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Republicans' Potholed Pathway

Supreme Court Right-Wingers Poison Majority-Rule Democracy

Squelching political corruption was the purpose of the campaign spending finance laws that the right-wing justices gutted. The spending limits shrank billionaires’ ability buy politicians.  The right-wingers on the court asserted that billionaires have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want on politics. The court said that right supersedes the right of the non-rich majority to a democracy in which their elected representatives’ attention and positions can’t be purchased by a tiny wealthy minority.

Joe Six-Pack can’t compete for politicians’ time with Joe Six-Figure-Check. Just think about how quickly Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, jumped on the phone when he thought billionaire right-wing funder David Koch was on the other line. The caller actually was Ian Murphy, editor of online weekly the Buffalo Beast, punking Walker, who agreed during the taped conversation to accept a vacation trip, which was offered as a reward for the governor breaking the state’s unions.

Or, just think about the “Adelson primary” conducted last month by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the world’s eighth-richest person, the guy who shelled out $150 million to influence elections in 2012. Joe Six-Pack knows better than to put out a big spread if he invites to lunch the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination – say Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin’s infamous Gov. Walker, New Jersey’s even more infamous Gov. Chris Bridgegate Christie, and Bush dynasty next-in-line Jeb. But when Sheldon sent them gilded invitations, they all flew right over.  Under investigation in two countries for possible corrupt practices, Sheldon has a lot to gain if he can buy himself a president.

The problem isn’t limited to Sheldon purchasing immunity or GE procuring tax breaks, enabling the nation’s largest corporation to force taxpayers to give it money instead of it paying taxes. The problem also is that the rich are different from the 99 percent.

That’s what three university professors found in a study of the political views and activities of the one percent. It’s called, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans.”

Of the tiny percentage of Americans who are very rich, the researchers wrote:

“We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of U.S. citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.”

This difference explains why the vast majority of Americans cherish programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and public education while wealthy right-wingers condemn them, calling them “collectivism” and government attempts to control citizens’ lives, as billionaire Charles G. Koch did in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week. Koch, worth $40 billion, won’t ever need Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid or public education. No wonder he claims he’d have more liberty if a smaller government would kill off those programs and people would “help themselves” instead.

He has no idea what it feels like for the 43 percent of Americans who have less than $10,000 saved for retirement and depend on getting Social Security and Medicare to stave off a diet of cat food.

The wealthy, like Koch and Shaun McCutcheon, who along with the Republican National Committee sought to end the limit on aggregate campaign contributions, intend to use their money to buy a government that does their bidding. McCutcheon said his goal in spending more money on politics was to encourage enforcement of conservative principals, which are, as Koch said, small government and more freedom – that is, more freedom for the rich to kill Social Security and Medicare.

In earlier rulings on the issue of campaign finance, the Supreme Court acknowledged that money can corrode democracy, finding “an indisputable link” between big cash gifts and opportunities to speak directly to Congressmen and noting the threat that the money obliges officeholders to vote based on large donors’ demands rather than on the needs of constituents. 

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the right-wing majority opinion in the McCutcheon case, asserted that’s not corruption any more, writing: “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.”

Roberts also insisted that only the First Amendment rights of one percenters may be considered, not any adverse effect on America’s democracy. “The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect individual speech,” he wrote, adding, “the degree to which speech is protected cannot turn on a legislative or judicial determination that particular speech is useful to the democratic process.” Congress may not, he said, limit campaign contributions in order level the playing field between wealthy donors and ordinary citizens.

The effect is to silence ordinary citizens, to deny them their First Amendment rights to speech because their pleas won’t be heard over the million dollar megaphones that the Supreme Court right-wingers have permitted billionaires to use. 

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Image of John Roberts from DonkeyHotey on Flickr.

Administrators Tell College Athletes: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

“Don’t worry, be happy” is the same paternalistic hogwash that employers across America tell workers. Don’t fuss about the safeguard missing from that hazardous paper rolling machine. Don’t concern yourselves with that deadly silica dust you’re inhaling. Don’t fret about supervisors overriding safety devices. Just be happy you’ve got a job, the boss says. Some workers, however, are never happy blindly placing their lives in the hands of others. So they join with fellow workers and establish labor unions, giving them the leverage they need to improve their welfare at work. That’s what the scholarship football players at Northwestern University are doing. They’re forming a union to achieve some level of self-determination.

Like coal miners and steelworkers and school teachers, university football players want a seat at the table when issues affecting their health and welfare are decided. Scholarship football players at Northwestern University are seeking that position for themselves. They did it by authorizing a new labor union, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), to represent them.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body for college sports, has condemned the attempt by college athletes to secure the right to participate in deciding their own fates. The NCAA’s position is clear: it should retain complete paternalistic control over the players.

Its response last year to football players from several universities who publicly demonstrated for better concussion precautions illustrates clearly that the NCAA believes college athletes are best seen and not heard.  

Every year, researchers discover more about the devastating, life-long effects of concussions. College players, who suffer concussions routinely, are rightly concerned. Their academic scholarships will be valueless if injuries on the field cause debilitating and permanent brain injuries.

To express their concerns, some players, including Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, wore to last season’s televised games wristbands bearing the initials “APU.” It stands for All Players United for reform of rules regarding concussions set by the NCAA and the universities.

The NCAA responded as if concussed.

That was not the reaction of a caring parent. The NCAA and the universities even failed at the pretense of paternalism.

So Colter sought help from someone he knew he could trust, Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who in 2001 created the National College Players Association (NCPA) to advocate for better treatment of university athletes.

They decided to go beyond advocacy, to seek a union for college athletes, so they would have real leverage to use ­– the power of a team – to negotiate over safety issues. The vast majority of Northwestern scholarship football players, who are outstanding students with a graduation rate of 97 percent, signed cards seeking representation by CAPA, for which Huma also serves as president.

Huma asked my union, the United Steelworkers, for help with the legal costs as the issue of unionization by scholarship athletes was argued before the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. The USW, which has 12 years assisted Huma and the players association, agreed.

Last week, Peter Ohr, a regional NLRB director, ruled that the scholarship players have the right to form a union. Ohr wrote that these players, who devote as many as 50 hours a week to football, are employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act.  

Northwestern has announced it will appeal. That means these athletes won’t immediately get a seat at the table. It means universities and the NCAA are likely to continue ignoring many of the athletes’ concerns.

In addition to better protection against concussions, the athletes want insurance coverage that would enable them to get treatment after college for injuries sustained on the field. They want the schools to stop rescinding their academic scholarships when injuries in college games and practices end their athletic careers. They want some control over how their likenesses are used.

These young people place their health in jeopardy every time they step on the field. They know that. They love the game, and they’re willing to take necessary risks.

But they shouldn’t be exposed to unnecessary risks. No amount of scholarship money justifies endangering young people needlessly.

The safety measures and insurance the players are seeking won’t bankrupt the universities or the NCAA either. The NCAA and the universities will get, for example, $7.3 billion over 10 years from the TV coverage of the new football playoff system.

But just like other powerful, highly profitable employers, the universities won’t simply comply with safety measures or hand over benefits. They’re not kindly parents.

Despite all the assurances from football programs, the athletes still worry. They’re not happy. And Northwestern’s football players are doing something about it. They’re in league now with millions of other workers who realized that the only way to get what they need is to bargain for it collectively.

*** 

The photo is from the West Point- US Military Academy Flickr page. http://www.flickr.com/photos/west_point/

Directly Destroying Democracy

These days, there’s a much more direct process. One percenters and corporations can secretly buy politicians. Using front groups, the wealthy can “donate” unlimited millions to elect a candidate and remain completely anonymous. So the public won’t know that the senator pushing for smiley faces to be printed on cigarette cartons instead of health warnings received $50 million in ads paid for by the tobacco industry.

Several news stories last week illustrated exactly how this threat to democracy, sanctioned by the gang of right-wingers on the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, plays out. The most jaw dropping is the case of former Republican Utah state attorney general John Swallow, who used shadowy nonprofit organizations to conceal hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the vilest industry in America – payday lenders.

In exchange for the money, Swallow promised to use the office of attorney general to champion payday lenders, the flimflam men who exploit and bankrupt the poor with short-term loans at exorbitant interest rates. 

Swallow made bald promises to this despised industry.  In one letter to a Tennessee payday executive, he wrote, “I look forward to being in a position to help the industry as an AG [attorney general] following the 2012 elections.” In another, he pledged to ward off regulation by the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by organizing a posse of other right-wing attorneys general.

Swallow knew, however, a payday lenders’ water boy would disgust voters. So he and his associates shrouded the payday lender donations with a bunch of “social welfare” nonprofits, which don’t have to report who contributes, the New York Times reported last week.  

The scam disintegrated when the Internal Revenue Service began investigating one of the shady nonprofit groups that contributed to Swallow. Other inquiries followed, and Swallow resigned after less than a year in office.

Swallow’s payday lender benefactors didn’t lose their investment so quickly in another case, however. They bought ads vilifying Utah state representative Brad Daw, who had pushed for legislation that would have barred payday companies from loaning money to people already deeply in debt. After the payday lender-sponsored attacks, Brad Daw, a four-term lawmaker, lost his primary. Payday regulation defeated!

Payday lenders, justifiably, don’t enjoy high public approval ratings. Yet, thanks to the right-wingers on the U.S. Supreme Court, they can circumvent democracy with boundless cash and get candidates elected or rejected.

What the right-wing justices ruled in the Citizens United case is that government can’t limit the amount of money corporations spend to get a candidate elected, as long as they don’t hand the money directly to the candidate.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican of Bridge-Gate infamy, provides an example of how badly this sort of purchased politics plays out for citizens. In 2009, hedge fund manager Paul Singer donated $100,000, not to Christie, but to the Republican Governors Association. The Association, in turn, aired ads for then-candidate Christie.

At the time, The Nation magazine reported last week, Christie was blasting the Democratic gubernatorial incumbent for what Christie asserted was unethical investment of public employee retiree money on Wall Street, where risk and fees are higher and returns are lower than with traditional conservative investments such as U.S. Treasury notes.

Christie won and almost immediately after taking office began investing New Jersey public employee retiree money on Wall Street, with of course Paul Singer’s hedge fund. A former trustee for another state retirement system estimated for The Nation magazine that Singer’s fund collected $8.6 million in fees from the New Jersey investments – for one year, 2013. That year, Singer gave $1.2 million to the Republican Governors Association, which by then, Christie chaired.

That’s good for Christie, a potential presidential candidate, of course. The same can’t be said for New Jersey workers and retirees. With an unusually large portion of the state retiree money in the hands of hedge funds by 2013, New Jersey’s return, at 11.79 percent, was significantly lower than the median return on pensions that year of 16.1 percent.

The right-wingers on the Supreme Court are expected to rule any day in another case, McCutcheon, that would further empower the wealthy to buy the political process.

Right now, there’s a limit on the aggregate amount a person or corporation can contribute directly to candidates during a two-year election cycle. The right wing justices are expected to eliminate that cap.

It’s $123,200.  The average American doesn’t make that much money in two years.

So, it’s no wonder that politicians don’t do what average Americans want. Significant majorities of average Americans think Congress should raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment insurance, lower income inequality and provide a path to citizenship for immigrants. But these are not the priorities of the 1 percent or of corporations. And, naturally, they are not the priorities of the politicians who owe their victories to buckets of cash from the 1 percent and corporations.

The rich can buy more of everything. More food. More cars. More houses. More vacations. More boats. But for a democracy to function properly, they should be forbidden from buying more votes. 

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