Thursday, June 28, 2012

An entirely reasonable decision

There were two main arguments for the constitutionality of the healthcare law: The Commerce Clause of the Constitution, and the constitutional right of the Congress to levy taxes. Both of these clauses are part of Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution, which enumerates the powers of Congress. Most of the discussion preceding the decision was  about regulation of commerce, which seemed to me and, I think, many others, to be not such a good idea -- both as a practical argument, given the nature of the Supreme Court, and even, perhaps, as an unhealthy extension of the powers of Congress.

The Obama administration was excoriated by many for not making the "individual mandate" an explicit tax, thus side-stepping a questionable resort to the Commerce Clause; it turns out that they were clever enough to phrase the penalty part of the mandate in terms of a tax collected on people who chose not to buy insurance. Give them credit; they had even argued precisely that point in 2010, as did, I heard, Justice Sotomayor recently.

Of course, 4 conservatives (this time Justice Kennedy as well as the usual 3) didn't buy the argument. Justices Scalia and Alito are too firmly committed to right-wing ideology to be open to any such argument; Thomas, of course, goes with Scalia. Justice Roberts, on the other hand, quoting a beautiful phrase from a previous case (Hooper v California) wrote in the majority opinion:

Because "every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality," Hooper v. California, 155 U. S. 648, the question is whether it is "fairly possible" to interpret the mandate as imposing such a tax..."

I really like the idea that the highest court must assume, by default, that a statute is constitutional, and should always be on the lookout for a way to recognize it as such. If that is truly Roberts position, there is hope that he may turn out to be, on balance, an excellent Chief Justice. Now if only he would change his mind on Citizens United...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Republican way

There is a major difference between the two parties, and I think that people who call themselves Republicans should be aware of it.  The Democrats historically, by-and-large, are the party of the underdog, of the middle class and working person, of the people who need someone to stand up for them against powerful, wealthy and entrenched interests. Of course, as I said, this is "by-and-large": certainly there are plenty of Democratic politicians who are in the pockets of oil companies and banks. Yet, it is the Democratic party that created and protected Social Security, Medicare and the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (under Dodd-Frank). The Democrats also pushed civil rights laws of all kinds, protection for union organization when it literally meant life and death for American workers, child labor laws, support for public education, etc.

(What about the "big unions" you might ask? There is a big difference between unions and corporations, historically and practically. Both can be corrupt, true enough, but union leadership is elected by union membership: there are no boards of trustees intervening, no "majority stockholders" with concentrated power and influence. Unions were set up by workers to give their members an effective say in their working conditions, conditions which, before unions, were egregious. As the power of unions has waned, stagnation of wages and declines in benefits have set in. The unions basically created the middle class, and now the decline in union membership and the rise of corporate power has led to the disastrous decline in the middle class. Those who deride unions should ask themselves who they'd rather have representing them: unions or banks and big corporations?)

In the old days, it was possible for Republicans to join with Democrats in looking after those who needed help and protection. The Civil Rights Act had substantial Republican support; the EPA was signed into law by Richard Nixon, who also supported a health insurance plan that was, if anything, to the left of "ObamaCare." That Republican party no longer exists. The default position now for Republicans, as evidenced by the recent presidential debates, by their talk shows, and by Fox News and their own public statements, is a sneering rejection of what they dismiss as "do-gooderism" or "collectivism." Trying to hold people to civil discourse and respect for the rights and feelings of others they mock as "political correctness." While they sneer at the Democrats' concerns for political representation of minorities (racial, religious, sexual) as naive and pandering to "special interests", they themselves seem to have no interest in any of these fairness issues, since the actual objects of their solicitude are corporations -- the bigger and more powerful the better. (They talk about "small businesses" but, in fact, their economic policy mostly is to subsidize and protect the largest of corporations: viz. the oil, drug, and agri-businesses. They are absolutely not interested in regulation of trusts and monopolies,  and their support for the Small Business Administration is tepid except in election years.) They deride nearly every "public" enterprise as collectivism, and want to replace any attempt to share resources or power across economic and social strata with raw privatization (for example, of national parks and resources), competition, and a crude social Darwinism. (Ironically, the real and subtle Darwinism embodied in the theory of evolution they still deny in order to pander to their substantial base of religious fundamentalists.)

There is a curious disconnect among people who are in fact concerned and sympathetic, yet call themselves Republicans. They buy into the Republican line that the PTR (Party for The Rich, formerly the GOP) represents some sort of protection for the "little guy" and small business person against the large, collectivist and callous "Big Government." Nothing could be further from the truth. The biggest clients of the PTR are the immensely large and powerful corporations.  Republican administrations have, if anything, increased the power and size of those parts of government that are least responsive to citizens. Examples are: the Department of (big) Agriculture, which favors corporate farming over family farming; the Department of Defense, which is all about throwing big-time money but small-time control at contractors like Lockheed, General Electric, and Brown and Root (Cheney's firm and biggest recipient of unexamined federal largess in Iraq); the Department of (big) Energy, which is all about subsidies for large energy companies like Exxon-Mobil that are making record profits.

Those Republicans who call themselves friends of education ought to understand that the PTR is committed to destroying public education and replacing it with private contractors and vouchers that, simply, will make decent school unaffordable for average folks: just look at the cost of private schools versus public schools; price out what it would cost to send your kids to a private school and note that the vouchers the Republicans propose would not make much of  a dent in that. Plus, you get no say in what they do or teach unless you are a stockholder,

Or what about regulations? The PTR tells us that any sort of regulation of businesses is a "job killer." This is nonsense: regulations are made to protect us. The only support for the "job killer" description of regulation comes from the propaganda of the industries that are being regulated. In a recent survey of businesses, the leading reason for non-hiring is not regulation but low consumer demand. There were fewer complaints about "job-killing" regulation before Wall Street's speculations created the crisis that crippled our economic system -- speculations that could have been, and should have been, prevented by sensible regulations (such as a modernized and strengthened Glass-Steagull Act to control how banks gamble with money). The biggest job-killer was the Great Recession caused by Wall Street and Big Banking's speculative excesses. Contrary to what the PTR says, regulation protects us citizens from the inherent amorality of industry's quest of ever larger profits and power concentration (monopoly).  Even if some regulations might slow some business expansion, how will that help if our water and air and soil are poisoned -- as it was before the EPA? The meat-packing industry hates being regulated: they would like to return to the good-old-days when they were not inspected and could put any sort of filth in poultry, hamburger and sausages. Yes, it used to be that way, and now the Republicans are voting to cut funds for the inspection system  that protects us by keeping our food and environment clean.

And drugs: the Republican drug plan that is now Medicare part D explicitly forbids Medicare from directly negotiating with drug companies -- for example in Canada --  to keep prices low. A lot of folks try to buy their meds in Canada where they much less expensive and, perhaps, even safer; but, the Republicans want to crack down on this to keep the profits high for their friends in Big Pharma.

And what does the Republican party say about all this? They claim that they are preserving the "free-enterprise system" from "big government" and collectivism. But these are just buzzwords. Before our government -- yes, it's our government -- started protecting us, the unfettered free-enterprise system gave us sweatshops, 60+ hour workweeks, dangerous child labor, corrupt and unsafe food, and poisoned water, land and air. Every time we've let the "free enterprise" system run unfettered it has run over us and simply enabled the wealthy to get wealthier and large companies to get larger, all at our expense.

Yes, the Democrats are sometimes as much in the pocket of big business and big finance as the Republicans. Yes, the Democrats sometimes seem naive and sometimes seem too intent on helping minorities and the poor. But that is because they truly believe in our Constitution, which begins:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Note my italics: our government is charged with promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for us and our posterity: nothing about corporations, or corporations as people, or that "freedom" means an unregulated private industry. There isn't even anything about promoting capitalism and eschewing collectivism.

The Republican party, as it is currently constituted, is the party of cynicism, big business and big wealth. For all of its faults, the Democratic party is not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

J. P. Morgan and Jamie Dimon

First, let's grant that J. P. Morgan-Chase is a big, wealthy and powerful bank, and that its CEO Jamie Dimon is a smart and well-spoken fellow -- even Obama, who got lots of Morgan/Dimon dimes in his 2008 election, publicly praises him. Last week he charmed the Senate Banking Committee, which largely fell all over itself with admiration. The fact that most if not all members of this committee were recipients of campaign contributions from either Morgan directly, or its employees, should not be lost on us. Thomas Frank (author of "What's the matter with Kansas" and more recently "Pity the Billionaire") talks about this with Bill Moyers: Check it out here.

Anyway, Dimon paid a visit to the House Financial Services Committee yesterday -- home of another Frank, Barney Frank -- where he was not treated quite so royally. Barney said: "To me this hearing is not about JPMorgan Chase. They are an example of the larger issue, which is the effort by my Republican colleagues, with some help from the industry, to re-deregulate derivatives...Mr. Dimon and this bank were taken by surprise and lost so much money [more that $3 billion it seems] so quickly in derivatives, and didn't understand fully what they were doing."

Barney was referring to the emasculation of the so-called "Volcker Rule" which would limit the ability of banks to put up their own money to make high-risk investments. This "rule" was modeled on the old Glass-Steagull Act which was in effect from Roosevelt's time until the late 1990's when it was repealed  by a Republican Congress and a very pro-business Democratic President (Bill Clinton) and his Secretary of the Treasury (Robert Rubin). (They also gave us NAFTA.) Unfortunately, this basic, common-sense "rule" was considerably watered down in return for Senator Scott Brown's vote in support of the thereby-weakened Dodd-Frank financial protection bill. Brown, of course, is currently trying to retain his seat against a challenge from Elizabeth Warren.

Getting back to Jamie Dimon: He displayed all sorts of contrition about JPMorgan's big loss. However, he wants no part of Dodd-Frank regulation of the finance industry, and he claims to know nothing of the derivative trades (I think they were Credit Default Swaps) that led to the losses.  In terms of his bank's assets, the billions lost were small and, he said, totally localized to the "London offices" where they occurred. In other words, it was a minor and chance event -- nothing like the near total meltdown that happened in 2008, and nothing that regulators should worry their (pretty little) heads about. However, when Rep. Stephen Lynch (D. Mass) asked that Dimon's testimony be under oath, the request was immediately scuttled by committee chair Spencer Bachus (R. Ala).

And now comes reason #8,962 for why Republicans are beneath contempt. Sean Duffy (R. Wis) asked Dimon (rhetorically) "If one of the best CEOs in the industry didn't know about these trades, how can we expect regulators to know about these trades?" (Especially since we Republicans do all we can to prevent regulators from sticking their noses in,  he might have added, had he desired to rise to the level of merely contemptible.)