Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We're STILL debating the death penalty???

I was quite fortunate to be in attendance at this morning's press conference/lobby session in support of repealing the death penalty here in Connecticut. My personal animus toward capital punishment is long-standing, and based on a variety of moral/ethical/practical/financial/sociological reasons. I may indeed elucidate those views at a later date in this space.

My purpose today is rather to mention the various wonderful people in attendance this morning in support of this important cause. First and foremost, Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean, Victoria Coward and other family members of murder victims courageously and eloquently shared their stories of pain, and spoke with great impact in favor of repeal. Anyone with a hint of humanity could not have helped being moved to tears. The fact that these people had to speak is a shameful commentary on where we are as a society. My only regret is that our legislators who will vote on this issue were not there to hear these words; I suspect those opposed to repeal would lack the fortitude to look these people in the eye and admit their opposition. If they had a scintilla of the courage of these speakers, we would not be discussing this issue.

Great thanks should be bestowed on Alexandra Ferreira, Kristin Bollig and their colleagues at CT Network to Abolish the Death Penalty for organizing this event. Attendance was strong, with the crowd spilling into the hallways. Also in attendance were Paul Gustafson, a teacher at Hamden Hall, and Kevin Barry, a professor at Quinnipiac School of Law, who brought many of their students to lobby their respective representatives. Their students' knowledge, passion and commitment to action are highly inspirational. They restored some hope for our future in the heart of this old cynic. It was also a distinct pleasure to meet Miles Halpine, Communications Director for Connecticut State High School Democrats. Miles aspires to run for political office some day; I hope he does run, as young, smart, caring people like him will help make our world a better place.

Finally, a word to our legislators, particularly those opposed to overturning the death penalty: We care, we vote, and we have friends who vote.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Higher Education

If the notion of the separation of Church and State makes Rick Santorum want to throw up, his ignorance regarding, and subsequent muddled analysis of, our nation's founding makes me want to crawl out of my own skin. First, to dispel the notion that I am some sort of left-winger, let me state the following: the modern connotation of the concept of separation of Church and State (the one where we can't have a creche in the town square at Christmas; the one where the local CYO can't hold a meeting at a public school, even after school hours) does not exist in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The Constitution prohibits the establishment of a State religion (Note to Rick: the first generations of settlers came to escape the tyranny of the Church of England). In fact, the phrase "separation of Church and State" came from Jefferson, years after the adoption of the Constitution (1802).

Santorum's claim that the founders did not envision a nation where the Church (um, WHICH Church, Rick? Yours? Mitt's?) had no role in government is laughable and historically inaccurate. Apparently, Mr. Santorum is unaware that many of the founders were Deists and not adherents of organized religion. Even those who belonged to churches did not want to see the establishment of a State religion. Santorum then completes his loopy circuit by claiming that the founders wouldn't have wanted "people of faith" excluded from the process, leaving a nation where "only people of non-faith" had a voice in our government. Aside from the fact that his analysis is altogether inaccurate, he is conflating two separate concepts. Which is it, Mr. Santorum, an established Church, or "people of faith"?

I now see why he speaks so negatively of higher education - it clearly did not serve him well. How was this man given advanced degrees? How did he even get a high school diploma?

Be VERY afraid.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Consent of the Governed

...governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” - Declaration of Independence

The words above are from the second sentence of paragraph 2 of the Declaration of Independence. Most of us are aware of, and much has been said about, the preceding sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There was a time when most people could probably recite that first sentence from memory. It is my belief that there has been precious little conversation about, and focus on, that second sentence. In light of the backlash against the influence of money on electoral politics and governance in general, particularly since the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, it seems an appropriate time to give the notion of “consent of the governed” a well-deserved closer look.

I would like first to examine the concept in terms of its historical context. Passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 was the seminal moment in the increasing, though by no means universal, idea that the colonies must seek their independence. Unlike the passage of the Sugar Act the previous year, this legislation spurred action as well as outrage; this combination culminated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence eleven years later. Despite more widespread acceptance for the notion of independence, there was great disagreement over which specific path to follow. Sentiment for Burkean constitutional monarchy was still popular, as ties to England, physical and emotional, remained strong. Some favored the Aristotelian vox populi (yes, I know I used Latin to describe a Greek concept – if they had offered Greek in high school....). Finally, there was a strong push for the type of representative republic in which we live today. Regardless of the particular ultimate path, all on some level incorporate the Lockean concept of “consent of the governed.” All three paths though, would, of necessity, carry a different definition of consent.

It is the very definition of the concept of consent that I believe needs to be discussed today. The word “consent” as defined in Merriam-Webster is essentially an agreement between parties; in other words, a contract. It seems implicit to me that a contract requires good faith by all parties for the contract to be meaningful, and not void. I'm not an attorney, but it seems to me that if one party to the contract were to mislead the other, or provide distorted information, those actions would render the contract void. We give our consent to those who govern by casting our ballot in an election; we trust that the information we receive from the elected party will be accurate and given in good faith.

Return with me now to today's time, the time of Citizens United, 501(c)(4) organizations, the insidious situation with private prison contractors and more. When our elected officials, those charged with passing legislation, neither read nor write said legislation, but rather sub-contract that work to those who fund their eternal re-election efforts, they are not giving us accurate information, nor are they acting in good faith as parties to the contract. In other words, it's less about the amount of money involved in electoral campaigns and daily governance than about the distortion and perversion which that money creates.

Several notable efforts, successful or otherwise, have been made to address the issue over the last forty years. Unfortunately, these efforts have expected a certain level of “self-policing”, as legislation to hamper the skunks is being written, in large measure, by those same skunks. In drug testing for professional sports, the cheaters are always one step ahead of the testers; it is the same in politics given the influence of money and the constant search for re-election.

If the need or desire for money were removed, if candidates didn't have to worry about re-election, might we see a significant change? I won't argue that we can eliminate simple greed, but I believe we could make a significant dent in the problem by eliminating the drive for campaign cash. I'm not sure we will ever see mandatory public financing, which creates a First Amendment tangle. I do believe that we can change the dynamic by instituting term limits. Term limits were included in Article V Paragraph 2 of the Articles of Confederation, under which the nation existed from 1777-1789. There is no provision for term limits in the Constitution, but neither is there a preclusion. Article I Section 4 leaves the manner of holding elections to the states. Further to that point, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1947, prescribes presidential term limits – we've opened that door already. There are limits to our rights, even our right to free speech (yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater).

Term limits would not be a panacea. There would certainly be people running for re-election in the House, and thus an opportunity for skewing the system and manipulating the information. I believe, however, that with a shift away from “career” politicians, we might see the pendulum swing more in the direction of the governed, away from the governors.

All I want is some truth, just gimme some truth.” - John Lennon

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Striking at the Root

I'm not the first to comment on the influence of money on politics, and I won't be the last, but I'm putting my two cents in. This is not a new problem. Theodore Roosevelt addressed the issue in the early 20th century, but the problem was existent at the founding of our nation. And let's face it, politics has almost always been about the "monied interests", regardless of the period in history or the type of government involved. At our core, we are all animals ( I don't mean that in the pejorative sense) motivated by self-interest - it's perfectly natural. As members of a society, however, we must balance this self-interest with the interest of the common good.

In the last 40 or so years, we have seen several attempts (both successful and failed) to reduce the influence of money in politics. These have been directed, for the most part, at regulations related to campaign contributions and expenditures. These efforts are noble in purpose, but have been rendered toothless in effect. As in professional sports as relates to drug testing, the cheaters are always one step ahead of the authorities. Add to that the intensive, expensive lobbying campaigns to thwart meaningful change, and the influence of said lobbyists to actually rite the legislation, and it's not difficult to understand why significant meaningful change has eluded us.

I simply can't see any way to regain our franchise as citizens without the institution of term limits. I tend to consider myself a "strict constitutionalist", and am loathe to inhibit the exercise of free expression; however, we've already opened that door with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. The strict constitutionalist and annual reader of the Federalist Papers in me believes in the concept of the citizen/politician: serve your country and go back to your farm. Politics was once considered an unsavory arena and a less-than-admirable way to make one's way in the world; it has become the yellow brick road to riches.

None of this will change as long as the first order of business for newly-elected congresspeople is to begin raising money and preparing for re-election. Money directs the conversation, the legislation and the outcome. I have to believe that eliminating the financial pressure/inducement might allow good citizens to make decisions in the public interest. If a President may only serve two elected terms, how about a limit of one term for the Senate and two terms for the House? And no double-dipping! A wonderful congressperson could find myriad other ways to continue their service via some other meaningful avenue after reaching their limit in Congress...if they were truly interested in service.

A Wink's as Good as a Nod to a Blind Man

I've always considered myself to be a reasonably intelligent and informed individual. I've taken pride in the recognition that the things I don't know far outweigh the things I do know, and the never-ending desire to shift that balance. Shame on me, then, for not being conversant with something known as a 501(c)(4) organization (and thanks to the folks at United Republic for bringing the subject to my attention).

The IRS describes such an organization as "an organization (which) must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare." The regulation does not actually define "social welfare"; it gives some examples of specific situations where an organization would or would not be in compliance. In essence, the regulation speaks more to what is NOT promoting social welfare, leaving an enormous chasm into which one could spin almost any definition of the term. The stipulation that such an organization "must operate primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community" is laughably vague and ripe for abuse.
"But wait!", you say. The regulation also contains the following: "The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office." A sign of hope? A loophole closed? Alas, one has only to read the very next sentence to become crestfallen: "However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity." And so we return to the semantics game. If the regulation's attempt to clearly define "social welfare" is lacking, its attempt to define the word "primary" is non-existent. Who determines the "primary" purpose of the organization in question - the organization itself? Isn't that akin to asking a weekend duffer what he got on the last hole when there was a $5 Nassau at stake? If the determination is to be made by the IRS, then what are the standards for making this determination? My hair hurts after poring through 66 fascinating pages of IRS verbiage, and my vision may be blurry, but I can't seem to find ANY definition of the term "primary." Note the following in Rev. Rul. 61-177, 1961-1 C.B. 117: "a corporation organized and operated primarily for the purpose of promoting a common business interest is exempt under IRC 501(c)(6) even though its sole activity is introducing legislation germane to such common business interest." I could drive a Mack truck through that hole.
The above begs the following question: Who actually wrote these regulations? This is not a rhetorical question; I really don't know the answer. The cynic in me suspects it is the same people who write most of the legislation introduced into Congress, i.e. NOT the people we elect and/or pay to do it. If it looks like a skunk and it smells like a skunk, it's a skunk.
Still not throwing up, dear reader? These organizations are not required to publicly divulge their donor rolls. This cozy little set of circumstances allows "shadow" groups to obfuscate and distort the process, effectively disenfranchising the electorate. This is the classic, modern definition of the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.
I hope you're starting to feel like Howard Beale.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Higher Ground

I have never been one to jump to the defense of the New York Times, but the backlash against new Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren is deeply troubling (please read Disclaimer #1 - I am currently "boycotting" reading the Times as a result of a completely different issue. Disclaimer #2 - I have never heard of Jodi Rudoren before reading this article today, and am completely unfamiliar with her work. Disclaimer #3 - My knowledge of 3000 years of history in the Middle East is insufficient for me, in good conscience, to "take sides" - I don't have a dog in this hunt.

Having established that, I do know a thing or two about world history in general (not to mention conflict resolution). I know that there is a middle ground somewhere between Neville Chamberlain and George W. Bush. I know that Nixon and Kissinger may have taken a hard-line stance against the Soviets and Chinese in public, yet always worked back-channel communications as well. I know that conflicts are not fully resolved unless both parties feel they have "won" something. (NOTE: I am making an assumption that parties actually want to resolve their differences) Based on that, does it not make sense to have discussion with all parties to a conflict? "Having a discussion" does not equal capitulation. Does Rick Santorum really believe his saber-rattling will resolve any differences with Iran? Peace is not forced, it is forged.

Kudos to Ms. Rudoren for, at the very least, keeping an open mind (um, she IS a journalist, yes?). I would think it would be her first order of business to have discussions with all points of view; if she finds that one party to the conversation is not acting in good faith, she may change her approach accordingly at that point. For now, she should be allowed to do her job and form her own opinions, rather than having them dictated to her by those with their own axes to grind. Suppression of open discourse...I seem to remember that happening somewhere in the 1930's....

Special thanks to Zaid Jilani of United Republic for posting this article on Twitter and giving it more public attention.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Where is the love?

So Mitt Romney is back in the winner's circle. Yes, it was in a state neighboring the state where he served as governor. Yes, it was only by 3 points. Yes, it was with a percentage total significantly lower than he reached in 2008. But somehow, this will be spun as good news.

News flash for Team Romney: That pile of steaming manure under the Christmas tree does NOT mean you're getting a pony for Christmas. You're not going to win the White House by sucking less than the other guy. People "like" you the way Mrs. Cleaver liked Eddie Haskell. The man considered to be a "conservative alternative" to John McCain in 2008 looks like a Rhode Island Republican in 2012.

Between the Tea Partiers, Iranophobic neo-cons, birthers and conservatives who are just plain tired of Obama, Republican voters should be far more energized in 2012 than in 2008. Turnout is down significantly. How many times have we heard that the top (or only) priority is to unseat Obama? So why aren't people descending on polling places like Mongolian hordes? Because Romney doesn't excite/energize/motivate anyone. He's a swell guy, and would have made a fine Republican nominee in 1956. But if he gets the GOP nod in August, he's going down like a sack of buh-day-duhs in November. It's not that the base will vote for someone else, it's that they just won't vote.

This must all be a secret plan to pave the way for Chris Christie in 2016. Is there another rational explanation for why the GOP gave this thing away months ago? OK, maybe they're just not that bright.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mo Money

Or more aptly, "mo" AND money: Is politics about money? Sure it is - just ask Sheldon Adelson and George Soros. One should not, however, discount the role of momentum. Before his CO/MO/MN trifecta, Rick Santorum was so broke he couldn't pay attention. The big money had gone elsewhere. The big money also can follow the momentum - everyone wants to back a winner. Romney will always have the largest bankbook in this cycle, but there is still other money to be spent. As long as Romney can't close the deal with the far right, the far right money needs to find a home. With Gingrich in apparent free-fall, if Santorum can beat Newt by a decent margin in AZ and MI, Newt's wallet could be empty by Super Tuesday, allowing Santorum to carry the mantle of the far right from that point forward. Romney will still be able to outspend him, but Santorum can continue to chip away ("I've won more states", etc.). Romney continues to be the castor oil of the far right; to wit, look at turnout numbers from 2012 vs. 2008 - Romney isn't getting anyone excited. Mitt has the most cash and the most delegates at present - but with very tepid support, it can all change in a heartbeat.

Clap for the I-man: Heard William Shatner discussing horses with Don Imus on Friday. Gripping radio. Oy.

Hey Joe, where you going with that Ipod in your hand?: If you're like me, and your two greatest passions are politics and music, you must watch Morning Joe. Whether you agree with him or not, the man is knowledgeable and passionate about politics (and so much more tolerable than Chris Matthews). And the man knows good music, too. If Q is firing up "Pump It Up" from Joe's Ipod, and Joe is tweeting Neil Young lyrics, he's got it going on. Joe, if you told Q to spend more time in the Neil Young section of your Ipod during your show, I wouldn't mind a bit. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Catching up

February 1, 2012

What a difference a day makes: Or just a moment, in today's news cycle. At last writing, Newt looked good in FL. Boy, 8 days is an eternity in presidential politics. Despite a poor debate performance and double-digit loss in the primary, this is one skunk that won't go crawling back into the woodpile. Sure, his massive ego will propel him throughout the next 30 dog days (i.e. "minor" caucuses), but Newt has more than his ego to bank on. He has Sheldon Adelson. And based on breakdown of FL results, he does have a path forward. Newt carried the panhandle (the part of FL that is actually in the US), which is far more reflective of the Republican voting base in several key Super Tuesday states. No one has even 10% of the total delegates required. And remember that Iowa, NH and FL all went for Dems in 08. People who look at statewide totals from FL and want to extrapolate them across a larger band have never actually lived in FL. I don't expect Newt to go quietly into that good night.

Nobody does it better: Speaking of breaking down electoral results, is there anyone on the planet who does it better than MSNBC's Chuck Todd? Let me answer that for you: NO!

The strange case of Dr. Paul and Dr. John: He was in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time. Hate to agree with Michael Graham, but he was spot-on on Imus re: Ron Paul. The man has a great message, but he is the wrong messenger. First, I hate to admit, he comes across a just a little bit nutty: to wit, Dr. Paul's speech last night when he claimed "our numbers are growing" - um, no they're not, unless we're talking about campaign dollars or number of volunteers. His bigger problem, in my opinion, is that he just doesn't have, or want to give, 30 second "sound bite" answers. And when we're talking about the world economy, can anyone really give a meaningful answer to a reasonable question in that time frame? Sorry, Ron, the voting public doesn't have the patience for detailed answers to important, complex questions. Would a more "polished" candidate with exactly the same message make more of an impact?

More nuts: Just because he's crazy doesn't mean he's wrong. Yes, I saw Buddy Roemer on Morning Joe today....

More Listerine: I have a real distaste for MSNBC's Ed Schultz. I disagree with him on almost every issue. Having said that, I saw him on Alex Wagner yesterday and he was unbelievably eloquent defending the Obama record. On an intellectual basis, I knew I didn't agree with his words as they were rolling off his tongue, but when it was over I found myself saying, "Whatever he's selling, I'll take two." The guy can be a wonderful advocate.

Zbig Deal: Hate to be like Imus and hump a book I haven't even read, but I urge all to read Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book "Strategic Vision", based on his interview last week on Morning Joe. His comments on public ignorance of political affairs both foreign and domestic is spot-on and deeply troubling. He's not the first to say it, but his putting it in the context of comparison to the last days of the Soviet Union should raise the level of alarm. We get the government we deserve.