Monday, September 27, 2010

Why The Ruling Class Needs To Kill Net Neutrality

The Internet is remaking our world in too many ways to keep track of. Facebook and other social networking sites are reshaping the way we interact with each other. E-mail and all the various forms of instant messaging have laid a major hurt on the U.S. Postal Service. Sites like Craigslist have made conventional classified advertising all but obsolete, delivering a crushing financial blow to the newspaper industry.

But when it comes to political campaigning, the Internet is in its infancy. Television is still king. For how long is anybody's guess, but as of today candidates for most offices need to be on TV. If they're not, they have no chance. Internet electioneering is growing and changing by the day, and its potential is vast, but it's not what decides elections in the here and now.

One can easily imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when that will change. Both of my parents passed away without ever having so much as turned on a computer. They never owned a cell phone, either. Once their generation is gone and is replaced and then some by ultra-tech savvy children of our computer-geek children, it is easy to imagine a time when most if not all election campaign messages will be beamed directly to whatever hand-held personal electronic devices come to be in vogue. It is not hard at all to imagine the Internet doing to the television industry what it already has done to newspapers.

If the Internet remains free and open, it has the capacity to revolutionize politics. It could put an end to the transactions that both define and doom present-day democracy. Everyone knows the drill. Politicians have the power to set government policy, but need to be on TV to win elections and that air time costs a fortune. Those who can afford to put the politicians on TV need those politicians to clear the way for them to become richer still. The wealthy donors do their part, the politicians do theirs, and the fee for service is passed along to the TV stations as compensation for getting the politicians into our living rooms morning, noon and night.

Which brings me to why the ruling class in our country is so bound and determined to colonize the Internet. I wrote last week about how the instruments of social control and political manipulation have evolved over our nation's history. It started with slavery and disenfranchisement. That gave way to institutionalized voter suppression and segregation. When those policies largely fell by the wayside, they were replaced by a third stage of ownership that can be summed up as the creation of an exclusive political marketplace where participation is prohibitively expensive for all but an elite few.

The architects of this third stage can see into the future. They can see how the Internet will one day take the place of television as the dominant medium of political communication. And they can see how a truly free and open Internet (or "net neutrality," in the unfortunate vernacular of Webheads) could create an inclusive political marketplace where participation is downright inexpensive. That's why it's so important to them that the information superhighway be transformed from a freeway into a tollroad.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Third Stage Of Ownership

No keen powers of observation are required to see the parallels between the 19th Century Gilded Age and the times we live in. I recently called ours a Stilted Age where a privileged few have once again been lifted above the pain and suffering inflicted on the masses. Eerie similarities abound. Differences too, of course. We are not on the tail end of an Industrial Revolution or reexperiencing post-Reconstruction upheaval. No, we have economic convulsions of our very own, with our post-Industrial world morphing into Not-Quite-Sure-What.

How do you describe our economy? Service? Digital? Post-Human? It suffices to say that economic dislocation, occupational insecurity and financial anxiety are hallmarks of our moment, just as they were in the late 1800s. Likewise, instruments of social control and political manipulation are being put to daily use by a privileged few to establish and maintain ownership of our government and our society, just as they were at the end of the 19th Century. But those instruments have mutated.

At the dawn of our nation, slavery and disenfranchisement were the control mechanisms. Only white male property owners had access to the ballot and, consequently, any say over affairs of state. Call it America's first stage of ownership.

Decades-long . . . no, generations-long struggles eventually put an end to slavery and won voting rights for women, blacks and unpropertied men. But those who succumbed to the abolitionists and the suffragettes had no intention of surrenduring control or relinquishing power. They moved on to poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws, and relied on coverture and the like to achieve their objective. The second stage of ownership.

Then came the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1968, and the enactment of Title IX in 1972. After painful and drawn-out fights, the crude second-stage instruments of sociopolitical control were gradually swept away. But the ruling elite's sense of entitlement to political power was never extinguished.

It is no coincidence that the great civil rights and women's rights breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s were followed in short order by the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo establishing that money is speech. Buckley marked the beginning of the third stage of ownership.

As Roger D. Hodge writes in an exceptionally insightful essay in the latest issue of Harper's, campaign contributions and other forms of political spending have assumed the old exclusionary function. Only those who can afford to pay have a voice. Only those with vast wealth are truly able to control their political destiny.

The massive transfer of America's wealth to the richest 1% that began in earnest in the early 1980s and has continued unabated during Republican and Democratic administrations alike is no coincidence either. As Hodge rightly declares, it was the result of a long series of policy decisions that were bought and paid for by the less than 1% of Americans who annually pour hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns.

The current U.S. Supreme Court radically expanded on Buckley and accelerated our plunge into the third-stage abyss with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing corporations and other powerful groups to spend unlimited sums on elections, even though it had to resort to the rankest hypocrisy to do so.

Remember, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that gamely defended and empowered the ruling elite during the first stage of ownership by ruling that people could be property. Is it any surprise that the highest court in the land is now serving its masters by ruling that property can be a person?

Friday, September 17, 2010

. . . And Try To Keep It All The Year

Happy Constitution Day. It seems strange to set aside a single day to celebrate it. Honoring it properly means exercising the rights it spells out day in and day out, while taking responsibility for safeguarding its blessings on an ongoing basis, and working to change it if necessary.

The Constitution and its 27 amendments have been interpreted in many different ways over the years. It is worth reflecting on the fact that we were 200 years into the American experiment and the Constitution and the First Amendment were nearly two centuries old before the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment to mean that money is speech. And we were well into the nation's third century before the highest court in the land radically expanded on that dubious doctrine to manufacture a right for corporations and other powerful groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.

You can read the Constitution from its first word ("We") to the last word in the 27th Amendment and you cannot find the word "corporation." You can read all 45 words in the First Amendment and you cannot find the word "money."

As I said in my remarks at last Saturday's Fighting Bob Fest, there comes a time when the actual words of the founders must be respected and honored. The way to make every day Constitution Day is fighting to reassert and reestablish that the rights enumerated in the Constitution belong to "We the People" and are reserved for living, breathing, flesh-and-blood citizens.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

There Comes A Time

In case you weren't able to make it to this year's Fighting Bob Fest, here's video of my remarks.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Crowd One Person Too Small

It was a simply gorgeous day Saturday, and official estimates put attendance at Fighting Bob Fest somewhere between 6,500 and 7,500. Bob Fest organizers must not pay much attention to tea party rallies, because if they did they surely would have claimed that at least 50,000 people were there.

All I know is the crowd was in the many thousands with countless others sending word they were unable to attend due to one conflict or another but were there in spirit. One who was absent but whose presence was most certainly felt was Doris "Granny D" Haddock, the cross-country-walking, straight-talking campaign finance reform advocate who passed away earlier this year at the age of 100.

Ruth Meyer, a loyal friend and longtime assistant of Granny's, made the long trip from New Hampshire with members of her family to be there in her mentor's place. Ruth brought along with her a draft of a speech Doris was working on last February shortly before her death, and shared it with me. It was to have been delivered at Fighting Bob Fest.

Granny D's thoughts filled seven single-spaced pages, but these words in particular stood out: "America is angry and divided and rather like a mentally-disturbed person. Many of its citizens are turning away from obvious truths and embracing angry and dangerous fantasies instead.... It's hard to settle arguments and put away anger when we are desperately anxious about our future and our family's future. That sort of anxiety is driving America's politics today. And where does it come from? Anger and blindness to the facts are the twin childen of powerlessness. Powerlessness over one's own and one's family's future."

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Haves And Have Nots Of Lobbying

Two weeks from today is Constitution Day. Here's hoping this commemoration will inspire at least a few to pick it up and read it. "We the People" jumps right off the page of course, but you don't find "We the Corporations" anywhere. In fact, you don't find the word corporation a single time in the Constitution or any of its amendments. There is nothing that could remotely be understood to mean "money is speech." All of that was the doing of activist judges.

The recent report detailing the amount spent on lobbying in the 2009-2010 legislative session in Wisconsin brings to mind the commercialization of speech once again. The top 10 spenders represent about 1% of the lobbying organizations in the state but account for nearly a fifth of all spending.

At the top of the list is the state teachers union, which has spent more than $2.1 million trying to influence our elected state representatives. Next is an Indian tribe, the Forest County Potawatomi, which spent over $1.9 million. The rest of the top 10 are all corporations or trade associations representing mostly business interests. The Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, $958,000. Altria (previously Philip Morris), $840,000. Wisconsin Hospital Association, $820,000. Wisconsin Medical Society, $697,000. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, $680,000. Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers, $626,000. Wisconsin Energy Corporation, $573,000. Wisconsin Independent Businesses, $561,000.

Lobbyists representing those 10 interests collectively spent more than 51,000 hours prowling the halls of the State Capitol on their behalf.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the Clark County Humane Society, which reported four hours worth of lobbying costing $80, the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association at two hours and $102, and the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association at four hours and $298.