Friday, August 24, 2012

The Only Issue

When everything is important to do, nothing that really matters gets done.

That is the essence of what Thoreau expressed so much more eloquently: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

If you care to admit how deep our country's problems run and if you care a whit about the future we bequeath to our children and grandchildren, Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost is must reading. If this brilliant assessment of the condition of our democracy is anything, it is a clarion call for rootstriking.

Branches of evil abound. Witness the recklessness and irresponsibility on Wall Street that brought America's  and the world's  economy to its knees. The only surprise is that anyone was surprised, after Depression-era protections against such chicanery were systematically weakened and eventually swept away altogether. Banks became glorified casinos. In 3...2...1..., the financial system descended into chaos. Homes were lost. Life savings vanished. Economic growth ground to a halt. Sales slumped. Employers laid off millions. Factories were shuttered.

Were banksters thrown in jail? No. Was Glass-Steagall reenacted? No. Why not? Because, at the root, our nation's "leaders" are not free to lead. They are paid by the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup and Bank of America to do nothing.

For others, the branch that simply must be hacked is the massive redistribution of wealth in America and the slow but steady extermination of the middle class. In 2010, 93% of all income growth in the U.S. went to the wealthiest 1%. The concentration of wealth at the top is the greatest in living memory.

Are tax rates for millionaires and billionaires being restored to levels seen in past years when our economy was most prosperous and America was growing together rather than growing apart? No. Why not? Because, at the root, our "leaders" are not free to lead. The 2010 midterm congressional elections were bankrolled by less than 1% of Americans and 2012 will be no different. The richest 1% control one-third of America's net worth, but just 1% of the 1% contribute a quarter of the money to all federal political campaigns.

Some see climate change as the problem that none of us can afford to see go unaddressed. Yet our nation's "leaders" have their heads buried in the sand on global warming. Is Congress moving on cap-and-trade legislation to address carbon emissions? No. Are big public investments being made in renewable energy sources? No. Compared to federal subsidies for oil and gas production, green energy gets almost nothing. Why? Because, at the root, our "leaders" are paid by Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries and Chevron to remain in denial over climate change.

Few things affect all of us as much as what we eat. Yet our food policy is a mess. All manner of poisons are dumped on crops, and regulations have been eased. Drug allergies are on the rise and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerge almost daily, yet factory farmers are allowed to "treat" disease prophylactically by feeding healthy cattle antibiotics. We face alarming levels of childhood obesity and unprecedented rates of diabetes among children, yet we continue to heavily subsidize the processed food industry and the production of high-fructose corn syrup among other culprits. Why? At the root, Monsanto and Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and their ilk are paying handsomely to make sure our nation's "leaders" keep things the way they are.

As Lessig concludes, there really is only one issue in America. Our "leaders" are not free to lead on any of the gigantic problems facing our country. There are countless branches of evil, but one root that must be struck.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Wisconsin's Enemy Within

First you are surprised. Then you get mad. Then you shrug. Then you are numb.

I was reminded of the path so many follow in their thinking about money in politics and corruption in government when I received an email the end of last week from someone wishing me "good luck in getting into the 'subterranean,' the 'tentacles of corrupt money' that infiltrate our elections.... We just have to try living with some things, no matter how badly they stink. Wish we could fix some of this, but money talks."

Wisconsin used to be known from coast to coast for squeaky clean politics and open, honest government. That reputation was the byproduct of stratospherically high ethical standards. Our state was in the vanguard of the war on corruption when bribery was banned here in 1897, and Wisconsin blazed another new trail when corporate electioneering was prohibited in 1905. Standards were further raised with the enactment of the Corrupt Practices Act in 1911. Primary elections were pioneered here, opening up the process of nominating candidates for public office, turning over to voters a task previously performed by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms.

The 1970s brought new waves of ethics and campaign finance reform, most notably the establishment of a comprehensive ethics code that included the nation's strictest gift ban prohibiting lobbyists from giving "anything of value" to state officials. That same decade Wisconsin became one of the first states to start publicly financing election campaigns.

In 1978 Wisconsin's high standards were on prominent display when a state senator named Henry Dorman was criminally charged for an intolerable ethical breach. The charges were eventually dismissed, but not until after voters threw him out of office and ended his political career. His crime? Charging a few personal calls to a state telephone credit card.

Looking back, we probably should have known in 1976 that the days of high ethical standards in Wisconsin politics were numbered unless we took fairly drastic actions. That's the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Buckley v. Valeo that money is speech. At the time, Bill Proxmire was spending $150 or $200 on his statewide campaigns for office and Wisconsin voters were repeatedly sending him back to Washington to represent us in the U.S. Senate. No one could yet imagine that in our lifetimes we would see over $80 million spent electing a governor.

The way the money game in politics evolved in the next several decades has made a mockery of our ethics code. The gift ban's definition of "anything of value" does not cover the thing of greatest value to today's politicians – campaign contributions. In 1973 when the law was enacted and Bill Proxmire embodied Wisconsin politics, that probably didn't seem like much of an oversight. Today, in the age of Citizens United and Super PACs and Scott Walker, that omission renders the law meaningless. The gift ban isn't worth the paper it's written on.

This past year has been a rough one for high ethical standards in Wisconsin politics. Just about every fundraising and spending record, broken. Smear campaigning, everywhere. Public financing, repealed. Public faith in the system, bottomed out. One blow after another to the body of democracy.

But the biggest blow of all to the Wisconsin way is the state of mind of most of our citizens when it comes to the political landscape. Most of us are not surprised anymore. Most of us are not mad, at least not enough to act on our anger. Most of us just shrug. Most of us are numb.

I had the honor of talking with a delegation of Argentine municipal officials when they visited our state last week. They were here thanks to an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I have no doubt I learned more from our meeting than they did. For my part, however, I pulled no punches in assessing the condition of American democracy, and openly condemned both government policy and the behavior of elected officials. Several of the Argentine guests told the translators they were surprised our government had allowed them to meet with me considering how critical I was of the American system.

Their observation made an impression on me. The best thing about America's system is that we've always expected it to be the best in the world. And we have had the freedom to speak up about what is wrong with it. Democracy is not dead so long as we remain free and willing to do so. But democracy won't be as strong as it can and should be unless the expectations we have and the standards those expectations lead us to set are sky high.

Democracy in our land faces greater threats than any seen in our lifetimes. We have our work cut out for us as citizens. There are a great many corrupt behaviors and practices that need to be stopped. The first is our own indifference.