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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Wall Street rolls dice, cries all the way to the bank

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Oct. 27, 28 or 29

Wall Street seems like a casino where the problem gamblers ARE the House, and they only bet on sure things. “Wall Street hates uncertainty,” analysts say.

So, recent volatility supposedly stemmed from worries over falling oil prices, or weakening economies in China and Europe, or a dip in retail sales, or tensions in Ukraine, or ISIS, or Ebola…

Isn’t such uncertainty the New Reality in the 21st century? In fact, wasn’t it ALWAYS?

Wall Street dates to 1792, when 24 New York merchants and stockbrokers signed an agreement and the New York Stock Exchange was born, according to the Library of Congress.

There certainly were many diseases, wars, financial anxieties and unknowns during those 222 years.

Besides calling BS on Wall Street’s excuses, here are two other points. First, the U.S. economy – viewed as a whole and not as a system that serves the majority of Americans – is in its best shape in years. Next, OIL?

In mid-October, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had declined about 6 percent for the year. Also, the price of oil by the barrel had fallen about 13 percent just since early summer, due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and technologies, less driving by penny-pinching motorists, competition from shale oil, etc.

But fuel prices at the pump dropped, too. The average gas price of $3.59 per gallon fell to less than $3 in much of Illinois. So consumers are expected to start spending that new-found $20 or $50 a month.

“For every 10-cent decrease in the price of gas, it adds about $11 billion to the national economy,” Busey Bank vice president Ed Scharlau told GateHouse business reporter Steve Tarter.

Stock prices for trucking, airline and other companies in the transportation sector have improved, and in other recent economic news, industrial production was up significantly last month, and initial unemployment claims fell to their lower level since 2000.

Oil prices seem more like an effect than a cause, and if there’s a cause it may be Wall Street greed stacking the deck. Please be tolerant with the following barrage of numbers, but consider this spot-check comparison of oil prices and Wall Street based on four S&P 500 “milestones” in the last year, showing the stock market has NOT suffered from plunging oil prices:

From August 1, 2013 (when the Dow Jones finished at 15,628.02, the S&P 1,706.87, NASDAQ 3,675.74 and price of oil was $107.93 a barrel) to Nov. 22, 2013 (Dow Jones 16,064.77, the S&P 1,804.76, NASDAQ 3,991.65 and price of oil was down to $94.53/barrel), oil had dropped 12.4 percent but the Dow improved +2.8 percent, the S&P +5.7 percent and NASDAQ +8.5 percent.
From Nov. 22, 2013 to May 23, 2014 (when the Dow Jones finished at 16,606.27, the S&P 1,900.53, NASDAQ 4,185.81 and price of oil was $105.01/barrel), oil had dropped 11 percent but the Dow improved +3.3 percent, the S&P +5.3 percent and NASDAQ +4.8 percent.

From May 23 to August 26, 2014, (when the Dow Jones finished at 17,106.70, the S&P 2,000.02, NASDAQ 4,570.64. and price of oil had dropped to $95.78), oil had dropped 8.4 percent but the Dow improved +3 percent, the S&P +5.2 percent and NASDAQ +9.1 percent.

The correlation looks to be the OPPOSITE of recent instability, with Wall Street RISING when oil prices fall. The stock market (like gas prices at the pump, arguably) is being manipulated. Oil or terrorists or natural disasters are excuses that are less significant than cooking the books for quarterly data, CEO raises, etc.

Viewing the stock market as a human being (like corporations, according to the Supreme Court, right?), it should be in therapy for pathological dishonesty or multiple personalities. Or possibly it should be treated as a sociopath, someone without a conscience who in this case thinks it’s a high roller although it’s really just a gambling addict.

If Wall Street wants certainty, maybe it should be subjected to the “shock therapy” of real financial regulations – or even price controls like Republican President Richard Nixon imposed in 1971 for a few years.

Such treatment may not fully heal Wall Street’s troubled personality, but it could protect from its manipulations all the neighbors hurt by its actions: the rest of us.

[PICTURED: Tony Auth editorial cartoon "Wall Street's monument to greed," from theburningplatform.com]

Sunday, October 26, 2014

‘Gov’t takeover’ of ditches is insulting, silly scare tactic

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 23, 24 or 25

As the public-comment period on a new rule about water ended this week, the uproar over a “government takeover” of ditches is reminiscent of scare tactics about death panels, secret plans to confiscate guns, and programs to recruit people to gay lifestyles.

In a rural term: hogwash.

Local, state and federal officials have asked for a rule for years to define “the waters of the United States,” setting boundaries between wetlands, uplands and flowing waters.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule was proposed in response to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that left Clean Water Act (CWA) enforcement so vague as to make prosecution of polluters difficult because Congress hasn’t acted. The rulings – 2001’s “Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers” and 2006’s “Rapanos v. United States” – cast doubt on what was regulated.

The rule was envisioned as assuring farmers that no new regulations would affect them as clarification occurred. Water covered by the rule, based on peer-reviewed scientific studies linking streams, wetlands and downstream waters, had been protected since the Reagan administration, ensuring safe water for 117 million Americans. Then weird attacks started.

Iowa State Sen. Joni Ernst, campaigning for the U.S. Senate, said, “Before [farmers] put in a terrace, before they planted a tree, they would have to go to the federal government and basically ask for permission,” a statement that the nonpartisan Cedar Rapids Gazette “Fact Checker” pronounced false.

The Farm Bureau (which the Southwest Florida Water Management District calls “an insurance company turned Big Ag advocate”) contends that the rule would expand EPA’s jurisdiction over ordinary landscape features that might hold water, labeling the rule as government taking over all farming and land use – “puddles, ponds, ditches … virtually all water,” plus “weed control [and] fertilizer applications … even rainwater would be regulated.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said such claims are “silly.”

The rule “regulates the pollution and destruction of U.S. waters, not … land [and it] excludes groundwater,” EPA says.

“We are puzzled by the fierce reaction against something that only seeks to provide needed clarity to the Clean Water Act,” said Vicki Tschinkel, former Secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“Clarity of these regulations is desperately needed to protect our precious, yet deteriorating waters and to stop endless litigation.”

The proposed rule, issued April 21, doesn’t increase regulations affecting farming or other activities, said McCarthy, adding, “Every exemption that was in the prior rule remains.”

In fact, “the rule protects fewer waters than prior to the Supreme Court cases,” the EPA has repeatedly explained in some 350 public meetings.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture joined the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to define 56 conservation and farming practice as exempt, and concluded that the rule would increase CWA jurisdiction over 1,500 acres nationwide.

Some conservationists think the rule doesn’t go far enough. Ducks Unlimited is concerned that many Dakota wetlands would remain unprotected.

“Agriculture is the least regulated sector of discharges,” said Jon Devine, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which called Farm Bureau’s statements “willful misrepresentation.

“People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” Devine said. “They talk like the proposal is a radical departure from normal practice, when in truth it would restore safeguards for long-protected waterways and would protect fewer water bodies than the law had traditionally covered.”

Nevertheless, mouthpieces for AgriBusiness and Obama Haters like U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to kill the rule – and keep the CWA as muddy as possible – and 34 mostly rural-district Democrats joined Republicans last month in passing the measure, but the Senate hasn’t acted on it.

A conspiracy to wrest control of ditches and waterways? Why? The real plot is attacking the Obama administration and weakening existing regulations. The Farm Bureau is being used by extremist politicians as another weapon to strike Obama, or by corporate interests that want fewer regulations to operate (or pollute).

Too many Republicans just don’t trust the administration. Of anything. And the Farm Bureau doesn’t trust the government (which, ironically, provides subsidies to help producers).

“Farm Bureau and DC-based lobbyists for corporate ag are trying to mislead and scare America’s farmers and ranchers,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, CEO of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. “Most family farmers and ranchers want common-sense and easy-to-understand rules that help them protect the clean water that they depend on.”

EPA has a “Ditch the Myth” site to set the story straight: www2.epa.gov/uswaters/ditch-myth. But maybe the EPA should just announce its “surrender” and agree (which the rule does anyway), and then implement it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fighting the Right for our rights

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Oct. 20, 21 or 22

This election, the two dominant political parties’ behavior is reminiscent of two classic quotes. Humorist Will Rogers in 1935 wrote, “I am not a member of any organized party – I am a Democrat.” And mainstream Republicans attacked by Right-wing extremists might think of the 1980 movie “Elephant Man,” in which the title character cries, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

Americans are focused on pocketbook issues, yet decades of attacks on labor, the declining value of wages compared to the cost of living, and the worst “do-nothing” Congress in history all make reform difficult. Instead, some Republicans now impede voting itself as well as legislation.

An Associated Press/GfK poll out this month found that 90 percent of us think the economy is either “very important” or “extremely important.” Despite the GOP’s blocking most proposals from President Obama, there’s been somewhat of an economic recovery, but regular folks haven’t benefited from years of a booming stock market and corporate profits. By itself, the “market” fails us.

“The Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at a 4.6 percent annual rate in the second quarter of the year,” wrote former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “So what? The median household’s income continues to drop. Consumers don’t have enough money to buy. We’re in the first economic upturn on record in which 90 percent of Americans have become worse off.”

The campaign leading up to Nov. 4 has underscored that – rather than strengthening the middle class – the GOP has boosted the fortunes of the 1% who contribute to their campaigns and to engage in questionable actions such as voting suppression in order to hang on to power. Too many Democrats also seem more worried about re-election than effectively confronting obstructionism.

In Illinois, the GOP has launched a $1 million campaign that assigns 5,000 election “observers” to polling places. Supposedly guarding against voter fraud by targeting ineligible voters, the operation is actually voter intimidation, Democrats say.

“We don’t interpret these efforts as anything other than voter suppression,” commented Rikeesha Phelon, an Illinois spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association.

Illinois voters aren’t required to show photo identification, but the GOP says it’s checking obituaries, comparing utility shut-off notices and vacant or commercial properties with voter-registration records, which can target the poor as well as people who inadvertently err in updating changes of address.

“The GOP is working desperately to deny the right to vote to citizens it doesn’t like,” said Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers, “ – you know, poor people, black people, Hispanic people, old people, female people, especially people it believes are inclined to vote for Democrats.

“When their hands are pressed on a Bible in court, Republican experts admit they’ve got no evidence of in-person voter fraud,” Gerard continued. “Voter fraud is unacceptable. But so is disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of citizens.”

Elsewhere, extremist GOP candidates have become common, from multi-millionaire Bruce Rauner running for Illinois governor and obstructionist Mitch McConnell seeking his sixth six-year term as U.S. Senator from Kentucky, to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Tea Partiers such as Georgia’s Jody Hice. Rauner opposes collective bargaining for some workers, advocates cutting public-employee pensions guaranteed by the constitution, and has led corporations like H-Cube and the Polymer Group in sending jobs overseas.

Brownback instituted “trickle-down” economic policies, promising, “Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.” But its job growth now trails the nation, its budget is being drained, and revenue is coming in much lower than even the worst forecasts predicted. Kansas’ financial condition is so bad now that both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgraded its credit rating. (Standard & Poor’s also reported last month that as income inequality grows, state tax revenues decline.)

GOP Congressional front-runner Hice, a Baptist pastor, seems to endorse armed insurrection against the government he wants to join, commenting, “The Second Amendment, ultimately, [is] not about hunting and fishing and that type of thing. It is about our ability as individuals to defend ourselves.” (He also wrote that the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty doesn’t include Islam.)

There are choices, and the ballot box will present opportunities to resist extremist positions. (It would be nice to have more Libertarian and Green Party options, but Democrats and Republicans block their access whenever possible.)

Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stigitz, author of “The Price of Inequality,” says, “The Right wing is condemning communities to death. Their answer is the market will take care of it. Well, we’ve been watching, and it hasn’t happened.”

[PICTURED: David Horsey editorial cartoon from forum.holyculture.net]

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Election means battle for Senate, working people

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Oct. 13, 14 or 15

Among the U.S. Senate’s almost unique powers of conducting impeachment trials, ratifying treaties, and voting on appointments as ambassadors and Supreme Court Justices, it can decide whether to confirm Presidential nominations to high-level positions in federal departments and agencies, including the Attorney General and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

AG Eric Holder is resigning, so a fight over confirming President Obama’s pick to replace him looms. And if the GOP wins control of the Senate in three weeks, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) signaled that conservative lawmakers will attack the National Labor Relations Board, escalating their “war on workers."

On November 4 – in this 100th year of the direct election of U.S. Senators – voters will decide on 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate, where Democrats now have a 53-45 majority, with two Independents (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut caucus with Democrats).

Seats in play are 23 Democrats, 8 Republicans and both Independents. The GOP needs to hold on to its seats and win six of the others to dominate the Senate.

If they do, conservatives wouldn’t have to pass anti-union laws to further hurt regular working Americans. The budget and appropriations processes could slow government even if Obama vetoes anti-labor bills. Like Tea Partied House Republicans, a GOP Senate could just pester the NLRB or kill labor-friendly measures; NLRB nominations would be stymied; further weakening a slow, ineffective NLRB would start.

Alexander, the Senate Labor Committee’s ranking Republican, made the NLRB part of his successful campaign against a Tea Party challenger in August, saying, “The NLRB is pursuing some of the most intrusive and misguided policies under this administration.”

Republicans could try to overturn a few recent NLRB actions, including a “fast-track” election ruling that could speed up union-representation voting to discourage employers from illegally threatening workers.

The NLRB’s makeup will change. Democratic board member Nancy Schiffer’s term expires in December, and a GOP-controlled Senate would probably block any replacement Obama nominates, so Schiffer’s exit would leave the board with two Republican (Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson, III) and two Democrats (Mark Gaston Pearce and Kent Hirozawa).

“I think what they really want to do is shut down the inner workings of the NLRB and keep them from doing their job,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.

Already, the NLRB is in the process of reissuing hundreds of decisions invalidated by a Supreme Court ruling that Obama didn’t have the authority to make recess appointments.

Such a corporate-cozy battle plan isn’t exactly news – or new.

A related conspiracy of sorts was hatched 43 years ago by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a corporate lawyer and Big Tobacco lobbyist who issued a confidential memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that provided a blueprint for corporate supremacy.

Issued August 8, 1971, Powell’s manifesto, “The Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” said the nation still embraced New Deal values (that government should help remedy inequality, injustice and other problems), and corporate America should change that by reasserting its influence.

Powell said Business must counter workers’ power by dominating government policy by investing in more lobbyists, conservative “think tanks,” Political Action Committee campaign contributions, bolstered public relations, and commercial support for Right-Wing causes and voices.

The memo also urged “constant surveillance” of textbook and TV content, and purging progressive perspectives from books and other media.

Today, some corporations already defy the law, whether it’s labor law, financial regulations, or pollution protections. They bust unions, off-shore operations and profits, misclassify workers to engage in “wage theft,” and – through groups such as the Koch brothers’ American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Super PACs such as Karl Roves’ Crossroad GPS – draft legislation and elect their candidates.

So: Tax burdens are lifted from corporations and shouldered by everyday people; retirement benefits are weakened; wealth is dramatically transferred to the 1 percent; and so on.

But that’s not enough for extremists aiming to take over Capitol Hill.

If it’s a war these corporate conservatives declare, the response should be that once expressed by voting-rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony, who said, “ ‘Organize, agitate, educate’ must be our war cry.”

[PICTURED: Matt Wuerker cartoon from hightowerlowdown.org]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Business-gov’t group ALEC seeing defections

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 16, 17 or 18

Organizing can achieve results, and collective strength sometimes overcomes powerful interests.

For example, days after progressive groups, led by the Teachers union, cited the American Legislative Exchange Council’s secretive, extremist opposition to Internet neutrality, clean energy and labor rights, and wrote Google executives to ask them dump its membership in ALEC, Google quit the group, which is backed by the Koch brothers.

Co-signers of the letter included the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the Alliance for Retired Americans, the Communications Workers, Good Jobs First, the Service Employees, the Steelworkers, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Working America.

In an interview on National Public Radio’s “Diane Rehm Show,” Google chairman Eric Schmidt said his company was dropping its ALEC membership over the group’s environmental policies, commenting, “[Google] has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts. What a shock! And the facts of climate change are not in question. The people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. They’re just literally lying.”

ALEC is notorious for its Radical Right agenda, from anti-worker laws to the “Stand Your Ground” measure passed by the GOP-run Florida legislature. That law let a neighborhood watch “volunteer” in 2012 go free after fatally shooting unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin. The incident sparked nationwide protests and was cited by dozens of companies who left ALEC.

ALEC, based in Alexandria, Va., maintains a library of “model” state legislation and connects businesses with a network of lawmakers – sort of acting as a pimp for elected officials selling their services. But offering corporate members a voice in policymaking when that means extremist-conservative policies have caused labor unions, civic organizations, nonprofits and shareholder-activist groups to pressure companies – who pay thousands for ALEC membership – to quit.

Google’s departure came after Microsoft left ALEC in July, and it was followed by Facebook, YELP, Yahoo, Uber and Lyft. Also, the American Sustainable Business Council, which says it represents more than 200,000 businesses in the United States, issued a statement praising companies who’ve canceled their ALEC memberships “over ALEC’s obstruction of America’s transition to a renewable energy economy,” said David Levine, co-founder and CEO of the business group.

The impact on ALEC as a result of the desertion of large corporations could weaken it as an entity that sponsors and passes destructive legislation, and it could snowball to encourage other responsible businesses to flee the Right-wing consortium. Already, Walden Asset Management, which manages $3 billion in investor money, has asked dozens of companies – including Comcast, eBay, Exxon-Mobil and UPS – to reassess their involvement with ALEC, according to Senior Vice President Tim Smith, who said, “We think that the company’s reputation is hurt by the relationship. We think that they’re supporting a very, very partisan political agenda and it is actually an unwise use of shareholder money.”

Almost 100 companies have left ALEC since 2011, when the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause and other groups focused on campaign finance reform, environmental issues, and labor rights all started to pressure companies to leave ALEC.

Jay Riestenberg, a Common Cause policy analyst, said, “These companies have decided it’s just not worth it anymore. I think with the departure of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Yelp … people aren’t going to take ALEC seriously.”

Activists are now moving to pressure eBay and AOL to drop their involvement with ALEC.

MoveOn.org’s Marisol Garcia, whose effort, “AOL: If you’re in ALEC, you’ve got fail,” is online, said, “We need to tell AOL that, like dial-up Internet users in an age of broadband, continuing their ALEC membership means they’ll only fall further behind.”

She added, “Sign our petition and tell AOL to take a stand against ALEC’s dirty politicians and backroom deals.”

[PICTURED: Graphic from "Big Education Ape (A Parent Engaged)."]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

People, troops polls apart on military escalation?

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 9, 10 or 11

Despite more than a decade of war and the immeasurable cost in treasure and lives lost and hurt, about one-third of those responding to an Associated Press/GfK poll support going beyond air strikes against the ISIS terrorist group and putting U.S. military “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria.

Of course, that means about 70 percent did not voice support for such an escalation.

The poll – which also concluded that 53 percent now think there’s a high risk of a terrorist attack inside the United States – showed that the country is split about evenly on how President Obama is handling the crisis.

Other recent polls by Washington Post-ABC News and Wall Street Journal/NBC News have suggested rising public support for stepped-up air strikes. Since such assertions contrast with polling this summer that suggested significant opposition to any expanded military operations abroad, reasonable people may conclude that officials and media alarmists are influencing people’s shifting opinions.

In fact, according to Gallup, a majority of Americans continues to say that the country shouldn’t have invaded Iraq in 2003 and shouldn’t conduct direct military action again to support the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS. Past opinion polls also have shown that the U.S. public has been consistently wary about military intervention in the Syrian civil war.

“At this point it remains unclear if American public opinion is changing more generally on military and foreign policy issues, or if recent shifts are unique to the challenge posed by the Islamic State,” writes Leighton Walter Kille of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “After all, public sentiment is often unpredictable on matters of war and peace, as history shows.”

Indeed, through the decades, many “armchair soldiers” in the comfort of their homes have voiced support for military action, according to Gallup:

* 47% backed the U.S. effort to enforce a U.N. “no fly” zone in Libya in March 2011;
* 37% supported a “surge” of deployed troops to Afghanistan in November 2009;
* 66% approved of President Bush’s 2003 demand that dictator Saddam Hussein leave Iraq in 48 hours;
* 88% agreed with invading Afghanistan in October 2011, a month after 9/11;
* 42% approved President Clinton’s use of air strikes against Serbian forced is Kosovo in October 1998;
* 49% supported sending troops to Bosnia in May 1993;
* 49% also backed deploying troops to Kuwait and Iraq in December 1990;
* about 75% thought it was justified to launch air strikes against Libya in March 1986 in retaliation for dictator Muammar Qaddafi firing missiles at U.S. assets;
* more than 40% approved President Johnson continuing U.S. involvement in Vietnam in February 1965; and
* 54% endorsed going to war with China in July 1950 if that country sent troops to help North Korean forces.

That all might seem to indicate somewhat of a civilian willingness to go to war, but look again: Often the majority does NOT support military intervention. And what about those with real, on-the-ground, close-up experiences? What do they think about the current Middle East crisis?

About 70 percent of the military rank and file are opposed to expanding the military mission to Iraq and Syria, according to a Military Times newspaper survey of active-duty personnel.

(Yes, that roughly corresponds to the civilians in the AP/GfK poll who did not voice support for “boots on the ground.”)

Some members of the military conceded that there can be a lingering feeling that the nation doesn’t want its fallen servicemen and -women to have died for nothing. But that reasoning is flawed, according to Marine 2nd Lt. Christopher Fox, who deployed twice to Iraq.

He told Military Times, published by Gannett, “A lot of people have that ‘sunken cost’ mentality – ‘Since we put so much into it, we can’t pull out right now,’ ” he said. “That is not a good argument for anything.”

So the argument now may be fear – fear stoked, if not contrived, by military leaders, weapons manufacturers, Congressional cheerleaders, and ratings-hungry (or anti-Obama) media mouthpieces.

Shouldn’t we try to tune them out and instead listen to our children in the military?

[PICTURED: "Boots on the Ground" display at the Charleston (W. Va.) Civic Center a decade ago, organized by the West Virginia Patriots for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee to protest hundreds of U.S. fatalities at that point in the invasion and occupation off Iraq. Photo from wvpatriotsforpeace.org.]

Thursday, October 9, 2014

G-O-T-V drives seek to counter indifference, suppression

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Oct. 6, 7 or 8

Many Americans are worried about the influence that for-profit corporations and the rich have on elections, but will that concern translate unto a healthy turnout November 4?

The nonpartisan public-interest organization Public Citizen recently announced that more than 1 million U.S. citizens had either signed a petition to bring transparency to corporations contributing shareholder-owned funds to elections, or sent formal comments to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Public Citizen and the Corporate Reform Coalition – including the League of Women Voters, the Business Ethics Network, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Union of Concerned Scientists – urge the SEC “to require all publicly traded companies to disclose political spending information to their shareholders.

“The rulemaking petition has garnered historic support from investors and the general public,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. However, “the rule was placed on the [SEC’s] agenda … in 2013 but was removed by Chair Mary Jo White earlier this year. Its removal sparked outrage among its advocates, who contend that White is not taking into account the changing needs of investors since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in ‘Citizens United.’ That ruling gave corporations and the wealthy the green light to spend unlimited sums to influence elections.”

To counter “Citizens United” and the apathy too many Americans have in midterm elections, church, union and other groups are stepping up Get Out The Vote efforts to get people ready, willing and able to vote.

“We have 6 to 10 people staffing our phone banks every night,” said the Illinois Federation of Labor’s Jason Keller, who’s coordinating one program. “It’s not difficult to get volunteers, even though a lot of them work 8 to 5, then come in here and work 5 to 8. Everyone knows it’s important.”

Also important is preparing to vote: getting information about the issues and candidates, and registering (which is quick and easy online via turbovote.org).

After a voter registration event last month, Illinois NAACP leader Don Jackson said, “It can be a real challenge. The process is slow, but we’ll keep going.”

Technology helps such activities. Social media and email as well as radio spots and outreach all can offer details on polling places, early voting and especially absentee voting, which can be done for any reason.

Besides fighting indifference in off-year elections, civic activists are battling a concerted attempt to make voting more difficult. On Nov. 4, almost half of America’s voters will face voting restrictions not in place in 2010, according to the AFL-CIO.

Poll taxes and literacy tests are history, but many people are worried about voter suppression – attempted by means of new limits justified by right-wing interests as answering “voter fraud” – a false premise. (Voter fraud is so rare as to be nonexistent, according to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice and even the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which said, “The evidence of significant voter fraud is zero.”)

As far as the influence of money, the Corporate Reform Coalition will continue its long-range work to shed sunshine on campaign contributions despite setbacks.

A majority of the U.S. Senate in September voted for a Constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress and the states to set rules on campaign fund raising and spending to help prevent the rich and powerful from buying elections. However, 42 Republicans voted against the measure, able to “filibuster this measure and instead choose to support a broken system that prioritizes corporations and billionaires over regular voters,” commented U.S. Sen. Morris Udall (D-N.M.), who sponsored the bill. Still, “today was a historic day for campaign finance reform, with more than half of the Senate voting on a constitutional amendment to make it clear that the American people have the right to regulate campaign finance.”

Without grassroots Get Out The Vote and registration drives, Mark Karlin of Buzzflash wrote, “What we end up with is a spectacle of faux-democracy in which voters are marionettes. Their strings are pulled by ads, corporate media and propaganda financed by corporations and 1%-ers, [and] voters do not get a crumb of information on which corporations are manipulating them.”

[PICTURED: Graphic from the American Democracy Project at UNK.edu.]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Solidarity with the Browns, Ferguson and unarmed youths

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 2, 3 or 4

Ferguson, Mo., Police Chief Tom Jackson last week publicly apologized to the family of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown, fatally shot by a local police officer in August, saying he was sorry for their loss, for taking hours to remove his body from the street, and for interfering with demonstrators’ rights, but a grand jury there is still deliberating and the FBI still investigating.

Besides such a crawl toward justice, Brown’s killing may reveal the results of economic disparity and political disenfranchisement, and the challenge to and response by labor and progressive groups. However, complaints that unions haven’t weighed in on the tragedy – or aren’t doing enough to demand that cops must stop killing unarmed people – overlook labor’s engagement (although the criticism has some merit for the Left).

After all, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis both have spoken forcefully about the situation, as has the St. Louis Labor Council, plus the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 72, the American Federation of Government Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1, and others.

This horrendous act is not the same as the case of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed African-American teen gunned down. There, the shooter was a violent vigilante who wasn’t even going to be arrested, much less tried, if not for an organized outcry. Instead, the Ferguson killing was by a policeman – a union member, Trumka noted – and it exemplifies an entrenched set of questionable practices by law enforcement and the consequences of an eroding middle class.

Ferguson, North St. Louis County and all its communities have suffered decades of economic disinvestment, loss of manufacturing jobs, and massive disruption by highway construction and airport expansion, the St. Louis American newspaper editorialized, writing, “The mortgage bubble really burst in these areas, with rampant home foreclosures. Large retail areas have been abandoned. Disillusionment, resentment and tension set in where economic opportunities, recreation and thriving businesses once flourished.”

Communications Workers of America Local 6355 President Bradley Harmon told Press Associates, Inc. that unemployment among young black men in the St. Louis area is extraordinarily high – 47 percent – and Brown was a Normandy High School graduate in a struggling school district taken over by the state and in the process of being privatized. Harmon said, “These are issues that are at the heart of the labor movement.”

Civil rights groups have been active, as have clergy. For instance, a group of about 100 religious leaders marched from Clayton, Mo., to the office of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough to demand an expedited grand jury hearing and the arrest of the shooter, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. En route, Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and representatives of various faiths demonstrated, repeating the episode’s stark phrase, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” But rather than asking, “Where is labor?” in almost an accusatory way, critics might legitimately wonder where the National Organization for Women is, or MoveOn.org, Amnesty International, reproductive rights activists, the Occupy movement, climate justice people, or even public figures such as Major League Baseball players and “Cardinal Nation.”

Writing about demands on athletes to publicly insist on stopping such tragedies, Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin said, “We need the full weight of [all] these organizations. We need them using their reservoirs of power, money and influence to demilitarize police departments, demand civilian review boards for the police, and stop the violence. We need them showing the true meaning of solidarity; the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and our struggles are conjoined.”

The Rev. Martin Rafanan -- co-chair of the St. Louis Workers Rights Board of Jobs with Justice and community director for Show Me $15, the fast-food workers advocacy group -- linked the killing to economic inequality. Such injustice, Rafanan said, is “held in place by structural oppression based on race, class and human identities. Without the ability to have the resources to meet basic human needs, take care of families, and create opportunity and dignity in our neighborhoods, Ferguson will happen over and over again. The wealth in the nation is going to capital rather than workers, and that must change.”

Labor is involved, as it must be – as must all progressives.

[PICTURED: St. Louis Labor Tribune photo of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka addressing the Missouri AFL-CIO convention Sept. 15, when he said the labor movement must stand up for everyone, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. "An attack on one is an attack on all," he said.]