By DOUG JONES
The current unemployment rate in California is 12.4 percent, with the nation’s rate stubbornly remaining over 10 percent. There are many causes of this crisis, but the chief cause was the collapse of our financial services system in the summer and fall of 2008. Laws regulating these vital industries were torn away in recent decades. Most disastrously, the wall between lending and investment institutions (banks and Wall Street firms), sensibly installed in response to the 1930’s Depression, were almost completely eliminated. The successful lobbying and campaign money spent by those institutions brought these destructive changes. Because of this, when stupidly constructed investments collapsed, it took down the entire economy.
The TARP program passed with President Bush’s signature and the stimulus program with President Obama’s signature. Together they committed to spend $1,487,000,000,000 of Treasury money; this money was given to these institutions which failed us, or to the economic structures they destroyed. Politicians frequently speak about the need for people to live with the consequences of their actions, and that public money should not be spent on those who do not deserve it. These sentiments are remarkably hypocritical, given the wholesale giveaway of incredibly massive amounts of money to those who have literally caused nationwide unemployment, suffering and death.
The most important thing, then, is to know that this monumental, anti-democratic act has taken place, and work to educate each other as the onslaught of corporate political “speech” is used to influence elections as quickly as this June’s primary.
The Supreme Court made a decision this week which will give much, much more power to the same destructive people who did the most to cause our current crises, including our devastating State budget deficits. “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” is a decision which wipes away laws regulating Federal campaigns going back as far as 1907. The repeal of these campaign regulations will be used to support and elect ideological and corrupt officials who supported disastrous financial policy changes, as well as their philosophical peers not yet in office.
One of the chief laws this decision repeals is one which prevented large institutions from spending their general treasury funds on political campaign actions. Instead, it required large corporations, unions and other institutions to set up separate Political Action Committees, to which sympathetic people could contribute. This week’s decision allows corporations which have recently made the largest profits in the history of the world, even after adjusting for inflation, to use their general treasury funds on electoral and issues campaigns.
Keep in mind that even with the PAC and other regulations, corporations have outspent unions on Federal, State and local elections during the last decade by more than 10-to-1. It has been suggested that this week’s Supreme Court decision will probably free labor unions and corporations from regulations in the same way, so it would create a level playing field between these supposedly equal powers. People who say this are lying to the public, a fact which is easy to display.
One financial institution, Goldman Sachs, paid its employees $16.2 billion in 2009. That is more than double the total assets of the top 38 unions of the United States. To look at this another way, if the top 4 banks (Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo) spent 1/10th of 1% of its assets on political work, that $6 billion would represent roughly all the assets of all the unions in America. Of course, the unions need to spend their assets almost entirely in direct representation of its workers to survive, and unions received no TARP or stimulus money.
Evidence shows that money spent by financial institutions and corporations on politics brings an extraordinary return. In the 2007-2008 election cycle alone, Bank of America spent $14.5 million on politics; they gained $45 billion in bailout money. AIG, whose chief business was insurance but were allowed by changes in laws to enter into extremely risky investments, spent $10.6 million on politics in ’07-’08; they also recieved $45 billion from the government. Citigroup spent $12.5 million and got $50 billion. Of course, all these institutions had also been allowed to rake in massive profits in the previous decade by the same deregulations which created the eventual crisis.
Financial institutions are well-known bad actors and a convenient target, but are hardly the end of the story when it comes to corporate money and its ability to corrode healthy governance. The oil companies, from Chevron on down, have been completely successful in forcing governmental actions or inactions which have their profits, decade by decade, spiraling ever higher. Unlike almost all other states, California has no tax levy on oil that drillers take out of our ground. Our State rates third in oil production.
In 2006, the passage of Proposition 87 would have created a 6% tax for California oil extraction, many times less than the 25% tax raised by Alaska in 2007 with the signature of its then-Governor, Sarah Palin. Multi-national oil companies and other supporters spent $150 million in California and successfully defeated the Proposition. We now have a multi-billion dollar State budget deficit, creating devastating cuts to services for our most vulnerable citizens, but the oil companies get to keep the billions gained by almost all other states. It is likely that these parasites would now be allowed to spend even more money to maintain the terrible status quo in future campaigns.
A object lesson is also seen in the long, difficult struggle to pass effective health reform. For over two decades, our health care costs have risen at a rate two to three times that of inflation. Our country’s economic strength is sapped by our system which spends much more and delivers less overall than the systems of most industrialized nations. In 2007, a major reform effort was made in California; it ended in failure. President Obama featured reform of the nation’s health system as a prime campaign promise, as did most of the Congress who gained office with him in 2008. Throughout 2009, the Federal effort to deliver these reforms has run into an incredible orgy of very expensive, highly mendacious anti-reform propaganda, which has been successful at the moment in preventing final passage by Congress.
In the wake of the recent Massachusetts Senate special election, our Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that the excruciatingly slow process of a final bill needs to “go slower”. “People do not understand it. It is so big it is beyond their comprehension. And if you don’t understand it when somebody tells you it does this or it does that and it’s not true, you tend to believe it, even though it isn’t true. It’s hard to debunk all the (health care reform) myths that are out there.” Shorter Feinstein: We can’t beat all the lies, and we should capitulate.
Rising health care costs are destroying our economy; lack of health insurance kill over 40,000 people each year. These problems, and many more, will become greater the longer our government waits. The private sector has shown itself to be incapable or unwilling to solve this problem. This is unacceptable governance.
It is disturbing that the current Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has decided to use the massive power of the Judiciary to increase the leverage in favor of these corrosive forces. When Roberts’ nomination was considered by the Senate in 2005, he pledged in open hearings to value the precedents created by previous Courts, and claimed that the Judiciary should give proper deference to the elected Congress and its law-making status. Roberts also claimed he would lead the Court to craft unanimous decisions whenever possible, stating to do this would require judgments which avoid large, controversial changes.
The actions Roberts and the Court took in the “Citizens United” case are exactly opposite of Roberts’ previews. The final judgment is hideous enough, in its extremely controversial 5-4 split and its large, controversial changes. In the minority dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution (the Supreme Court).”
An added horror is that the original complaint made by Citizen United’s lawyers asked for a much narrower review of campaign finance law. Unbidden by anyone, Roberts and the Court asked the two sides to return in a special session to argue the constitutionality of over 100 years of settled law in this area. Stevens’ dissent notes, “Essentially, five Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
While this judgment is a pinnacle of politically motivated judicial decisions, many have noted the Court’s previous decisions and the direction they have been taking our nation. In June 2007, Bruce Shapiro wrote in The Nation magazine, “What is so evident in all this week’s cases is an almost gleeful judicial activism aimed not at any particular policy but at the basic configuration of power in this country. Antitrust means anti-regulation, free speech means muzzling student protest, desegregation means maintaining segregation. That is the meaning of this week’s rulings, and that–it is clear–is the meaning of the Roberts Court.”
A few months ago, Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker, “In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party.”
Prominent law pundit Stuart Taylor was a backer of the attempt to impeach President Clinton and the right of the government to torture and execute warrantless interception of phone and email communications; almost every conservative view finds judicial support in Taylor’s world. However, the Citizens United decision caused Taylor to write in Newsweek that “the 5–4 decision would allow any big company to spend a fortune attacking candidates whom many, or even most, of its stockholders would rather support. And corporations—including multinationals controlled by foreigners—will spend money on elections not to advance the political views of their stockholders, but to seek economic advantage.
“So the court’s decision strikes me as a perverse interpretation of the First Amendment, one that will at best increase the already unhealthy political power of big businesses (and big unions, too), and at worst swamp our elections under a new deluge of special-interest cash. More ominously still, Citizens United v. FEC lends credence to liberal claims that all five of the more conservative justices are “judicial activists,” the same imprecation that conservatives have for so long—and often justifiably—hurled at liberal justices. I’d hoped that Bush-appointed Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who came across in their confirmation hearings as believers in judicial modesty, would bring a healthy dose of restraint to a court long populated by activists, and would thereby shun sharp lurches to the ideological right. It appears that I misjudged them.
The most deadly aspect of this governmental-sponsored corporate takeover is that there is no identifiable way to combat it soon. The people responsible for it are five unelected judges with lifetime appointments. Various remedies have been discussed, such as impeaching Justices, changing their appointments from lifetime to something less, or creating a Constitutional amendment. The path to these very strong actions is blocked by a Republican Party caucus which, as the corporate servants they have become, stands to benefit greatly from Roberts’ Court. If any doubt was left that these statements are absolutely correct, those doubts were ground into dust by the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who did not wait until the ink was dry on the Citizens United ruling to hold individual press conferences to state how much they L-O-V-E it.
Another possibility, that Congress might craft new Federal campaign finance reform which would pass the Court’s test, is made nearly impossible by the scope and reasoning of the Court’s judgment. “If the First Amendment has any force,” the majority opinion states, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Statements such as this equate the right of free speech with the right to drown out other’s speech through unlimited television, radio, newspaper, phone, paid precinct walker and mail campaign methods. The Court’s opinion does not describe any limit on corporations’ political spending which would equal legal restriction of speech.
The most important thing, then, is to know that this monumental, anti-democratic act has taken place, and work to educate each other as the onslaught of corporate political “speech” is used to influence elections as quickly as this June’s primary. Only a sophisticated understanding of the stakes, an understanding of how thoroughly the political deck is about to be stacked, will allow us to vote in ways that will honor our Constitution.
Know that this multi-national corporate speech will not announce itself as such. Often, these titans will cleverly hand their massive megaphones to more sympathetic faces, including those of the lower classes, disposessed, unemployed, small businesspeople and others who might be temporarily fooled into delivering the corporation’s lying, destructive message. The angry shouts from frightened, elderly white people, incoherently demanding “Keep the government out of my Medicare!!” is an example of this deadly duplicity.
As we sort ourselves out from the wreckage, we can be thankful that four of the Justices were in agreement with Stevens’ stirring conclusion: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.” Let us work for the day that this common sense is restored in our laws, and figure out ways to survive, quite literally, in the meantime.
Doug Jones was an employee of Eden Hospital for 25 years. He has been a political organizer for SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West since 2008 and a long time resident of San Leandro. The opinions are his own, and are not intended to represent the views of SEIU UHW-West.