Author Archives: Janos Marton

Today’s Stories of Interest

“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” says BP CEO to fellow executives. Hmm… how about ignoring the serious risks inherent with off shore drilling, insisting on industry self regulation and failing to implement key safety technology that would have allowed the oil leak to be easily shut down almost immediately.

A barn-burning look at how fraud, corruption and corporate influence peddling has soaked itself into virtually every aspect of governance and politics.

The Supreme Court takes another right turn, this time upholding corporate rights and dismissing workers’ rights in arbitration cases. Not a sexy subject, but one that could apply to any one of us- see banking agreements, phone contracts, etc.

How’s this for a change of pace?  Two leading candidates for Mayor of New York in 2013 are jockeying over who can better bring sunlight to NYC’s budget process.


“Happy Tax Day” from the Bloated Pentagon War Machine

This Tax Day, why not take a moment to think about how sad and wasteful it is that so much of our hard-earned salaries are going to our bloated Pentagon budget?

Despite tough words from President Obama and Secretary Gates, the $704 billion defense budget is the highest ever, with the $549 billion non-war spending a 3.4% hike over last year.  $704 billion.  Isn’t that nuts? It’s actually almost double what we spent in 1998, which weren’t exactly shabby times for the military-industrial complex.  This Tax Day let’s take a second to think about the cash we throwing into the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the billions more we are happy enough blowing without even being at war.

Let’s start with our two favorite wars. Yes, we may have spent $983 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even if these wars ended tomorrow, American taxpayers would be saddled with all kind of hidden costs, as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes explain in their excellent book, The Three Trillion Dollar War:

To date, we have spent close to $1 trillion in upfront out-of-pocket costs — but the war will cost at least $2 trillion more, when we include the cost of paying for veterans disability compensation, veterans health care, replacement of armaments, and damage to the US economy.

Then there’s our regular old, non-war, run of the mill, gargantuan Pentagon expenditures. At the State of the Union, President Obama regrettably (but predictably) continued the hero worship of the Pentagon by exempting it from his proposed “spending freeze”.

This year the  U.S will account for 47% of the world’s military spending.  In case you wonder why some foreigners love calling us imperialists (NOT a term I agree with), consider that our military budget is barely matched by the rest of the world combined, let alone our quasi-rivals China ($130 billion) or Russia ($80 billion).

We certainly don’t this much money to militarily confront our Axis of Evil buddies.  Dave Lindorff, an investigative journalist who does great work in this area, notes that North Korea and Iran each have military budgets of about $5 billion, roughly equal to what the U.S military will spend next year on “childcare and youth programs, morale and recreation programs and commissaries on its bases.”

Nowadays the news is all about deficit reduction.  The Democrats are in charge, so of course now it’s time for tough, politically loathsome choices.  Many here would agree that Democrats should be categorically opposed to balancing the budget on the back of critical social spending programs.  I’d argue that Democrats should make a stand and oppose the slashing of entitlement, education and anti-poverty program spending without a commensurate cut in military spending.

This is unlikely to happen, of course, because military production in this country is often government workfare by another name.  Witness the bipartisan outrage that bonded Ted Kennedy and right-wing loon John Thune when President Bush tried to shut down several non-essential military plants, including a South Dakota plane manufacturer and a Massachusetts navy shipyard. I remember watching the news coverage thinking, ‘This is the only time in my life I will side with George Bush over Ted Kennedy.’

Hey, but a job is a job, even if it’s a job making something we don’t need, manning a base we don’t need or transporting oil at $400 a gallon (yep, $400 a gallon) in a war we don’t know how to end.

I’ll give our President credit for his rhetoric, which is a first step. Declaring, “Even though the Department of Defense is exempt from the budget freeze, it’s not exempt from budget common sense,”  Obama scrappedthe C-17 transport plane program ($2.5 billion) and research on a second engine for the F-35 fighter plane ($465 million)

Gates and Obama used the Quadrennial Defense Review as a shield against criticism.  The QDR is a somewhat laughable audit, given its composition of war hawks and industry reps, but if even they suggest cutting a program, it must be really useless.  Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the QDR Report is only completed every four years, so who knows how rigorously Gates and Obama will approach program slashing in next year’s budget.   And even these modest program cuts spawned rabid howls of outrage from the right, though hopefully by now Obama just brushes that dirt of his shoulders.

I could ramble on about what the U.S government or American taxpayers could do the hundreds of billions of dollars we’d have to work with if we ended both wars and slashed the Pentagon budget, but I’ll leave that to the creative imaginations of Kossacks.

If you’re not in a creative mood, Cost of War has a nifty function where you can calculate how the money from our ongoing wars could have been spent in your local community. Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan is taking that idea to the next level, raising private funds to install a Cost of War clock at City Hall so all residents can see how much of their tax dollars are going to support the Pentagon.

I could ramble on about the 7006000 military bases we are currently maintaining around the world, a figure that the internets has some trouble coming up with, but I’ll let words like ‘imperialism’ get thrown around in the comment section.  It’s Tax Day, and the focus today is cold hard cash.

It’s worth noting, as always, that this is not an anti-veterans post by any means.  The profiteers of war are not the folks going door to door in the middle of the night in Kandahar or Basra looking for suspected insurgents.

Also, I’m certainly not pinning this all on President Obama.  Though he is our Commander-In-Chief, no one person set this black hole of public funds in motion. But if Obama is serious about his rhetoric, this is definitely going to be one of those issues where “we make him do the right thing.”

Finally, it stings to see taxes ripped out of your paycheck.  That’s a pain we can all relate to.  But while some right-wingers want to respond by drowning government in a bathtub (except the Pentagon, of course), folks like us recognize the important programs our tax dollars are funding.  That includes maintaining an adequate military to keep America safe. In 2010, during a recession, however, I cannot stomach that $704,000,000,000 being spent by the war machine.

Charlie don’t surf and we think he should
Charlie don’t surf and you know that it ain’t no good
Charlie don’t surf for his hamburger Momma
Charlie’s gonna be a napalm star

Everybody wants to rule the world
Must be something we get from birth
One truth is we never learn
Satellites will make space burn

We’ve been told to keep the strangers out
We don’t like them starting to hang around
We don’t like them all over town
Across the world we are going to blow them down

The reign of the super powers must be over
So many armies can’t free the earth
Soon the rock will roll over
Africa is choking on their Coca Cola

It’s a one a way street in a one horse town
One way people starting to brag around
You can laugh, put them down
These one way people gonna blow us down

-The Clash, “Charlie Don’t Surf”

Coffee Party Takes a Strong Step Forward

This morning the Coffee Party announced that it will be focusing its attention on financial reform and campaign reform, and is polling members to determine the specific legislation it will focus its efforts on.   For those who have been observing the Coffee Party with cautious optimism, this is great news, and a tremendous step forward for the nascent organization.

Financial reform and campaign finance reform are not sexy issues, but they are both critical issues America needs to confront now.  They are also not easy topics to grapple with.  I know this from having studied the issues closely on behalf of the Coffee Party research team.  The Coffee Party deserves credit for engaging two complicated issues that matter rather than  more superficial issues that lend themselves to easier messaging.

The Bull Moose Movement stands for the improving the civic education of Americans so that they can make the right choices at the ballot box and be engaged enough to pressure their elected officials between elections.  The Coffee Party has demonstrated the potential to play a similar role, but we have all been waiting to see how their online sign-ups and coffee house meetings will translate into meaningful engagement and action.

By choosing these issues, the Coffee Party is demonstrating a willingness to tackle important, substantive issues.  This is a relief, as I, and many others were unconvinced of their initial goal, which was to ‘foster a more civil dialogue.’  We wondered what the dialogue would actually be about, and the answer, reassuringly, is a discussion of two major policies.

The selection of campaign finance reform and financial reform also demonstrate the Coffee Party’s astute dedication to big-tent political issues.  Both of these issues should be bi-partisan/non-partisan, and Republican opposition in Washington to both is astonishingly out of touch with independents and moderates.   Never in recent memory has Republican hypocrisy been more flagrant than on the issue of financial reform.  Even as Republicans slam the bailout initiated by George Bush that many of them voted for, and label Obama the Wall Street President, they shake down Wall Street for campaign handouts in return for their continued opposition to reform.

It still remains to be seen what exactly the Coffee Party will do to follow up discussions about these reforms.  I suppose 100,000 people calling their Congressional representatives would send a strong message, but more effort than that went into stopping the Iraq War and fighting for the public option. Most elected officials are obstinate people who read their campaign treasurer’s reports before they ask how their constituents are doing.

My hope is that the Coffee Party will  embrace the promotion of civic education that we are pushing for at the Bull Moose Movement.  Really get into neighborhoods and talk to neighbors, small businesses and local media about why all of this matters.  The Bull Moose Movement’s goals are extremely long-term, as civic education on the larger issue of corporate influence can’t happen overnight, or in one election cycle.  That is why we do not really lobby for specific bills, which are often heavily watered down by the time the ‘debate’ starts (see: Senate financial reform bill).   That said, the Coffee Party is strong in numbers, and could perhaps provide the last bit of momentum needed to push this weak sauce financial reform bill through.  As for campaign finance reform, 100,000 phone calls won’t be enough to get the changes we need, but it’s not a bad start.

Why the Tea Party is Not the Party of Tea

A Guest Post By Monica Morrison

It all started with the tea bag campaign. They Jacksonian mob listened and did just what they were told, commencing with the disbursement of the bags to politicians, and the throwing of bags in public demonstrations. While much can be said about the content of these protests–notably, the incoherency and the unmatched bigotry– I will state what our hyper-caffeinated Starbucks culture for the most part missed. This was a perfectly good waste of tea. It is fitting that these men and women, the ones who have no regard for their sick brothers and sisters, to throw tea around and have no respect for even the product itself. After all, tea is medicine. Of course they want to take medicine away from the rest of us. Of course they want to limit access even more by ruining tea parties for the rest of us, by using tea as a prop, by ignoring the hands and fuel and global economy that brings America tea in the first place.

But all of us do it, all of us forget how many people it takes to drive this post-industrial American economy bus. When the international corporations were unleashed on the world, they scoured the globe to seek out goods and labor for the lowest price. They left Paul jobless and homeless in any rich country to hire Peter from pretty much anywhere else. They moved their monetary headquarters while they build large figure-head offices over here, reaping all of the benefits. It is time that we all stood up and acknowledged the human cost that goes into maintaining these multinational corporations. And it is time that workers everywhere sought fair compensation for the money they have been making for a small portion of the population. If companies can desert entire swaths of the United States, why cannot we as Americans desert the American corporations? Why can we not at least purchase our medicine internationally, much like the tea that gets shipped all over the world?

As for the Tea Party, they protest in droves to drive away the sick. How can the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, how can they come together to match the force when they are not yet enrolled in Social Security or Medicare like many of the protesters, and are truly sick? Personally, I have a chronic health condition. And I do not have insurance. But my health is a matter of privacy, something I would like to keep in confidence. I do not have the physical or emotional strength to stand up like the man with Parkinson’s and tell the shouting mobs that I need care. But that does not change the fact that I do. And the clinics in Maine have yet to make it to New York, and have yet to be able to treat severe chronic conditions. And all of the wishing in the world does not change the fact that I am employed and still without health care. And with a pre-existing condition, there is little that anyone can do to get me coverage at the moment. But there is always 2014, when I will finally be eligible for Medicaid (that is, unless I can once again reach the threshold of making more than poverty level wages, which I have not done since the Obama election). Until then, all I can really do is save up to take a healthcare holiday abroad. Or pray that I can join the high risk pool. Or piggyback on my parents’ policies. Oh wait. They don’t have insurance either.

Stop listening to the mobs who do not know better. Forgive them, for they truly know not what they do. The only way to fix many of the problems this country faces is to have civil discourse about the needs and the rights of American citizens, and to build a consensus around those ideals. Without all of the posturing, all of the senseless pride, all of the blaming, and all of the special interest selfishness. Let’s all admit to each other that every single one of us needs help, we need medicine, and above all– we sincerely need one another. That becomes clear during a real tea party. Each person’s contribution to the conversation is cherished and appreciated, people treat one another with respect and civility, and everyone gets as many servings of medicine as they like.

The Enemy is Everywhere: Reviewing Titus Andronicus

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838.

The crucial element missing from the progressive resistance to the George Bush era and the rise of the corporation was a meaningful soundtrack.  Titus Andronicus, a fiery punk band from New Jersey, may not define themselves as activists (neither did Bob Dylan), but their second album, The Monitor, delivers a much-needed blistering rebuke to contemporary society.

For those of you who missed their 2008 debut, An Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus’ debut was packed with anthems about finding purpose in the doldrums of New Jersey.  In their second record, they revisit that idea through the prism of the U.S Civil War.  The album is fantastically ambitious, an adjective used to describe few major bands today; in fact, when asked to describe the album, front-man Patrick Stickles offered, “Through and through, it is a whole-hearted and potentially ill-advised grab for some sort of imaginary brass ring, the sound of a band desperate for success and defiantly unafraid of failure.”

The opening song, “A More Perfect Union” unleashes a torrent of emotions- distaste with culture, the depressing escapism of alcohol, and the difficulty of figuring out what exactly you’re looking for: “I didn’t want to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey,” to a musical background dripping with influences from Bruce Springsteen to  Civil War melodies.

The second track, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” ends with a passage from a letter Lincoln wrote to his law partner in 1841: “I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheer face on earth.”  This is a striking quote.  First, you would think Lincoln said it during the Civil War, as the Union’s exhausted Commander-In-Chief.  In fact, he was simply another 30-something lawyer struggling for meaning.  Lincoln was deeply melancholy for much of his life, and was subject to tremendous mood swings even as president. Depression, when it strikes, is a major obstacle to most of us achieving our goals, as it often leads to unproductive feelings of self-pity and nihilism.  Yet the same man who expressed his own sadness so dramatically went on to become not only a great president, but one of the most important figures in American history.  It makes my own bouts with dark moods feel petty by comparison.

I love this album as a history lover and an activist.  Nearly every sprawling track on the album starts or ends with a quote from Shakespeare, Lincoln, or Jefferson Davis.  The album is titled after the U.S.S Monitor, the first ironclad ship commissioned during the Civil War.  The fourteen-minute closing track, “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, is named for a naval battle involving the U.S.S Monitor in 1862.  Who still writes fourteen minute epics? Who references history so effusively in their garage rock song?  Who asks this much of their fans to simply get through the album?  One terrible review I read didn’t even realize it was a Civil War concept album- I guess singing “Glory, glory, hallelujah” and tracks called “A More Perfect Union” and “Four Score Part Two” didn’t ring a bell.  I think it’s great to ask people to think harder, and the demands of this album, musically and lyrically, are refreshing.

I agree with the album themes to an extent.  On “Four Score Part Two”, Stickles rails,  “It’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, and they’re winning.” So true, but it’s not over yet, Patrick, it’s not over.  Modern history has been a constant struggle for fulfill Tennyson’s exoneration, “Tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.”  In the last century we as a people have emerged from the wreckage of the worst war in human history to expand the rights, opportunities and comforts of men and women all over the world.  None of it is has come easy- the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the liberation of Africa and fight against apartheid, acceptance of gays, social welfare for the poor, a new middle class all over the world, medical and communications advances.  ‘You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, all the time,’ as the rarely profound Paul McCartney would tell you.   That’s why no matter how ‘bad’ things are, I tend to believe they will eventually get better, even if it very much still is us against them, and they’re winning.

During “No Future Part Three: No Escape From No Future”, the band harshly chants, “You will always be a loser!”  a thematic reprise from their first album, though this time Stickles ends with a piercing yell, “And that’s ok!” Not only is it ok, but I’ll re-raise Stickles- the era of the loser is on its way out.  Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic campaign theme from Slapstick, “Lonesome No More,” has been realized in the internet era.  Never has it been easier in the history of human history to find people who look like you, think like you, share your values, enjoy the same music, root for the same teams, and just generally like you.  Perhaps I’m conflating being a loser with isolation, but inasmuch as I’ve ever associated the link, we are entering a true “Lonesome No More” era.

If Titus Andronicus could pick one quote to define the album, it would probably be the chorus line from “Titus Andronicus Forever” (incidentally, also written on their t-shirt): “The enemy is everywhere, the enemy is everywhere. No one seems to be aware or care, but the enemy is everywhere.”  They are right, of course, as cynics often are.  But I’m simply not going to leave it at that gloomy message; I’m just too pumped up after listening to the album. So I’ll counter with a verse that we all know and love, which just as easily could have fit with the spirit of the album, and which speaks to the effort we need to make as a society each day:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Robert Kennedy, Indianapolis speech, the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 4, 1968.

Anyone Can Organize

To achieve true progress in America, we need a dramatic increase in civic engagement. Changing how millions of people approach the democratic process can feel daunting, and over the past few weeks, some folks have written me that they support the Bull Moose Movement in spirit, but because of work or family obligations, don’t have time to ‘take to the streets.’  I am sympathetic to peoples’ concerns that they can’t participate.  Activism has traditionally been seen as a time-intensive commitment to long meetings, knocking on strangers doors, chanting in the streets, even risking arrest.  Many people have children to raise and long hours to work, or live far from the urban centers where such activism often takes place.  The Bull Moose Movement, however, still wants you involved.

The Bull Moose Movement recognizes the need for robust organizing online and in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood is the community we lean on in our daily lives, and neighbors, whether they are friends or strangers, share many of the same concern.   Reaching out within the neighborhood is vital to producing long-term systemic change.   Online we can find treasure troves of information, like-minded people and organizations, and pool resources.   The two pillars of organizing can be implemented by anyone, anywhere.

Promoting civic education and reform in your neighborhoods is easy, because you can start by engaging the same people you already know- the folks in your schools, offices, parks and local stores.  I worked out of a coffee shop some morning last fall, and marveled at the social network of mothers who would rendezvous with their young children in strollers every day.   It will be awkward at first to talk about social and political issues with certain groups of people, but rather than lecturing your hardware store owner on financial regulatory reform, ask him how his business is going in the current market.   Ask your child’s teacher what obstacles she is facing in providing your child the ideal education.  Talk to your neighbor about the plan you read about to rescue underwater mortgages.  Ask a friend to come with you to your representative’s next town hall meeting.

Similarly, anyone stuck at home with the capacity to read this post has the magic of the internet at her fingertips.  I’ve written previously on how online organizing needs to graduate from its current state, which is overly reliant on steering a passive audience to large list-serve, to a platform for interactive forums and planning.  If you come across an article you think other Bull Moosers should be sharing, post it on the Facebook Wall.  Reach out to fellow Bull Moosers in your area. Email other group members who write or post things that interest you.  Although I’ll admit it feels a little weird to have burgeoning relationships with folks across the country who I’ve never met in person, this is 2010, and we should all start getting used to it.   Finally, use the Bull Moose website to promote your local contributions civic engagement.  In the next few weeks, one of our members from Wisconsin will be have a page of the website devoted to her project teaching self-sustainability.

And any successful movement needs to have highly visible and energetic supporters who do take to the streets and engage the public, and we have our share of experienced traditional activists in the organization.  But if that’s not you, don’t worry.  We’re all in this together, and all hands are on deck.  I look forward to organizing with all of you.

Legislators In Name Only: So What Do You Do, Exactly?

We’ve all had jobs where we have difficulty explaining what exactly we do, but elected officials, who are prominent public figures, should not be having that problem.   We call them legislators, yet very few of them actually legislate. What they are really up to is the topic of today’s article.

This entire political era is so awash with corporate funding that no single election or piece of legislation can fix it.  That is why we must begin the work of a generation, empowering people through civic education that in the long term will change the American public’s expectation of their political leaders, a process discussed in this ongoing series on improving democracy.

In Part I, The Bull Moose and the Sneaky Corporate Beast, we looked at the rationale for corporate influence and recognized that whether corporate influence comes in the blunt for of an Exxon commercial or a below the radar donation to the Chamber of Commerce, it is an adversarial force that is not going away.

In Part II, Sense of Entitlement, we observed another corrosive aspect of today’s political culture, the elected politician’s belief that he or she is a reverent figure, not a public servant, a worldview derived in part from a lavish corporate-funded  lifestyle that allows elected politicians the opportunity to avoid their actual constituents as much as possible.

In Part III, Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash, we assessed the politician’s desperate needs for constant campaign cash, a need that inevitably plays into the hands of cash-rich corporations looking to make a sound investment.

In Part IV, the most recent piece, Movin’ On Up, we marveled at the brazenness of politicians who use their elected positions as electoral placeholders and spend all their time campaigning for the next office, rather than getting any work done in their current office.

Today, in Part V, we explore what our elected officials are really doing with their time, and how to demand accountability.  Keeping in mind that Congress is not in session for large chunks of the year, and local legislatures are in session even less, what exactly are these folks getting done:

#1 Fundraising:  The amount of time our elected officials spend fundraising is disgusting for a variety of reasons, especially considering the usual sources of funding.   There are fundraising dinners and galas, and the various ‘receptions’ sponsored by interest groups.  True, these events normally take place after the “work day”, but as we’ll see, the work day itself is pretty thin.  But most elected officials spend hours every day “dialing for dollars,” work that potential donors or past donors list for contributions.

#2 Constituent Services:  Indeed, this is the one thing most smart offices actually do, though as we saw in the case of New York State Senator Pedro Espada, not even all officials bother with it.  Constituents call with various government benefit or government service issues, and the unpaid intern or low-paid staffer helps them out.   Hardly ever does the elected official himself get involved in such relatively trivial issues, however.  Thus, I am hard-pressed to give an elected official “credit” for constituent services.

#3 Voting:  Over the last four months, America watched the drama of passing a healthcare bill play out.  Granted, there were some Congressional leaders who worked their asses of getting the bill together, and even unhelpful participants like Congressman Stupak and Senator Gregg at least engaged in the process.  But of our 535 members of Congress, I’m guesstimating that at least 400 had absolutely no role crafting the final bill or any amendment to it.  They were presented with the same information as the American public, and just had to decide “yes” or “no.”    Voting is not hard, folks.  We’ve all done it, lots of times.   Here is the legislators guide to voting:

Majority party members:

Step 1: Await party leaders’ instructions on when to vote “yes” and when to vote “no”, especially on complicated procedural motions. Ornery, centrist Democrats, skip to Step 2.

Step 2: Make sure not to anger the donors:  These reelections don’t pay for themselves.  Is there a way you can complain about this being a government intrusion?

Minority party members (Republican):

Vote no.  Try to completely block a vote from happening, if possible.

Minority party members (Democrat):

Complain and “lead charge” to stop the bill.  Ultimately vote for bill anyway if lobbying pressure is strong.

That’s pretty much it.  Legislative leadership will ensure that wildly unpopular bills will never make it to a vote, or at least will be properly framed to confuse the electorate in advance.   It’s quite rare that a legislator has to make “the tough choice” between his party and his constituents back home.  Sure, Michigan legislators always support the auto industry, Texans support oil, West Virginians support coal mining, Arkansans support Walmart and New Yorkers support Wall Street, but those special interest groups are tough enough to block meaningful reforms in any of those areas before a bill comes up for a vote anyway.

So the next time your legislator votes the right way, cross yourself and be thankful they didn’t vote the wrong way, but don’t get head over heels about it.  This part of the job is simply not hard work for most legislators, and any of you could do it.

#4 Hearings: A few years ago I was thrilled to see one of my closest friends testifying on climate change before Congressman Markey, chairman of an important committee.  The camera wisely focused on my friend’s face, because as soon as it zoomed out, viewers realized that Congressman Markey was the only Congressman in attendance- the others hadn’t even bothered to send staffers.

The problem is no less acute in local politics- when I was working at the New York City Council, I became quite acquainted with the City Council hearing process, which usually involved one or two members doing the questioning, and others showing up hours late, or just making brief appearances, in order to ‘clock in’ for the day.

Finally, many important hearings are rigged against reform.  Unbelievably, in the weeks of healthcare hearings presided over by Senator Max Baucus, not a single representative of single-payer reform was even allowed to speak.  Several medical professions advocating for single-payer did try to demonstrate the hearings, and were promptly arrested.

#5  Meetings: “The Congressman is in a meeting.” Put simply, legislators should publicly post their schedules.  I remember attending one set of meetings. I was with AIPAC as one of their student delegates (LONG story), and we were given access to a Senator and a Congressman, as well as other staffs.  We’d go in, exchange pleasantries, joke around.  The AIPAC rep would explain to the official or staffer what vote he was looking for on a certain bill.  The official or staffer agreed, and we were on our way, maybe after a snack.

#6 Pandering/Media Outreach:  Rare if the gifted legislator like Eddie Murphy’s “Distinguished Gentleman”, who sees a constituent suffering and introduces legislation to help.  Most press releases are reactionary, behind the ball, finger-wagging at the culprit de jour, sometimes with the half-hearted promise to do something about the situation.   Media outreach is critical to a politician’s survival, so I’m not condemning the practice, merely the emptiness that usually accompanies it.

#7 Debate:  Just kidding. While we can certainly give props to the C-Span regulars on both sides of the aisle, it’s depressing to watch the camera pan to a completely empty gallery.

#8  Legislating:  Finally, we get to legislatin’.  So who writes these long, complicated laws?

In the New York City Council, the legal counsel to the City Council will receive a one or two paragraph description of the law the councilman wants to pass, and then do most of the work.  Congressmen have legal staffers to do legislative work, and Committee play an important role.   Sometimes special interests groups and lobbyists hand legislators pre-written bills that are only partially modified before becoming law.  Only a rare politician like Representative Alan Grayson takes personal ownership of his own bills, and he hasn’t exactly passed many of them.

#9 Running An Office:  Should a legislator receive credit for running an office?  And don’t most executives get credit for the work of their subordinate staff?  The difference is that in the private sector or in the non-profit world, at least in theory, executives’ success or failure directly impacts their access to resources, including staff.   However, every elected legislator receives a staff, an office and numerous perks, no matter how much he won his election by, or how little he accomplished last term.  It is not impressive to “run” an office that comes with a fixed budget and staff size year after year, especially when the Chief of Staff deals with its personnel issues.

Conclusion: This article has already gone on longer than I intended it to.  So much to say about how little our elected officials do.  I realize, upon reading it over, that it comes off as extremely cynical.  But when we started the Bull Moose Movement, it was our goal to take a big step back and look at odious trends in our democratic politics, rather than get hung up on individual leaders or bills.

In the next piece, I’ll discuss possible ways to make sure politicians are doing their jobs.  My hope is that demanding more from our elected officials can become a universal rallying cry, as it’s the least partisan reform imaginable.  For now, however, take a hard look at your own legislator, even putting politics aside.  Does your representative hold hearings, invite the key players, and ask the hard questions?  Does your representative take the findings and respond with action, including drafting legislation?  Most importantly, is your representative spending more time listening to the issues your community is facing or fundraising for the next election? The answer is a phone call away.

A Privatized Educational System? An Interview with Shamus Cook

Today, the Bull Moose Movement has the pleasure of interviewing Shamus Cooke, a trade unionist and writer, whose most recent article, “Why Teachers’ Unions Matter,” details the charter school movement’s efforts to demonize teachers, break down the Teachers Union, and usher in a free-market school system.

BM: Shamus, the charter school movement is no longer a solely right-wing talking point. President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg and others have embraced.  But who are the players behind the charter school movement?  Where is the money for all these new charter schools coming from?

SC:  When it comes to charter schools, there is no shortage of money.  Corporate think tanks and the private foundations of the elite— most notably Bill Gates— have channeled immense resources into making charter schools a reality.  Rich investors are throwing money into this new industry, so as to profit off the dismembering of the public education sector.  Also, many charter schools are publicly funded, through “vouchers” and now Obama’s Race to the Top program, which shifts funding from the public to the private education sector, with the purpose of further undermining the pubic sector.

BM:  The Teachers Union remains one of the strongest in the nation in part because their work cannot be outsourced, though charter schools are a similar threat.  Most charter schools do not allow their teachers to unionize and many have rigid “teaching to the test” curricula. Do you believe, that as a result, there is a difference between the composition of charter school teachers and public school teachers?

SC:  There are likely many excellent teachers working at charter schools.  However, most charter schools have less stringent certification requirements than the public sector.  The lower wages that non-union charter school teachers are paid ensures that the best teachers will remain in the public sector.

BM: Observing my own friends entering the education field, it seems that that charter schools, through outreach efforts like fellowships, are working hard to bring top talent into their schools.  Do you believe that charter schools will come up with other incentives to draw top teachers to their schools, even without unions?

SC:  The recession and the state by state budget crises ensures that charter schools will have many upcoming chances to recruit top teachers to their schools.  The thousands of teachers that are losing their jobs across the country in public schools will have to work somewhere.   Also, the charter schools created to attract wealthier students will have extra resources to lure teachers to their schools.

BM:  You’ve written about the many problems with President Obama’s Race to the Top plan. How does President Obama differ from Candidate Obama when it comes to education policy?

SC:  Here’s a quote from candidate Obama:   “What I do oppose is using public money for private school vouchers. We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

President Obama is of course doing the exact opposite.  His Race to the Top plan awards billions of dollars in public money to states that abandon public education and set up charter schools.

BM:  On a related note, how does President Obama differ from President Bush when it comes to education, both on a budgetary and policy level?

SC:  There’s very little difference, except that Obama is more blatantly anti-public education than Bush.  Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top are complimentary policies, though Obama’s plan is far more dangerous to public education.  Obama is still using NCLB to target schools as “failing,” while Race to the Top shuts these schools down to open up charter schools.  It’s a one-two knock-out punch.

BM:  The biggest concern most liberals and moderates express with the Teachers Union is the notion that the union protects “bad teachers” from being removed.  In New York there’s much chatter about “rubber rooms”- teachers receiving full pay for not teaching while awaiting the results of their disciplinary hearings.  You have written, “If teachers cannot be protected by seniority, then pro-union teachers will be targeted and fired.”

Could the teachers union find room for compromise by increasing the amount of time it takes to attain tenure, as a method of weeding out ineffective teachers?

SC:  It has to be mentioned first that the public discourse over “bad teachers” is entirely politically motivated and corporate financed.  The media and corporate think tanks have created this controversy and blasted it to every corner of the country. Actually, what is remarkable, is that there are any good teachers.  Everything is wrong with the system, but the teachers are being scapegoated.  For example, the training teachers receive is entirely inadequate.  Then they are often placed in overcrowded classrooms.  Now, thanks to No Child Left Behind, the curriculum is being transformed into just teaching to the tests.  This makes the curriculum unimaginative and boring, which in turn creates discipline problems while not really teaching children how to think.  If a teacher is truly bad, this should be identified during their probationary period.  Otherwise they should be offered the training and support they need to allow them to improve their performance.  Teachers, just like children and the rest of us, want to do well, but when they are placed in impossible situations, then, of course, it becomes impossible to help them.

BM:  At the Bull Moose Movement, we seek to empower communities by providing them with the real facts about corporate influence in policy.   What kind of efforts are being made to reach out to communities through civic education, rather than just protests like the March 4 demonstrations?

SC:  I would argue that demonstrations and rallies are an excellent venue for educating people about these issues.  Plus, these latest demonstrations and rallies that occurred in San Francisco for example, were huge.  It has been reported that 15,000 people came to that rally.  When these kinds of  large mobilizations take place it sends a powerful message to those in power, that winning the vast majority of people to the cause of defending public education is within reach.  So an even larger education campaign is desperately needed as well as an independent political action campaign that seeks to unite the majority of working people around a common solution.  Because many unions have not endorsed such an idea, public consciousness of these issues is being controlled by the corporate media.  Lately, however, I have noticed an increase of awareness around the issue of public education.  March 4th was an important step in the right direction, which is leading to further student/teacher public employee organizing as has been seen recently in California.  Student groups are popping up around the country to organize in defense of public education.  The movement is in its embryonic stage, but it is growing rapidly.

BM:  Teachers have much of the summer off.  What kind of activism can we expect from teachers in the coming months?

SC:  I would hope that teachers would work more closely with other public sector workers to promote progressive tax measures— on the rich and corporations— so that social services, transportation, and education can be fully funded.  The movement’s success depends on the creation of these kinds of coalitions.

BM:  What sorts of actions can we participate in to support and strengthen the Teachers Union?

A: Teachers need to be more involved in their unions.  Unions are strongest when their members are active and organized.   Through their unions teachers can demand that actions be organized, and that the union prioritize educating the public about Obama’s Race to the Top.  The increasing amount of school closures and fired teachers offers plenty of opportunities to organize demonstrations and increase community awareness of the issues.

BM:  What alternatives can progressives provide to the current reforms?

SC:  The best alternative is strengthening our public education system, which has been starved of funds for decades.  This requires that taxes on the rich and corporations be raised on a state and national level.

BM:  Many people are not aware of how great the threat of educational privatization is right now. What would a privatized system look like and how far are we from it?

SC:  A privatized education system would look much like our privatized health care system:  quality at the right price. The rich would receive a quality education and the poor would receive the barest minimum, if anything.  The charter schools that currently exist for poorer populations are inadequate to say the least, often crammed environments with minuscule resources.  We are still a long ways from a fully privatized system, but Obama’s plan is changing things very quickly.  If he is not stopped the public education landscape will look much different before his first term is up.

BM: Last question- if you could pick any public school system in the United States, even from a different time period, what would you describe as the pinnacle of public school education?

SC:  I’ll answer the question in more general terms.  The pinnacle of public school education was when it was best funded.  Most of the infrastructure for our nation’s school was put into place in the first half of the 20th century.  Taxes on the rich and corporations were much higher than they were today.  Now, funding for infrastructure is non-existent; taxes on the wealthy have been steadily lowered, starving education of funding.

Thank you, Shamus, for taking the time to speak with us and your commitment to a strong public educational system.  At the Bull Moose Movement we are always looking to exchange ideas with folks working on the ground with their communities, so feel free to reach out to us at

Moving On Up- Pols’ lust for power trumps duties of office

This entire political era is so awash with corporate funding that no single election or piece of legislation can fix it.  That is why we must begin the work of a generation, empowering people through civic education that in the long term will change the American public’s expectation of their political leaders, a process discussed in this ongoing series.

In the first piece, The Bull Moose and the Sneaky Corporate Beast, we looked at the rationale for corporate influence and recognized that whether corporate influence comes in the blunt for of an Exxon commercial or a below the radar donation to the Chamber of Commerce, it is an adversarial force that is not going away.

In the second piece, Sense of Entitlement, we observed another corrosive aspect of today’s political culture, the elected politician’s belief that he or she is a reverent figure, not a public servant, a worldview derived in part from a lavish corporate-funded  lifestyle that allows elected politicians the opportunity to avoid their actual constituents as much as possible.

In the third and most recent piece, Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash, we assessed the politician’s desperate needs for constant campaign cash, a need that inevitably plays into the hands of cash-rich corporations looking to make a sound investment.

There are plenty of theoretical legislative remedies available to address the problems described above, but the Bull Moose Movement wants to focus on non-legislative remedies that empower citizens, and don’t subject them to the counter-incentivized good will of politicians.  In the last piece, we encouraged constituents to demand that their officials not hold political fundraisers during the first year (or first months) of their terms, so that they can focus on legislating.   Today’s focus will be on the politician’s constant quest for higher glory.

While it is unclear how many elected officials at one point harbor dreams of becoming president, there is no question that most salivate at the prospect of moving up the ladder- better pay, more perks, and a better corporate escape parachute in the event of political misfortune.   This is not inherently wrong; politicians have chosen the profession of politics, and they want promotions in their line of work just like we all do in ours.   The problem is that in today’s political culture, the most important criteria in a candidate’s electoral viability is his or her fundraising prowess, incentivizing a pol to fundraise rather than focus on doing his or her job well.  A politician elected to a four-year term may want to run for a higher office at the end of those four years.  That requires beginning a campaign in earnest two years beforehand.  To do so requires serious fundraising in the year leading up that two year stretch.  All of a sudden, that pol has thrown away three of the four years the voters elected him for in order to pursue higher office.

Getting politicians on the record that they will commit to serving out their term is surprisingly difficult.  Hillary Clinton famously refused to rule out running for president, though in her case the Senate was quite obviously a stepping stone from the beginning.   In the case of local politicians, citizens should expect greater humility.    In the spring of 2009, I moderated a forum for the candidates running for New York City Public Advocate at Fordham Law School.  The position of Public Advocate, while full of potential, had been under-utilized by the incumbent, and a major criteria for the primary electorate was a candidate who would restore some weight to the office.  When I asked Mark Green, the presumptive front-runner and eventual loser, whether he would pledge to focus on the office rather than prepare for a 2013 mayoral run, he dismissed my question as “ridiculous”, saying that no candidate should ever have to forswear running for higher office during their term. I respectfully disagree.

Barring an extraordinary circumstance, like an opportunity presented by death or scandal, an elected official cannot do a good job while constantly preparing to run for the next higher office.  The amount of time that fundraising and campaigning require causes elected officials to miss legislative votes and focus on publicity stunts rather than draft meaningful reforms.  The body of significant work most election-driven pols accomplish is negligible.

As noted in the Sense of Entitlement piece, however, politicians just think they are so invaluable to us members of the public that we would rather have a year and a half of hard work out of Mark Green as Public Advocate than four years from one of his opponents.   They don’t realize that taxpayer dollars are paying them to do their job.  How would your employer feel if you spent half of your workday going to interviews and searching the web for a new, better job? What if you took off for three weeks of paid leave to look around, explore your options?

I know that despite Mark Green’s arrogant retort, I’ll be asking every politician who asks for my vote how interested they are in doing their job, not using my vote as a stepping stone.  I hope for a better day, when all candidates who come before the electorate can brag windily about their actual achievements in office, not hide behind good fundraising numbers they accumulated while they were supposed to be doing their jobs.

Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash

Tuesday’s post on politicians’ all consuming sense of entitlement was but an introduction to a series on the psyche of the elected official, and why they must not be depended on for reform and progressive change.   The elected official has two primary preoccupations- getting reelected and getting ready to run for higher office.  These two agendas intertwine in the crack fiend-like dependence on raising cash constantly.

It used to befuddle me why safe incumbents were so hell-bent on milking their mailing lists for money and holding fundraisers within weeks of re-election.   One reason is to scare off challengers, be they general election challengers in contested districts or primary challengers in very liberal or very conservative districts.   Though primary challenges usually occur due to a scandal or ideological deviation from the incumbent, Reshma Saujani’s well financed challenge to Representative Carolyn Maloney in New York shows lightning can strike at any time.  One congressional staffer to a very safe liberal explained to me that his Congressman needs to fundraise every year not just to scare off challengers, but to build relationships with those donors for when he needs them.  One shudders to think what “building a relationship” entails when one side is handing cash to the other.

Raising money not only preserves one’s seat, it also prepares an officeholder for taking the next step.  Most seats open quite suddenly.  A death, scandal, or political appointment may create a vacancy in an office at any moment.   A candidate has to be ready with the $3 million unspent from his last race when the moment calls.   Even if the race is not a special election, even ‘regular’ circumstances that would encourage a run for higher office, such as the retirement of an incumbent or changing political winds, requires one to be ready with at least a rolodex of people who can raise money in a hurry.

It is obvious that there are only so many numbers to call and receptions to attend if you’re looking a few million dollars in handouts- wealthy individuals and corporate interests.   The quid pro quo ranges from implied to explicit, but the result is the same.  The question is, what citizens do about it?

Sure, strong campaign finance laws would be helpful, but so are a lot of other things that won’t happen any time soon.   We need to think creatively about how to apply pressure and build awareness. The first wave of elected officials to be targeted with outside pressure should be safe incumbents.   They need to be weaned off of their relationships with donors when they don’t “need” the money.  At town halls, elected officials should pledge not to hold fundraising events during their first year in office.  If you really want to make them look absurd, make them pledge not to hold fundraising events or make fundraising phone calls during their first three months in office!  So much time goes into these phone calls and events that it impedes their ability to legislate and govern, which is what we the tax-payers sent them to do.

(This is the second piece in a series on money and politicians. You can read Part I here)