On Democracy

“On Democracy” is a collection of essays co-written by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship that address issues integral to American life, politics, and culture. They’ll be focusing much of their attention on money’s corrosive influence on government and politics: who’s spending big bucks on contributions and lobbying — and to whom it’s going, as well as the monster impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that unleashed vast — and often anonymous — corporate and special interest dollars.

Comcast, Time Warner and Congress: Perfect Together

From left, Comcast Corporation Executive Vice President David Cohen, Time Warner Cable Inc. Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Arthur T. Minson, Jr., Public Knowledge President and Chief Executive Officer Gene Kimmelman,  Back9Network Chairman and Chief Executive Officer James L. Bosworth, Jr., Spot On Networks Chief Executive Officer Richard Sherwin, and University of Pennsylvania Law professor Christopher S. Yoo, are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 9, 2014, prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Examining the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger and the Impact on Consumers."  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
From left, Comcast Corporation Executive Vice President David Cohen, Time Warner Cable Inc. Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Arthur T. Minson Jr., Public Knowledge President and Chief Executive Officer Gene Kimmelman, Back9Network Chairman and Chief Executive Officer James L. Bosworth Jr., Spot On Networks Chief Executive Officer Richard Sherwin and University of Pennsylvania Law professor Christopher S. Yoo are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As the US Senate holds its first hearing on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner deal — a $45 billion transaction that will affect millions of consumers and further pad some already well-lined pockets — it’s useful to get a look at how our elected officials have benefitted from the largesse of the two companies with an urge to merge.

Although the ultimate decision will be made by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a reliable, nonpartisan watchdog, “The number one and number two cable providers in the country are also big-time on the influence circuit, giving upwards of a combined $42.4 million to various politicians and groups since 1989. MORE

Envy and Jealousy? Gag Me With a Silver Spoon

Here on our whimsical island off the coast of the Eastern Seaboard, we have a company called Manhattan Mini Storage that is as famous for the semi-snarky wit of its billboards and subway posters as it is for the spaces it rents to we New Yorkers who live in apartments so small the mice are stoop-shouldered.

The sacrifice we make for living here is that we have no room for all our stuff; this storage facility exists to bridge the gap by renting out the urban equivalent of an attic or cellar where we can stash our junk until our next move, new relationship or death.

Some of its advertising addresses this problem directly — “Your closet’s tinier than a runway model’s lunch,” one read a couple of years ago; “When he’s a keeper but his stuff isn’t,” was another favorite. Yet most of the notoriety the firm’s ads have achieved has little to do with their product and much to do with pride of place and politics.

“NYC: Tolerant of your beliefs, judgmental of your shoes,” is a New York state of mind that even those of us who favor sneakers and loafers over Louboutins can get behind. Others are more candidate-specific. “Rick Perry: The voice in your head is not God,” said what a lot of us were thinking and, “If Mitt had storage, he’d be able to find his tax returns,” actually does manage to deftly combine product placement with a point of view.

But their current ad really catches the eye:

“The French aristocracy never saw it coming either.” MORE

Remembering Tony Benn and His Five Little Questions

Tony Benn death
(Photo: Matthew Fearn/PA Wire)

Take a moment, please, to note the passing of a distinguished spokesman for the left, a man both firebrand and gadfly, of whom many Americans have never even heard. Yet what he did and said are of importance to us all and especially to the cause of democracy.

Tony Benn died in London Friday morning, age 88. A diehard socialist once described by elements of the right wing in his country as the most dangerous man in Britain, The New York Times noted in its obituary that he was “the first peer to surrender an aristocratic title [in order] to remain in the House of Commons…

A rebellious scion of a political dynasty, Mr. Benn embraced a socialist position to the left of many of his colleagues in the Labour Party, particularly as it moved to the center under Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s. While Britain’s political elite resisted and diluted union power, Mr. Benn championed labor union rights. While many Britons embraced the European Common Market in the 1970s, Mr. Benn opposed continued membership. And while Mr. Blair led the country to war in Iraq and elsewhere, Mr. Benn, a prominent advocate of nuclear disarmament, campaigned for peace.

In this Oct. 3, 1967 photo, Tony Benn puffs on his pipe as he listens to speeches during the second day of the 66th annual Labour Party Conference, in Scarborough, England. (AP Photo/Laurence Harris, File)

First as a Member of Parliament — he entered the House of Commons in 1950 at the age of 25 and served for half a century — and a cabinet minister, then as a public lecturer and writer, he was a perpetual thorn in the side of more establishment politicians. Prime Minster Harold Wilson said of Benn, “He immatures with age,” but he served as an invaluable advocate for the poor and defenseless, fighting on their behalf and always struggling to keep his colleagues aware of their plight. If we can find the money to fight wars and kill people, he would remind them, we can find the money to help people.

“I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly, demoralize them,” Benn told filmmaker Michael Moore. “… The people in debt become hopeless, and the hopeless people don’t vote.” Too many in power encourage such apathy and believe, he said, that “an educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.”

Benn stood by his principles, even when they were damaging to his career and his party’s electoral ambitions. “Charming, persuasive and sometimes deeply frustrating,” is how former British Home Secretary David Blunkett described him to The Independent newspaper. “[But] what you would learn from Tony Benn was to think for yourself.”

Tony Benn with demonstrating rail union members in 1999. (Photo: Neil Munns/PA Wire)

He believed, like Dr. King, in that long arc of the moral universe that eventually bends toward justice. “How does progress occur?” he asked an interviewer from The Guardian in late October. “To begin with, if you come up with a radical idea it’s ignored. Then if you go on, you’re told it’s unrealistic. Then if you go on after that, you’re mad. Then if you go on saying it, you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause and you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have been in favor of it in the first place.”

Many remembered that as firmly as he held to his ideas — “a signpost and not a weathervane,” one recalled — he remained steadfastly courteous as well. Ian Dunt at the website politics.co.uk remembered watching Benn on television and hearing him say something “which fundamentally altered the way I saw the world.

He had just delivered a fierce speech in front of an admiring crowd. At the end he sat down on the stage, his legs dangling over the side, lit up his pipe and poured out a cup of tea from his thermos. A man approached him and explained that he was a Tory. He wanted to say something else, but Benn interrupted. ‘Oh, I do hope I haven’t said anything which upset you.’

He showed that politics, no matter how principled or drastic, did not need to be mean or cruel. Once again, he revealed the humanity within.

What I will always remember about Tony Benn is a sort of pop quiz he devised to put truth to power. He explained it in 2001, during his farewell speech to the House of Commons:

“In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person — Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates — ask them five questions: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

Anthony Wedgwood Benn, RIP.

Liberals Face a Hard Day’s Knight?

Harper's magazine's March 2014 cover. (Illustration: Tim Bower)

That’s a pretty pathetic knight up there on the cover of the March issue of Harper’s Magazine. Battered and defeated, his shield in pieces, he’s slumped and saddled backwards on a Democratic donkey that has a distinctly woeful — or bored, maybe — countenance. It’s the magazine’s sardonic way of illustrating a powerful throwing down of the gauntlet by political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. He has challenged the nation’s progressives with an article in the magazine provocatively titled “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.”

His thesis flies in the face of a current spate of articles and op-ed columns touting a resurgence of progressive politics within the Democratic Party — often pointing to last year’s elections of Senator Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City as evidence — although at the same time many of the pieces note that the wave is smashing up against a wall of resistance from the corporate wing of the party.

In a story titled, “Democrats will dive left in 2016 to distance themselves from Obama” — a headline designed to roil Republican fervor as well as impugn the opposition — the conservative Washington Times quoted Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee: “Democrats would be smart in the primary and general election to be more populist and stand up for the little guy more on economic issues.”

In November, Harold Meyerson wrote in the progressive magazine, The American Prospect, “The constituencies now swelling the Democrats’ ranks, Latinos and millennials in particular, have created the space — indeed, the necessity — for the party to move to the left.” And Dan Balz and Philip Rucker reported in The Washington Post earlier this month. “By many measures, the party is certainly seen as more liberal than it once was. For the past 40 years, the American National Election Studies surveys have asked people for their perceptions of the two major parties. The 2012 survey found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans describe the Democratic Party as liberal, with 57 percent using that label. Four years earlier, only 48 percent described the Democrats as liberal…

Gallup reported last month that 43 percent of surveyed Democrats identified themselves as liberal, the high water mark for the party on that measurement. In Gallup’s 2000 measures, just 29 percent of Democrats labeled themselves as liberals.”

Nonetheless, Adolph Reed, Jr., who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania and is a long-time student of these things, makes a compelling case that we’re hearing a death rattle more than a trumpeting call to arms.

In his Harper’s piece, Reed argues that Democrats and liberals have become too fixated on election results, kowtowing to the status quo rather than aiming for long term goals that address the issues of economic inequality. “…During the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance,” he writes, “focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide… Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection.”

Reed says that the presidencies of Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too often acquiesced to the demands of Wall Street and the right. Of Clinton’s White House years, he clams, “It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda.” And President Obama “has always been no more than an unexceptional neo-liberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good will from the corporate and financial sectors… his appeal has always been about the persona he projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American politics.”

“The left has no particular place it wants to go,” Reed asserts. “And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other… the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore
always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam…”

He continues, “With the two parties converging in policy, the areas of fundamental disagreement that separate them become too arcane and too remote from most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action. Strategies and allegiances become mercurial and opportunistic, and politics becomes ever more candidate-centered and driven by worshipful exuberance about individuals or, more accurately, the idealized and evanescent personae — the political holograms — their packagers project.”

Reed concludes, “The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless.”

Web Video: Bill Moyers Interviews Adolph Reed Jr. on the Surrender of the Left
Beyond his call for rebuilding the union movement, there’s little solace in Reed’s conclusion. If Hillary Clinton decides not to run, a strong progressive candidate could emerge for 2016, although doomsayers point to the failed candidacies of liberals George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. One hope for Democrats is that, like the old joke about the two curmudgeonly brothers, the other one is worse. When it comes to the presidency at least, Republicans are even more riven and in disarray — a jousting tournament in which all the potential knights-in-chief are riding backwards in the saddle.

You can buy the March issue of Harper’s Magazine with Adolph Reed’s article at your newsstand or via their website. Or you can view Bill Moyers’ conversation with Reed in our Web Extra video.

Washington’s Millionaire Boyz Club

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, for a hearing on the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has reclaimed the title of richest member of Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Over the holidays, I was watching that old Marilyn Monroe comedy “How to Marry a Millionaire” on Turner Classic Movies (okay, I have no life). This week, a new report suggests (to me, at least)  that if Hollywood were to produce a remake of that 1953 film, the variety of now politically incorrect tactics Ms. Monroe and her friends deploy to land a well-to-do partner could be reduced to one: start dating a member of Congress.

An analysis of personal financial disclosure data by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reveals that “for the first time in history” a majority of senators and representatives are millionaires:

Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, according to disclosures filed last year by all members of Congress and candidates. The median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767 — an increase from last year when it was $966,000. In addition, at least one of the members elected since then, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), is a millionaire, according to forms she filed as a candidate. (There is currently one vacancy in Congress.)

This is up from the previous year, when approximately 48 percent of the members had a median net worth of at least a million, and represents, according to the Center, “a watershed moment at a time when lawmakers are debating issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps and the minimum wage, which affect people with far fewer resources, as well as considering an overhaul of the tax code.”

According to the Center’s executive director Sheila Krumholz, “Despite the fact that polls show how dissatisfied Americans are with Congress overall, there’s been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington. Of course, it’s undeniable that in our electoral system, candidates need access to wealth to run financially viable campaigns, and the most successful fundraisers are politicians who swim in those circles to begin with.”

Yes, indeed. Her comments come as the Center alsoreportsthat candidates’ campaign committees already have raised $446 million for the 2014 midterm elections with incumbents raking in more than ten times the amount of their challengers. The midterms already are shaping up as the most expensive ever, coming in the wake of the 2012 elections’ orgy of splurging, much of it in hefty checks from anonymous big spenders whose wallets have been freed by Citizens United and other court decisions.

When it comes to the personal billfolds of Congressional incumbents, overall, Democrats slightly edge out Republicans with a median net worth just a few thousand above the million mark (in the Senate, GOP members do a little better than Dems; in the House, it’s the opposite).

Returning to the top spot after a year in the number two position is the powerful and publicity-obsessed Republican House member Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, scourge of the IRS and car alarm magnate, whose average net worth in 2012 was $464 million.  He took back the #1 title from Republican Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, whose wife Linda is the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Chairman Lowry Mays.

As for their most popular investments, 74 members reported owning shares in defense contractor and appliance maker General Electric, which shelled out $4.6 million in campaign contributions during the 2012 election cycle and spent more than $21 million on lobbying in 2012. Second on the list was Wells Fargo – 58 members have shares. Its 2012 campaign contributions were almost $3.8 million, lobbying was another $6.8 million. Other top ten stock picks include Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Apple, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, IBM, Cisco Systems and AT&T, each of which makes sure to throw campaign cash at those members who help grease the skids. Would that there was such a stimulus program for the rest of us!

However, the Center notes, “real estate was the most popular investment for members of Congress. Their investments in real estate in 2012 were valued at between $442.2 million and $1.4 billion.”

So it’s like they say in the real estate business about making money: it’s all about location, location, location. Especially if your location is Capitol Hill.

(You can read the complete list of members, their assets and favorite investments here.)

Campaign Cash Rules Drown in the Bathtub

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)
Anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

I’m speculating here, but as we approach year’s end, I assume that Grover Norquist hasn’t been visited by Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and found spiritual redemption. Nonetheless, I’m betting that Grover Norquist feels pretty good. Just not in a Santa Claus kind of way; more like one of those evil geniuses in bad movies who rubs his hands together and cackles, “At last, my plan is working!”

Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, is infamous for his expressed desire to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” And even though the new budget deal takes a feeble swipe at sequestration and the indiscriminate slashing of government funds, his wish may be coming true.

This thought springs from recent indications that what little power the government still has to regulate campaign finance donations — already whittled to a minimum by Citizens United and other court decisions — is being steadily eroded by funding cutbacks, intimidation, bureaucracy and an inability or refusal to enforce the few rules we have left.

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission announced that commercial TV stations in the top fifty US media markets had to make available online data about who was paying for political advertising and how much was being paid, with the idea that this would become a requirement across the country in 2014. MORE

Gunpowder and Blood on Their Cold, Dead Hands

NRA President Charlton Heston holds up a musket as he tells the 5,000-plus members attending an NRA annual meeting in Charlotte, NC, in May, 2000, that they can have his gun when they pry it "from my cold dead hands." (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

Former NRA President Charlton Heston holds up a musket as he tells the 5,000 plus members attending an NRA annual meeting in Charlotte, NC, in May, 2000, that gun control advocates can have his gun when they pry it "from my cold dead hands." (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

This grim anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., killings, with 28 dead, reminded us of that moment back in 2000 when Charlton Heston made his defiant boast at the NRA convention that gun control advocates would have to pry his rifle from his “cold, dead hands.” You would have thought he had returned to that fantasy world of Hollywood where, in a previous incarnation, he portrayed those famous Indian killers Andrew Jackson and Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West, as Cody marketed it, still courses through the bloodstream of American mythology.

For sure, Heston wasn’t channeling his most famous role, as Moses in The Ten Commandments, striding down from Mount Sinai with a stone tablet on which had been chiseled God’s blueprint for a civilized society, including, “Thou Shalt Not Kill!”

But the Good Lord seems not to have anticipated the National Rifle Association, its delegates lustily cheering Heston as his demagoguery brought them to their feet. Started after the Civil War by two former officers of the Union army who were disconsolate that their troops had shown such poor marksmanship in battle, its purpose was to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” Now, its conscience as cold and dead as Charlton Heston’s grip on his gun, the NRA has become the armed bully of American politics, the enabler of the “gunfighter nation,” as cultural historian Richard Slotkin calls it, whose exceptionalism of which so many patriots fervently boast, includes a high tolerance for the slaughter of the innocent. MORE

The Great American Class War: Plutocracy Versus Democracy

This is an edited version of a speech Bill Moyers recently delivered at the Brennan Center for Justice. It was first published at TomDispatch.

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document. By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan in his chambers. (AP Photo)

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country. He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him. He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be.”

Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating “a Frankenstein,” I asked, “How so?” He looked around his chambers and replied, “The very conversation we’re now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we’re talking about.”

That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration. How I wish he were here now — and still on the Court! MORE

Happy Thanksgiving from the NSA

Here’s this week’s news from the NSA. Yes, when it comes to international espionage and snooping, in less than a century we’ve gone from a US Secretary of State declaring, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail” to a former French foreign minister recently telling a radio interviewer, “Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

In other words, we have so much to be thankful for. Weekly, even daily, revelations of National Security Agency prying have become the norm and whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden has become so well-known he recently was leading TIME Magazine’s readers’ poll for Person of the Year by some 65 points, running far ahead of President Obama, Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Miley Cyrus. (Although as of this writing, Miley suddenly has pulled into the lead. God bless America.)

In a story straight out of James Bond – or Austin Powers – Reuters reports that “British and US intelligence officials say they are worried about a ‘doomsday’ cache of highly classified, heavily encrypted material they believe former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has stored on a data cloud… MORE

November Days of Drums

Enlisted military men carry the casket of John F. Kennedy up the center steps of the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 24, 1963. A sailor follows with presidential flag. An honor guard lines the steps.   (AP Photo)
Enlisted military men carry the casket of John F. Kennedy up the center steps of the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 24, 1963. A sailor follows with presidential flag. An honor guard lines the steps. (AP Photo)

Friday afternoon in my upstate New York hometown, around 2 p.m. I was a drummer in the junior high school band and after lunch in the cafeteria went to a rehearsal of the entire percussion section. A couple of bare light bulbs illuminated the stage; the rest of the auditorium was pitch black. Our teacher tapped his baton in time against the top of a music stand as we loudly banged away, reading the sheet music in front of us, the loud noise bouncing around the empty hall.

Suddenly, the teacher waved for us to stop. The principal was making an announcement on the public address system, his voice booming from the speaker hanging at the back of the auditorium. The sound of our drums continued to echo as out of the darkness we heard him say, “John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States…”

He paused for what seemed an eternity but was probably only a second or two, and in that moment, I thought the next thing he would say was that Kennedy had declared war, that he or the Russians had pushed the button. We were still living in constant nuclear anxiety, newscasts and nightmares filled with mushroom clouds and horror stories about what radiation could do to us. A mockup of a fallout shelter had been built on the courthouse lawn, we constantly were given civil defense brochures and sent into school hallways for duck-and-cover drills. Just a little more than a year before, we had seen Kennedy tell us about missiles in Cuba and warn that even if we won an atomic war with the Soviets, “the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths.”

Instead, the principal announced what in the moment seemed even more unimaginable: that Kennedy was dead. No other details. The echo from the loudspeaker moved through the empty auditorium and blended with the last reverberations from our drums. We stood there on the stage, shocked, not knowing what to say. A few weeks before, my Halloween costume for my last trick-or-treat had been my Sunday suit, tie and a Kennedy mask. My mother had kept scrapbooks on Jackie Kennedy and had let me stay up late to watch the inaugural parties in January 1961. These random thoughts flashed through my head but then here’s the way one adolescent nerd’s mind works. At breakfast, I had seen a tiny item in the morning paper: Kennedy would be giving a lunchtime speech at the Trade Mart in Dallas. Steak would be served as the main entrée and one would be chosen at random for the president. Good grief, I thought for one befuddled moment, the president got a poison steak!

Real-Life Hunger Is No Game

David, 6, whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also know as food stamps, eats dinner in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Coming soon to a theater near you: famine! The second film in The Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire,” opens wide on November 22, based on the hugely popular novels of a post-apocalyptic world in which poverty and starvation force young people into a desperate but oh-so-glamorous, televised competition to the death.

With the movie’s release come some especially crass and bizarre product tie-ins, including the Cover Girl Hunger Games assortment of nail polishes called “Capitol Colors” (the name makes sense if you’re familiar with the books or films) and my personal favorite, the Subway Restaurants line of “Fiery Footlongs,” described on the MTV News website as “Sriracha-powered hoagies that hope to cure the hunger games happening at lunchtime in your tummy.”

So let me get this straight: fast-food submarine sandwiches are being used to market a motion picture about people who will do anything to survive a dystopian society in which there’s nothing to eat? Yikes.

All this might be even more darkly comic if not for the fact that here in the real world, Washington is playing a Hunger Game of its own and the results are devastating. Yes, winter is coming, the holidays are on their way, and on November 1, the United States government cut food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent. MORE

The Lies That Will Kill America

News Corp. headquarters in New York
News Corp. headquarters in New York. (Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/DAPD)

Here in Manhattan the other day, you couldn’t miss it — the big bold headline across the front page of the tabloid New York Post, screaming one of those sick, slick lies that are a trademark of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire. There was Uncle Sam, brandishing a revolver and wearing a burglar’s mask. “UNCLE SCAM,” the headline shouted. “US robs bank of $13 billion.”

Say what? Pure whitewash, and Murdoch’s minions know it. That $13 billion dollars is the settlement JPMorgan Chase, the country’s biggest bank, is negotiating with the government to settle its own rip-off of American homeowners and investors — those shady practices that five years ago helped trigger the financial meltdown, including manipulating mortgages and sending millions of Americans into bankruptcy or foreclosure. If anybody’s been robbed it’s not JPMorgan Chase, which can absorb the loss and probably take a tax write-off for at least part of it. No, it’s the American public. In addition to financial heartache we still have been denied the satisfaction of seeing jail time for any of the banksters who put our feet in cement and pushed us off the cliff.

This isn’t the only scandal JPMorgan Chase is juggling. A $6 billion settlement with institutional investors is in the works and criminal charges may still be filed in California. The bank is under investigation on so many fronts it’s hard to keep them sorted out – everything from deceptive sales in its credit card unit to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to the criminal manipulation of energy markets and bribing Chinese officials by offering jobs to their kids.

Nor is JPMorgan Chase the only culprit under scrutiny. Bank of America was found guilty just this week of civil fraud, and a gaggle of other banks is being investigated by the government for mortgage fraud. No wonder the camp followers at Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC and other cheerleaders have ganged up to whitewash the banks. If justice is somehow served, this could be the biggest egg yet across the smug face of unfettered, unchecked, unaccountable capitalism.


Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus – Campaign Cash

Virginia candidates for governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Ken Cuccinelli (right), talk during a forum at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., prior to the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Virginia candidates for governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Ken Cuccinelli (right), talk during a forum at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., prior to the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Editor’s Note: Following our posting of this essay, we received a letter from Gary M. Broadbent, Assistant General Counsel and Media Director for Murray Energy Corporation. Our counsel responded and we have received further correspondence from Mr. Broadbent.

If you want to see how grossly money can distort democracy, just go to the state of Virginia, where there are no limits on how big a check can be written for statewide office. Groups and individuals from outside the Old Dominion are taking full advantage, pouring millions into a governor’s race they see as a dry run for the tactics they’ll use in the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential race – sort of the way the Spanish civil war turned out to be a testing ground for many of the deadly weapons of World War II.

Billionaires like environmentalist Tom Steyer on the left and the Koch Brothers on the right are placing their bets, but as they say at the track, the horses they’re backing are just a couple of hay burners. Once the home of Washington and Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry, Virginia now has a choice between two mediocrities slavishly devoted to their wealthy contributors.

The Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, has been in training for years as courtier to the rich. He has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Democratic National Committee, which he chaired for four years and the campaigns of his – Best Friends Forever – Bill and Hillary Clinton, who now are shaking down donors for him. Along the way, according to The Washington Post, this gregarious bagman used government programs, his huge Rolodex of political connections and wealthy investors from both parties to enrich himself. He organized a company to build electric cars and promoted it to investors with a prospectus featuring photographs and ample references to his Clinton ties. He even got the former President to show up at the opening of the plant in Mississippi, along with that state’s former Republican governor, Haley Barbour, who made his fortune as a lobbyist in Washington for the tobacco industry.

Strange bedfellows, these crony capitalists – you may remember that Hillary Clinton’s brother, Tony Rodham was involved, too, searching out foreign investors for the electric cars. When the spotlight of scrutiny crossed their path, McAuliffe resigned from the company, which is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Washington Post also reports that one of McAuliffe’s top twenty donors – at $120,000 — is the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, which issues flags of convenience to shipping companies that want to dodge taxes and labor regulations and that McAuliffe invested in an alleged insurance scam that stole identities from the terminally ill. His campaign says that like other investors, McAuliffe was deceived. The fellow in charge of the scheme donated more than $25,000 the last time McAuliffe ran for governor, in 2009. Hmmm…

In a recent debate, his Republican opponent, state attorney general and right wing zealot Ken Cuccinelli, said that if McAuliffe’s elected, they’ll have to change the state’s motto from “Sic Semper Tyrannis” to “Quid Pro Quo.” That’s Latin for you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

But Cuccinelli is in no position to talk. The candidate was drawn into that Virginia money scandal in which Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, a company that manufactures dietary supplements, showered lavish presents and perks on the current governor and his wife. Cuccinelli also received a sprinkling of Williams’ largesse. He recently donated the value of what he says he got — $18,000 – to charity.

What’s more, his donor list includes considerable checks from big tobacco and big coal, including Murray Energy Corporation, which has often been fined for endangering the health and safety of its miners. Last year, its boss, Bob Murray, was discovered insisting that employees contribute time and money to his favorite anti-regulatory candidates – including Mitt Romney – or else.

Now Cuccinelli’s touting a major tax cut for the rich, with a plan that, according to the liberal Center for American Progress, would give 47 percent of a proposed tax reduction to the top five percent of Virginians. The state would lose nearly a billion and a half dollars in revenues so the rich can be even richer.

Not surprising, Cuccinelli’s a major climate change denier, as well as a fractious opponent of Obamacare, a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage. He once wanted to make it legal for employers to fire an employee if they were heard speaking Spanish. No wonder he’s the favorite of Citizens United – yes, that Citizens United, the right wing group that got the conservatives on the Supreme Court to give corporations the same free speech rights as real people.

So come Election Day, pity the voters of Virginia. Whether they choose the glad-handing Democrat or the self-righteous Republican, once again, the real winner will be Big Money.

Playing Chicken With Food Safety

(Photo: Public Citizen/flickr)

The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the US Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect – bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves. Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse!

The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness. Not only will this increase in speed – by 25 percent or more — raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong – even deadly — with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat — but those sprays may actually damage the health of the workers. Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. What’s more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands. MORE

The IRS Scandal That Wasn’t

Lois Lerner, head of the IRS unit that decides whether to grant tax-exempt status to groups, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at the start of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to investigate the extra scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Lerner later invoked her constitutional right to not answer questions and was dismissed by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Lois Lerner at the start of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A few days ago, Lois Lerner, head of the tax-exempt division of the Internal Revenue Service, retired. But her story will go on because, as Politico’s Lauren French wrote, the thirty-year civil service veteran “is the political piñata that Congress still loves to whack months after she awkwardly acknowledged that the IRS wrongly scrutinized conservative groups for years.”

Three congressional investigations are ongoing and yes, mistakes were made, as the late Republican president and conservative icon Ronald Reagan once said. But in reality, this is a story about how bureaucratic bungling was turned into scandal by right wing politicians desperate to spin gold from straw.

They have sought to create a splash, to score points with their allies, make converts, seize the publicity spotlight and pull in some quick campaign cash while they’re at it. But far worse, their staged controversy has distracted from a real Washington scandal, our inability to rein in the outrageous amounts of money used by the rich and powerful to secretly broker elections and buy our government.

The target of opportunity landed in the right wing’s lap, gift-wrapped and tied with a bow. After all, who doesn’t love to hate the IRS? No one likes paying taxes and an audit is about as welcome as multiple root canal. So when a chance came to go after the dreaded IRS for meddling in politics, the right jumped at it.

If true, it would not have been the first time the IRS had been used for political skullduggery. When Richard Nixon was in the White House and wanted to go after his enemies – such as the Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times – he picked up the phone and called Attorney General John Mitchell. “We’re going after the Chandlers,” Nixon announced. “Every one. Individually, collectively. Their income taxes… Every one of those sons of bitches, is that clear?”

During Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972, he had an enemies list of some 200 names that John Dean, the White House counsel, took to IRS Commissioner Johnnie Mac Walters, hinting that Walters should look for wrongdoing and even pack some of them off to jail. Wisely, Mac Walters locked the list in his safe and kept it there.

Fast-forward forty years and once again the IRS is a political football. But what’s the real story? MORE

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