Tuesday, June 28, 2011

From Michael Winship

The Rich Are Different from You and Me. They Make More Money – and Lemonade
By Michael Winship

Washington, DC, is a Potemkin village of alabaster and marble where the perpetually stalled and broken escalators of the city’s subway system are a perfect metaphor for the government’s inability to generate positive, upward movement. Yet with all the calumnies that are committed on an hourly basis behind the facade of our nation’s capitol, what had local media there outraged a few days ago? Lemonade.

Seems a TV news cameraman caught a county inspector in an affluent Washington suburb trying to shut down a kid’s lemonade stand just outside the Congressional Country Club during the recent US Open. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he slapped the enterprising tikes -- who were raising money to fight pediatric cancer -- with a $500 fine.

As the June 18 Washington Post reported, for a while it seemed "the all-American rite of passage might instead become a master class in government overreach," yet public anger was so immediate and vociferous the fine was quickly revoked and the youngsters permitted to reopen down a side street a few yards away.

But these weren’t your garden variety, neighborhood moppets, selling drinks from Mom’s Tupperware pitcher on a card table near the sidewalk. For one thing, according to the Post, "There was a tent for shade, five plastic coolers, and a couple of industrial steel ones packed with ice and cans of Coke and Diet Coke. For the fundraiser, the kids’ parents had also secured cases of bottled lemonade wholesale..."

For another, among those helping out and defending their boys and girls were the former head of Lockheed Martin and the Red Cross and members of the Marriott family. "When something’s right you stand up for your beliefs," Carrie Marriott, wife of the hotel heir, said. "That’s what America’s about. It’s about free enterprise. It’s about taking an idea, making it happen, and making it successful."

Coincidentally, the very next day, the Post reported that total compensation was up an average of more than 20 percent last year for the Washington area’s highest paid executives. Among them, Ms. Marriott’s father-in-law, J. Willard Marriott, Jr., who in 2010 earned nearly $10 million. The report was part of the newspaper’s investigation of so-called "breakaway wealth" among the nation’s richest.

"The evolution of executive grandeur -- from very comfortable to jet setting -- reflects one of the primary reasons that the gap between those with the highest incomes and everyone else is widening," according to the Post. "For years, statistics have depicted growing income disparity in the United States, and it has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 2008, the last year for which data are available, for example, the top 0.1 percent of earners took in more than 10 percent of the personal income in the United States, including capital gains, and the top 1 percent took in more than 20 percent...

"Other recent research, moreover, indicates that executive compensation at the nation’s largest firms has roughly quadrupled in real terms since the 1970s, even as pay for 90 percent of America has stalled."

The reasons? “Defenders of executive pay argue, among other things, that the rising compensation is deserved because firms are larger today. Moreover, this group says, more packages today are based on stock and options, which pay more when the chief executive is successful.

"Critics, on other hand, argue that executive salaries have jumped because corporate boards were simply too generous, or more broadly, because greed became more socially acceptable."

The enormity of this increase in executive compensation is reinforced by a new study that examines the proxy statements and financial filings of the companies that make up the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Issued by the independent research firm R.G. Associates and titled "S. & P. 500 Executive Pay: Bigger Than... Whatever You Think It is," the report finds that among the 483 companies they were able to analyze, the pay of 2591 executives was up 13.9 percent in 2010. Total, before taxes: $14.3 billion, almost equal to the GDP of Tajikistan, population: more than seven million.

At 158 of the companies, more was paid to those in charge than was shelled out for outside audit fees. And 32 of them paid more in top salaries than they paid in corporate income taxes.

As it turns out, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Despite the ongoing, international financial malaise, the British newspaper The Guardian notes that, "The globe’s richest have now recouped the losses they suffered after the 2008 banking crisis. They are richer than ever, and there are more of them -- nearly 11 million -- than before the recession struck."

The annual wealth report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini finds that the assets of these so-called "high net worth individuals" reached $42.7 trillion in 2010, a rise of nearly ten percent from the previous year at a time when, as The Guardian observed, "austerity budgets were implemented by many governments in the developed world."

More than half of the world’s richest live in Japan, Germany and here in the United States. The annual "Executive Excess" survey from the progressive Institute for Policy Studies last September found that back in the seventies, only a handful of top American executives earned more than thirty times what their workers made. In 2009, "CEO’s of major US corporations averaged 263 times the average compensation of American workers." And a USA Today analysis earlier this year found that while median CEO pay jumped 27% last year, workers in private industry saw their salaries grow by just 2.1 percent.

So how are many of those corporations addressing this gross inequity? By trying to cover it up.

Last year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation requires publicly traded companies to report the median of annual total compensation for workers, the total compensation of the CEO, and the ratio between the two. Big business has lobbied loudly against the reporting requirement, and on Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee voted 33-21 to repeal it.

The bill to repeal is sponsored by rookie Congresswoman Nan Hayworth (R-NY), whose official biography cites "reducing regulatory burdens on businesses" as one of her top priorities. Among her leading 2010 campaign contributors: leveraged buyout specialists Vestar Capital Partners, distressed debt investors Elliott Management and financial services giant Credit Suisse. Not to mention the anti-taxation Club for Growth.

Ernest Hemingway claimed that when F. Scott Fitzgerald once said to him, "The rich are different from you and me," he archly replied, "Yes, they have more money." Whether it’s true or not, the Hemingway in the story got it wrong. The rich not only have more money, they have more power, more clout -- and more to hide.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Like a Page out of Dostoyevsky

On my way to meet someone for a drink in Rockridge, an upper crust community about 17 miles east of San Francisco, I was running a bit early, so I thought I'd stop in and pick up some fresh produce at Market Hall at a place I've shopped at many times before.

After finding the most superb lettuce, fresh strawberries, and cherry tomatoes, I walked over to the cash register where there were two lines. There was a female customer vacillating between lines, so I politely asked "Are you in line?" She said, "I'm waiting to see which line moves faster, and that's the line I'm going on." I confirmed that there were two separate registers, and two separate lines, and then I said, "Why don't you stand there. I'm going to pick a line, and a register and take my chances with it."

Suddenly, as I was paying the cashier, the woman charges over to me and in a very loud voice says, "You are very rude. You know that." I was completely taken aback. It seems like the height of hubris for one to occupy not one but two lines making everyone else stand behind you as you take whichever one moves faster. Certainly, we've all wanted to do this, but only a dedicated narcissist would dare to behave the way that woman did. The incident reeked of something out of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground.

I didn't respond to that woman's tirade, but instead calmly drove home, and thought about how the ethos of me-first has now self-replicated exponentially. The response to a sense of powerlessness is, for some, the kind of arrogance that suggests that everyone else take a place behind them, even though common courtesy would suggest making room for the person who comes after one.

Having lived both in southern California, and northern California, for nearly thirty years, I've come to detect a difference between the two. In the south people are apologetic about being narcissistic, but in the north they're religious about it.

California has never been an easy place to live, but now it's downright scary. Scary times often produce scary people and these are, without a doubt, scary times.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Happy Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to all dads.

Know that you are much loved with the kind of love that doesn't come with an expiration date.

Happy Father's Day to all whose dads have passed on, yet we continue to walk not in their shadows, but in the light they leave behind.

And, to my dad, here's looking at you kid, you are with me still.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Fighting Against Those Who Rape
By Michael Winship

Devoted fans of the popular cop show can probably recite it in their sleep: "In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories."

Those stories on Law & Order: SVU are fiction (although they frequently echo tabloid headlines), but these statistics are not: Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. One out of six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. But only forty percent of these crimes will be reported. Only six percent of rapists spend a day in jail.

These devastating numbers are at the very soul of a new documentary that offers an inside look at a real-life SVU -- the sex crimes prosecution unit of the New York District Attorney's office, the first of its kind in the country. Produced by Lisa F. Jackson, Sex Crimes Unit premieres on HBO, Monday, June 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and will be repeated throughout the rest of the month and into July. Look for it.

In the interest of full disclosure, Lisa is a longtime friend with whom I began in the television business in Washington, DC, back in the days when 24-hour cable news cycles, American Idol and video on demand weren't even glints in the narrowed eyes of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about her film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a brutal and frank verite examination of the African civil war that has been the deadliest conflict since World War II, with as many as 5.4 million killed and more than 250,000 women and children raped. Herself a rape survivor, she bravely trekked into the heart of the fighting to tell the tale. Now with Sex Crimes Unit, Lisa presents a story she has been longing to bring to the screen for the last fifteen years.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau authorized the unit's formation in 1974 with the now famous crime novelist and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein as its first chief. "When I came to the practice of law in 1972, the laws in America, all over this country, were so archaic that the overwhelming number of sexual assault cases were not even able to get into a court of law," Fairstein notes in the documentary. "As recently as 20 years ago, marital rape was not a crime. There was no such thing as stalking, there was no DNA, there was no science to say she's right or she's wrong about identifying her attacker, acquaintance rapes simply weren't prosecuted almost anywhere in America."

Today, Lisa Friel heads the unit. Deeply street smart and an expert in the law (despite, to my aging eyes at least, a more than passing resemblance to Michele Bachmann), she oversees 40 senior assistant DA's with, on any given day, more than 300 pending cases. In the course of filming, these include a nightclub abduction caught on surveillance tape, the perpetrator brazenly carrying the helplessly inebriated victim out of the joint with no one lifting a finger to stop him; a livery cab driver turned predator and the difficult case of a prostitute turned rape victim whose quick thinking and courage results in a twelve year sentence for her attacker. "I am so happy [the jury] saw me as a person, not a prostitute," she tells assistant DA Coleen Balbert. "Nobody deserves to be raped," Lisa Friel says, "no matter who they are and what they do."

But at the program's center is the remarkable story of Natasha Alexenko. On August 6, 1993, the then-20-year-old Canadian college student was raped and sodomized at gunpoint in the bicycle storage area of her uptown Manhattan apartment building. Her assailant got away.

At the time, a rape kit was administered and DNA evidence collected but it sat on a shelf, untested, for nine and a half years. "It was sealed and nothing happened to it," Assistant DA Melissa Mourges recalls. "And that happened with 17,000 kits around the city... the seals were never broken. But then in 2000, two things happened that were very big for New York City and very big for the victims of these kind of crimes. One was that our medical examiner's office which does all of the DNA testing for the five boroughs joined CODIS [Combined DNA Index System], the data bank... so now we had profiles of known individuals that you could compare crime scene evidence to."

The second was District Attorney Morgenthau's establishing a cold case investigative operation within the sex crimes unit and creating a “John Doe” indictment; in the absence of a suspect, his DNA could be indicted, slamming the brakes on the statute of limitations.

The cold case unit reopened the Natasha Alexenko investigation nearly ten years after she was raped. The DNA of her assailant was entered into CODIS. Four years later, they got a hit. A suspect was arrested and prosecuted.

"There was a part of me that absolutely felt that it would be cathartic to go through the process of a trial," Alexenko says, "and there was a part of me that thought there's just no way, I don't want to do this." On the stand, she collapses -- "It was almost like this was the physical embodiment of all of the fear and all of the guilt and all of the sadness," a friend says -- but recovers and performs what she calls her "karmic duty to get up there and keep this guy from ever doing this again to anyone else."

"The trial," Assistant DA Mourges says, "is really... the moment when the victim takes all the power back, all the power that he wielded over her, all the shame, all the terror. And now she holds all that power. She holds the power over him, and that is a transcendent moment." Her attacker was convicted, with a maximum release date of 2057.

This week, as press attention centered on whether the New York State Senate would pass legislation allowing gay marriage, that same body passed a bill that expands the state's DNA database to require a sample from all those convicted of felonies and misdemeanors (up to now, only 46% of penal law crimes have been eligible).

The New York Civil Liberties Union is opposed. "On Law & Order or CSI, DNA is infallible. Unfortunately, in the real world, things aren't so simple; the possibility for error, fraud and abuse exists at every step from the moment a DNA sample is collected,” NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry said. "...The science and sophistication have advanced, and yet lawmakers have not even begun to think about what's required in terms of regulatory oversight and quality assurance standards that are required to ensure the integrity of the databank and the use of forensic DNA evidence."

Meanwhile, Natasha Alexenko has founded Natasha's Justice Project, raising money to end the backlog of rape kits in America. While a minority of law enforcement jurisdictions in the United States -- among them, New York City, Los Angeles, and the state of Illinois -- require that every rape kit booked into police evidence is sent to a crime laboratory and tested for DNA, the vast majority do not. According to the website endthebacklog.org, "Experts in the federal government estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States." With increasing cuts in law enforcement budgets, outside assistance from groups like Alexenko's may be the only alternative.

Toward the end of Sex Crimes Unit, she tells Lisa Jackson, "You have a choice in life of how to take things. Believe me, I had moments of feeling sorry for myself and I guess you can do that, choose to go that route, or you can choose to not be the victim. I guess if you gain strength from it and if you come out of it with something more then you won, then you were never the victim."


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Right in time...

for Bloomsday. The Kickstarter launch of an immensely important project:


(If the link doesn't open, pls. cut and paste in your browser to display)

"Dare it..."

"On now. Dare it. Let there be life."

James Joyce


Friday, June 10, 2011

From Michael Winship

The Perils of Ignoring Science
By Michael Winship

I heard a remarkable thing on the radio the other day and it had nothing to do with a congressman’s nether regions.

A local NPR reporter was talking with Joseph Nicholson, CEO of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, New York, up in the neck of the upstate woods where I was born and raised. There’s been a lot more rain than usual, he said. Produce hasn’t been exposed to sufficient "heat units" -- in other words, the sun.

"We're going to be at least two weeksbehind in harvest or ripening," he said, and if the skies don’t brighten up soon, yields could be down 30 to 35 percent. That’s a lot of lost apples -- and cherries, peaches and plums (although the rhubarb is doing just fine, thanks for asking).

As upstate kids we were told -- apocryphally -- that the only part of the world more overcast than us was Poland, so the idea that all these years later it’s cloudier than ever is startling. Is this part of manmade climate change

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum sure doesn’t think so. The other day hetold Rush Limbaugh "the idea that man... is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd." He went on to call it a left-wing conspiracy, "just an excuse for more government control of your life… I’ve never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative."

Better you should listen to Ram Khatri Yadav, a rice farmer in northeastern India, who recently complained to The New York Times, "It will not rain in the rainy season, but it will rain in the non-rainy season. The cold season is also shrinking." He’s experiencing climate change asa life or death reality. In a June 4 article headlined "A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself," the Times reported, "The great agricultural system that feeds the human race is in trouble... Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming."

For years, scientists believed that the carbon dioxide produced by greenhouse emissions were at least in part beneficial for crops, acting as a fertilizer that helped counterbalance the deleterious effects of climate change. Butaccording to the Times, new research indicates "extra carbon dioxide does act as plant fertilizer, but that the benefits are less than previously believed -- and probably less than needed to avert food shortages."

The World Bank estimates that there may be as many 940 million hungry people this year. The international relief agency Oxfam projects already high food prices more than doubling by 2030 with perhaps half of that spike due to climate change. With those increases could come hoarding, gouging, panic buying and food riots like those that led to the overthrow of the Haitian government in 2008.

Nor is it just our food supply that has climate change breathing hot and heavy down our collective necks. City and state planners also are examining its impact on urban centersand preparing for the worst. A May 22 Times article notes, "Climate scientists have told city planners that based on current trends, Chicago will feel more like Baton Rouge than a Northern metropolis before the end of this century... New York City, which is doing its own adaptation planning, is worried about flooding from the rising ocean."

In Chicago’s case, scientists project that if global carbon emissions continue at their currentpace, the Second City would have summers "like the Deep South, with as many as 72 days over 90 degrees before the end of the century. For most of the 20th century, the city averaged fewer than 15...

"The city could seeheat-related deaths reaching 1,200 a year. The increasing occurrences offreezes and thaws (the root of potholes) would cause billions of dollars’ worthof deterioration to building facades, bridges and roads. Termites, never previously able to withstand Chicago’s winters, would start gorging on wooden frames.

Conservatives like Santorum may scoff but the insurance industry -- no knee-jerk advocate of liberal dogma -- is telling cities and states they had better adapt to realityor face ever higher premiums: "The reinsurance giant Swiss Re, for example, has said that if the shore communities of four Gulf Coast states choose not to implement adaptationstrategies, they could see annual climate-change related damages jump 65 percent a year to $23 billion by 2030."

Of course, it’s the science that right-wingers dismiss as "junk" that could help save us, not that they want to hear that. Researchers are developing strains of rice and wheat more resistant to heat, drought, flood and rising levels of carbon dioxide.

That takes cash, another notion to which conservatives are especially adverse. Over the last five years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $1.7 billion to feed the world but private philanthropy isn’t enough.

A year ago, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development began Feed the Future, a global hunger and food security initiative to boost agriculture in 20 desperately poor countries. President Obama has pledged $3.5 billion; so far, Congress has come up with a little more than half of it.

We live on a planet where, New York Times reporter Justin Gillis wrote, "Little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability." But last month, the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, headed by Georgia Republican Jack "I Came from God, Not from a Monkey" Kingston, cut Feed the Future’s budget by thirty percent. How do you like them apples?


Michael Winship issenior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America,East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some
passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

James Joyce

(Bloomsday is one week from today, June 16th)

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Weinergate: A Sex Scandal Without Sex

Technology has come so far in this country that we no longer need to have sex in order to have a sex scandal.

Despite the humiliation of his public confession, when all is said and don't Rep. Anthony Weiner didn't have sex. He says he has had no physical contact with any of the women with whom he held Internet dalliances.

Call me old-fashioned to suggest that to have sex, at least, requires people to at least be face to face.

So, unless one considers taking a photograph of one's private parts and uploading it to one's laptop, and sending it into cyberspace sex, The Old Testament had a name for what Weiner did: Onanism.

But, like pharmakons of yore, the congressman representing districts in Queens and Brooklyn, is now being paraded all over the airwaves just as the scapegoats of ancient Greece were paraded through the marketplace, and with the same false hope that this will somehow make things right again. But, it won't.

Making an example of a member of Congress whose actions can best be described as mischief, not misconduct, is not going to stop teenagers across America from sending "lewd" text messages to their friends.

Let me be clear. Without question, Mr. Weiner made an egregious error in judgment, but it is equally egregious to consider the photograph of a body part, any body part, "lewd." If the photograph of a nude body were to be considered "lewd," then one could theoretically be in trouble for uploading a pic of Michelangelo's "David." That an elected official would engage in such mischief is unseemly, and inappropriate, but not lewd. There is nothing "lewd" about any part of the human body.

If you want to see something lewd, go to the battlefield and watch young men and women get blown apart by IED's, or innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan get taken out by drones.

Yes, without a doubt, Rep. Weiner exercised poor judgment, and the emotional maturity of a fifteen year old by his actions. That said, his actions were not in any way, shape, or form unique, but part of a larger social Web site context in which texting, and digitalizing sex is a fact of life. Making an example of him won't make the practice of sexting go away nor will it stop the practice of extramarital dalliances on social networking sites.

So, please let congressional Democrats, and especially House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi waste no more time, or taxpayer money, launching an ethics investigation into whether Weiner broke "House rules." That time, energy, and taxpayer money would be better spent investigating which House members worked with drone manufacturers to award them huge military contracts, and which congressional members continue to work with the nuclear power lobbyists to silence the risks of radiation leaks in domestic plants.

Yes, it would make much more sense to investigate how it is that every president since World War II has managed to wage substantial military campaigns without congressional approval, or a formal Declaration of War.

A bipartisan resolution ushered in by House majority leader Boehner on Thursday gives the president 15 days to prove why U.S. military combat in Libya is justified, or troops must leave Libya. That resolution, and the House momentum to stop yet another illegal war, has just been effectively coopted, and stifled by what amounts to a sex scandal without sex.

There are many more ethical breeches of far graver consequence to national, and international security to keep Congress busy for many months to come. Get busy, Mrs. Pelosi. The meter's running.

Monday, June 06, 2011


It looks like we finally have a viable candidate for president in 2012: Salt Peter

Saturday, June 04, 2011



for Allen Ginsberg

We will meet again
as ghosts you and I
ghosts who don’t grow their
hair or
flash their smiles at
sultry construction
We will meet again
as ghosts
ghosts are always first in
line at Rite Aid
they never get lost on
the subway or
need to
testify before
holy spirit
governments or
eat tortillas made of
We will meet again
as ghosts
ghosts savvy in
their skeletal
rest of
us who pretend
to be blind on
starry escalators
when the future
gets stuck
between our

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

(Allen Ginsberg would have been 85 on June 3rd)

Friday, June 03, 2011

From Michael Winship

Secret Cash: The Worst Political Scandal of All
By Michael Winship

Sometimes I feel like Gus, the father in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- you know, the guy who thinks you can cure all maladies with a spritz of Windex and declares, "Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek."

Only in my case, it's give me a scandal, any scandal, and I'll show you how the corrosive influence of money on politics is at its root and makes what's bad even worse (okay, maybe not in the case of Anthony Weiner -- yet). It's not an especially effective party trick, I know, unless you're at a really dreary policy wonk picnic, but you work with what you've got.

John Edwards' illegitimate child? The legal case being built against the freshly indicted, former presidential candidate isn't about paternity or custody or any of that kind of stuff, but revolves around felony campaign finance charges; whether or not two wealthy backers -- his now deceased fundraising chair Frederick Baron and 100-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon -- provided hundreds of thousands in contributions that in reality paid for the hiding of Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, and their baby.

Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista's big fat, revolving, no interest credit account at Tiffany's? It might be tin-eared and wrong for someone who purports to be a fiscal conservative and a man of the people to throw around big bucks for expensive bling, but that ain't necessarily the scandal. Look a little deeper. On May 24, Jeff Stein of The Washington Post blog "Spy Talk" reported, "At the same time Tiffany & Co. was extending Callista (Bisek) Gingrich a virtual interest-free loan of tens of thousands of dollars, the diamond and silverware firm was spending big bucks to influence mining policy in Congress and in agencies over which the House Agriculture Committee -- where she worked -- had jurisdiction, official records show."

Until 2006, Ms. Gingrich was chief clerk at the committee. During the years between 2005 and 2009, Tiffany's annual lobbying costs shot up from around $100,000 to $360,000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The jewelry giant strongly denies any connection: "We had no reason to lobby the Agriculture Committee and we did not... Our focus has been on the Natural Resources Committee." The company also said it had never spoken with Newt or Callista Gingrich about federal mining policy.

But hang on, there's more. Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner reports, "Christy Evans, formerly a top staffer to then-whip Newt Gingrich, is a registered lobbyist for Tiffany's, the high-end jeweler where Gingrich and his wife enjoy an extraordinary line of credit. Evans, former floor assistant to Gingrich and now a lobbyist at the legendary K Street firm Cassidy & Associates, has represented Tiffany's on mining issues since 2000, according to lobbying filings."

The revolving door between government and corporate interests, revolving credit... the saga of Newt "Holly Golightly" Gingrich spins on. The whole affair is reminiscent of the preferential loan treatment now-collapsed subprime mortgage giant Countrywide Financial Corporation reportedly gave a few years ago to Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson (he resigned as a result), North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad (chair of the Senate Budget Committee), former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd (who served as chair of the Senate Banking Committee), and former cabinet secretaries Alphonso Jackson and Donna Shalala.

Yet all this greed and venality pales against the dark heart of the worst political scandal of all, the continuing nightmare caused by Citizens United and other court decisions that have unleashed a monster of unlimited and frequently anonymous private and corporate campaign cash against a nearly defenseless citizenry.

The recent disclosure that the conservative, "grass roots" advocacy organization American Action Network received first year revenues of $2.75 million from fewer than a dozen unnamed, wealthy donors (and 82% of the money from only three of them) led Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethic in Washington, to cite AAN as just one example of how "very few people are having a disproportionate impact on our country's elections."

(The group, affiliated with Karl Rove's American Crossroads political action committee, raised another $24 million in the four months before the 2010 midterms, funding attack ads against Democratic Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Florida, Washington State and Florida described by progressive watchdog Media Matters as "bogus," "deceptive" and "stripped of the facts.")

This revelation follows superb investigative reporting by a Bloomberg News team last month headlined "Secret Donors Multiply in U.S. Election Spending." They found that outside, or non-party organizations, including "trade groups, unions and non-profits started by political operatives that raise and spend money for advertising" spent $305 million on the 2010 elections, four times more than similar groups spent four years ago. They plan to raise even more money for the 2012 campaign. Contrary to law, five of those groups have failed to report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) more than $4 million spent on attack ads in last year's races.

"The organizations face little scrutiny from the FEC, where split votes between Republican and Democratic commissioners have stymied enforcement in case after case for almost three years," Bloomberg reported. "As a result, voters may find themselves choosing the next U.S. president knowing less about those trying to shape their views of the candidates than they have since secret money helped finance the Watergate burglary and re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972."

The journalists quoted Donald Simon, a director of pro-disclosure organization Democracy 21: "The amounts of corporate money involved in Watergate will look quaint by the standards of secret corporate funding that will take place in 2012."

Republicans and many Democrats oppose all new attempts at campaign finance reform, including a proposed White House executive order requiring corporations seeking government contracts to reveal their political contributions. On May 26, a federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, ruled that a long-standing ban on corporate contributions to federal candidates is unconstitutional. Unless the composition of the Supreme Court shifts in a new direction, a constitutional amendment that reverses Citizens United and other federal rulings may be our only prayer, the solitary hope we have to prevent the total usurpation of representative government by big businesses with bottomless pockets.

The Greeks had a word for it -- "oligarchy" -- political clout based on economic dominance. It is, in the words of economist Simon Johnson, "an antithesis to democracy... a small group with a lot of wealth and a lot of power. They pull the strings. They have the influence. They call the shots."

No accountability, no scruples, no shame. It's the biggest scandal of all: a republic struck down by a possibly fatal malady that even Gus the Greek's magic bottle of Windex can't cure.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Mitt Romney and "Citizens United"

Romney's inevitable reemergence and manipulation of the 2012 presidential race comes about largely because many Republicans are dissatisfied with the alternatives. But, there's another factor, a Supreme Court ruling back in January, 2010 that empowered the candidacy of a corporatist like Mr. Rommey in the first place.

You'll recall, in its "Citizens United v. Federal Elections Ruling," the Supreme Court blocked a ban on corporate spending, thereby endowing corporate giants with a free hand in spending on political elections.

Through a rather distorted interpretation of the First Amendment, thanks to this ruling, corporations are no longer considered paper entities, but are instead viewed as corporate personhoods, thus enabling them to exert undue influence on elections by blurring boundaries between companies and people.

So, whether Mitt Romney becomes the Republican presidential nominee or not, his presence in a presidential year makes it even more important for Congress, and the president, to start the important work of overturning "Citizens United" as Romney, himself, the mastermind behind Bain Capital, is the personification of corporate power.

While it may be too late for Congress to push through a constitutional amendment to rescind "Citizens United" in time for the next election, it's not too soon to make the voting public aware of the threat to democracy posed not just by that 2010 Supreme Court ruling, but by candidates, like Romney, who extol their business acumen while at the same time neglecting to mention that it often came at the expense of jobs, and unions.

It's important not to demonize Romney either, but to recognize that, like Scott Walker, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Paul Ryan, he reflects the values of a party that has a long, and harrowing history of union busting going back to Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controller's strike. Equally important is the arrogance of bolsering the corporate bottom line at the expense of working people, and the poor.

Make no mistake, Mr. Romney and his friends have not only extolled the virtues of venture capitalism, they have made a religion of it, and one that is well on the way to bringing about a financial apocalypse.

Mitt Romney morphed from Mormon missionary to free market missionary. A thumbnail of his background shows that nearly thirty years ago, he broke away from Bain & Company to found Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm. In one year alone, according to the Boston Globe, he was credited with raising $37 million in investment money.

Bain Capital's calling card was, at first, venture capital, and their first major investment was Staples, Inc. Bain then quickly transitioned into the field of leveraged buyouts which made for the acquisition of companies like Domino's Pizza, Sealy Corporation, Sports Authority, and Artisan Entertainment.

While Bain Capital was immensely lucrative, some troubling developments occurred when Damon Corporation, a company on whose board Romney sat, was prosecuted for defrauding the government. The prosecution went forward after Bain Capital, after nearly tripling its investment, sold off its interest in Damon.

Damon was not under Bain Capital's rule when accusations of defrauding the government were made, and Romney was never prosecuted, or even implicated in the prosecution, but the very fact that a company that had been under Bain's tutelage would later find its way into court on charges of fraud is, to say the least, unsettling.

In 2007, an article in the New York Times noted that Mr. Romney had been criticized "in the somewhat messy world of leveraged buyouts," a world that has since become a whole lot messier. http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2007/06/04/romneys-presidential-run-throws-spotlight-on-bain-capital.

Apart from the leveraged buyout controversy, as the Times also reports, Romney's 1994 campaign in Massachusetts for the Senate was defeated by an indefatigable, and memorable move by Ted Kennedy to publicize the firing of union workers at one of Bain Capital's companies in Indiana. The notion that a candidate's company was behind the firing of union members wouldn't help Romney any more today than it did nearly twenty years ago. All we need is someone like Ted Kennedy to remind people, as then Senate candidate Ted Kennedy did, of Mitt Romney's roots.

Though Romney insisted he wasn't responsible for the firings, he also conceded that leveraged buyouts often result in layoffs. "Sometimes the medicine is a little bitter but it is necessary to save the life of the patient," Romney told the Times back in 2007. It's a safe bet that, if it were possible, Mr. Romney would like to eat those words now.

The notion of leveraging corporate success on the backs of workers, union members, and the poor is not something that most Americans want to hear right now, but this is exactly the message governors, and former governors like Christie, and Palin are peddling, and no one is caling them on it.

Mitt Romney left Bain Capital back in 1999 when he became CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Retired partners of large conglommerates often receive passive profit shares long after they're gone, and Mitt Romney is no exception. One thing is guaranteed, he won't be applying for work at Domino's Pizza anytime soon.

In the end, this isn't about Mr. Romney. The Supreme Court neatly took care of that. The Supreme Court has set in motion the machinery that makes it irrelevant who the candidate is; what matters is the corporation behind the candidate.

Thanks to "Citizens United" ruling, it's now much easier, under the guise of the First Amendment, for companies like Staples, Sealy, Domino's, and Sports Authority to spend as much as they want on presidential political campaigns anonymously. Unlike voters in thirteen states that just passed voter identification laws, including Wisconsin and Texas, corporations won't be required to show their face, only the face of their candidate.

Congressional efforts to change that with "The Disclose Act," legislation mandating companies disclose their contributions to political campaigns were derailed. Savor the irony that the same legislators who demand photo I.D. from private citizens are giving corporations a free pass to conceal their own identities, and contributions to political campaigns.

The Supreme Court set a precedent back in 2000 by deciding a hotly contested presidential race. Yet another precedent was set by the Supreme Court in 2010 by not only facilitating another stolen election, but by providing the getaway car.

Mitt Romney will now get the chance again to run for president, and should he choose to run especially on his business acument, someone needs to ask Mr. Romney how much money Bain Capital has at one time or another lost due to leveraged buyouts and, more importantly, how many people lost their jobs due to predatory business practices. Is this the kind of business mode this country can afford right now?

And, think about this: at about the same time Romney was launching Bain Capital, Barack Obama was immersing himself in community organizing. We need an organizer now not another CEO. It wouldn't hurt to remind Mr. Obama of that, too.