Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tom DeLay likes it

     "My rackets," Al Capone once told an interviewer, "are run on strictly American lines and they're going to stay that way."

     That's the line Tom DeLay will try on a judge now that five members of the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled that previously illegal corporate campaign contributions are protected free speech.

       "Just facilitating freedom, yer honor." That's all the former House majority leader was doing when, as his felony indictment alleges, he laundered illegal corporate donations to enhance the electability of a handful of Texas lawmakers. They, in turn, got elected and set out to redraw Texas congressional districts to DeLay's liking.

       Oh, my. Hear the violins now that the court has spoken. What high minds, those of the proponents of opening the floodgates of corporate giving.

       "For too long, some of this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

       Tears flow like Cabernet, thinking of the dispossessed players unable to buy a friend over the table because of federal law and proscriptions in a host of states, some dating back a century.

       Yes, it's clear as day that corporate hegemony always finds a way. That, however, does not mean states and the federal government should not attempt to blunt business' role in campaign spending.

        First Amendment rights? Equating campaign largesse with free speech, as the Scalia-Roberts wing did on the court, is akin to saying that bribery is akin to coffee talk. Legislature after legislature, court after court, Congress after Congress, each has affirmed the function of limiting corporate "speech" in said fashion. It is a legal principle underpinned by the fact that political campaigns are a joint public endeavor. To enter the fray with campaign dollars, you play by rules agreed upon by the electorate.

      Pshaw, says a Supreme Court majority sculpted by those who decried "judicial activists" — you know, judges who make law and ignore the will of legislatures.

      Yeah, what about those judicial activists — Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy? They certainly told lawmakers where to stick it.

      This brings up a matter that those who actually pay attention to the courts have pointed out. The so-called conservatives in our appellate courts have been just as inclined to overturn laws as their liberal counterparts, though a steady hard-right rallying cry is "out with activist judges."

        Syracuse University political scientist Thomas Keck has the numbers to silence the pitchfork bearers. In his 2004 book, The Most Activist Supreme Court in History, he points out that the late Rehnquist court had the highest score of overturning laws since the country's infancy. Yes, the Warren Court was the second most activist, signaling as it did dramatic shifts on behalf of civil rights and setbacks for states rights.

     "Modern conservatives," Keck wrote, "tried to curtail the liberal activism they inherited from the Warren Court, while simultaneously seeking to develop a new conservative activism of their own."

    This just shows that appellate courts are empowered to do what courts do: write law. It also shows that the legislative branch sometimes needs to rise to the occasion to make right with the popular will relative to what courts might do.

     That's what President Obama and Democratic leaders say they will do by tweaking campaign finance laws. All should acknowledge, however, that until full public financing is the rule of the land, the Al Capones of campaign finance will figure out ways to carry far more power than you and me, and they'll find bag men in power who, like Tom DeLay, will always be there for a song.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quest to hijack history

    Perhaps we should redirect the words of the smashingly succinct Joseph Welch toward the controlling clique on the Texas State Board of Education: "Have you no sense of decency?"

   The answer is no, and none is required. All that is required, apparently, is seven votes to say that up is down and Joseph McCarthy was a constructive force in American politics.

     Welch, the defiant Army attorney appearing in the infamous hearings staged by the man who came to define demagoguery, said what was needed: McCarthy was a shameful lout. He made a career destroying lives with mere hints of suspicion.

      Ah, but pursuant to a vote by the state school board, Texas high schoolers may get a more charitable spin than what most historians would afford McCarthy. Social studies standards tentatively approved last week would give him credit for racking up the skins of a few vile Communists who had infiltrated the U.S. government.

     Will those standards require a portrayal of the social carnage and paralyzing hysteria wrought by McCarthy's Red Scare hunting party? That remains to be seen. However, birds of a feather who claim the SBOE as their nest are dedicated to saluting their icons — like Phyllis Schlaffly, Jerry Falwell and Sen. Joe — at the expense of those they can't abide as builders and game-changing visionaries, like Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez and, of course, Edward Kennedy.

      Thankfully, moves to expunge Chavez and Marshall from state standards were tabled, disappointing "experts" hired by the board who made the case.

       A few months ago the religious right members on the board had evolution in their crosshairs in the discussion of biology standards. Now the fight is over our nation's story. By virtue of their power on the board, they want to say how it will be told. And, so, once again true academia stands on trial before an elected body that has become such an embarrassment that even conservative Republicans have sought to limit its powers.

       Ideally, this wouldn't concern anyone not living in the Lone Star State. In fact, it's very much a national matter. Being the nation's second largest purchaser of textbooks, what Texas does affects just about every classroom and textbook publisher from sea to shining sea.

       As one who's attended these hearings, I blush. Each time, true academicians and teachers groups find themselves fighting off packs of hyenas bearing handouts.

       When the subject is history,  a key quest of these social conservatives is to minimize the ways that a world of difference has manifested itself in this land, or how our society has has synthesized something great and uniquely American out of that difference.

      One might notice the pigment of all the icons the hard right wants to exalt and those it wants to see history books ignore or downplay. Just as McCarthy used appeals to fear, those who want to homogenize history are using appeals to frantic ethnocentrism.

        Another word for that is bigotry.

        A few years ago in one of these same hearings in Austin, the subject was Rosa Parks and her role in American history, which is just about as debatable as John Glenn's role in space travel.

       Pseudo-historians and "pro-American" interest groups sought to downgrade Parks' significance, part and parcel of the effort to sanitize conditions that led to the civil rights movement. Portraying the hurtful realities that beget the movement was seen by some as casting this nation in an unfair light.

      Bad light? A nation that comes to admit its racist past and rises above it is a shining light for all. So, too, with a nation that finally put aside the fear stirred by a little man who made himself big for a short time with the power of innuendo.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Experts with a remote control

    The year was 1993, and I was being besieged by experts.

     I never knew so many people knew so much until that year — when a raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco went so seriously afoul that the standoff ended up a nightly fixation on CNN and the networks.

    In the same way that Waco became the media center of the universe, the local paper's opinion page, whose content was my responsibility, became the crossroads for a world of expertise. 

       I was struck by the number of people from across the country who knew exactly what happened and who was to blame. That was intriguing, because our newspaper was in on the story before it was everyone's story, and we were still wondering what happened.

       And how did they gain their expertise? By watching a few seconds of video on TV — the same clip shown over and over, federal agents firing and being fired upon on a roof out in the wind-blown Texas countryside. So many experts from so little information. It continues today.

       It's the kind of expertise the Associated Press acknowledged in a recent story about a particularly cold day in January and the issue of global warming.

       The story was about scientists' task of explaining the recent cold snap — a killer freeze in Beijing, icicles hanging from Florida oranges — within the template of global warming. The story acknowledge this fact: Without considering the bigger picture, a lot of people shivering through a week's very cold temperatures would be hard to convince that, yes, the planet is warming unnaturally. The people who study this matter every day could explain it easily. As Deke Arndt of the National Climatic Data Center explained, "We'll still have record cold temperatures. We'll just have fewer of them."

        This, of course, is immaterial to the type of expert who becomes one with a remote control in hand.

          Such expertise helps explain why the Pew Center recently found a decline in the number of Americans saying there is strong scientific evidence that the Earth has gotten warmer over the past few decades, from 71 percent a year ago to 57 percent. A Pew spokesman speculated that this is because people are concerned about the economy. I can understand one not wanting to be concerned about said matters when one is trying to feed one's family, but how does it bear on evidence about an ominous global concern?

         The question about discerning the reality of global warming is far different from the question of whether man should do anything about it, policywise. Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton says no. His solution: "Get shade."

          Barton will believe what he wants, and will look the other way when science presents something that would give him discomfort.

          Quite a few climate deniers, remotes in hand, will cite a recent made-for-Fox-News tempest in which hacked e-mails between climatologists were portrayed as undermining the numbers about global warming.

           It makes for good TV, but analysis of the 1,073 e-mails in question, involving a team of five Associated Press reporters, found "the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked."

          "Don't confuse me with the facts," could be a slogan for the modern-day understanding of expertise. Or what's a Sarah Palin for? A "contributor" for Fox News, that's what. This is an expert who, according to the new book Game Change, had foreign policy tutors explaining, "This is how the Cold War worked," as well as the actual wars preceding, after John McCain's campaign manager came to them saying, "She knows nothing."

         You might say this is an asset. It is one thing to be a pointy-headed academic who spends his time poring over books, newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, data — you know, the stuff of understanding. It is another to be confident enough in what one sees on TV to know it all.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

No tax break for Fifi

    If self-interest alone were to guide one's politics, I'd be writing my congressman to support the HAPPY Act. As would my seven cats, my three dogs, my three rabbits.

    Well, I'm not. And I've told the pets to put their quills in their ink wells, and slowly walk away.

    The HAPPY Act would be a boon to pet owners. So, why oppose it? Because it would be one more ridiculous wrinkle in a culture of tax avoidance.

     HAPPY — for Humanity and Pets Partnered Through the Years — would allow pet owners to deduct food, vet care and other pet-related expenses from their income taxes — up to $3,500 per year. Cute and cuddly. And so stupid.

      Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., the bill's author, said it would boost pet ownership and ease strains on animal shelters. That would be nice. Responsible pet ownership is costly.

      The fact is, however, that people who let their animals roam and breed are not the types to parse the tax code, or even to itemize. Many pay no income tax.

      More likely, this tax dodge would disproportionately benefit the French-poodle set, as tax policy so commonly does.

      It would be one more way that people with tax attorneys would profit at the expense of those without, and those ways are more numerous than anyone wants to acknowledge.

       Despite claims by Republicans that the wealthy shoulder more than their share of the tax burden, the truth is to the contrary. Yes, because a progressive income tax does what it is supposed to do, the richest 1 percent pay a lot, roughly 37 percent of all income taxes, while possessing 21 percent of all reported income. But when one considers Social Security payroll taxes and other payroll taxes including motor fuels, as Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston writes in his book on tax inequality, Perfectly Legal, "because of tax tricks fashioned by lawyers," the top 1 percent is taxed more lightly than those of us in the middle class, and some of America's wealthiest avoid taxes altogether, legally.

       Instead of inventing more ways for us not to pay our taxes, whatever the income, lawmakers should be figuring out ways to pay for all the government we have purchased on our grandchildren's credit.

        Barely noticed as 2009 concluded was Congress's passage of a bill lifting the national debt ceiling to $300 billion. Among Democrats in the Senate, Colorado's Mark Udall was a noticeable holdout until the last minute. His vote was crucial, because Republicans insisted on a super majority of 60 votes, The filibuster they threatened would have left the government without money to pay Social Security checks or pay interest on its debt.

       No additional debt. That sounds mighty principled on behalf of leaders of the minority party, except that when in power in the last decade, the same Republicans raised the debt ceiling repeatedly, sometimes with as few as 52 or 53 votes.

       Udall bent to the wishes of the Democratic leadership when told that the majority party would hold two votes this month, one creating a special commission to examine the debt, and one to offset new spending with program cuts. Congress should also have a graduated war tax and some form of incremental energy tax in the mix, because program cuts alone will not get us out of the hole we've dug, and everyone knows it.

       No, my animals and I will pay our share to do what must be done, pet ownershipwise and taxpayerwise. Fifi, meanwhile, should eat a lower grade of kibble in our grandchildren's interest.

       John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.