Sunday, 27 February 2005

Crafting a New Republic

Stirling Newberry offers some alarming analysis in his recent diary at DailyKos, and in a recent book, The Fourth Republic (here is Chapter 1), in which he suggests America is entering a new anti-Constitutional Republic of Karl Rove's design. Well, that over-simplifies it, and this stuff is not simple. It is reminiscent, though not in tone, of some of the ideas in David Korten's essay, "Renewing the American Experiment" long a mainstay of my sidebar.

Via Rob Salkowitz, who adds his own synopsis of the article.

Saturday, 26 February 2005

Fighting Corporate Power

[UPDATE: This has generated some worthwhile debate over at WatchBlog.]

That title suggests a belligerent anti-corporate agenda of the sort that draws wails of mockery from most conservative and libertarian quarters. But this warrior against corporate excess and power is perfectly happy to stipulate that much is owed over the last century and more to enterprises which have their genesis in corporate activity. I'll also allow that there are instances where regulations on industry go too far and squelch desirable innovation. But the strong trend over the last quarter century has been a disturbing acceleration of the ability of corporations to wield their wealth to gain power to create more wealth. It is terribly naive to believe that the common good will be preserved by the scruples of CEOs and market forces when so much power has been accorded the corporate decision makers.

No I do not hate corporations or believe that corporate executives are evil, but yes I do believe the current trend toward corporate empowerment is nearly as dangerous and frightening as the fundamentalist extremism of some Muslims or Christians. At least those threats are drawing widespread concern and attention from powerful adversaries, whereas the opponents of extended corporate power are routinely labeled as leftist or Communist in an attempt to marginalize that natural opposition. Unlike fundamentalist extremists, corporations hold great power for good in the world, but in the absence of a reasoned and effective authority to rein in their potential excesses, that potential will be squandered. Those corporations with the greatest proclivity to contribute to the common good are either overwhelmed or pressured away from doing so by their need to compete with the under-regulated competition who do not share their scruples.

I've written before about the need for right regulation, rather than necessarily harsher or more lenient regulation, but the current trend is certainly dangerously in favor of deregulation, both here in the United States and internationally. Many people have the perception that there is some sort of balance, at least in the United States, between those protecting the interests of corporations and those protecting the interests of workers, consumers, and the environment. Some incredibly believe that corporations are too pushed around. That comes from our tendency to focus on a story at a time, rather than looking at the big picture.

We see the investigative reports, some of which are eventually adjudicated against the corporate interest, but those are the tip of the iceberg and those stories which don't make the news overwhelmingly favor the corporations. Indeed many of them are hardly stories at all, as there are not the resources to engage every instance of regulatory change in favor of corporate interests. The current administration, and that of former President Reagan, were both relentless in rewriting regulations and procedures, and in reducing the extent of enforcement of existing laws, when it came to protecting the interests of those whose money did so much to elect them. Even though Bush I and Clinton were both far more moderate in their approach, the moneyed interests of corporations still played a huge role in retaining much of their gains during the Reagan era, and the current administration has unabashedly pushed through a flagrantly pro-corporate agenda.

Jim Hightower in "Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back" uses over five pages chronicling 125 actions of the Bush Administration, which he declares represent only a subset of their "assault on Mother Nature to empower their polluter pals at the expense of our earth, our health, and future generations." Here's but a small subsample:
+ Delayed implementation of mining regulations intended to protect watersheds + Tried to shrink boundaries of nineteen national monuments and to allow oil and gas drilling on all public lands + Froze environmental rules finalized by Clinton, including one to minimize discharges of raw sewage + Defunded program to implement court rulings in Endangered Species cases brought by citizens + Suspended the right-to-know regulation requiring utilities to inform consumers about arsenic in their water +
Rejected freedom-of-information request for a list of corporate participants in Cheney's energy policy task force + Supported nuclear industry's proposal to store waste in Yucca Mountain, despite scientific objection + Cut 270 positions from the EPA's enforcement division + Announced a plan for recycling radioactive waste into consumer products, from lawn chairs and zippers to spoons and baby cribs + Stalled implementation of rules requiring utilities to reduce toxic emissions from expanded power plants + Relaxed nationwide permit rules so coal companies, developers, and others can fill in thousands of streams, swamps, and other wetlands, without public notice or comment + Issued a new policy abrogating the national goal set by Bush I of "no net loss" of wetlands + Announce new targets for power plant emissions, allowing 50 percent more sulfur emissions (acid rain) than current law, three times more toxic mercury emissions, and tons of additional nitrogen oxide (smog) + Killed funds to support environmental education in public schools + Eliminated funds for EPA grants for graduate student research in environmental sciences + Increased taxpayer subsidy for timber company purchases of trees from our national forests by 35 percent + Tried to strip the state of California's right to review Bush proposals to allow oil drilling off its coast + Eliminated scientific committees that disagreed with its policies, stacking new committees with scientists who have ties to regulated industries, including on PC&E hireling who fought Erin Brockovich + Expanded oil exploration in Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument + Killed a proposal to establish a citizen review panel to oversee the trans-Alaska pipeline + Supported plan to let chemical giants in Louisiana emit more cancer-causing pollutants in exchange for reducing emissions of less dangerous pollutants + Doubled the number of open-pit limestone mines to be opened in the Florida Everglades, eventually creating a thirty-square-mile hole in the middle of this irreplaceable water wonder + Put industry-backed amendment into Homeland Security Bill that effectively exempts chemical plants, utilities, and other polluters from the public's right-to-know laws, which require corporations to tell their neighbors what poisons are being spewed on them + Sent memo to all EPA employees urging them to "express support for the president and his program" when off duty + Withdrew Clinton rule requiring cleanup of polluted rivers and substituted a voluntary program + Cut the civil penalties that polluters have to pay by half + Stacked the CDC advisory committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention with industry scientists + Instructed EPA to discount by 63 percent the value of lives of senior citizens when assessing whether to impose new restrictions on industries that pollute the air
And the list goes on, and on, and on. Here's another subsample. Does Hightower have an agenda here? Sure. Does he paint each policy in the most unflattering light? Sometimes, maybe, but neither is he making this stuff up out of whole cloth. I've certainly not researched all of these items, but the trend is undeniable.

Indeed it can be exhausting to fight the current deregulatory madness, and no one person can do it alone, but I'm pretty sure there are plenty within the corporate world who are privately dismayed about the extent to which rules are disappearing, hence favoring their most unscrupulous competition. My hope is that such individuals can begin to network and find a public voice to add to the conversation, showing that it is not only the left, labor, environmentalists, and consumer rights groups who see the imbalance. One of the most hopeful developments over the last twenty years has been increasing cooperation between labor and environmentalists, who put aside years of distrust to work together on numerous issues of shared concern. The current extremism in protection of corporate interests, while extremely frightening, may yet plant the seeds for its own demise by going too far and alienating too many of its own putative interests.

Globalization further complicates potential solutions, but America remains the center of gravity of the corporate world, and to the extent that we abdicate our responsibility to keep corporations in check, how can we expect developing nations to exhibit any scruples.

Saturday, 19 February 2005

the Unknown vs the Illogical

O.T. Ford, in one of his many fine essays over at The Stewardship Project, suggests:
Humans are basically conservative, and want familiarity in their lives, comfort, ease, a lack of challenge. This comes of being animals. It is easier to know what to expect, comforting to have routines, difficult and disconcerting to be faced with the new and the foreign. The new and the foreign are frightening; they are to be shunned.

But humans (at least humans, and possibly other animals) have individual minds capable of thought. They have the capacity to understand, and they have the desire as well. That which does not make sense will get their attention, and they will make efforts to change it. They will study the problem and attempt to understand it, and if the situation still does not make sense they will try to change the situation itself.

The instinctive fear of the unknown versus the cognitive dissonance of the illogical. The emotional peace of familiarity versus the emotional peace of sensibility. Humanity is being pulled in two directions, backwards and forwards, down and up. It is my personal conviction that humans are slowly becoming something better, that the rational pursuit of truth and understanding is a natural function of the mind, and the mind will eventually demand the freedom to pursue it. More importantly, the mind will eventually sacrifice comfort and familiarity, and risk social isolation and retribution, to pursue truth and understanding.

So the historical trend of liberalism is not just the quest for a better life. It is the movement towards an intellectual destiny. The practice of dominion in its many forms is the counterforce, the enemy, of liberalism and rationalism. It may be that some practitioners of dominion are themselves afraid of the unfamiliar, and oppose change because they are feeble-minded. But some are clearly just self-interested liars who will say or do anything to get their way. For them, the fear of the unfamiliar is a powerful ally in their efforts to control the world. They need only convince people to listen to their own fear, hype up the threat that change poses, and they have a ready army of uncritical supporters who will fight the battles that the dons cannot win on their own.
It is easy to become impatient waiting on 'eventually', but as Martin Luther King pointed out, "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Friday, 18 February 2005

Wangari Maathai

There's so much to moan about with respect to the powers that be, that it's a blessed delight to realize that there is also much to celebrate on this planet. Powerful and inspirational people abound, and it's vital to rekindling hope to shine a bright light upon as many of these luminaries as possible.

Wangari Maathai, one such uplifting figure was interviewed tonight on PBS' NOW by David Brancaccio. Educated in biological sciences in the States and Germany in the sixties, Maathai, recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, returned to her native Kenya where after holding prestigious positions in Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, she helped found the Green Belt Movement, assisting women in planting over 20 million trees on farms and school and church compounds. In 1986 the Movement founded a Pan African Green Belt Network, expanding the program across that troubled continent.

In her address accepting the Nobel Prize, Maathai intoned:
In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.
That time is now.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come.
Not every effort will meet with success, but tireless individuals such as Maathai inspire us to keep trying.

Thursday, 17 February 2005

Improving rather than Removing Standards

I just discovered Rob Salkowitz' web log, Emphasis Added this morning, and lost no time in adding it to my blogroll. He roped me in with reflections on the blinders worn by ideologues, regardless of their polarity:
The problem with libertarianism in its extreme form is the same as the problem with any ideological position in its extreme form: the ideals rarely survive contact with reality. ...

From a practical perspective, the most successful forms of government are those that mix free market and government in ways that preserve initiative and competition while mitigating their worst effects through the actions of government. The reasons for this are plain obvious. To embrace either libertarianism or socialism as a complete philosophy, you need to have a painfully limited view of human nature. Libertarians believe everyone is a rugged individual, or should be. Socialists believe we’re all cogs in a larger social construct, or should be. In fact, humans are complicated creatures with aspects of both individual and group affinities. This could only come as news to hermits, shut-in or people whose ideology has completely crowded out their common sense.

In well-balanced human beings, ideological rhetoric that emphasizes either our sacred dignity as individuals, or our solidarity as members of a class or state can stir passions temporarily, but few people live their lives as uncompromising devotees to a theory that does not satisfy their material needs in practice.
But it was his next post which I found particularly provocative, and highly recommend you check it out. There he argues that well-meaning progressives of the sixties created the opening for the current moneyed interests of the rightwing to pollute our media without the critical filters they deserve, by challenging outdated standards and creating an environment in which any newly proffered idea deserves its own fair hearing. The progressives were right to challenge outdated standards, but what was needed was a tweaking and improvement of the standards, not their removal.

Tuesday, 15 February 2005

Libel & McLibel

How global a concept is Corporate Personhood, anyway?

Fifteen years after activists in London provoked the wrath of McDonald's Corporation, the European Court of Human Justice ruled that two defendants did not have a fair trial, and were deprived of free speech by a 1997 libel ruling against them in British Courts.

Whatever the merits of their original leaflet (and even the courts at the time found that the merits were considerable), when the threat of legal action mutes reasoned objections to the actions of the powerful, the public is poorly served. Libel laws are necessary to protect individuals, and yes even corporations, from suffering losses based on untruthful charges of wrongdoing, but when the claims are subjective and the plaintiffs are powerful, common sense needs to err in favor of protecting the free speech of those willing to challenge the mighty.

As former defendant Helen Steel stated recently, this "is not the end of the battle for the public to be able to criticize powerful organizations in our society."

Monday, 14 February 2005

Going "Geo-Green"

Best known as a foreign policy wonk, and Middle East expert, Thomas Friedman has coined a new term, as he unleashes on the continued insanity from the Bush administration.
By adamantly refusing to do anything to improve energy conservation in America, or to phase in a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax on American drivers, or to demand increased mileage from Detroit's automakers, or to develop a crash program for renewable sources of energy, the Bush team is - as others have noted - financing both sides of the war on terrorism. ...

The neocon strategy may have been necessary to trigger reform in Iraq and the wider Arab world, but it will not be sufficient unless it is followed up by what I call a "geo-green" strategy. As a geo-green, I believe that combining environmentalism and geopolitics is the most moral and realistic strategy the United States could pursue today. Imagine if Bush used his bully pulpit and political capital to focus the nation on sharply lowering energy consumption and embracing a gasoline tax.
Friedman introduced his geo-green concept a couple of weeks earlier in an article which has enjoyed wide distribution across the political spectrum. So if the threat of global environmental catastrophe is not enough to wake up institutions that we need to change the way we're doing business, will more people exposing the fiscal and geo-political necessity of doing so finally begin to get traction?

Maybe, but it's almost become an article of faith to some on the right, many of whom are in the Bush Administration, that environmentalists outside of the corporate boardroom greenwashers must wear the "wacko" label, and any concessions to their agenda might legitimize other reforms at odds with the corporate agenda. This is exactly the sort of adversarial relationship that must be overcome in order for sanity to prevail. Folks like Friedman should be giving the right cover for adopting at least portions of an environmental agenda for national security reasons, but the good-old-boy corporate networking dies hard, and I don't expect much capitulation while Bush still resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in spite of the lip service he paid to hydrogen fuel cells in his 2003 State of the Union address.

As Friedman concludes his article, "The president's priorities are totally nuts."

Saturday, 12 February 2005


I grew up surrounded by the notion that liberality was well intended but beset by a proclivity for naiveté. The criminal can't be trusted, therefore the law must be harsh. The rogue state has no honor, hence all negotiation must be done while carrying a big stick. Any soft-heartedness will be taken advantage of; welfare only fosters dependency; and it's every man for himself in this dog eat dog world.

I've been happy to acknowledge considerable truth in all of those statements. Yet I hold steadfastly to the belief that giving oneself over to hard-heartedness amounts to capitulation to the darkness within, and must be resisted else we become as undesirable as that about which we are avoiding being naive. What good is it to avoid being fooled by evil, if in the process we become evil. By all means, let's avoid being fooled, but let us also act with compassion.

Why, that sounds like compassionate conservatism! (I know that real compassionate conservatives exist, but in government they are rare, and perhaps never proclaim the mantle.)

But naiveté is not exclusively a liberal tendency. In fact the whole equation in terms of who is getting duped, and who is arguing for realistic analysis has been turned completely on its head in the last several years. It often comes down to who one thinks is deserving of trust. Ideology is a terrible barometer for such a measurement.

The untrustworthy among us are only too happy to adopt whatever ideology is most likely to advance them personally. As our country has increasingly swung to the right that face of convenience has become increasingly a "conservative" one. Not that the "liberal" face is not still used by duplicitous frauds where that is the one that works. Frauds deserve to be unmasked regardless of their putative political stands.

Checks and balances remain our constant friend in the struggle to have truth prevail, and anyone should be wary of those who see them as a nuisance. Exposing the truth is job one, deciding on how to respond to it requires thoughtful deliberation. It is far better for a group of interests who disagree over methods to hammer out a compromise with the aim for a shared vision, than for those who agree about a method to ram through their agenda when they have not agreed on what vision they are serving.

Let's presume for the moment that the vast majority of our current leaders are motivated primarily by a genuine desire to spread freedom, foster self-improvement among our citizens, and to serve justice with compassion. I know it's a stretch, but consider that if it's not a majority, there are certainly some for whom that is true. Now let's revisit the question of naiveté.

When one believes after a campaign of shock and awe which litters the land with ordnance laden with depleted uranium, that the citizens whose despotic leaders have thus been deposed will universally welcome the foreign victors as liberators, who is being naive?

When one believes that by lifting regulations which limit the full breadth of options for industry, free market forces will be sufficient to assure corporate responsibility in the stewardship of our environment, the fair treatment of its employees, and the safety of its customers, who is being naive?

When one believes that prosecutors and law enforcement, unburdened by rules which disqualify valid but misobtained evidence, or limit interrogation techniques, won't frequently abuse that new power, who is being naive?

It's not that we shouldn't work toward the removal of despots, and allow markets sufficient freedom to promote innovation, and give law enforcement reasonable tools to deal with unscrupulous criminals; it's that we can't give carte blanche to the despot removers, the free-marketeers, and the prosecutors and police merely because they've signed up to work in those professions. There's a balance to be struck, and to steal a phrase from George himself, "it's hard work" to reach it, and that work is never done.

Now that I've engaged this little fantasy that our administration is purely motivated, but simply too naive in its trust for what are presumed to be the forces for good in the world, let me say that I'm deeply skeptical. There are simply too many instances where before and after statements don't line up, and that which seems disingenuous at best, seems likelier to be outright deception. Sure there are good people within the administration, and there are many others who justify what they know or suspect to be falsehoods as necessary tools toward a greater end. But at the end of the day I can't reconcile the behavior I've seen reported with anything other than something being deeply rotten. But if I'm wrong and it's not rotten then it is disturbingly naive.

Thursday, 10 February 2005

Squeezing Out Joy

Four dozen years I've lived now on this wondrous troubled planet. The source of its greatest peril is doubtless the activity of its most marvelous and awesome lifeform. That species capable of sharing its awe across the expanse of the planet in a virtual instant. Humanity has succeeded in the tiniest recent fraction of its existence in comprehending more about its own origins and the origins of the universe, than most would have thought possible a mere 300 years ago. We are indeed, in a sense the universe becoming self-aware. And yet we repeat age-old errors, and cannot reasonably be trusted with the technology of our own making. Wisdom is still meted out in similar percentages as it was to humans thousands of years ago, while technology puts power in the hands of anyone clever enough to use it, regardless of their judgment. Evolution is too slow to compensate for such an explosion of invention, and yet so much of that invention is so enthralling. I scarcely could wish it away. Forgive my bombastic musings, but I will allow it of myself on my birthday. Hell, I'll allow it of myself anytime, but a birthday is a good excuse.

Now where was I. Oh yes, my regular readers were subjected to an onslaught of frenetic ravings about a certain attorney general nominee, followed by a week of silence, immediately following his expected confirmation. I call them ravings I suppose, because far less effort was made to build the case, than to proseletyse against him. It was a practical consideration borne of perceived urgency. I was preaching to the choir, and I wanted to contribute to raising its voice to the loudest crescendo possible. In actual fact I'm willing to believe it possible that Alberto Gonzales himself is a likable enough person, but I cannot see his appointment as anything short of an insult to the huge minority in this country who find the behavior of this administration appalling, as well as the huge majority of those in liberal Western democracies who must be outraged that the architect of the apologia for torture is appointed and approved as the chief law enforcement official of the world's remaining superpower.

But to those who must have been saying enough already with the Gonzales focus, I agree. Four years is but a blip in the arc of history, though the coming four years are fraught with fears aplenty. I'm personally more disappointed by the unanimity of the Republicans than the non-unanimity of the Democrats on this one. But as Eric noted, it's early in the new term, and politics prevailed.

The nature of hope, unlike optimism, is that it doesn't die in the face of failed efforts. Rather it thrives on the seeds that are planted in those efforts, and in fact the activity gives energy to purpose and purpose to energy. Connections were made, techniques were tried out, people were awakened if only briefly to the passions that were shared in the process. The highlight for me was the leafleting itself. I heartily recommend to anyone to find a way to act on your passions, and find others with whom to do so. The summit may be unattainable, but there is joy in the climb. As Paul Loeb observes, "possibility is the oxygen upon which hope thrives."

Thursday, 3 February 2005

Thanks to Teddy, Chris, Russ, and others

In what is expected to be the final day of debate on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to the office of Attorney General, while Republicans try to paint Democrats' objections to the nominee as politically motivated, Ted Kennedy summed up what seems obvious to this observer:
We shy away from having a true debate about our values. Stating noble words is a cover for committing to ignoble acts. We need to show that our committment to human dignity is a reality not a slogan. We respect international law. If we do not, who will? The prohibitions against torture serve us well. They protect our soldiers when they go to war. They claim it's politics if we vote against him, but in this case, the only reason to vote for him is politics. Do we stand for the rule of law or do we stand for torture. That is why we should reject this nomination.
I cannot help but believe that many a Republican Senator who is speaking on Gonzales' behalf is privately wishing that Bush had chosen someone far less controversial, as they must be cringing inside to justify his qualifications. The lone Republican on the judiciary committee truly expressing trepidation, was not the moderate Specter, but rather Lindsey Graham from the very red state of South Carolina who had this exchange with Gonzales in committee:
"I think we've dramatically undermined the war effort by getting on a slippery slope in terms of playing cute with the law," Graham, a reserve Air Force JAG officer, says. He adds later, "And I think you weaken yourself as a nation when you try to play cute and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be."

Gonzales senses that Graham has made a mistake and seizes on it. "We are nothing like our enemy, Senator," he protests. They behead people, like Danny Pearl and Nick Berg. Graham notes that this is a pretty low moral standard for America to aspire to. I agree that we're nothing like the enemy, he says. "But we're not like who we want to be and who we have been." During Graham's second round of questioning, Gonzales tells him that government lawyers did the very best they could when they wrote the memo. "Well that's where you and I disagree," Graham retorts. "I think they did a lousy job."
Political pressure was the order of the day, and Graham did vote to advance his nomination, but his words put the lie to the notion that Democratic objections to Alberto are petty partisan politics. Indeed those objections are felt by Republicans - even conservative Republicans - as well.

Christopher Dodd today (forgive possible inaccuracies in the quotation) said:
The right to be free from torture has been a fundamental value of our nation. This has never been in doubt. It has never been seriously debated. Always considered to be intrinsic, founded on our belief that all persons are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Judge Gonzales has stood in conflict with laws and treaties, and helped shaped those policies to the great detriment of our standing in the world.
while Feingold weighed in with
[In] Judge Gonzales' appearance before the Judiciary Committee, he failed to indicate that he would be bound by the rule of law. He reiterated erroneous interpretations on the effect of the Geneva Convention, and refused time after time to repudiate the conclusion that the president has power to immunize those under his direction.
Many other fine words were spoken today, sadly almost strictly on a partisan split. We should thank our Senators who have the conviction to oppose this nominee.