leads many, fairly or unfairly, to lump together the two parties and declare a pox on both their houses.  But most state governments are not gridlocked. Just the opposite.  In almost two thirds one party controls both legislative houses (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature) and the governorship:  Republicans 20, Democrats 13.

In these states, parties can translate ideology into policies virtually unimpeded.  An examination of these policies allows us to get behind the name-calling and 30-second sound bites and discover the remarkable difference between the two parties on fundamental issues.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats is not on the size of government but the purpose and goals of government.  Both parties believe in taxing heavily and spending lavishly when it comes to protecting our nation from external attack.  Both parties fervently embrace the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that among our “unalienable rights” are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  But their conceptions of security and liberty differ radically.

Democrats believe that governments should not only secure our borders but also advance our personal security.  As reflected in recently enacted state laws, that belief translates into policies extending health care access to as many as possible, raising the minimum wage and expanding unemployment insurance. Republicans vigorously oppose this use of government.  They insist we should not be compelled to be our brothers’ keeper. Of the 13 states that so far have refused the federal government’s offer to pay 100 percent of the costs of expanding health care coverage to millions of their residents, for example, Republicans dominate 12.  All six of the states that are leaning that way are Republican controlled.

What Democrats see as steps to enhance security Republicans view as steps that restrict liberty.  They assert that government-created health exchanges interfere with the right of insurance companies to manage their own affairs while the requirement that everyone have health insurance constitutes an act of tyranny.  Minimum wage laws interfere with the economic liberty of business and the freedom of the marketplace.

Republicans argue that taxes, especially those that tax the rich at higher rates than the poor, interfere with our liberty to pursue happiness by amassing unrestrained wealth.   In the last legislative session Democrat-controlled California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota raised the income tax rate on millionaires while in the last two legislative sessions, Republican-controlled Kansas reduced such rates by 75 percent and legislators in Kansas as well as in North Carolina and Nebraska are openly pushing for the complete elimination of the income tax.

It is important to note that these Republican actions often result less in a tax reduction than in a tax shift from income taxes to sales or property taxes that burden lower income households most heavily.

When it comes to personal liberty, however, Republicans believe in big government. As former Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum observed, “The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire.”  Even if their wants or passions do not harm others.

This legislative session Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota joined 9 other states and the District of Columbia in extending the freedom to marry to include those of the same sex. Meanwhile, of the 25 states with constitutional prohibitions on same sex marriage, 22 are completely controlled by Republicans.  None are Democrat dominant.

Of the 17 states that have enacted medical marijuana laws, 10 are Democratic and only two are Republican. (The rest are not controlled by a single party.) As if to put an exclamation point on this difference, the same day last November that voters in Washington and Colorado approved the legalization of marijuana, voters in Arkansas handily defeated a proposal to allow the drug to be used for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription.

Gun control is an issue that for Republicans and Democrats affects both liberty and security. For Republicans the ability to own unlimited numbers of guns and carry them whenever and wherever one wants with a minimum of government oversight, constitutes an essential part of freedom while allowing the owner to protect herself from physical harm.  For Democrats widespread gun ownership significantly contributes to physical violence inside and outside the gun owner’s household; thus in this case unrestrained liberty must give way to regulation.

In this legislative session while Democratic states like New York and Connecticut and Maryland tightened gun laws, more than a dozen GOP states scaled back their already minimal gun laws. Statistician Nate Silver insists, “Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic (or) whether she lives in the south…”

For both Democrats and Republicans liberty means being able to participate in influencing the political decisions that affect our lives and futures.  But here again their conception of liberty differs significantly. For Republicans it means the liberty of money, allowing individuals to spend unlimited amounts to elect candidates and lobby legislators while restricting the liberty of people by making voter access more difficult.  For Democrats it means the opposite.

Recently Colorado, Delaware and Maryland have enacted laws making it easier for people to register and vote while Arkansas, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Virginia have made it harder. Nine of ten states that have voter photo ID laws are Republican dominated.

One could hope that in 2014 the stark evidence emerging from state capitols about the difference between the parties can lay the foundation for a nationwide debate on the purpose of government and the ends to which collective authority should aspire that goes beyond the are-you-for-it-or-against-it attitude that contaminates and diminishes that debate.

 

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/democrats-and-republicans-differ-drastically-liberty-and-security

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org/authors/david-morris
[2] http://www.ilsr.org/liberty-security-democrats-republicans-differ/:
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/arkansas
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/candidate-position
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/colorado
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/connecticut
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/declaration-independence
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/delaware-0
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/democratic-party
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/district-columbia
[11] http://www.alternet.org/tags/indiana
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/institute-local-self-reliance
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/kansas
[14] http://www.alternet.org/tags/maryland
[15] http://www.alternet.org/tags/massachusetts-0
[16] http://www.alternet.org/tags/minnesota
[17] http://www.alternet.org/tags/nate-silver
[18] http://www.alternet.org/tags/nebraska
[19] http://www.alternet.org/tags/new-york
[20] http://www.alternet.org/tags/north-carolina
[21] http://www.alternet.org/tags/person-career
[22] http://www.alternet.org/tags/person-location
[23] http://www.alternet.org/tags/political-parties-united-states
[24] http://www.alternet.org/tags/politics-0
[25] http://www.alternet.org/tags/republican-party
[26] http://www.alternet.org/tags/republican-senator
[27] http://www.alternet.org/tags/rhode-island
[28] http://www.alternet.org/tags/rick-santorum-0
[29] http://www.alternet.org/tags/statistician
[30] http://www.alternet.org/tags/tennessee
[31] http://www.alternet.org/tags/virginia-0
[32] http://www.alternet.org/tags/washington-0
[33] http://www.alternet.org/tags/candidate
[34] http://www.alternet.org/tags/federal-government
[35] http://www.alternet.org/tags/health-insurance
[36] http://www.alternet.org/tags/insurance-0
[37] http://www.alternet.org/tags/unemployment-insurance-0
[38] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

The New Social Contract — and Why You’re Not Part of It

by John Atcheson, June 11, 2013 by Common Dreams

Excerpt

People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both. – Benjamin Franklin

It was, I suppose, inevitable. For 225 years, we stumbled toward freedom and held tyranny at bay with a simple piece of parchment. Yes, the Constitution is a less than perfect document. But until recently, we rode the tide of history, moving steadily in the direction of greater freedom. But it was always and only five pieces of brittle parchment. Merely as strong as the men and women – citizen and leader alike – who claimed to cherish the values it espoused. Now, fear makes us weak and it threatens to shred that delicate parchment, and usher in an era of tyranny. Indeed, it is well on the way toward doing so. The Constitution was built on a principle arrived at in the Enlightenment: the simple notion that the governed and those who would govern, essentially entered into a social contract. An agreement about how we would apportion and share power. Over the years, we adopted a broader definition of who that social contract included and built protections into the document to assure that we honored them.

But today, in the home of the brave, fear trumps freedom. In the name of security, a massive and patently illegal surveillance program that would make George Orwell’s 1984 look low-tech, reaches into our living rooms and infects our national discourse.

The Constitution…with no power except the integrity of those who signed it and the power of the ideas embedded in it…Wars were fought to protect these freedoms; men and women died, were wounded, and disabled guarding these rights from foreign threats…After 911, we began to construct a security state…Less than 3,000 people died on 911. This is about what we kill with cars on a slow month, and about what we kill with guns in a slow year. Since then, even using the most expansive definition of terrorist killings, less than 100 more have been killed by terrorists, including the 3 fatalities in Boston this year.

Put another way, over the last decade, terrorism – even including 911 – has killed an average of about 20 people a month, compared with 3000 to 4000 a month from cars, and 300 from guns.

How can we hold dear the grossly exaggerated freedoms in the Second Amendment, while gutting those in the Fourth Amendment, when the result is to kill more than 10 times the number of people as terrorists do? But more importantly, how can we give away freedoms so cavalierly, when the threat we face is so small?… tyranny has already been visited upon our land – it came from within, in the form of corporate hegemony. Perhaps the constant drumbeat about the terrorist threat is merely cover for the fact that the social contract has been rewritten since Reagan. No longer is the compact between the governed and the government – it is between the corporations and the government.We are now one nation, under corporations, for corporations, by corporations…At any rate, there’s a new contract in town, and you’re not part of it, and that’s why your rights are diminishing.

Full text

People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both. – Benjamin Franklin

It was, I suppose, inevitable. For 225 years, we stumbled toward freedom and held tyranny at bay with a simple piece of parchment.

Yes, the Constitution is a less than perfect document. But until recently, we rode the tide of history, moving steadily in the direction of greater freedom. But it was always and only five pieces of brittle parchment. Merely as strong as the men and women – citizen and leader alike – who claimed to cherish the values it espoused.

Now, fear makes us weak and it threatens to shred that delicate parchment, and usher in an era of tyranny. Indeed, it is well on the way toward doing so.

The Constitution was built on a principle arrived at in the Enlightenment: the simple notion that the governed and those who would govern, essentially entered into a social contract. An agreement about how we would apportion and share power.

Over the years, we adopted a broader definition of who that social contract included and built protections into the document to assure that we honored them.

But today, in the home of the brave, fear trumps freedom. In the name of security, a massive and patently illegal surveillance program that would make George Orwell’s 1984 look low-tech, reaches into our living rooms and infects our national discourse.

The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788. It was only 5 pages long, written on paper so thin you can almost see through it with no power except the integrity of those who signed it and the power of the ideas embedded in it.

On December 15, 1791, the States ratified the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Another single sheet of paper-thin parchment – it extended individual freedoms and further limited government’s power. Here again, the parchment had no power except the power embedded in a vigilant, brave, and freedom loving people.

Over the years, blacks were freed and given the vote; women were enfranchised; government’s power further constrained.

Wars were fought to protect these freedoms; men and women died, were wounded, and disabled guarding these rights from foreign threats. Yes, many wars were fought for reasons of imperial or economic hegemony, not defense of the freedoms in our system of government, but many were.

After 911, we began to construct a security state. We took razor blades to the parchment and excised freedoms we had hitherto died for. Warrantless wiretapping; systematic eavesdropping on a massive scale; even imprisonment and execution of America citizens without due process.

Why?

Because, it made us safer from the threat of terrorism, we were told. That’s what Bush said; that’s what Congress – especially Republicans — stated (until it gave them an excuse to bash Obama – which apparently means more to them than security); and that’s what Obama claims now.

Well, OK. Let’s say that’s true. Does it justify jettisoning the constraints and protections that we’ve fought for? Does it warrant reversing the tide of history and rolling back the freedoms we’ve gained.

If we freely give away – out of fear – that which our attackers would have taken from us, don’t they win? Don’t we lose?

Less than 3,000 people died on 911. This is about what we kill with cars on a slow month, and about what we kill with guns in a slow year.

Since then, even using the most expansive definition of terrorist killings, less than 100 more have been killed by terrorists, including the 3 fatalities in Boston this year.

Put another way, over the last decade, terrorism – even including 911 – has killed an average of about 20 people a month, compared with 3000 to 4000 a month from cars, and 300 from guns.

How can we hold dear the grossly exaggerated freedoms in the Second Amendment, while gutting those in the Fourth Amendment, when the result is to kill more than 10 times the number of people as terrorists do?

But more importantly, how can we give away freedoms so cavalierly, when the threat we face is so small?

Are we a nation of cowards, willing to relinquish freedom at the first whiff of a threat?

The quote from Benjamin Franklin above called us to courage; the words and actions of our leaders today call us to cowardice.

One can’t help wonder whether the difference is because tyranny has already been visited upon our land – it came from within, in the form of corporate hegemony. Perhaps the constant drumbeat about the terrorist threat is merely cover for the fact that the social contract has been rewritten since Reagan. No longer is the compact between the governed and the government – it is between the corporations and the government.

We are now one nation, under corporations, for corporations, by corporations.

Perhaps the hoary threat of terrorism is meant to keep us from recognizing that. The fact that it also allows the government to tap your phone; observe your emails and otherwise poke its nose in your business, is just gravy.

At any rate, there’s a new contract in town, and you’re not part of it, and that’s why your rights are diminishing.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.

more John Atcheson


Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/06/11-4

 

Washington Has Been Stopped in Its Tracks by Republican Tea Party Types, and It’s Destroying the Country

By Robert Reich, RobertReich.org, June 10, 2013

Excerpt

Conservative Republicans in our nation’s capital have managed to accomplish something they only dreamed of when Tea Partiers streamed into Congress at the start of 2011: They’ve basically shut Congress down. Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform. It’s as if an entire branch of the federal government—the branch that’s supposed to deal directly with the nation’s problems, not just execute the law or interpret the law but make the law—has gone out of business…A great nation requires a great, or at least functional, national government. The Tea Partiers and other government-haters who have caused Washington to all but close because they refuse to compromise are threatening all that we aspire to be together.

Full text

Conservative Republicans in our nation’s capital have managed to accomplish something they only dreamed of when Tea Partiers streamed into Congress at the start of 2011: They’ve basically shut Congress down. Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform.

It’s as if an entire branch of the federal government—the branch that’s supposed to deal directly with the nation’s problems, not just execute the law or interpret the law but make the law—has gone out of business, leaving behind only a so-called “sequester” that’s cutting deeper and deeper into education, infrastructure, programs for the nation’s poor, and national defense.

The window of opportunity for the president to get anything done is closing rapidly. Even in less partisan times, new initiatives rarely occur after the first year of a second term, when a president inexorably slides toward lame duck status.

But the nation’s work doesn’t stop even if Washington does. By default, more and more of it is shifting to the states, which are far less gridlocked than Washington. Last November’s elections resulted in one-party control of both the legislatures and governor’s offices in all but 13 states — the most single-party dominance in decades.

This means many blue states are moving further left, while red states are heading rightward. In effect, America is splitting apart without going through all the trouble of a civil war.

Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, for example, now controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades. The legislative session that ended a few weeks ago resulted in a hike in the top income tax rate to 9.85 percent, an increased cigarette tax, and the elimination of several corporate tax loopholes. The added revenues will be used to expand early-childhood education, freeze tuitions at state universities, fund jobs and economic development, and reduce the state budget deficit. Along the way, Minnesota also legalized same-sex marriage and expanded the power of trade unions to organize.

California and Maryland passed similar tax hikes on top earners last year. The governor of Colorado has just signed legislation boosting taxes by $925 million for early-childhood education and K-12 (the tax hike will go into effect only if residents agree, in a vote that is likely in November).

On the other hand, the biggest controversy in Kansas is between Gov. Sam Brownback, who wants to shift taxes away from the wealthy and onto the middle class and poor by repealing the state’s income tax and substituting an increase in the sales tax, and Kansas legislators who want to cut the sales tax as well, thereby reducing the state’s already paltry spending for basic services. Kansas recently cut its budget for higher education by almost five percent.

Other rightward-moving states are heading in the same direction. North Carolina millionaires are on the verge of saving $12,500 a year, on average, from a pending income-tax cut even as sales taxes are raised on the electricity and services that lower-income depend residents depend on. Missouri’s transportation budget is half what it was five years ago, but lawmakers refuse to raise taxes to pay for improvements.

The states are splitting as dramatically on social issues. Gay marriages are now recognized in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Colorado and Washington state permit the sale of marijuana, even for non-medical uses. California is expanding a pilot program to allow nurse practitioners to perform abortions.

Meanwhile, other states are enacting laws restricting access to abortions so tightly as to arguably violate the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In Alabama, the mandated waiting period for an abortion is longer than it is for buying a gun.

Speaking of which, gun laws are moving in opposite directions as well. Connecticut, California, and New York are making it harder to buy guns. Yet if you want to use a gun to kill someone who’s, say, spray-painting a highway underpass at night, you might want to go to Texas, where it’s legal to shoot someone who’s committing a “public nuisance” under the cover of dark. Or you might want to live in Kansas, which recently enacted a law allowing anyone to carry a concealed firearm onto a college campus.

The states are diverging sharply on almost every issue you can imagine. If you’re an undocumented young person, you’re eligible for in-state tuition at public universities in 14 states (including Texas). But you might want to avoid driving in Arizona, where state police are allowed to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect is here illegally.

And if you’re poor and lack health insurance you might want to avoid a state like Wisconsin that’s refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government will be picking up almost the entire tab.

Federalism is as old as the Republic, but not since the real Civil War have we witnessed such a clear divide between the states on central issues affecting Americans.

Some might say this is a good thing. It allows more of us to live under governments and laws we approve of. And it permits experimentation: Better to learn that a policy doesn’t work at the state level, where it’s affected only a fraction of the population, than after it’s harmed the entire nation. As the jurist Louis Brandies once said, our states are “laboratories of democracy.”

But the trend raises three troubling issues.

First, it leads to a race to bottom. Over time, middle-class citizens of states with more generous safety nets and higher taxes on the wealthy will become disproportionately burdened as the wealthy move out and the poor move in, forcing such states to reverse course. If the idea of “one nation” means anything, it stands for us widely sharing the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship.

Second, it doesn’t take account of spillovers — positive as well as negative. Semi-automatic pistols purchased without background checks in one state can easily find their way to another state where gun purchases are restricted. By the same token, a young person who receives an excellent public education courtesy of the citizens of one states is likely to move to another state where job opportunity are better. We are interdependent. No single state can easily contain or limit the benefits or problems it creates for other states.

Finally, it can reduce the power of minorities. For more than a century “states rights” has been a euphemism for the efforts of some whites to repress or deny the votes of black Americans. Now that minorities are gaining substantial political strength nationally, devolution of government to the states could play into the hands of modern-day white supremacists.

A great nation requires a great, or at least functional, national government. The Tea Partiers and other government-haters who have caused Washington to all but close because they refuse to compromise are threatening all that we aspire to be together.

 


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/conservatives-immobilize-congress

Links:
[1] http://robertreich.org/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/robert-reich
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/civil-rights
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/congress-0
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/gun-control
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/second-amendment
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/states-rights
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/politics-news-0
[9] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Our ‘Government of Laws’ Is Now Above the Law

by Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Washington Post, March 13, 2013

“The government of the United States,” wrote Chief Justice John Marshall in his famous decision in Marbury v. Madison, “has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men.” This principle — grounded in the Constitution, enforced by an independent judiciary — is central to the American creed. Citizens have rights, and fundamental to these is due process of the law.

This ideal, of course, has often been trampled in practice, particularly in times of war or national panic. But the standard remains, central to the legitimacy of the republic.

What if the war has no end, no defined enemy, no defined territory? How can markets work if the financial behemoths are too big to fail and too big to jail?

Yet last week Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking for the administration with an alarmingly casual nonchalance, traduced the whole notion of a nation of laws.

First, the attorney general responded to Sen. Rand Paul’s inquiry as to whether the president claimed the “power to authorize a lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil and without trial.” After noting that the United States has never done so and has no intention of doing so, Holder wrote that, speaking hypothetically, it is “possible to imagine” an extraordinary circumstance in which that power might become “necessary and appropriate.”

This triggered Paul’s now-famous 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, as Paul (R-Ky.) promised to “speak until I can no longer speak” to sound the alarm that “no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime” and being found guilty in a court of law.

In response to the growing furor, Holder sent Paul another letter, stating clearly that the president has no authority to use a “weaponized drone” against an American in the United States who is “not engaged in combat.”

But that, of course, only begs the question. The country is waging a war on terrorism that admits no boundary and no end. Now Holder is saying that the president has the authority to kill Americans in the United States if they are “engaged in combat.” No hearing, no review, no due process of law. For those who remember how the FBI deemed Martin Luther King Jr. a communist, and how the national security apparatus termed Nelson Mandela a terrorist, alarm is surely justified.

Then, the attorney general, while testifying before the Judiciary Committee, was challenged by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) about the glaring absence of any indictments against leading bankers or big banks coming out of the financial collapse. Holder responded that, essentially, these banks were too big to jail.

“The size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy,” he said.

This astounding admission of what clearly has been administration policy helped spur newly elected Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to grill regulators at a separate banking committee hearing. Asking why there was no indictment of the big British bank HSBC, which settled after after an investigation found that it laundered billions of dollars from Iran, Libya and drug cartels despite repeated cease-and-desist warnings, Warren expressed the public’s exasperation.

“If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to go to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life,” Warren said. “But, evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your bed at night — every single individual associated with this. And I think that’s fundamentally wrong.”

Taken together, the attorney general’s astounding claims undermine the whole notion of a nation of laws.

The national security state, operating under the president’s power as commander in chief, now claims the right to make war or peace, and to kill an American citizen even in America without a hearing.

The 12 largest U.S. banks — “systemically significant financial institutions,” in the words of the Dodd-Frank reform legislation— control 69 percent of all financial assets, according to the conservative president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fisher. As we have seen, they have the capacity to blow up the economy from their own excesses. Yet they now can apparently trample the laws with impunity, confident that they risk, at worst, an infrequent fine that is the equivalent in relation to their earnings of a New Yorker paying a parking ticket.

The laws, Cicero wrote in the days of the Roman Republic, “are silent in time of war.” But what if the war has no end, no defined enemy, no defined territory? How can markets work if the financial behemoths are too big to fail and too big to jail?

If the national security state has the power of life or death above the law, and Wall Street has the power to plunder beyond the law, in what way does this remain a nation of laws?

© 2013 The Washington Post

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/13-0

Are Republicans Committing Treason?

AlterNet [1] / By Cliff Schecter [2] July 20, 2011

Excerpt

Once upon a time…there was a political party that had a set of core beliefs to which they actually adhered.

Among them was that actually balancing the budget…Foreign military adventures should be limited to our national security interests…protecting the economic interests not only of an elite few, but of the great many Americans who toiled in our factories and fields.

This party was known as the Republican Party…one could at least see some logic in their beliefs and understand that they…were doing what they thought was right for the United States of America.

Today, this once respectable organization…When facing changes to this nation that make them uncomfortable, they choose national hate….When facing a choice of what is good for the US or their personal bank accounts, they inevitably go with the latter.

The one caveat is that it’s not Republicans, so much as the forces of the anti-American, gun-toting, religious and corporate Right that have taken over the GOP who are responsible…

Charter members of this anti-American Right include the National Rifle Association..

the “pro-business” Right’s support for finishing a four-decade quest to hollow out US manufacturing…

We used to make big things in the US, often with direct government investment. Whether it was the federal highway system, the Sears Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge – these were not small undertakings. It was a proven method of creating jobs and wealth, as well as a source of national pride…

US slipping in quality-of-life indicators..

World Health Organization’s ranking the US in 37th place, our impressive 33rd place in children’s ability to navigate math and science, or 39th place in our environmental quality…

Lest one think this list is biased, I have not even gone into the details of the outing of an undercover CIA agent (see Karl Rove) or the Right’s current crusade to make the US default on its debt (and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s incentive to profit off of this, as he has shorted US treasury bonds in his personal investment portfolio)…

Full text

Once upon a time, in a land that now seems to have been populated by tooth fairies and unicorns, there was a political party that had a set of core beliefs to which they actually adhered.

Among them was that actually balancing the budget, as opposed to just talking about it, was sacrosanct. Slow change, while necessary, had to be balanced against the traditions of the United States, ones that had mostly served us well over two centuries.

Foreign military adventures should be limited to our national security interests. And one of the single most important components of diplomacy was protecting the economic interests not only of an elite few, but of the great many Americans who toiled in our factories and fields.

This party was known as the Republican Party, and while one might have disagreed with them on their policy prescriptions to cure any particular US ill, one could at least see some logic in their beliefs and understand that they – with some obvious exceptions from time to time (ahem, Joseph McCarthy, ahem) – were doing what they thought was right for the United States of America.

Today, this once respectable organization has turned into nothing so much as a collective id the size of a David Vitter Pampers shopping spree. When facing changes to this nation that make them uncomfortable, they choose national hate. When facing ideological worship versus the greatness of the US, the former always wins the day. When facing a choice of what is good for the US or their personal bank accounts, they inevitably go with the latter.

Every. Single. Time.

In simple terms: We, the people of the United States, are the maid. The GOP is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Any questions?

The one caveat is that it’s not Republicans, so much as the forces of the anti-American, gun-toting, religious and corporate Right that have taken over the GOP who are responsible for papa’s brand new bag. The Right is Darth Sidious to the GOP’s Anakin Skywalker, Angelina Jolie to foreign-born children.

And yes, sadly, the Dark Lord has also sunk his hooks into quite a few in the Democratic Party, just somewhat less in number and relevance.

Charter members of this anti-American Right include the National Rifle Association, whose executive vice president-cum-Waldo impersonator, Wayne LaPierre, pushes new and more deadly weaponry into the hands of American criminals and terrorists without a first thought of the common good of his country. Giddily referring to US law enforcement agents as “jack-booted thugs”, and using fear of a black president to encourage the militia mentality among his most deranged (and armed) followers, his reign at the NRA has facilitated their retreat into revolutionary rhetoric, which has included plans by associated paramilitary groups to kill police officers and government officials.

Not so good for the US, but great for selling weapons to support LaPierre’s $1.27m salary, as well as NRA board members who earn a paycheck by owning companies that pay their bonuses based on firearm sales.

It also includes the “pro-business” Right’s support for finishing a four-decade quest to hollow out US manufacturing and destroy what was once, as succinctly put by polymath and top-rated progressive radio host Thom Hartmann, “the American way of life”. A few elite moneymen get rich, while the United States’ ability to create things that don’t come with fries or an apple pie, once a source of great pride to, you know, Americans, has gone off clubbing with Casey Anthony.

No political will to fix US infrastructure

Last week, China broke the record for the longest sea bridge in the world with the opening of the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. Quite symbolically, it passed Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which had previously held the record.

You’d think that this, in and of itself, would pain those on the Republican Right and their friends among the Blue Dog Democrats, “patriots” who never hesitate to tout American greatness. But for some reason – perhaps campaign contributions make a soothing bubble bath? – their refusal to fund the slightest hint of improvement or addition to US infrastructure is allowing it to collapse quicker than John Boehner at an all-you-can-drink Margarita marathon at Bahama Mama’s.

We used to make big things in the US, often with direct government investment. Whether it was the federal highway system, the Sears Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge – these were not small undertakings. It was a proven method of creating jobs and wealth, as well as a source of national pride.

These days, it’s the historical blindness and hatred of any spending contained in a philosophy that underpins simplistic calls for “austerity”. Contained in budgets written by small-minded men such as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, it has seen corporate cybernetic organisms posing as legislators do what once would have been unthinkable: pave the way for Chinese exceptionalism.

US slipping in quality-of-life indicators

Yet perhaps right-wingers’ work to undermine America is nowhere as evident as it is in the everyday indicators of how we are doing as a country. Whether it is the World Health Organization’s ranking the US in 37th place, our impressive 33rd place in children’s ability to navigate math and science, or 39th place in our environmental quality (we’re still two spots ahead of Cuba!), I simply don’t understand how one can claim to love the US and blithely ignore or work to exacerbate these indicators by gutting government every day.

But then again, what should we expect from a movement whose leaders, such as that dimwitted dolt known as Texas Governor Rick Perry, openly discuss secession? Or, as I pointed out in last week’s column, the blood diamond-accruing conman Pat Robertson, who has wished Sodom-like destruction on the United States, because gay couples in New York now have the right to marry?

Secession? Destruction? There used to be a term to describe people who wished these tragedies would befall their own country. Today that term is “Republican presidential candidate”, whether from the recent past (Robertson in 1988) and potentially – God help us – the future (Perry in 2012).

Lest one think this list is biased, I have not even gone into the details of the outing of an undercover CIA agent (see Karl Rove) or the Right’s current crusade to make the US default on its debt (and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s incentive to profit off of this, as he has shorted US treasury bonds in his personal investment portfolio).

Humorist and writer Leo Rosten once said that “a conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they’re dead”. Today, however, the love for radicals and radicalism is alive and kicking on the Right, and sadly for the US, it doesn’t seem ready to die anytime soon.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/story/151711/are_republicans_committing_treason

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/cliff-schecter
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/republicans-0
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/gop
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/conservatives-0
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/radical-right
[7] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B