Saturday, August 31, 2013

Editorial: Stand Up to Bullies / The First Amendment's Broad Reach

When we were children, we were told we had to stand up to schoolyard bullies, and sometimes the only thing that would cause a bully to back off was to bloody his nose.

Nowadays, many schools have zero tolerance for fighting, and would send home both the bully and the bullied after a fisticuffs. That probably makes sense in this age of “Stand Your Ground” laws that allow a bully to pick a fight and then, if the victim throws a punch, the bully can pull a gun and shoot his opponent in “self defense.” But good people still need to call out bullies. Blessed are the peacemakers, as Jesus said, but it doesn’t hurt to know how to defend yourself, in case peace is not at hand.

The bullies have been at work in the legislatures of our nation, as Southern conservatives have consolidated their hold on the Republican Party and made their top priorities attacks on labor unions and minority voting rights.

The attacks on unions helped Republicans cripple one of the bulwarks of the Democratic organizational base — organized labor — in northern states and now voter ID laws which have been passed or are being advanced in 31 states are designed to keep minorities, students and low-income voters — who are much more likely to vote Democratic — away from the polls.

Republicans claim that voter ID laws, which require voters to produce certain state-issued photo IDs — generally drivers licenses and sometimes concealed weapons permits but not state university IDs — are designed to stop voter fraud, but 1) there is very little actual voter fraud and 2) the laws obviously are designed to make it more difficult for students, low-income workers and minorities, particularly in cities, where they are less likely to have a car than Republican voters are. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 10% of the general voting public lacks an adequate photo ID, but those figures rise to 15% of voting-age citizens making less than $35,000 a year, 18% of Americans over 65 and 25% of African Americans.

In Texas, the state estimated that as many as 796,000 registered voters lacked government-issued photo ID. To obtain those IDs, many would have to spend $22 to get a Texas birth certificate — and possibly more if they were born in other states. That could be considered a poll tax. Also, Texas has license offices in only 81 of 254 counties in the state; some voters would need to travel up to 250 miles to obtain a voter ID. Hispanic voters are twice as likely as whites not to have a car, so they wouldn’t have a driver license.

A federal court in Washington ruled in August 2012 that Texas’ voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act because it discriminated against minority voters. But two hours after the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the law, which had required the state to submit electoral changes for review, the Texas attorney general announced that the illegal voter ID law would be implemented.

If Republicans sincerely wanted to keep the vote honest, they would make a good-faith effort to issue voter IDs in inner cities, where potential voters are more likely to go without a car. Instead, Texas is opening six “mega center” offices — all in suburbs — to make it easier for suburban residents to renew their driver licenses. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a strict voter ID law and then proposed to close DMV offices in Democratic areas, while increasing office hours in Republican areas.

North Carolina not only adopted a voter ID law; the legislature also eliminated same-day registration, reduced the early voting period and eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Republican-dominated local election boards have escalated attacks on student voting by shutting down polling places on college campus, preventing students from running for political offices and possibly challenging students’ rights to vote. A 1979 Supreme Court case, Symm v. US, affirmed the right of college students at historically black Prairie View A&M University, northwest of Houston, to vote in their campus communities. But Waller County officials still refuse to put a polling place on the Prairie View campus and there’s no telling whether today’s Supreme Court would uphold that 1979 reading of the law.

The US Department of Justice is moving to use the “bail-in relief” under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to bring Southern states with a history of interfering with voting rights, including Texas and North Carolina, back under judicial review.

In the meantime, civil rights groups should organize to make sure that black and Latino voters have photo IDs — making arrangements to transport them to the well-staffed suburban DMV offices, if necessary. While they’re at it, civil rights groups should help young voters also get concealed weapons permits, because nothing will get Republican lawmakers to reconsider Stand Your Ground laws like the prospect of a well-armed black and brown militia ready to respond with force.

But the best way to bloody the Republican bullies’ noses is with ballots, now that black and Hispanic and working-class voters know what is stake. Honest Republicans will make sure those ballots are allowed to be cast and counted — but the Voting Rights Act still empowers the Justice Department to look over their shoulders.

The First Amendment’s Broad Reach

There has been some debate as to whether Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald are journalists who should be protected by the First Amendment or spies who should be prosecuted — Assange for publishing then-Pvt. Bradley Manning’s leaks of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic messages, or Greenwald, the columnist for the London-based Guardian, for enabling Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the wide-ranging surveillance of telephone and Internet messages by the National Security Agency. The US has a strong tradition of press freedom, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from calling for prosecution of both Greenwald and Assange.

The Justice Department has revamped its policies on news media in response to complaints about its covert seizure of phone records of reporters, Faiza Patel and Amos Toh of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote, but the guidelines still include what has been dubbed the “WikiLeaks exception”: Persons and entities that “simply make information available” are excluded from protection.

Patel and Toh wrote that “any attempt to distinguish between press outlets based on how responsible they are perceived to be is well down the slippery slope leading to official censorship. The Supreme Court has understood this risk, making it clear that while ‘[a] responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal, press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and, like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated.’ Similarly, a news outlet’s agenda doesn’t affect its right to publish. Except in cases of defamation, libel and obscenity, the right to publish is protected regardless of ‘motivation, orthodoxy, truthfulness, timeliness or taste.’ The First Amendment does not protect Assange any less because some believe him to be a celebrity-seeking megalomaniac. Nor does it discriminate against Glenn Greenwald because he is anti-establishment and activist.”

We agree with Patel and Toh that the First Amendment protects the New York Times (which published so me of Manning’s disclosures) not because it is an American company, but because it provides a service to the nation: keeping people informed about the activities of their government so they can participate meaningfully in democratic decision-making. Foreign news sources [such as WikiLeaks and the Guardian] provide the same service and even enrich national debate in the US by providing an outside perspective, which the Internet makes as accessible to Americans as their hometown paper.

Assange and Greenwald may be arrogant, egocentric, narcissistic, stubborn and other terms of enragement in the eyes of authorities and other detractors, but these are not unusual attributes among investigative journalists. They are precisely the sort of troublemakers the Founders intended to protect, because they are the ones most likely to incur enemies in high places.

Call off your dogs, Attorney General Holder. Don’t make Justice Antonin Scalia school you on the First Amendment. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013
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Selections from the September 15, 2013 issue

COVER/Aaron Kase
A public school system left behind

Stand up to bullies; First Amendment’s reach


RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
The new food sovereignty prize emerges

Raising minimum wage is political goldmine;
White working-class voters up for grabs;
Ted Cruz — best NRSC vice chair Dems ever had;
Colorado, Montana join states announcing affordable insurance rates;
More medical students choosing family practice;
Cons’ new health plan: go to E.R;
Child hunger common in US, teachers say;
Kristol Klear on Syrian involvement;
Killing 'Obamacare' is killing the GOP;
26 states deny health coverage for working poor ....

Florida tutoring under microscope

Republicans and the Tea Party

Billionaires will not save journalism

This isn’t the American way

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
New derring-do for risk-takers

Education reform: It’s complicated

Irreconcilable differences

The ecology of transportation and democracy

Cynicism is corporate America’s greatest weapon

BOOK REVIEW/Terence McDowell
Deciphering ‘The Fine Print’

A prayer for Pussy Riot

Gasland II; John D. Rockefeller; Harmony Game

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Invading or attacking Syria would be a big mistake America and the world would regret

By Marc Jampole

Regime change. It sounds so bland, so calm. So scientific. So bloodless.

Here’s what it means: using force to take over another country and then impose a new set of leaders on it or a process guaranteed to produce a new set of leaders. It’s different from a revolution, in which an entire people overthrows the rule of government, which is what happened in Egypt in late 2010. When a small group takes over its own country, that’s a coup d’├ętat, as in Egypt this year.

Some revolutions are good like the American revolution, and some don’t work out so well, and sometimes it starts well until someone bad seizes control of the revolution, e.g., France in 1789 and Russia in 1917.

But no matter what the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama administrations may say—no matter how tortuous their reasoning—a coup d’├ętat is never good and regime change by external forces is never good.

Some argue that all we have to do is make a pre-emptive strike and dismantle all of Assad’s jet fighters and his chemical arms capabilities. First of all, that’s easier said than done. Nicholas Jahr emailed me earlier today with this quote from CBS News: “The U.S. has huge military advantage, so there is little doubt cruise missiles could destroy targets ranging from command centers to launchers used to fire chemical weapons” and a sarcastic statement. It all sounds so familiar—didn’t we use similar words to underestimate the resources and overestimate the positive impact of a military move in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Consider, too, that even if we could execute a surgical attack that wipes out Assad’s air force in a matter of hours, wouldn’t Assad rearm with the help of Russia, which certainly could use a foreign market for its military goods?

I’ve also read the argument that Assad is backed by Iran, so we can’t back down. This idea that invading or attacking Syria is a proxy for war with Iran is just crazy.  A much better approach is to deal directly with Iran and in a series of horse trades get them to drop Assad like a hot potato. There is much Iran and the United States could accomplish together if we were somehow able to repair the relationship. But if it can’t be repaired, shouldn’t we squirrel away all the resources we can for potential hostilities with Iran? Why dissipate resources on Iran’s proxy?

Using chemical warfare is horrible. But so is the use of drones and carpet bombing. So is torture.  So is mowing down innocent citizens who have gathered to protest. Where do you draw the line in terms of unacceptable behavior by government, behavior so heinous that it requires the world to invade and seek regime change? We knew about the forced famine in the Ukraine and did nothing. We knew what happened in Chile and not only did nothing, but provided aid to the perpetrators.

Then there is the question of what a U.S. led action will do to Syria. Many of those Syrians sitting on the fence about Assad may start to support him on principle. And we all know that the most likely leaders to replace Assad will be anti-American or will support a turn to conservative Islam or both. What could we possibly win?  Is there any scenario with any possibility of coming true in which the U.S. comes out ahead or in which a great deal of innocent blood is not shed? Keep in mind that the current borders of Syria contain large populations of Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis.  Remember what happened to both Iraq and Yugoslavia after the demise of “strong man” government.

There must be some mix of economic sanctions we can still impose. The news that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people may move the Soviet Union finally to pressure the Assad regime. Even showering various rebel groups with weapons and money is a preferable option to attack or invasion.

I’m not up on the theories of the just war, but surely one criterion must be that the war has a possibility of achieving an outcome in keeping with the idea of justice and morality: to the western world, including the United States, that currently means a secular, free-market democracy ruled by mostly benevolent parties and leaders. There is absolutely no chance of such an outcome if the U.S. or a U.S. led ad hoc army invades or attacks Syria.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Another proof we need to tax the wealthy more: funds for investing in guitars & stamps

By Marc Jampole
The market for collectibles is booming.  Be it luxury race cars, paintings, stamps, coins, vintage wines or classic guitars, wealthy people are willing to pay a lot more money than they used to for possessions imbued with special value by society or certain elite groups in society.  And why not? They have more money to spend thanks to wage stagnation and a low tax regime.

The climb in what the rich are willing to pay for a 1957 Ferrari or a Cezanne landscape has been precipitous. The Economist, for example, has put together a super index of various indices of luxury valuables. While the stock markets of the developed world have increased by 147% in the past ten years, the Economist says its “valuables index” has shot up by 211% during the same time frame.

The Economist also reports that companies are creating funds that invest in stamps, classic guitars, wine and equine blood stock (racing horses). That’s right—instead of investing in initial start-ups of solar and wind technology companies, rich folk can invest in funds that buy stamps or classic guitars and hope for continued inflation in these “valuables.” 

Those who want to keep taxes on the wealthy at low levels always fall back on the old saw that wealthy people need all that money to create jobs.  But what jobs are created by bidding up the price of 50-year-old guitars or 75-year-old stamps?  None. It’s just an exchange of funds between wealthy folks who have nothing better to do with their money. They certainly aren’t investing it in creating jobs.

But the government would have a lot of things better to do with this money. It could increase unemployment and food stamp benefits, which would give money to people who would spend it immediately for goods and services, creating jobs to fill the additional demand. The government could spend it on fixing our highways and bridges and expanding mass transit, especially between suburbs and city centers, which would create jobs. It could subsidize research into alternative energy and more energy efficient technologies, which would create jobs. It could increase the number of government health, food, safety and environmental inspections, which would create jobs.

We’ve created jobs through government spending before. During the ‘50s and ‘60s when income taxes on the wealthy were much higher than today, federal and state government supported an expansion in higher education that made U.S. universities the envy of the world and a inexpensive bargain for students. During that high-tax era, we also built a wonderful interstate system of highways and improved public schools by reducing class size, hiring more specialist teachers and building state-of-the-art school buildings. As most readers will know, we now remember the ‘50s and ‘60s as an age of prosperity for most Americans. Taxes on the wealthy were not high then; they are too low now.

Thirty some odd years into the low-tax-on-wealthy regime started by Ronald Reagan, we have a crumbling transportation infrastructure, college education is becoming increasingly unaffordable, public pension plans are underfunded and states are throwing needy people off food stamp and unemployment insurance rolls. We have little money to invest in the technologies that will potentially save us from human-induced global warming and resource shortages. Public school districts are firing teachers everywhere. Mass transit systems are cutting routes and vehicles everywhere.

Was it worth destroying our social fabric so that the wealthy could have the money to pay more for an old painting? 

I must admit that the frequent record purchases of art work and other valuables have made gossip and lifestyle columns much more interesting in our age of plutocratic conspicuous consumption. But in most other ways the country was better off when the rich paid more taxes.

Wall Street Journal gets history wrong in blaming college high costs on increased government aid.

By Marc Jampole
The Wall Street Journal has launched a campaign to convince the American people that increased government aid, especially under Obama, has caused the incredible rise in the cost of going to college.  In the same day, the false notion that increased government support of education is the real cause of the rise in tuition appeared twice in the Journal: in an editorial  and in an Op/Ed interview of the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), which is funded by Project Liberty, a nonprofit organization with neither website nor mission statement.

It’s as ridiculously wrong as saying that blame for the real estate bubble belongs not on the banks that made bad loans, nor the investment bankers who sold these loans knowing they were suspect, but on the Clinton administration for making more money available for mortgage loans. In the case of the real estate bubble, the Wall Street Journal analysis was faulty because no federal official approved or suborned “liar loans” or selling bad paper to unknowing investors.   

In the case of the high cost of college, the Journal and its columnists are trying to rewrite the facts of history. The federal government has made more money available—in loans more than grants—because the cost of college has skyrocketed. The high costs caused government to act.

I wonder of the Journal editorial staff believes that a fish makes a bear dip its paws in the river and eat it. Or that Stalin forced Hitler to invade the Soviet Union.

CCAP director, conservative economics professor Richard Vedder, does have a good point when he chides colleges for building expensive luxury dorms and climbing walls. I have a feeling that most parents would rather see their children in more modest surroundings—perhaps with fewer distractions from studying—and pay less in tuition and housing for their precious scholars. Keep in mind, though, that these colleges are not building these Taj Ma-Dorms for the poor and middle class who need to borrow, but for wealthy and upper middle class students.

Luxury amenities are trivial, though. By far the biggest reason college costs have gone up is because states are contributing less to them.  As the states have gradually cut back on support for education since the beginning of the Reagan era, college costs have ballooned beyond general inflation.

Even while the Journal editorial board blames the Obama administration, which began in 2009, for the 30-year rise in college costs, it finds room to denigrate intellectuals and the academic world. They do it in a transitional paragraph about the potential impact of the new college costs standards that President Obama wants to implement (FYI, I don’t think the standards are a good idea, but I disagree with the Journal’s reasoning):

“And we concede that this latest Obama regulatory onslaught couldn't happen to a nicer bunch than the university elite who did so much to elect him. But while shifting control of universities from lefty professors to the U.S. Department of Education may seem like a transition between six and a half-dozen, it is not.”

I’m willing to believe the Journal when it implies or states that left-wingers people academia. Certainly virtually every scientist has liberal or left-wing views favoring evolution and human-caused global warming. Moreover academic studies in economics and sociology routinely disprove the myths espoused in the Wall Street Journal. Yes, there has been an enormous net transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy over the past 35 years though tax policy, privatization and union-bashing. Yes, a poor child is less likely to rise to middle class or wealthy status in the United States than virtually any other developed country. No, raising taxes on the wealthy does not destroy jobs, it creates jobs.

So many of the principles of the free market that the Wall Street Journal and its contributors promulgate have been proven false by serious objective academic research. It’s no wonder the Journal and other mass media outlets actively mock and scorn academics whenever they get a chance, be it snide side remarks in editorials or the many geekish, snobbish and ineffectual academics in mass entertainment like ”Frasier” and “The Big Bang Theory.” The believers in the religion of the unregulated free market don’t have the facts on their side, but they do control most of the ink.