Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rip Van Winkling Us To Death

In Washington Irving's 19th Century tale, a colonial villager of Dutch descent by the name of Rip Van Winkle wanders up into the mountains of New York with his dog and his gun and comes upon some men of odd appearance playing ninepins. He drinks some of their liquor and falls asleep. When he wakes up, his dog is nowhere to be seen, his gun is rusted, his joints are stiff and his clothes ragged, and his beard has grown a foot or more.

When he returns to his village, Rip recognizes no one. His wife has died and his close friends have either been killed in a war or moved on. Villagers are calling another much younger man by his name, and it dawns on Rip that this man is his son and he must have slept for 20 years.

Rip resumes his life of idleness and takes up his old habits, having had the luxury of sleeping through the hardships of a revolutionary war.

Today's state and national politics are full of Rip Van Winkles, except they've been asleep for 30 years or more and are still dozing. If and when they wake, perhaps it'll dawn on them we have been through an economic revolution.

When they nodded off, there were national economies and even local economies, marked by mutual dependence. Businesses needed local communities as much as those communities needed them. Now we have a global economy and mutual dependence is long gone.

Neenah and Janesville and Wausau still need businesses, but businesses aiming to compete in the global marketplace don't need Neenah and Janesville and Wausau so much anymore. They can locate their operations virtually anywhere in the world, and they can find markets to sell what they produce virtually anywhere in the world. And they have. They've outsourced and offshored with reckless abandon, all while Rip Van Winkle sleeps.

You can cut their taxes to zero, you can bribe them with public subsidies, and they can still find a cheaper and thus more profitable place to do business somewhere else. A new economic truth has emerged: In a global economy, local communities or states or even entire nations have little or no control over material capital. Human capital is the only thing subject to local control.

Despite this new reality, with Rip Van Winkle still sleeping, scarce public resources are thrown at things, and public investments in people are starved. The building of a factory is subsidized here or there, and so is the profitability of the thing (corporations are not people, my friends) running the factory. But the factory is so roboticized that precious few jobs can be had working there. And despite the subsidies, it remains cheaper to do business elsewhere and it's only a matter of time before the company packs up and searches for some greener pasture.

As Rip Van Winkle sleeps, hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to local schools are cut. Vocational and technical colleges are where tomorrow's workers will get the skills they need to compete in the global economy, and the state cuts their funds by 30%. Universities are where tomorrow's entrepreneurs and business enterprises are born, and the state cuts them too.

When Rip drifted off some three decades ago, our society was embarking on an economic experiment. Some called it supply side theory. Others called it trickle down economics. Its effects have been disastrous. After the country grew together for three decades from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s – with every income class gaining ground – the country has grown apart in the last 30-plus years since supply-side policies were put in place. Only the top 10% has gained ground, and the top 1%'s share of the pie has grown wildly. Everyone else is either treading water or sinking.

The rich have been made richer, the poor have been made poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. But while Rip snoozes, the wealthy continue to get more handouts and the middle class edges closer to extinction. Nobody seems to notice another economic truth that has become self evident: Economic growth is driven by demand, not supply. You can build a factory, but if no one has the money to buy what is made there, it will be shuttered in no time. If, on the other hand, people have money in their pockets and are in a mood to spend, any self-respecting capitalist will find a way to create a supply to meet that demand. They don't need a tax break or an interest-free forgiveable loan. What they need is a marketplace full of demand.

As the 1% prosper beyond anyone's wildest imagination at the expense of most everyone else, it's hard not to notice that campaign contributions to today's politicians come from no more than 1% of the population. The money game in modern politics was not born two years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its infamous decision in the Citizens United case allowing unlimited corporate election spending. It was born more than three decades ago when the high court rendered an equally boneheaded ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that money is speech.

Both major parties bought into this dubious doctrine. Now all these years later, with citizens convinced that politicians are bought and our government is owned by wealthy interests, Rip Van Winkle is now just beginning to stir. But it looks like Rip is likely to resume his life of idleness and take up his old habits, having had the luxury of sleeping through the raping and pillaging of American democracy.

Republican Van Winkles are putting the money game on steroids. Democratic Van Winkles are wringing their hands. So far, the best they've been able to come up with is what they consider a better way to buy politicians. People are heartsick about the 1%'s grip on our politics, and Rip's answer is to let big donors make even bigger donations to politicians and political parties.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Banks In Foreclosure Settlement Gave $45K+ To Candidates

Employees and political action committees of four banks involved in a $25 billion settlement for mortgage foreclosure and service abuses contributed $45,674 to state candidates, including $5,765 to Republican Governor Scott Walker, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Wisconsin will receive $140 million from the national settlement meant for payments to consumers, refinancing benefits, loan term modifications and other relief to borrowers.

But Walker drew fire last week after he announced $25.6 million of the money would be used to help fill a recently forecast $216 million state budget deficit. Critics say it’s unfair to divert money meant to help people hurt by the banks’ mortgage practices and that Walker criticized his predecessor, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, for using one-time money meant for other purposes to repair past state budget deficits.

The bank contributions to Walker and other candidates for statewide office and the legislature were made from 2008 through 2011 – the period covered by the settlement. Campaign finance records show Walker received $1,580 from Wells Fargo executives; $1,000 from Citigroup’s PAC; and $3,185 from JP Morgan Chase’s executives and PAC.

Four of the five banks involved in the foreclosure settlement and their total employee and PAC contributions to Wisconsin candidates were: JP Morgan Chase, $34,098; Wells Fargo, $8,626; Citigroup, $2,250; and Bank of America, $700. No contributions from a fifth bank in the settlement, Residential Capital, were found.

After Walker, the other large recipients of campaign contributions include four legislative leadership committees used to milk money from wealthy special interests and spend on elections as well as Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, whose office was involved with the other states in the case against the banks, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who sharply criticized Walker for diverting some of the settlement money and lost to Walker in the 2010 general election.

Those recipients and their contributions, most of which came from JP Morgan Chase’s PAC, include: $4,000 to the State Senate Democratic Committee; $3,500 to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate; $2,500 to Van Hollen; $2,000 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee; $1,400 to Barrett and $1,000 to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Flattering Grover Norquist

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, the Democratic establishment must be quite fond of Grover Norquist's tactics. Norquist is best known for the rigid anti-tax pledge he's managed to get almost all Republican members of Congress to sign.

It's hard to see how Norquist's pledge has actually helped taxpayers. It's easy to see how it has hurt them. It has paralyzed Congress on the federal budget deficit and national debt issues. With the hands of Republican members tied on taxes, there is no room for maneuvering and no way to reach a bipartisan deal that makes meaningful inroads on the biggest fiscal problem facing the country. So huge deficits continue unabated, more and more debt accumulates, and American taxpayers are put at greater and greater risk.

Now we have a major Democratic interest group taking a page out of Grover Norquist's playbook and insisting that any Democrat running for governor sign an equally rigid pledge to veto any state budget bill that does not restore collective bargaining for public employees. And at least one Democratic candidate already has signed.

What any signer of this pledge is really committing to is the very kind of gridlock that Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge has created in Washington. It wouldn't be enough for a governor to propose the restoration of bargaining rights. It wouldn't be enough to then go to the legislature and engage in serious horse trading to secure collective bargaining a place in the budget bill. If the pledge is signed and then a budget were to land on the governor's desk that didn't include the reestablishment of collective bargaining, that governor would have to veto the whole kit and kaboodle even if it meant shutting down the government and suspending vital state services.

This would be a recipe for political brinksmanship. It would be the height of irresponsibility. After seeing what Grover Norquist's tactics have done to Congress, why on earth would Democrats want to mimic those tactics here in Wisconsin?

Will the coming recall election be about worker rights? Yes, of course. As well it should. But if it's only about public employees or even unionized workers more broadly, Scott Walker wins, mark my words.

This election needs to be about all of the people of Wisconsin. And it needs to be about putting the people back in the driver's seat. What we have now both in Washington and Madison is a few special interest groups leading elected officials around by the nose. What does this budget veto pledge do other than put a ring in some future governor's nose?

This election needs to be about the fact that this country grew together for 30 years from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, and has been growing apart ever since. When inflation is taken into account, every income class in America has either been stuck in a rut or lost ground in the last 30 years except for the top 10%. The top 1% has absolutely cleaned up.

This is no coincidence. It is the product of decades worth of public policy making. Call it trickle down economics. Or supply side theory. Or Robin Hood in reverse. Whatever you call it, the rich have been made richer, the poor have been made poorer and the middle class is disappearing. Thanks to countless actions by politicians led around by the nose by the millionaires and billionaires who own them and snake charmers like Grover Norquist who entrance them.

The road out of this abyss is paved with declarations of political independence, not pledges of fidelity to special interests.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Senator Was Against Disclosure Before She Was For It

Republican State Senator Mary Lazich demanded full and immediate disclosure of people who signed the recall petitions against the governor, but she isn't so keen about public disclosure and transparency when it comes to thousands of special interest campaign contributors to her campaign and other state officeholders.

Lazich recently slammed the state Government Accountability Board for not immediately posting the petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker on its website. Media reports say the board decided to post the petitions after consulting with attorneys about whether it was obliged to honor requests not to post the names of petition signers who claimed to be victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking.

In her written statement criticizing the board, Lazich said in part: "Currently Wisconsin law requires you must disclose not only your address, but also your occupation and employer while donating money to a political candidate or party. The information is all readily available online."

But a lot of that information may not be available in the near future. Lazich has sought to sharply reduce the disclosure of occupational and employer information about campaign donors through a legislative proposal - Senate Bill 292 - recommended for passage by the Senate Transportation and Elections Committee she chairs.

The original bill would have changed state law so that candidates for state offices would no longer have to report the employer of contributors who give a candidate more than $100 a year.

But Lazich amended the anti-disclosure measure to make it worse and allow candidates to exclude both employer and occupational information for contributions of more than $250.

The requirement to report general occupation information, such as doctor, nurse, engineer and banker, as well as a large contributor's employer is important because it allows the public to see the real identities - and possibly motives - behind some of the big money that flows to candidate campaigns.

In addition to viewing the actual candidate reports filed electronically with the Government Accountability Board, the Democracy Campaign maintains a public database with a wealth of information about contributors of $100 and up. The database shows the date, name, city, state, occupation, employer and amount of contributions dating back to 1989, and the employer information allows contributions to be batched and viewed by special interest group, such as business, health professionals, lawyer, labor union and natural resources.

Had Lazich's proposal been in effect for the past 20 years, the Democracy Campaign's database would only identify 105,582 contribution records instead of the 673,804 records it currently contains.

Wisconsin needs more disclosure, not less when it comes to elections AND how they are financed.