Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lesson Of Election: The Big Money Lost! . . . Or Maybe That's Pretty Far From Perfectly True

Which Times article to believe?  No effect from money or a shift to the right?
People still haven’t got it sorted out: One way you know . . . conflicting headlines in the same edition of the New York Times!  Everybody’s busy proclaiming victory or trying to deny actual defeat.  Fact is, they're both right.

One perfectly good take on this election is that the big money unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision lost.  Upper left hand of its front page the Times today chose to run a story making exactly this point: Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors, by Nicholas Confessore and Jess Bidgood, November 7, 2012.

After what the Times notes was the “most expensive election in American history drew to a close this week with a price tag estimated at more than $6 billion” it comments that “the nation’s megadonors returned home with lighter wallets and few victories.”  Indeed, just as the Times observes, “President Obama will return to the White House in January, and the Democrats have strengthened their lock on the Senate.”

But contrast that with the message conveyed by other articles the Times featured in the same edition.  One picture is worth a thousand words and the message bolstered by Times data graphics proclaimed “most counties shifted toward the Republican side in Tuesdays’s vote, partly reversing large steps to the left in the 2008 election” and “Counties Blue and Red Move to the Right.”   See: Over the Decades, How States Have Shifted, How Obama Won Re-election, Obama Was Not as Strong as in 2008, but Strong Enough.

The Times supplies the above, illustrating a shift to the right, in the form of an animation at their site
And let’s not forget that the House of Representatives, seized by the Republicans in 2010, remained in Republican control.  So Karl Rove’s perspective reported in that first mentioned front page Times article is very important: Without the huge amount of spending by the megadonors, “the race would not have been as close as it was.” *  Among other things the Democrats might have taken back the House.  And this doesn’t even begin to consider what the effect of big money might have been in smaller, more easily bought local elections.
(* Notwithstanding, this philosophical point of view, Rove reportedly melted down on the Fox News set the night of the election unwilling to admit Obama had won Ohio.)
So if there is solace to be taken that the influence of big money can be fought and counteracted, that isn’t to say that its influence isn’t mightily felt.

With big money in play this election was fought very strategically on both sides.  It’s already been mentioned that Republicans “have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.”  That Republicans have won presidential elections while losing the vote is an indication that money was spent strategically with the most important goal being the winning of the election, not the winning of the hearts and minds of the populace.  But Obama was also willing to play strategically and for a while it was viewed as possible that Obama might have won the all-important electoral college without winning the popular vote.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that with a little campaigning in North Carolina, a state the Obama campaign apparently wrote off due to importance of electoral collage math, Obama probably would have shifted a lot of voters in his favor, adding to his popular vote and electoral collage tallies.

Big money also probably forced the Democrats to play a strategic game concentrating on keeping a balance of power with majority in the Senate rather than devote resources to taking back the House.

How did big money assert itself in this election?  The best analysis will come in time.  Since much of the money invested in political candidates now stays secret, utilizing 501(c)(4) organizations, organizations that are ostensibly formed for charitable and public purposes but these days are abused for political purposes, it may take a long time to figure out whose money was going where, notwithstanding that there are some donors, like Sheldon Adelson, who actually seem to like to attract attention to the money they are giving as well as to whom it's going.

Before we discount the influence of big money too quickly let’s remember that Romney was the Republican candidate because he was the product of the big money.  In the Whac-a-Mole Republican primaries it was the powerful effect of Romney money that was whacking down that long string of anyone-but-Romney alternative candidates.  Speaking of "anybody but Romney," the phrase can be inverted and turned to say that analysts keeping their eye on the money never gave anybody but Romney a chance of being the Republican candidate, consistently and for more than a full year in advance.

The irony is that the other potential candidates taking on Romney were those favored by those in the populace stirred up by the Tea Party.  Consider that the Tea Party, while it masquerades as grass roots, is actually a top-down movement.  It is top-down and well-funded because it is largely the creation of big money.  It served to siphon off and engage a lot of the national anger coming to the surface about privileged elites that would have been channeled more rationally in a direction like the Occupy Wall Street movement.  While most of the establishment's big money wanted Romney, the big money funding the Tea Party couldn’t and didn’t tightly control the free-for-all preferences emerging for for candidates like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich.

What the donors behind the Tea Party have been buying with their focus on extremism and their picking off of moderates is an intransigent resistance to compromise, leftward movement, and any sort or rational debate and discussion about issues.  Gridlock is acceptable, likely desirable, to them.  Their strategies of creating new out-lying poles of "political" thought parallel the strategies of those spending heavily to create doubt about climate change and to remove from office politicians willing to take steps to deal with it.  This is not surprising because a lot of the money to fund the Tea Party and to fund creation of doubt concerning the scientific conclusions on climate change is actually coming from the same places.

I recently offered a teaser which I will offer here again: This may be the last presidential election where the fossil fuel industry will ever be able to spend this kind of money to buy politicians.  Why?  I’ll have to set that aside and deal with it in a future National Notice article.

Provided that big money is disabled in the future the shift to red that money bought in this election is likely to be counteracted by the changing demographic that favor Democrats in future years.  That's provided that the money, being done with this election, doesn't figure out how to buy new set of voters in the future.

Was big money also spent on the Democratic side of the election?  Of course.  There was some balancing out.  Big money on the Democratic side helped defeat big money of the Republican side, but there was much more of it on the Republican side.  Big money unleashed in politics was exactly what Republican strategists wanted when they pursued the Citizens United case.

There are those who will correctly point out that because there was big money spent on the Democratic side we should expect Obama will inevitably behave with a certain deference to the establishment entities where the money came from as a result.  True, but by virtue of that analysis we can also expect Obama to be less beholden to the Wall Streeters who abandoned him this time around and less beholden to fossil fuel industry that threw so much support to Romney.

Another set of data maps in today's Times showing a shift to red
Did the big money win?  Yes, in part: The House is still Republican.  The Republican’s are proclaiming that the results of the election mean that the people of the United State don’t want higher taxes on the rich.  If that is believed or treated as true that's a win for them.  Also, as mentioned in the last National Notice article, it’s the Republicans in the House of Representatives who won’t even talk about their positions about climate change.

Yes, big money is having a lot of influence.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Could The Environment Be The Main Issue In This Election, Not The Economy And Increasing Disparities In Wealth? It’s Really The same Thing

Mitt Romney during his Republican Convention acceptance speech, biting his lip in sarcastic mockery of the idea that the world should be concerned about climate change
I just put up a National Notice article that said that the central issue of this election and what everyone should absolutely understand is that the most important thing about the economy right now is that our economy bogs down when we focus the nation's policy on squeezing the majority of citizens so that a few at the top can do a lot better than everyone else. (See: Sunday, November 4, 2012, Central Issue In Election And Most Important Thing About The Economy: We Falter Economically When Everyone’s Squeezed To Benefit A Few At The Top.)

But what if that isn’t the most important issue?  Maybe, as superstorm Hurricane Sandy tends to demonstrate amply well, we should all be considering that the environment is really the most important issue in the election, trumping the economy.  If something isn’t done about weather weirding, global warming, climate change, whatever you want to call it, the earth’s demise as we know it may be irreversible before the next presidential election rolls around.

We all remember how in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention Mitt Romney said “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans. . . .” and then held back for an extended fourteen seconds bemusedly biting his lip while the entire convention hall laughed (see video above).  Romney then proceeded:
     . .  And to heal the planet. [more laughter]

    My promise is to help you and your family.
As if those suffering from disasters like superstorm Sandy or the drought that wiped out much of the corn belt this year would make any such distinction.  Maybe the distinction is that Romney has said that FEMA, the federal agency that comes in and cleans up after disasters precipitated or intensified by climate change, should be discontinued by the federal government so it can be cast down to the state level and privatized.  And Romney wants to totally unleash the fossil fuel industry.

The science on climate change is in.  There are no real scientists on any theoretical “other side” . . . . just a bunch of paid hacks.  Unless we as a country and a species quickly start changing how we do things we may soon be extinct or, at the very least, well on the way to a world that will have little resemblance to the world that has nurtured mankind since the beginning of human existence.

Is it fair for me at this late juncture to say that environmental destruction from climate change trumps the importance of the economy as an issue, along with the increasing disparities in the control of wealth now dragging it down?  No, because they are really the same thing.   

There is only one reason that we are not now addressing the issues of climate change: It's the vast amount of money that is being spent to cause the public to doubt incontrovertible science.   I suggest people take the time to watch Frontline’s recent hour-long documentary, “Climate of Doubt,” that shows exactly how the money is spent to create this doubt and you can meet, on screen, the people that do it.  While you are at it you may also want to watch Frontline’s “Big Sky, Big Money” which is about much the same thing, how money is secretly deployed to buy elections and politicians.  Even if money is paying for political advertisements that are, say for example about a social issue, those paying to finance those ads may be motivated by only an entirely different concern: Whether their corporations can continue to steal from the public.

Here is what I said in a Noticing New York article on the subject (which also said that New York should prepare for storm surges):
Continued burning of fossil fuels persists because it is attractive to the petroleum, gas and coal industry. It is attractive to them because these industries are highly subsidized. They are subsidized overtly with such things as steep tax breaks and, more important, they are subsidized by not having to pay for what they take from the public. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t have to pay for polluting the atmosphere with injected carbon, they don’t have to pay for the cost of higher sea levels, acidification of the oceans, or extreme weather events. They are also insulated, as in the case of the BP oil spill, from full legal liability for the damage done to the environment from spewing oil directly into the ocean.

In essence, the profit of the fossil fuels industry is predicated on what they are able to extract from the public and the public realm without paying for it.
(See: Wednesday, September 29, 2010, Brooklyn Tornadoes and a Cool-Headed Appraisal of Weather Weirding in New York.)

In other words, what’s behind all the money being spent to prevent the country from dealing with climate change is an intentional transfer of our natural environmental wealth from all the rest of us to those few who are wealthy enough to spend such huge amounts of money.  And maybe those big spenders are so wealthy they think they don’t need to care when the world becomes substantially less habitable.

So once again it's the same issue: The wealth that is increasingly aggregating in the hands of a few in this country is not only bad for the economy, it's also contributing to the jeopardy into which our environment has been put.  (This doesn't even get into the discussion about how good for the economy pursuit of alternative energy policy would be.)

Here is a teaser: This may be the last presidential election where the fossil fuel industry will ever be able to spend this kind of money to buy politicians.  Why?  I’ll have to set that aside and deal with it in a future National Notice article.  But it also could just be too late for the planet if the election is decided the wrong way.

Frontline’s “Climate of Doubt” documentary made one thing clear.  While nobody in Congress is willing to act on climate change anymore, there is an important difference between Republicans and Democrats right now when it comes to climate change: Zero Republicans even answer questions about climate change anymore, while Democrats acknowledge the science.  If we can get a few more Democrats in office acknowledging the science is start.

It matters up and down the ticket how people vote tomorrow.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Central Issue In Election And Most Important Thing About The Economy: We Falter Economically When Everyone’s Squeezed To Benefit A Few At The Top

Obama on Jon Stewart 10/18/2012 with a pinch representing the few at the top benefitting from a skewing of wealth that slows the economy
The central issue of this election and what everyone should absolutely understand is the most important thing about the economy right now is that our economy bogs down when we focus the nation's policy on squeezing the majority of citizens so that a few at the top can do a lot better than everyone else.  That may seem like a self-evident proposition to most National Notice readers and there have certainly been more than a few National Notice articles related to the premise in one way or another.  It does not seem to be a self-evident proposition to either Mitt Romney or his running mate Paul Ryan.

Why restate this right now?  Because the election is upon us and because, picking up on words of the president previously noted in Noticing New York, President Obama made essentially this point when he appeared on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show not long ago.  His words that deserve being quoted and passed around were as follows:
The most important thing is when you think about the economy, I am absolutely convinced that, when you look at the historical record, that when middle class families do well, when there are ladders of opportunity for poor families to get into the middle class, the entire economy does well, and when a few folks are doing very well at the top and everybody else is getting squeezed the economy grows slower.  And that is the central issue in this election that we've got to make sure we address.
(See: Wednesday, October 24, 2012, Most Important Thing About Economy + Central Issue In Election: Obama On Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Rejects Ratner/Prokhorov “Barclays” Paradigm.  That Noticing New York article makes the point that these national issues also play out on the local level in insidious ways.)

However self-evident this point about wealth inequality is, it can’t be repeated too often right now in light of its importance to the coming election.

If you want documentation, the International Monetary Fund has issued a report saying that this “widening disparity” in wealth is gumming up and slowing down the U.S. economy.  I liken the situation to the way that things grind to a halt at the end of a Monopoly game, when further moves cease to be possible because all the money is piled up in one place.  We used to have a disparaging view of economies in South American countries where it seemed so obvious that things could never work because of concentrations of wealth in the midst of unnecessary deprivation, but more and more we are becoming the thing we once disparaged. is sharing a bit of campaigning on this subject by punctuating with animation (by a 'Simpsons' Animator) an Obama speech about what does and doesn’t work when it comes to the economy: BRILLIANT: A 'Simpsons' Animator Works His Magic On A Rousing Obama Speech.  View the video below (or go to the website above to share it more broadly).

Whatever good things can be said about private equity firms, the principal motivating focus of a firm like Bain Capital, where Romney spent most of his career is to figure out how to direct more squeezed-out wealth to a narrow segment of the population owning stocks that pay them income being taxed at a much lower rate than on regular income.  Romney’s tax liability for 2011 was 10% (despite the fact that he told the public it was never less than 13%).

Those at the top do well but other Americans are seeing longer work weeks, lower pay and some are seeing shorter life spans while the wealthy are living longer.

Romney champions programs, tax structures and alterations to Medicare and Social Security that will further skew the allocation of income and wealth in this country to those who are already far wealthier than others.

Meanwhile we are not supposed to know, talk about or understand the wealth practices and equations that pertain to the wealth of those, like Romney, who are seeking to govern the rest of us.   In the United States we have more freedoms and a better system than in China in this respect, but how much so?: In the United States Romney (though not yet elected) doesn’t want to release his tax returns even when we find that he misrepresented them. . . In China when the NY Times reports that the family of prime minister Wen Jiabao and his family, once poor, have acquired wealth in the billions (real money in China), China shuts down parts of the internet not wanting the populace to find out anything about it.

It’s not a good thing not to know what’s going on when a country's leaders consolidate all the nation's money and all the power.  For years Silvio Berlusconi, the vastly wealthy former Italian prime minister, simultaneously controlled most of the media in that country.  Once viewed as untouchably powerful, he has now been convicted and sentenced to 4 years in prison for tax fraud, with more charges pending.

Columbia University professer Joseph E. Stiglitz , a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and a former chief economist of the World Bank, has two similar articles about the meaning of this election as it relates to the issue of wealth inequality.  Strangely, one appeared only in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times print edition (available elsewhere though) and the other appeared only in the paper's web edition.  (See: Print edition version, What’s at stake in this US election, October 30, 2012 and the web edition, Some Are More Unequal Than Others, October 26, 2012.)

Says Mr. Stiglitz in the web version of this article:
Mitt Romney has been explicit: inequality should be talked about only in quiet voices behind closed doors.

    * * * *

 . . .  inequality and poverty [have suddenly appeared] as part of the Romney-Ryan makeover, as they attempt to portray themselves (to use a phrase of some 12 years ago) as compassionate conservatives. In Cleveland on Wednesday, Paul Ryan gave a speech that might lead one to conclude that the two Republican candidates were really concerned about poverty. But more revealing than oratory are budget numbers — like those actually contained in the Ryan budget. His budget proposal guts programs that serve those at the bottom, and little could have done more to enrich those at the top than his original tax proposals (like the elimination of capital gains taxes, a position from which he understandably has tried to distance himself).

    * * * * 

. . .Tax havens discourage investment in the United States. Taxing speculators at a lower rate encourages speculation and instability — and draws our most talented young people out of more productive endeavors. The result is a distorted, inefficient economy that grows more slowly than it should.

The Romney campaign, however, has defended inequality or brushed it aside. To do so, it has employed a handful of economic myths.
Mr. Stiglitz then goes on to examine those myths.  One of them is the “trickle-down economics” theory used to justify shifting more wealth to the already wealthy. (Watch the video to see it called something else.)

One example Mr. Stiglitz could have provided of just how impossible it is to make  “trickle-down economics” work is the how the bailout of Wall Street after the financial crisis did not readily benefit Main Street. The banks sat with the money, not passing it along to Main Street, even as their profits were restored and they resumed paying extraordinary bonuses.  The structure of that approach (initiated under the Bush administration) is something for which President Obama is only partially responsible.  Under Romney and Ryan we’d see implemented many more examples of what was misguided with respect to this approach: The priority it placed in helping the wealthy few first.
Chart showing boost to personal income when stimulus was enacted after Obama took office- Click to enlarge
The stimulus was also spent elsewhere, like on American infrastructure.  That worked.  (See the chart above being used in the filming of a commercial for Obama in New York’s Prospect Park.)  Republicans claim the stimulus didn’t work and say they would have spent less.  They probably would have.  Support for the banking community aside, the new breed of Republicans find themselves hostile to almost any form of government spending, be it FEMA, healthcare of Social Security, because government spending, even on things like infrastructure, often levels the playing field, tending to interfere with their goal of redistributing more wealth to the wealthy.  And Republicans, not at all interested in seeing an effective recovery anyway, prevented the level of spending that would have led to an even stronger recovery.

But the top issue of the campaign, more important than any other, is whether Romney and Ryan will, if elected, be put in a position to make a further redistribution of wealth to the wealthy the nation’s misbegotten priority.

The New York Times today has a scary story today about how Paul Ryan, the most ideologically extreme and starkly consistent of the Romney/Ryan pair, with “no record of compromise” in his past, expects to put in charge of cutting back and overhauling government programs like Medicare (presumably Social Security would be among the other top programs to be targeted as well): Ryan, Quiet for Now, Is Said to Be Planning for an Active Role, by Trip Gabriel, November 3, 2012.

Are you ready for these Romney/Ryan plans to tilt things even more to the wealthy?  And are we all ready for the economy to slow way down as a result?