Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Growing Corporate Control over our Democracy

It is hard to think of a Supreme Court decision in recent times that has caused so much outrage and downright fear that democracy in the US as we know it may well be dead.

A recent New York Times editorial,
The Court's Blow to Democracy began this way.

With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann in his Special Comment,
Freedom of speech has been destroyed said that this ruling may actually have more dire implications than the infamous Dred Scott Decision which held that persons of African descent cannot be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution.

President Obama who is not known for hyperbole, labeled the Supreme Court decision as "devastating" his
latest weekly address. And this from somebody who spent 12 years as a constitutional law professor.

But on the other side was the dependably conservative Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal declaring the decision as
A Free Speech Landmark.

…yesterday the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision supporting free political speech by overturning some of Congress's more intrusive limits on election spending.

In a season of marauding government, the Constitution rides to the rescue one more time.
This brings up two important questions. Is a corporation entitled to all of the same constitutional protections as ordinary people? Many have asserted that a corporation is little more than a government created mechanism to limit the personal liability of those who run it and that this mechanism should not be treated in the same way as a real live person.

Furthermore, before the decision, all people, including those who run the corporations were able to participate in and fund elections on their own. Now with this latest ruling, those who run corporations can now also use the corporate profits as they choose to without limits in order to influence elections. Especially for the larger, more profitable corporations, this ‘double dip’ confers enormous financial power over elections to a very small group of CEOs and board members.

Even more important is the question, Will this increase in free speech for the corporations adversely affect the free speech of everybody else? It is worth noting that this decision does not affect the law prohibiting corporations from directly funding candidates’ campaigns. After all, this would presumably have a corrupting effect on the democratic process! But corporations now have the next best option which is to run ads of their own that directly support or oppose candidates. Especially with the enormous amounts of money available to some corporations to influence elections, why would this be any less corrupting?

The political right defends this as free speech, but even they know that the protection of free speech is not absolute. For example, one cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre because of the harm it could do to others. But because of this decision, the infusion of large amounts of corporate money in elections can do a great deal of harm to the free speech of others.

For example, take a Senate race in a sparsely populated state. If large amounts of corporate money are used to back a particular candidate, it can be almost impossible for the opposition candidate to raise enough money to effectively compete since there are so few available donors there. Something is wrong when a corporation based anywhere in the US, even with some foreign control can exert a stranglehold on a Senate race in say, North Dakota which will have an election to replace retiring US Senator Byron Dorgan. Of course unions can also pour money into campaigns but they do not have nearly the resources of such behemoth companies as Exxon who reported a profit of
$45 billion in 2008.

For anybody who is naïve enough to think that corporate influence cannot affect how legislators vote, one only has to look at the battle over health care reform where corporate lobbyists have at times spent money at the rate of
$1.4 million per day! It explains why Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who is heavily funded by the insurance industry, doggedly has fought against any meaningful health care reform despite polls in that state showing that a solid majority of his constituents were in favor of a public option. Just imagine what the health insurance industry can do with their record profits when they can more directly influence elections by advertising for candidates who serve their needs and against those who don’t.

The Republicans are not only taking this in stride but even praising the Supreme Court decision, presumably because their ideology has been to support corporate interests. The same can be said of many of the recent decisions of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority by contentious 5-4 margins.

While the right preaches against the control of big government, they routinely ignore the growing control that big business is exerting over our government and thus our lives. It is hard to say what we can do about passing laws to mitigate the damage since the ruling leaves little wiggle room without becoming unconstitutional. Some have suggested a constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations do not have all of the rights of ordinary people. But getting this passed by two-thirds of both houses in Congress let alone three-fourths of the state legislatures appears to be hopeless considering the widespread Republican support for the Supreme Court decision.

Maybe the sky really isn’t falling. But with already so much corporate control over our democracy now to grow even more, I can’t help but fear for the worst!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

Recently, while flipping through the channels, I came across a show on PBS titled Rethinking Happiness which is the third of a three part series This Emotional Life. Normally, it is difficult for me to stay tuned for a complete 2 hour show. But it not only kept my interest throughout, but even when viewing it again online at my computer.

We can all agree that happiness is essential to our well being. But for something that is so important to us, defining it along with learning how to attain and keep it is surprisingly elusive.

The Wikipedia entry on
happiness has this to say.

Happiness is a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, love, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. A variety of philosophical, religious, psychological and biological approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources.
Rethinking Happiness uses anecdotal evidence from a number of real life examples to support its scientific findings on the subject. What is most striking is how many of the people shown have been able to achieve happiness despite having to endure severe personal ordeals. Also noteworthy is the exploration of the self-help industry catering to the many seeking happiness that has made people rich while often offering content that is little more than unproven opinion.

The program concludes with these words.

By using scientific methods to identify the causes of human happiness, we’re learning that the secret of happiness was never very secret. We’re connected to each other. We belong to each other. We’re made for each other. Life is a journey through time and happiness is what happens when we make that journey together.
In searching the Web for thoughts on the subject of happiness, I came across
How to Find Happiness: 7 Timeless Tips from the Last 2500 Years which is part of The Positivity Blog by Henrik Edberg. It is a collection of interesting and instructive quotations on the subject of happiness from a variety of historic figures through the years that is worth sharing with you.

The view from here says there are three things we need to hope to achieve happiness.

Having all of our needs met. This doesn’t mean all of our wants. It means that if we are constantly struggling just to make ends meet, it’s that much harder to feel happy. It also means having our health. The trouble is that in the US, there are tens of millions of people without health insurance. So when they get sick, they not only have to worry about their health but also whether they will suffer financial catastrophe — certainly not conducive to happiness.

Connection with others who care for us. Loneliness sucks! Even introverts who enjoy their alone time still need to spend time with others. As they say, life is a journey. When things go bad, it is nice to have someone to help support us through those bad times. And when life is good, it can be so rewarding to share those good times with others.
Finding meaning and purpose in our lives. As is written in the website
The One Question:

Until you discover the purpose of your life, you are living a life of mediocrity. Rise and be great, do the great things you were meant to do. Look deep inside you, realize what is your life’s purpose and your meaning of life.

And when you do find purpose, you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be. The world you live in will never be the same and the opportunities life throws at you will be abundant. The Meaning of Life will be clear.
Put another way, without a purpose in our lives, we are reduced to a lifetime of little more than making money and acquiring possessions. While this may make us feel happy for a while, the happiness is fleeting when we start to feel a void in our lives and ask ourselves if that’s all there is.

We can find purpose in our jobs but also just as importantly in our relationships with others whether it is providing for our families or simply helping others in need. In fact, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a fascinating op-ed article
Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex, and Giving.

Let’s remember that while charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. Helping others may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.
And more importantly, it may well be the best way to experience that lasting happiness we all pursue!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Should We Change the Rules on Senate Filibusters?

With all of the extreme difficulties in the recent passing of the Senate health care bill because of the need for a 60 vote supermajority to prevent a Republican filibuster, much is now being written on whether the way the filibuster as now being used is constructive or merely a way for a minority to promote an obstructionist agenda.

Unlike the US House of Representatives which enforces time limits on all debates, the US Senate has no time limit on debates. So this gives senators in the minority an opportunity to forestall a vote by extending debate (or filibustering) as long as they choose to. At one time, senators had to actually talk continuously to maintain the filibuster but Senate rules now even make that unnecessary. At present, a motion of cloture or ending debate requires the vote of 60 senators.

If nothing else, the filibuster is now being used far more often than it used to be when it was reserved for especially controversial legislation. The idea of extending debate on especially important or controversial legislation has its appeal especially if it leads to some thoughtful discussion that may influence some votes in the process. But when it is used in a routine manner to do nothing more than block legislation based on strict party lines, the minority has a means to paralyze the whole Senate process indefinitely which makes it so controversial.

Not surprisingly, conservative commentators like Ross Douthat in his NYT article
The Filibuster, Now More Than Ever? supports another writer who thinks the filibuster as now being employed by the Senate Republicans is a swell idea.

In the absence of a filibuster, a polarized political system would produce wild policymaking swings, with Al Franken writing legislation one session and Jim DeMint writing it the next. Its presence requires even the most ideologically-charged majority to cut some deals before it rams legislation through.

On the other hand, those Senate Democrats now on the receiving end are supported here by Robert Creamer in his Huffington Post article Lieberman Betrayal Illustrates Why Senate Filibuster Rules Must Change.
The current 60-vote requirement to cut off debate empowers a tiny minority of Senators to prevent up or down votes on measures that clearly have majority support in the Senate, and overwhelming support among the American people. It is a fundamentally undemocratic procedure that is now used regularly by the most entrenched economic interests in America to prevent change.
Of course when Republicans were in control of Congress and Democrats resorted to filibusters to block judicial appointments, it was the Republicans who cried foul and demanded that judicial appointments at least be given an up or down vote by the complete Senate. So is this merely a case of whose ox is being gored?

It has been pointed out that the filibuster is a Senate rule and is not in the Constitution which as written allows laws to be passed by a simple majority in each house of Congress (with exceptions such as Constitutional amendments). It is a bit curious that conservatives who so often base their arguments on preserving what they feel is the original intent of the Constitution seemingly have no problem with a Senate procedure that turns this original intent of the Founding Fathers on its head.

While Creamer outlines a number of arguments in his blog for changing the Senate rules on filibusters, the Republicans may want to reconsider their recent overuse of the filibuster for their own self-serving reasons. While the presidency and Congress are now controlled by Democrats, the Republicans naturally would like to have one of their own someday elected to the White House along with regaining majorities in Congress to enact some of the laws that they favor.

But as in the proverb “What goes around, comes around” you can be sure that if the Republicans persist in blocking President Obama’s agenda by continual use of the filibuster, a future Republican president can expect to receive the same treatment. And if neither party is able to govern, we all lose!