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Archive for October, 2011

The Crisis of the American Party System and Occupy Wall Street

The American Party system is in crisis. People are disillusioned with the system because it is not doing what it is supposed to do: provide people with a way to translate their preferences into policy.

The reason is simple: both parties are heavily influenced by the 1% – the super-rich corporate executives and bankers who are increasing their share of  our national wealth and income. There are very clear differences between the parties, but neither party represents what a majority of the public wants: a higher share of taxes paid by the rich, government action to create jobs, an end to “free trade” agreements that undercut labor rihts and environmental protection, and more support for the middle class.

The Republican Party is generally against all of the above. That would not be a problem if the other major party, the Democrats, was for them. We would have elections, the voters would vote their preferences, and the policies favored by the majority would be implemented. As things stand, though, the Republicans are against these policies while the Democrats are divided. The result is that if the Democrats win an election, the Republicans still win in policy-making.

So the crisis of the party system is its stasis. To resolve the crisis, this stasis must be broken. From 1992 through 2000, the main attempt to break it was through electoral activity: the independent campaign of Ross Perot in 1992, the Reform Party (again with Perot) in 1996, the Green Party campaign of Ralph Nader in 2000, along with a significant number of state and local independent and minor-party victories.

This electoral insurgency has been dwindling since the election of George W. Bush. Bush was such a polarizing figure that there was no room for a third alternative. Progressives would rally around whoever the Democrats nominated, because a Republican victory looked so much worse to them. This left us with a paradoxical situation: elections offered a clear choice between the parties, but neither choice was what a majority of the public wanted.

Occupy Wall Streeet is a new approach. It is not electoral. It is not trying to re-elect Obama or to defeat Obama. It is not a Democratic majority in Congress, nor is it seeking to replace conservative Democrats with more progressive ones.

Occupy Wall Street is not saying anything about elections. It is simply demanding action. It is demanding that public officials take their responsibility to the public seriously, by finding ways to meet people’s needs. Of course, that will have to involve more taxes on hugely profitable corporations, a fairer distribution of wealth and income, stricter regulation of banks, and much more.

Fort years ago the movement against the Vietnam War probably contributed to the election of Richard Nixon. It also ended the war. Maybe that was more important.


Background reading:

George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968

Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, ed., “Takin it to the Streets:” A Sixties Reader 

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Robert H. Frank, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

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Politicians Should Stop the Moral Posturing about PACs

I’m still working on my definitive analysis of the origins of Occupy Wall Street – but meanwhile, I just have to say something about political action committees (PACs), the bêtes noires of American politics.

Alan Khazei just announced that he is ending his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Scott Brown for the US Senate. Press reports on his announcement tended to say that he had tried to show a good moral example by refusing to take contributions from PACs; in an earlier campaign debate, he had challenged his main opponent, Elizabeth Warren, to do the same (she declined).

I have just one thing to say about refusing PAC contribution. It’s totally phony!

To see why I think that, let’s consider what a PAC is. The first PACs were actually organized by labor unions. (I bet a lot of you didn’t know that!) Unions were prohibited from making campaign contributions with  funds from member dues, on the grounds that a given member might not support the candidate getting the contributions. On the other hand, it was vitally important for unions to get pro-labor candidates elected; so they invented a new form of organiztion, the AFL’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), and the CIO’s Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC). Members made voluntary contributions — small ones, since we are talking about working people here — to these committees, and the committees were then able to make larger contributions to candidates. The labor movement thereby became an important force for progressive politics.

Prior to the Citizens United decision, corporations were also prohibited from making campaign contributions – so they, too, began to use the PAC form. Most PACs are now based on corporations, but there are many labor PACs, environmental PACs, pro-choice PACs, and many other PACs devoted to progressive causes.

PACs are highly regulated – they have to keep track of all donors, and can give a maximum of $5,000 to a candidate in any one election. When you look at the many ways money enters politics, PACs are actually one of the cleanest.

Some of the less clean ways of contributing:

  • Bundling. A fundraiser collects a lot of individual checks, each payable to a candidate’s campaign committee, and hands them over to the campaign in a bundle. Each individual has stayed within the legal limits, but the bundler has effectively contributed $100,000  or so.
  • Direct expenditure. Instead of contributing money, a contributor pays for ads directly – supposedly without consulting the candidate, but that part of it is very had to enforce.
  • Advocacy spending. Instead of buying ads telling someone to “vote for” or “vote against” a given candidate, the ad attacks a candidate’s issue position, and concludes “call Congressperson X and tell (him or her) what you think of this support for a disgusting policy!”

In comparison to those practices, PACs are clean and well-regulated. The should not be the form, it should be the substance: is a candidate supported by investment banks, or by working people? To simply refuse contributions from PACs, but not refuse individual contributions from bankers, is pure hypocrisy.


p.s. If this has whetted your interest in campaign finance, here are a couple of useful books:

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Uganda? Really?

I have an early appointment, and don’t have time to say much – a longer post on Occupy Wall Street will have to wait – but I have to say something about President Obama’s announcement that he is sending 100 combat troops to Uganda to help capture or kill Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) (and the still more shocking disclosure that there are already “some” US troops there).

This action has been endorsed by some people I respect, notably Nick Kristof and Representative James McGovern. I think the reasoning is the same in both cases. Innocent people are being killed by the LRA, and they are happy to see our country acting to protect those people.

My objection is simple. I don’t think the US military ever ends up improving things for civilian populations. We intervened in Haiti and reduced that country to near chaos (only made worse by the earthquake); we intervened in Somalia with similar results (we got rid of the Islamic Courts, which were keeping things stable, on the ground that they were Islamists – instead, we got a haven for piracy and now famine). We intervened in Libya, supposedly to protect civilians, and ended up flying reconnaissance as those we supported destroyed the city of Sirte, block by block.

There’s a lot more to be said. For example, there are places in Africa (Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe) or nearby (Bahrain) where things are a lot worse than in Uganda. But I don’t want to give the impression that I think we should send troops to those countries, either. I could also point out the strange coincidence that oil has been discovered in Uganda, and to growing Chinese influence in the region. And I could criticize the growing extent to which the Obama foreign policy consists of finding particular individuals to assassinate. But as I said, I only have a litte time this morning, so I will leave those topics for later.

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The Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party Analogy: Is It Valid?

People with many different viewpoints have been comparing the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Tea Party. Some of the mainstream media make the comparison with a very broad brush, seeing them both as manifestations of distrust and anger with “the system” – a view refuted in this excellent analysis by David Callahan on the website. In reality, the worldviews and purposes of OWS are very different from those of the Tea Party. As Callahan points out, the Tea Party has a generally pro-big business, anti-regulation agenda, while OWS is clearly directed at taking power away from Wall Street.

Meanwhile, a lot of progressives are wondering whether OWS will be “our” Tea Party – a movement that fires up voters, puts some backbone in the Democratic Party (and maybe even in President Obama), and gets a progressive agenda back into Washington.

I’d been wondering that myself. But now I’ve come to the conclusion that the differences between OWS and the Tea Party are more important than the similarities. The similarities are largely formal: use of social media, especially Meet-up, leading to the spontaneous rapid organizing of grassroots groups and actions.

As for differences, the obvious one is political direction, as I said above. But another difference is also very important: from the beginning, the Tea Party has been focused on electoral politics. They arose as a reaction to the Stimulus bill (American Recovery and Reinvesment Act) in early 2009, grew in opposition to Obama’s health care plan, and got their first victory from supporting Republican Scott Brown’s successful campaign for the US Senate from Massachusetts. What really made people take notice was the 2010 Republican primaries and state conventions, where Tea Party candidates defeated several favorites of the Republican establishment. Some of those candidates went on to defeat – but the Tea Party had sent a strong message that while Republicans might not win with them, they would definitely lose without them. The party noticed, and the Tea Party agenda dominates the House of Representatives.

OWS is not like that at all. Despite some calls from electoral activists to “Occupy the Ballot Box,” they are just not talking about elections and politicians. I just spent 75 minutes listening to an audio recording  of the Occupy Boston General Assembly the night of October 8 – when police had demolished a camp and arrested 140 protesters the night before – and while there was condemnation of Boston’s mayor for ordering the arrests, there was no discussion at all of elections.

OWS has a broader and deeper goal: they want to change the agenda, not of Congress, but of the American people. They want the 99% to be taken seriously; and they want to create a means by which the voice of the 99% can be heard. Sure, that may have an electoral effect, but it won’t be because OWS organizes people to vote for their candidates. It will be because we all come to realize that we have a right to expect something better.

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Menino Loses It, Orders Crackdown on Occupy Boston

After drawing praise for his low-key tolerance of the Occupy Boston protesters camped out in the city’s financial district, Mayor Thomas Menino suddenly changed course last night, ordering police to clear an encampment in a public park, supposedly in order to avoid possible damage to some shrubbery. Hundreds of police moved in at 3 AM, arrested 50 to 100 protesters, and cleared the park in a manner characterized by journalist Garrett Quinn as “ugly and fast.”

I wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say, but from online sources, including this series of photos on the Boston Globe‘s free website, police were forceful but not completely unrestrained. They were not wearing helmets, which indicates that they did not expect violent resistance (and they were right), but they were clearly trying to intimidate and disperse the protesters, rather than carry out peaceful, orderly arrests as have become typical of civil disobedience. A crowd of flag-holding veterans from Veterans for Peace was dispersed and several knocked down, as this video shows. Garbage trucks were brought in and all tents and other elements of the camp were removed, after which the Greenway (or that part of it) was fenced in by metal barriers. The original protest camp,  nearby in Dewey Square, is still there for now.

To ask the obvious question, what were they thinking? The claim that it was all about the shrubbery is a little hard to believe; but then, this is Menino, a mayor whose overall good policies are seriously marred by an autocratic manner and a penchant for taking petty grievances too seriously. He has never had serious electoral opposition, a status he has attained in part by his willingness to retaliate against critics; the underuse and maintenance difficulties of the Greenway have been a sore spot (that leads to a paywall- here’s a free source); and he may have been annoyed with the protesters for causing one more problem – it may be as simple as that.

But that’s missing the big picture, which is what Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston, and the other 1288 cities (as of 8 AM Oct. 11) in this movement are about. It’s about the 99% finally taking a stand, speaking out, and saying that it is no longer acceptable for government to serve the needs of finance rather than the needs of the people. These marches and camps have changed the national conversation, and have the potential to save the United States. Of course every march and camp brings some maintenance cost – although I don’t think the protesters were really planning to tear up the shrubbery (they have been unusually diligent in maintaining their camps and cleaning up trash, from what I’ve heard). This movement isn’t going to stop – and it would be nice to see Boston’s mayor get on the right side.

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What’s Wrong with the Silver Line?

It’s been awhile! I had to go to Washington last weekend, got back Tuesday just in time for my class, and have been playing catchup (grading papers, preparing classes) ever since. I started this post on the way to Washington because I was irate about the experience of getting to the airport on public transit. There are lots of world and national issues I should be writing about, but I want to finish this one first. If you don’t live in Boston, the following may be of limited interest, though it does relate to some general themes about urban life.

Public transit to the airport is clearly a good thing for any city. It decreases traffic, decreases the need for huge parking lots, and saves money for the traveller who can use it. Boston’s airport has always been transit-accessible, but this used to involve changing to the Blue Line (which for us Red Line users meant two changes), then taking a free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station to your terminal. So when they built an additional tunnel under Boston Harbor, the planners decided to add some Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Silver Line. The concept is beautiful – buses have a dedicated tunnel from South Station (the city’s main rail terminal, and a stop on the Red Line) for the first three stops, then make a short loop on city streets to get into the highway tunnel. The BRT articulated bus stops at every terminal, so you don’t have to make an additional change.

A second branch of the Silver Line runs from downtown Boston to Roxbury. This one is not so great – it runs on city streets, only partly in dedicated busways – and those busways are just painted lanes on the road, frequently blocked by unloading trucks, double-parked cars, or other thoughtless motorists.

But the airport service is, as I said, a beautiful concept. The implementation is another story. Here’s a list.

1. The transit authority (MBTA) has a bunch of articulated buses made for the airport service – they have build in luggage racks, an obvious necessity.  Since the racks take up space, they have other buses for the non-airport branches of the line, which go to various destinations in South Boston. However, about 30% of the time they use buses with no luggage racks for airport service. (This happened to me last Friday, inspiring this post!)  So people have no choice but to pile up their bags in the center aisle of the bus, effectively blocking passage down that aisle to anyone else. (I have also been on non-airport Silver Line buses that had luggage racks – so it seems that whoever assigns buses and drivers to routes is simply not paying attention.)

2. Boston’s light rail system, the Green Line, has pre-validation machines at most stops. e stops. These let people pay in advance, then get on the trolley using any door. The Silver Line has none of these. So unless you get on at one of the three underground stations – and, in particular, if you get on at the airport – you have to queue up at the front door with all your luggage, then make your way – past other people with luggage – to the rear of the bus to sit down and, if you are lucky, find open space in a luggage rack (see point 1).

3. Police make no attempt to keep the bus stops free of parked cars, and bus drivers make little attempt to pull completely into the bus stop; so, while the buses are designed with no internal steps, so that luggage could be rolled aboard – it can’t be, because the bus doesn’t pull up to the sidewalk. (In any case, the floor of the bus is slightly higher than most sidewalks, so you have to do a little lifting – a problem that could easily be fixed by raising the platforms in the stations).

Those are just the problems with the airport service. The Roxbury service is much worse. The biggest failing: isthat the MBTA reneged on its commitment to dig a new tunnel to bring the Roxbury buses underground at South Station, so that Roxbury users would have a no-changes ride to the airport. But that would have cost a billion or so, so let’s leave it aside. The other huge problem is that the service is simply not BRT. I’ve been on BRT – for example, in Ottawa – and it has two essential features: dedicated busways, and prepaid stations (you know, like a subway station, where you pay your fare as you enter the station, then board the bus or train through any door when it comes in). The Roxbury Silver Line has neither: its “busway” is a painted stretch of the street, its stations are just gussied-up bus stops. When the MBTA moved the Orange Line from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, they had promised a replacement service. The community asked for light rail; they said no, but BRT is just as good. What the community got was neither; it’s just a regular bus line with a fancy paint job.

The airport service could be improved at very little cost; they mostly need to pay attention, plus installing some of those validation machines they already have on the Green Line. The Roxbury service would take more – they really should put in light rail – but it would be worth it. The city of the future will be basically car-free, and we have to start moving that way now.

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