Monday, August 7, 2006

Reclaiming American democracy?

Communities United to Strengthen America, a Leftist political group that recently opened a chapter here in Bloomington, had a community forum on Thursday night at their headquarters. The panel included former Bloomington mayor Tomi Allison, IU Education professor Paulette Dilworth, Bloomington Alternative columnist Greg Travis and Citizens Action Coalition executive director Grant Smith.

Allison opened up by saying that the last time America truly had grassroots political movements was in the 1960's. In response to these movements, corporations decided to react by pooling resources, setting up think tanks and PR firms, and founding legal centers to work against environmental laws. Allison would go on to lament the amount of corporate money in politics. This would set the tone for the main theme of the forum, which was "corporations are bad".

Dilworth explained her perspective as a professor preparing young adults to be social studies teachers. She made a statement that I found very interesting: that we have gotten away from grassroots movements when society has decided to let government make decisions for us. The irony of this statement, given the ideological perspectives of the panel and Citizens United, should be obvious.

Grant Smith was next, claiming that America is on the brink of social catastrophe given an alleged "war" on benefits, civil rights, the climate, and wages. Smith continued the main theme, saying that we are seeing the corporatization of public policy.

Greg Travis referred to Henry Ford as an example of a more "enlightened" time. Ford increased the wages of the people making automobiles, which resulted in more people being able to purchase Ford products and more profit for Ford. Travis said that Wal-Mart, which is five times bigger than Ford, should do the same for their employees and it would improve their bottom line. What Travis did not do is give an objective comparison of the similarities and differences between Ford and Wal-Mart, and whether increasing wages for people making automobiles in the early 20th Century is comparable to increasing wages for low-skilled workers in a retail chain in the early 21st Century.

Travis also argued that the economic statistics used by the mainstream media are irrelevant to 80%-90% of people. Gross National Product (or a similar measure, Gross Domestic Product) measures quantitative rather than qualitative growth. He also said that inflation is irrelevant, because wages generally rise with costs of goods and services. That is not always the case. reports that "Following the devaluation of the peso in Mexico in 1994, many people had their homes repossessed by banks as inflation swiftly rose making it impossible for earnings to match loan repayments." While the Mexican crisis a dozen years ago (or the hyperinflation in Germany after World War I) are extreme examples, it does illustrate that inflation can cause problems for everyone.

Travis would go on during question-and-answer session to state that in the past, corporations chartered by the state could be dissolved if they did not follow their charter. While Travis says he does not think eliminating corporations is appropriate, the amount of economic activity that is done through corporations means that the kind of review Travis is advocating would result in unprecedented state control over the economy. It also has civil rights implications, as Travis has suggested that the state could use the power to revoke the Herald-Times corporate charter should they print (or fail to print) what Travis find inappropriate.

The discussion of corporate influence on public policy is interesting. (In a very humorous moment, Greg Travis said that he believes corporations will have the right to vote in his lifetime.) I do not think that specific restrictions on corporate political activity are the way to go.

I think a better option would be to consider true comprehensive campaign finance reform; prohibiting contributions to candidates or political organizations from corporations (and labor unions), but removing all limitations on what individual citizens can spend or raise for candidates or interest groups. Along with this would be a strict system of reporting campaign contributions over $100; and making sure those reports are easily accessible on the Internet and in public libraries. This would eliminate constitutional issues such as McCain-Feingold's provisions to regulate the content of political speech.

Smith made a comment during question-and-answer session to the effect that you cannot get state legislators to listen to you unless you are bringing large amounts of campaign contributions. I do not think this is a fair characterization. When I have communicated with Monroe County’s legislators, they have often been very courteous and quick to answer my comments and questions. Even soon-to-be-former state Senator Bob Garton sent me a lengthy response to a letter I sent to the senate leadership about gerrymandering state legislative districts. I do not even live in his district! While I am sure there are people in both houses that only care where the next campaign contribution is coming from, I think comments like Smith’s unnecessarily and unfairly disparage everyone representing us in Indianapolis. Rhetoric like Smith’s is self-defeating, because it discourages citizens from trying to have an impact on what is going on in state government because they believe no one will listen to the concerns of average people.

It is going to be interesting to see what Communities United will do over the next three months. The organization, which gets "substantial funding" from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) just happened to set up shop in two hotly contested Congressional districts (Indiana’s 8th and 9th) represented by vulnerable Republicans. I is also not surprising that Communities United, given who their backers are, is so heavily biased against corporations. I suspect we will be hearing a lot more from Communities United as November 7 gets closer.