Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Does anyone want war? What else then do Obama’s Ukraine critics want him to do?

By Marc Jampole

Anybody want to go to war over Crimea?

Anyone want to see American soldiers die? Anyone want to see Ukrainian soil soaked with the blood of innocents? Anyone want to see the unspeakable tragedies of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria repeated?

Anyone want to risk a nuclear conflagration?

And for what? To keep Ukrainian ownership of Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula which was part of Russia for centuries and whose ties to Russia go back even further? To keep Crimea part of an oligarch-dominated kleptocracy masquerading as a democracy with a political culture as corrupt as Russia’s? 

What is the difference between what is happening in Crimea and what happened in Ossetia and Abkhazia, which we let Russia take from Georgia during the Bush II Administration? Why go to war today when we didn’t go to war back then?

Once we have made the decision not to go to war, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney, The Wall Street Journal and others criticizing Obama’s actions in the Ukraine crisis don’t have a leg to stand on. None of these critics have actually used the “w” word, not even in its many euphemisms, which leads me to believe that Republican criticism is all about getting elected and not about meeting a particularly knotty global challenge.

The critics of how Obama is handling the Ukraine crisis make two arguments:
1.      Russia would not have acted so aggressively if Obama didn’t have such a wimpy foreign policy, as demonstrated by our backing down on sending a military presence to Syria
2.      We should do be doing more right now in the way of economic sanctions of Russia

The critics of the president seem to forget that when he proposed military action in Syria, the nation objected vociferously, so much so that Obama couldn’t summon a majority in Congress to support putting American lives at risk to intervene in a truly monstrous civil war. Thanks in part to Russia and Iran, we did get Bashir Assad to stop using chemical weapons, which was the reason Obama wanted to engage the military. While the American people—fomented by the mainstream and right-wing media—are enraged at Russia and Putin for annexing Crimea, going to war is another story.  I could find no survey of how the American people feel about going to war over the Crimea, but I’m guessing that the results of such a survey would not make Putin quake in his boots.

I’m thinking that it was less America’s actions in Syria and more our reaction to what Russia did in Georgia that emboldened Putin to annex Crimea. I’m sure someone in the Kremlin has read the surveys that show that the American people are sick of war and tired of the human and financial costs of military interventions.

Once military action is off the table, the Obama response makes perfect sense. The Administration has decided first to implement sanctions that only hurt the Russians. Only if those sanctions don’t work will he consider sanctions that would also hurt the world, European and American economies.  And once the Administration has decided to limit sanctions to what will hurt Russia, it makes perfect sense to show them only a little at first, before ratcheting up the pain. The more steps there are in the response, the more flexibility we have in negotiations.

But what kind of negotiations are we talking about?

What the United States and the West should be doing now is making sure that Russia stops with Crimea. Steps we could take include supporting a truly democratic election process in Ukraine, funneling massive economic support into Ukraine, weaning Ukraine and other western nations from their dependence on Russian oil and gas and even placing or threatening to place NATO troops on the Ukraine-Russian border as peacekeepers, with the approval of Ukraine of course.

Meanwhile, we should engage in negotiations with Russia to recognize the annexation of Crimea in return for economic support of the Ukraine and promises to stay out of Ukraine politics. Let Russia have Crimea, but make them pay for it. They will.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Those who think union spending on elections offsets corporate spending aren’t adding up the numbers

By Marc Jampole

A common mantra of the right-wing when the subject comes to spending by large organizations to influence elections is that unions do it more than business does. Recently the right has encapsulated this argument into a comparison between one family—the Kochs—contributes and what unions contribute to elect their preferred candidates.

But a chart by investigative journalist Lee Fang and website Republic Report republished in Nation shows that any comparison between election spending by the Kochs and unions is as much of a conflation as the 2004 comparison between the military records of George Bush and John Kerry. 

The differences in numbers between right-wing and left-wing political spending are so large that the mere act of placing them in the same sentence without including amounts qualifies as a lie.  The chart, titled “Koch Bust” is a bar graph showing the total political spending in the 2012 election by Koch Brothers-backed groups and by unions. The Kochs contributed more than $412 million, while the combined contributions of the 10 biggest unions equaled a mere 153.5 million. That’s 2.7 times as much money spent by the Kochs to elect candidates than spent by the major unions.

The total includes money contributed directly to campaigns or to support issues of importance to campaigns by individuals, political action committees and indirectly.  The Republic Report refutes the facts and figures supplied by The Wall Street Journal and others, which claim that unions far outspend the Koch Brothers. The numbers from the right-wing neglect to include “dark money,” which are contributions that aren’t reported until after the election. Some $408 million in Koch election contributions came as dark money, so leaving that source of campaign financing is duplicitous to say the least.

There are three levels of deception in saying that unions spend more than the Kochs to influence elections:
1.      The lie itself, which implies that left-supported candidates enjoy a major advantage over poor little conservatives. This lie plays into the “sinking ship” mentality that conservatives like to employ to describe the current supposedly embattled status of the right. Of course nothing could be further from the truth in a country where a qualified candidate for a judgeship gets voted down because he did his job as a defense attorney or a law permitting discrimination could pass a state legislature.
2.      The idea of limiting the terms of comparison to Koch versus unions, which leaves out the outsized contributions by Sheldon Adelson, Phillip Anschutz, groups controlled by Karl Rove, the Wal-Mart family and other wealthy individuals and families.  Let’s also not forget about the National Rifle Association.
3.      The implication that the fact unions are also taking advantage of the shambles that the Supreme Court created in the Citizens United decision makes the decision okay and proves that it doesn’t give a special advantage to corporations. Of course there are left-leaning campaign contributors, too, such as George Soros and Tom Steyer, but they are severely outnumbered and don’t give as much money.

On the surface, the real trump card for the right in the campaign spending argument could be the fact that Barack Obama outspent the Republican opponent in both his presidential victories. In fact, the winning candidate in presidential campaigns virtually always outspends the opponent, for the simple reason that the winner has managed to raise more money. The candidate with more money also usually wins statewide and local elections. It’s as if money votes first and then the voters go to the polls to confirm the decision that money has made.

But the fact that Koch and Adelson couldn’t impose their will on the presidential election does not disprove that these American oligarchs have too much influence on the outcome of elections. Besides having the ability to give more to each election, they can also give to more elections.  Someone with a few hundred bucks to contribute may just give it to his or her preferred choice for president or senator. The rich folk are spreading it around. Thus we end up with a Congress full of right-wingers who propose legislation that surveys show the majority of Americans are against.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Low taxes lead to privatization of U.S. science, as billionaires decide what research to fund

By Marc Jampole

We may be entering a new age of court sponsorship similar to Renaissance Europe when landed nobility adopted painters, sculptors, playwrights, choreographers and writers, supporting their efforts and in return reaping some of the glory of creation. But in this new age, it’s not aristocrats by birth who provide the support but the aristocrats of money such as Larry Elison, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Gordon Moore, union-hating liberal Michael Bloomberg and the nefarious David Koch. And the support is going not to the arts, but to research scientists.

The New York Timesarticle that details the enormous amounts given by these and other billionaires to support scientific research zeroes in on the big problem of the ultra-wealthy selecting research topics: they decide what’s important and not scientists or the government, which represents all of us. Traditionally, peer-review groups at campuses and research facilities or government agencies decided what research deserved funding. When the government did it, it mostly let scientists make the decisions and awarded research on merit and importance and not politics, except partially during the Bush II faith-based Administration. It is true that industry has often had an outsized say in setting scientific policy; for example, when Truman decided to implement the results of a white paper advocating commercialization of nuclear power and denied funding for recommendations in a white paper on solar energy.  But having influence is not quite the same thing as making the decision without any checks or balances.

Now government support for scientific research is down, as Congress would prefer to keep taxes on the wealthy at historic lows over investing in our future. The billionaires are stepping into the breach, but only in the areas that they care about.

As might be expected, most of the billionaires giving large dollars for science research donate to fight a disease with which they are familiar. David Koch and Michael Milkin have both had prostate cancer. Google’s Sergey Brin’s mother had Parkinson’s. American oil oligarch Harold Hamm had diabetes. Leon Black’s wife had melanoma. Eli Broad’s son has Crohn’s disease. 

This privatization of America’s science research policy is as bad for the country as the privatization of prisons, education and war-fighting have been, but the privatization of actual decisions of who gets how much is even worse. We would be much better off having scientific groups decide on funding for specific projects than non-scientists with lots of money.  

In the past, higher taxes on the wealthy helped to finance the American science that cured polio and other diseases, put men on the moon, earth-quaked buildings and computerized the world.  The growing inequality of wealth—the rich getting richer and everyone else falling behind—gives the wealthy an unfair say in the personal lives and futures of everyone. Their control extends beyond the ability to buy more goods and services, as they buy more political influence, more campaign ads and even more scientists. Who is is to say whether the billionaires will share breakthroughs with the rest of the world—perhaps they will want to make money on the new discoveries. We see what happens when private entities own drug discoveries—some drugs are a thousand dollars a pill, while no American company is willing to make flu vaccines because the profit margin isn’t great enough. Privatization of science will likely lead to similar inequities.

I also wonder if the billionaires will employ their standard business practices in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Will David Koch suppress any research into food allergies that link them to global warming or the burning of hydrocarbons? Will Jeff Bezos insist on introducing Amazon’s employee-unfriendly wage and workplace practices into the science organizations he supports? Will scientists working for Michael Milkin be more likely than average to falsify data?  

A much better approach would be to raise income taxes on high incomes, and end the special tax rate for capital gains tax and the carried interest exemption. In other words, raise taxes on the wealthy and use part of that money to increase public support of scientific research.