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Bribery in Iraq Elections and NYT Approval

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Well, The Times finally picked up on the story about widespread bribery going on in Iraq’s upcoming elections, and surprise! The article’s thesis is that it’s “no big deal” and “just the way they do things there.” The Times hardly mentions the word “bribe”, preferring instead the far more acceptable phrase “gift”. As you read their “report”, I’d like you to imagine what their reaction would be if, say, Iran had engaged in the same practices:

Across the country, voters are reaping a windfall as candidates in Sunday’s parliamentary elections offer gifts like heating oil and rice. When a candidate recently showed up in a poor village outside Baquba to distribute frozen chickens — in a literal homage to the political slogan “a chicken in every pot” — so many people rushed to get the free birds that many left disappointed after the supply ran out.

You may remember in yesterday’s Guardian a full article describing US darling Al-Maliki’s tactic to win re-election, which was handing out American-made arms to various “tribal leaders”. Now, most people would consider this a serious misuse of American aid, and an extremely dubious election strategy. However, the New York Times is not most people. They bury that story in the middle of the article and select a quote that basically signals their approval of the practice.

When Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was asked about allegations that he gave tribal leaders pistols, emblazoned with a personal stamp, he openly defended the action.

“Some people criticize me for giving people pistols,” he said during a meeting with security officials broadcast on television. “Honestly, I wish I could give a pistol and a rifle to each one who stood beside the government against the gangs to express our appreciation.”

That’s it. That’s all they have to say on the matter. Again, I invite you to imagine what their reaction would be if, say, Hugo Chavez had been accused of buying votes with guns (US-made guns, no less). I think they’d have more to say.

With colorful language and delectable descriptions of “election feasts”, it’s clear the Times wants us to believe that the elections are going A-OK: everyone is campaigning peacefully, and “Democracy” is taking root in Iraq.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to mention the 352 killed in sectarian violence during the month of February – that would go against their narrative of a happy, peaceful election – so they don’t. Similarly, no one at the Times wants to mention the Kurdish activist who was injured in pre-election violence a few days ago.

Now, I’m sure many Iraqis are thrilled with the prospect of “gifts” in exchange for votes, and I’m equally sure that those “tribal leaders” were ecstatic with their free American guns. But for the New York Times to take these as the hallmarks of a successful election,  and especially for them not to mention the very real violence occurring behind the scenes demonstrates, I’m afraid, how debauched our own democracy has become.

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Written by pavanvan

March 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Supreme Court Allows Corporations to Donate Anonymously

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The Times reminds us of an unsavory after-effect of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. FEC case. Under the decision, corporations no longer have to disclose to whom they donate or how much, effectively destroying organizations like Opensecrets.org that attempt to track the influence of money in politics. This is terrible news.

Experts say the ruling, along with a pair of earlier Supreme Court cases, makes it possible for corporations and unions to donate anonymously to nonprofit civic leagues and trade associations. The groups can then use the money to finance the types of political advertisements that were at the heart of last month’s ruling.

Democratic Congressional leaders called the loophole dangerous, and they have proposed legislation that would require nonprofit groups to identify publicly the sources of financing for their political advertisements.

Citizens United and the Media

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Columbia Journalism Review has a great roundup of various media responses to the Citizens United case and what it means for the media. I guess I don’t have too much more to add, except that with the floodgates open to corporate “donations” for various campaigns, our corporations will have a much greater incentive to pony up the cash to keep the media’s mouth shut. And we all know our major newspapers are just immune to bribery, right?

“A lot of corporations right now are probably having frank and interesting discussions around how they want to use this,“ says Levinthal, a former politics reporter for the Dallas Morning News. “One great story might be trying to get ahead of the decisions they are going to make, and asking local companies how they anticipate using this before they do.”

“I think it’s going to be essential, to put it in old fashioned terms, to follow the money here,” says Wertheimer. “Public disclosure only works if someone discloses the information to the public, and I believe that the media has a very big responsibly to help fill that role.”

“It’s my hope that we’re going to get comprehensive disclosure requirements for corporations and labor unions, and from intermediate groups that are used as pass throughs, and from the people that are spending the money. But on top of all of that, investigative reporting above and beyond the disclosure information has an important role to play. These are very hard stories to do, and in the past there hasn’t been a lot of appetite among editors for taking the time to do investigative stories that may be very time consuming, but they’re essential now,” says Wertheimer. “It’s straightforward, and basic, and extremely important.”

Written by pavanvan

February 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm

The State of the Union: An Annotated Response

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One year into his prophesied presidency, Mr. Obama addressed the nation on the issues he thinks plague it the most. The speech was 5 parts economy, two parts health care, one part budget, and a few throwaway references to “national security” and Haiti thrown in as well (for spice). Unsurprisingly, the speech was a hit with the mainstream commentariat. The inimitable Joe Klein seemed to think this was “Obama at his best“; Yglesias, of course, thought it was “just great”; and Greg Sargent praised its “mix of charm and good humor”. As we all know, the main things our belaguered republic lacks at this juncture are “charm” (and/or) “good humor”.

I guess nobody took notes on what Mr. Obama said, as the reactions I’ve seen are based on qualitative nonsense (“How did he look? Was he friendly? Did he get the Republicans’ goat?”) A shame, because a close reading of the text of the speech reveals evasions, inconsistencies, and, at times, willful manipulation of data. Let’s dive in, shall we?

As Mr. Obama said early on, “It begins with the economy”.

Our most urgent task upon taking office was to shore up the same banks that helped cause this crisis. It was not easy to do. And if there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it — (applause.) I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. (Laughter.)

So I supported the last administration’s efforts to create the financial rescue program. And when we took that program over, we made it more transparent and more accountable. And as a result, the markets are now stabilized, and we’ve recovered most of the money we spent on the banks. (Applause.) Most but not all.

To recover the rest, I’ve proposed a fee on the biggest banks. (Applause.) Now, I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea. But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need. (Applause.)

Did you really hate it so much, Mr. Obama? I mean, the largest contributors to your campaign were financial institutions, and they certainly didn’t hate it. And your Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, was practically appointed by Goldman Sachs, and went on to distribute trillions of untraceable dollars to unknown banks. He certainly didn’t hate it. Especially when your read about how Geithner willfully colluded with AIG to defraud the taxpayers of billions, it just seems like you’re making up all this populist “oh I hated it but it had to be done” nonsense ex post facto.

You’re well aware that the largest banks consider your so-called “bank fee” a joke, and that the $90 billion you plan to extract from them doesn’t cover 1/100th of the total money their malfeasance lost our economy. Also, paying back the government was stipulated in the TARP to begin with. When the banks accepted the money back in September ’08, they did so with the knowledge that they’d eventually have to pay it back. So all this “fee” does is force the banks to uphold the contract they already signed.

Moreover, you are well aware what $90 Billion won’t even cover the current outstanding bank debt. As Propublica reports, the net outstanding in the TARP program is $316 Billion. Not $90 Billion.

Concerning the “Recovery Act”:

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. (Applause.) That’s right -– the Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus bill. (Applause.) Economists on the left and the right say this bill has helped save jobs and avert disaster. But you don’t have to take their word for it.

Talk to the small business in Phoenix that will triple its workforce because of the Recovery Act.Talk to the window manufacturer in Philadelphia who said he used to be skeptical about the Recovery Act, until he had to add two more work shifts just because of the business it created. Talk to the single teacher raising two kids who was told by her principal in the last week of school that because of the Recovery Act, she wouldn’t be laid off after all.

Or you can talk to this guy, who got a $24 million stimulus award after numerous accusations of bribery. Or you could talk to this crumbling school district unable to access its stimulus funds for “bureaucratic red tape”. Or, again, these six companies, currently under criminal investigation, who nevertheless received $30 million from your free money giveaway. As Mr. Obama says in his speech,

There are stories like this all across America.

Right.

But what about clean energy? Well, he’s glad you asked:

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. (Applause.) It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. (Applause.) It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. (Applause.) And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. (Applause.)

You clearly aren’t a scientist, Mr. Obama, because those suggestions don’t make a lick of sense. As I’m sure you’re aware, no nuclear plant has ever been built on time or on budget. Ever. “Breeder Reactors” are still an experimental technology, and there is no safe way to dispose of the waste current reactors produce. What should we do with “zombie reactors” – those crumbling ’70s-era nuclear plants we can’t find the budget to inspect? They constantly break down, and constitute a major public health risk.  Shouldn’t we do something about those, first? Oh yeah, “Spending Freeze”. Well, I guess we can do like the French and just dump our N-waste in Russia.

As for “Clean Coal”, your colleague Al Gore called that a “lie” months ago. There is no such thing as clean coal. You know it and I know it. But, as you and the coal lobby so fervently hope, the American public doesn’t know it. And let’s not even mention the world food crisis your vaunted “advanced biofuels” had a hand in creating. Or the massive deforestation now going on in Brazil and Indonesia to meet our “advanced biofuels” demand. That technology is wasteful, inefficient, and impracticable. Europe would have to use 70% of its landmass exclusively for biofuel crops in order to meet its energy demands. America doesn’t even have enough landmass to grow enough biofuels to meet its demands. And never mind that the distillation of biofuels requires orders of magnitude more energy than we get from them.

We move on to Health Care:

After nearly a century of trying — Democratic administrations, Republican administrations — we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans. The approach we’ve taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market. It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care.

It would also require every American to purchase health insurance, whether they want it or not (indeed, whether or not they can afford it) – but that’s not a popular aspect of the bill, so we better not mention that. In fact, given your recent defeat in Massachusetts, it’s probably better we move on altogether.

So now let’s talk about… the deficit!

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)

So your plan is to cut everything but the three biggest contributors to the deficit? How is that a good idea? And is “national security” really something we “need” at this point? You are aware, I’m sure, that we spend on the order of $1 trillion per year prosecuting our misbegotten murder rampages in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and whomever else wish to inflict misery upon.This spending benefits no one, and it demonstrably makes us less safe. You think that might be something we would “cut” if we were trying to save money. I really can’t stress this point enough. We spend the equivalent of South Korea’s GDP murdering Arabs. This is completely baffling to me. Would a “cash-strapped family” really refuse to “sacrifice” its largest and most wasteful expenditure that also happens to actively harm it?

But it’s not just a “deficit of dollars” – it’s also a deficit of… trust. Getting that trust surplus back is what Mr. Obama came to Washington, apparently, to do.

That’s what I came to Washington to do. That’s why -– for the first time in history –- my administration posts on our White House visitors online. That’s why we’ve excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs, or seats on federal boards and commissions.

But we can’t stop there. It’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office.

Actually, that bolded statement turned out not to be true. When you said “we have excluded lobbyists”, you might have added, “except for the ones I personally approve of.” You know you’ve given waivers to several former lobbyists to work for your administration. Why lie about it? Oh yeah, you’re doing the populist thing. But it kind of detracts from the whole “honesty” message if you have to lie while you’re making it.

So then while he’s on a roll, Mr. Obama attacks the Supreme Court bribery decision, even though the idea that “campaign donations are free speech” was a major reason why he got elected.

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. (Applause.) They should be decided by the American people.

Is this some kind of joke? You raised $680,000,000 in the most expensive presidential campaign ever. You took money from every major financial institution, including some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Geithner-Bernanke giveaway. I’m really at a loss for words here.

Finally we come to the part about terrorism. I think he’s almost done.

Since the day I took office, we’ve renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We’ve made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We’ve prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008.

No you haven’t. Well, maybe you have, but – wink! – we’ll never know, right? The “black site” at Bagram air base is expanding; Guantanamo hasn’t closed; you believe in extra-legal kidnapping and assassinations (even of American citizens!) And given that you refuse to prosecute Bush-era torturers, even though their actions constitute high crime under the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg Code, and our own World War II legal precedent, it’s hard to believe you’re really against torture. Oh, and by the way, I know of a massive plot to take American lives. In fact, it’s killed more than 5,000 Americans already, almost twice as many as 9/11 did. Do you know what it is?

Aaaaand that about does it. A few more references to the “heroic” American response to Haiti (our decidedly ‘un-heroic’ IMF loansharking, of course, went unmentioned), a throwaway reference to some random lady who says “we are tough, we are American”, one last “God Bless America!”, and we’re clear! Another logically inconsistent, factually dubious, rabble-rousing excuse of abuse that managed to tell us nothing. Congratulations, Mr. Obama.

The Supreme Court: On the Other Hand…

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I want to draw attention to Glenn Greenwald’s recent discussion of the Supreme Court’s pro-bribery decision. Kevin Drum gives him a good rebuttal. These two posts demonstrate the complexity of this issue and how knee-jerk embraces or denials of the Supreme Court’s decision are  vast oversimplifications. I admit I, too,regarded the decision initially with horror, though like Mr. Greenwald I noted that bribery in our polity is so bad it could not get much worse. However, I also swept aside the substantial first-amendment issues implied in this case, casually remarking “Money is not speech” or “Corporations aren’t individuals”.

Mr. Greenwald raises some difficult challenges to those once-seeming platitudes. Isn’t spending money to publicize a message, after all, a form of “speech”? Did the Founding Fathers intend freedom of speech to only cover verbal communication? But then they have that “freedom of the press” too! What if you buy a printing press and use it to disseminate your message? That’s speech, right? And what if you use your press to irrationally support one candidate or one ideology (like a certain network we know)? Even that should be protected under the First Amendment.

Greenwald:

Anyone who believes that [“money isn’t speech”] would have to say that there’s no First Amendment problem with any law that restricts the spending of money for political purposes, such as:”It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;” or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money advocating Constitutional rights for accused terrorists; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such matters, provided no money is spent”; or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money promoting a candidate not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party; all citizens shall still be free to advocate for such candidates, provided no money is spent.”

Anyone who actually believes that “money is not speech” would have to believe that such laws are necessarily permitted by the First Amendment (since they merely restrict the expenditure of money, which is not speech).

Do you actually believe that? I don’t even find that argument sufficiently coherent to warrant much discussion.

Ouch.

This highlights the dangers inherent in trying to limit monetary political support. The potential for misuse is enormous. That said, corporate influence on campaigns and governance is probably the single biggest disease affecting our polity. If this decision doesn’t exacerbate the problem, it undoubtedly legitimizes it.

Citizens United v. FEC is a tremendously difficult case. Corporations must have constitutional protection; certainly from unwarranted search or seizure, and just as certainly the right to advertise. Blackwater, a private mercenary company vigorously exercises its right to bear arms. To what extent can these rights be abridged to achieve “good results”? The Supreme Court cites “compelling state interest”, and it is up for debate whether political contributions constitute such.

With regard to campaign finance, I definitely think the solution – or at least a solution – is transparency. We must have detailed records as to who takes money from whom, publicly displayed and open to scrutiny. OpenSecrets does a great job of this, but such organizations are tragically few. Beyond that, I think a return to public financing with strict limits on campaign length would be a great idea. It seems to be working in Britain, anyway. And given the length and cost of a presidential campaign (1.5 years and $680 million as of 2008 and growing), I think some steady rules on this issue would be nice.

This, of course, would not prevent a large financier from investing in some television network and using it to pump out propaganda for his chosen candidate, nor should it. That will be another difficult battle. For now, it seems clear that some restrictions on how long the campaign season lasts and how much money each candidate can spend are well in order.

Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 11:26 am

Buying the Farm

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Yglesias makes some good points on the danger of corporate “campaign donations”:

Something worth mentioning in the context of the Citizens United decision, though not directly tied to the issue at hand there, is that a group doesn’t actually need to spend vast sums of money to have a decisive influence on politics. It just needs to be able to credibly threaten to spend said sums. Bank of America, for example, dedicates $2.3 billion to marketing in 2008 so it’s clear that they’ve got the budget to mount a $100 million series of scathing attacks on a Senator who pisses them off and basically laugh that off (and note that in 2004 total spending on Senate campaigns was just $400 million). And if you can have it be the case that just one Senator goes down to defeat for having pissed off BofA then everyone else will learn the lesson and avoid pissing them off in the future. You don’t need to actually sustain that volume of campaign spending.

Written by pavanvan

January 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Bank Taxes and Campaign Finance

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Felix Salmon over at Reuters brings up a good point:

If you look at Obama’s rhetoric during the announcement (”if these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have”), the enemy is Big Finance — and certainly the Republicans would not look good if they attempted to filibuster a bill like this. The real problem, however, is the Democrats, who are surely more desperate for financial-industry money than ever, given yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, and who have in recent years raised much more money from Wall Street than Republicans have.

This makes a lot of sense, and is yet another reason why Mr. Obama’s “bank regulations” will likely fail to accomplish anything. He needs their money too much. 2010 elections are just a few months away, and the “Democrats” are widely predicted to take a beating. But keep in mind that the “Democrats” raised almost twice as much money than their “Republican” counterparts in the 2008 cycle. Now, with the Supreme Court basically signing a massive pro-corruption law, Mr. Obama will feel much more pressure to court the financial industry (the only ones these days who have any money at all.)

Remember, Goldman Sachs was Mr. Obama’s number-two contributor – and now that they don’t have to worry about those pesky “campaign finance” laws, they’re free to donate literally billions of dollars to see Mr. Obama re-elected in 2012. That is, if he gives them reason to do so. My sense is that whatever half-assed “financial reform” Mr. Obama was planning just got a huge bucket of water thrown on it.

Written by pavanvan

January 23, 2010 at 11:51 am