Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Iowa Caucuses and the GOP Tragedy

The State of Iowa plays the opening role in America's Presidential election years. It is a farm state with a population of just over 3 million, most noted for its rich soils and agricultural productivity. Despite that over 60% of its citizens now live in urban areas.

When Iowa became a state in 1846 (notably, a "free" state, one prohibiting slavery) the Whigs were slugging it out with the pro-slavery Democratic Party. When the Republican Party formed at the far-left of the American political spectrum in the 1850's, Iowans embraced it. In 1856 Iowa voted for the first Republican Presidential candidate John Fremont. The Civil War cemented the Republican triumph. Although the Democrats returned in strength during the Great Depression, afterwards Iowa reverted to the Republican fold.

Of late the Democrats and Republicans have been more evenly balanced in Iowa, with Clinton and even Al Gore carrying the state, then it switching to George W. Bush. Most recently Barack Obama captured the state in 2008, but Republicans captured most statewide offices in 2010.

Next week Iowa will hold its partisan caucuses. These require more of citizens than just showing up and voting; they have to actually sit through a meeting. The process amplifies partisanship, since only the most committed partisans are willing to engage in it.

No one substantial is challenging President Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination this year, despite his unpopularity in his own party. That leaves us with the Republican lot of would-be Presidents.

Pretty much all of the Republicans are more experienced than Obama was when he became President. On the whole the problem is not the candidates, though I have enjoyed criticizing each of them individually. The problem for America is the Republican activists who will dominate the caucuses.

Historically, there is a lot good to be said about the Republican Party. They abolished slavery and tried to make the former slaves equal in the eyes of society and the law. They treated the American Indian tribes much better than the Democrats ever had. They tried to do something about America's alcoholism problem. Excepting the Spanish American War, they were the anti-war party until President Eisenhower retired in 1960. The Republican core values of being an economically responsible, law-abiding, moral citizen and good neighbor are hard to argue with.

Where did the people who dominate the Republican primary process come from? It is as if the doors of hell have opened and the legions marched forth. Instead of taking responsibility and building an economically strong, just, and durable America, they want to blame anyone but themselves for their troubles. They don't want to pay taxes even though Iowa is probably the most heavily subsidized state in the nation. Iowa's relative prosperity is propped up by food stamps (which prop up grain prices), ethanol subsidies, and direct crop subsidies.

The Christianity of these people makes Islam and atheism both look good. It is a narrowly-constructed Christianity, carefully avoiding entire directives from God himself. Jesus said to pay your taxes and stop complaining ["Give unto Caesar ..."]. He said to be kind and charitable. He asked Christians to find a way to feed the hungry even if only a few loaves and fishes are available. The activist Republicans instead want to regulate birth control, deny human rights to women and homosexuals, and let the weak starve and freeze.

The Republican activists pretend to be supporters of free-market capitalism, but mainly they have a criminal mentality that should frighten all decent American citizens. They want to make money by destroying the environment, destroying the health of their neighbors, and endangering the lives of workers. Why not just sell crack or weed or untaxed bathtub gin, if you need money?

I'm not saying that every government agency or regulation is necessary, but I do know that the threat of enforcement deters crime. Have we had too little economic crime these past 10 years? Too few Madoff's and mortgage derivative scams? Too few nuclear reactor meltdowns? Too few oil spills? I think not.

I know there are plenty of sensible Republicans out there. It is still a big party. With a little bit of reform—throwing out the Tea Party mad dogs and the corporate security state operatives—it could be a beloved American Party again.

But who could those sensible Republicans vote for in Iowa?

While I like Ron Paul's stance on dismantling the U.S. global military empire (which would straighten out the federal budget deficit pretty quickly), his love of nutty, discredited ideas like the Gold Standard limits him to being my second choice.

I think Mitt Romney is by far the most competent of the Presidential candidates in the field. This might seem like a dangerous thing to Democrats, who would prefer an less competent opponent, like Michele Bachman. But consider:

When highly competent people have been elevated to being President of the United States they have usually stepped outside of the narrow interests of their pasts. It Mitt's case, I don't think his Latter Day Saints upbringing or Bain Capital days will prejudice him.

I think he is the kind of individual that will try to serve all of the American people if elected. He won't just serve his Wall Street friends, or any particular constituency. He'll do what a President can to get the economy humming, without disregarding environmental or consumer safety. He'll stand up to corrupt interests in Washington, and to the worst impulses of the Tea Party.

Let me repeat: Romney excels in competence. He didn't use his family fortunes to put coke up his nose and then party on borrowings against his inheritance. He got both an MBA and a Law Degree from Harvard in just four years, no easy feat. He excelled in business and then served as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney makes me think of Joe Kennedy, the father of President John Kennedy. In his early life Joe was a lot less ethical than, but just as competent as, Mitt Romney. Joe got rich on Wall Street and was notorious for his slick dealings that made him a billionaire (he even sold his stock holdings well before the 1929 market crash). When it was time to reform Wall Street, President Franklin Roosevelt chose Joe Kennedy to be the first head of the SEC. Having used every trick in the book himself, Joe was able to create a set of regulations that served American investors, large and small alike, from the 1930's until a new wave of mischief was invented in the 1980's.

Of course, there is the opposite story of competence, Robert Rubin, U.S. Treasury Secretary from 1995 to 1999. He used his position to gut regulations, including the Depression-era Glass-Steagall act, thereby heavily contributing to the economic calamities of the following decade.

So, if Mitt Romney becomes President, let us hope he turns out to be a Joe Kennedy, not a Robert Rubin.

In any case, it would take three or four Barack Obamas to match the competence of one Mitt Romney. Muddling through is not what we need right now. Four years of that is enough.

I am not, however, endorsing Mr. Romney. He is still part of the two-party, corporate security state system. I will probably support the Green Party nominee, Gill Stein, or an independent candidate, depending on who emerges. Mitt is just the best I think we can hope for out of the old, hopefully dying, two-party system.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

De Facto Governments and U.S. Foreign Policy

On this Christmas day you might want to consider the virtue of our early American republic's foreign policy.

That foreign policy can be summed up in two key ideas: de facto recognition of governments, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, including those with de facto governments.

The best known statement of these policies was made in the Monroe Doctrine. President James Monroe had fought in the Revolutionary War, served in the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and played a key role in getting the new Constitution adopted by the State of Virginia. In 1823 President Monroe warned against Spain trying to regain control of any of its former North or South American colonies that had become independent. Partly this reflected a sympathy for Republics and Democracies over the reassertion of monarchies then prevalent in Europe. Partly it reflected the desire of the ruling class of the U.S. to exert influence over a potential commercial empire. But consider it as just principled, sincere policy.

As to the colonies still in the Western Hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine stated, "With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power, we have not interfered, and shall not interfere." It is notable, however, that in the Spanish-American War the United States not only interfered with the remnants of the Spanish Empire, but grabbed Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.

Further, the doctrine with regard to Europe was "not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it."

It makes sense that the founding citizens of the United States of America should see the value of recognizing de facto governments, and of one nation not interfering in the internal affairs of another nation. The Continental Congresses and individual State governments that fought the British Empire during the American Revolution were precisely de facto governments. The British legal system did not recognize them, nor, at first, did any other members of the international community. The Royal governors of the British Empire were the legal, de jure, government of the British colonies, and in certain places, the very real government right up until the King agreed to the independence of the colonies.

Non-interference was also important to our early republican democracy-in-the-making. Monroe, Patrick Henry & their crew were not in a position to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, but the great powers of Europe had occasional reason to interfere in the relatively weak United States.

Of course, like all general principles, de facto recognition and non-interference have their particular issues in real world circumstance. Before taking on that complexity, it should be admitted that neither principle got in the way of American appetites for land speculation and empire. American Indian nations were interfered with and stomped on with little or no justification. Florida was grabbed from Spain, Northern Mexico was grabbed, Hawaii was grabbed (its native de facto and de jure government ignored). For good measure the de facto government of the Philippines was not recognized, the U.S. preferring to pretend that Spain still held the colony, so that it might be transferred easily to U.S. control.

Basically, the more powerful the United States government (and its economic ruling class) became, the more the U.S. interfered in the affairs of other nations. Bullying of Latin American nations became a regular event as the 19th century wore on (and we ran out of Native American tribes to reduce to ethnic "reservations"), puppets were installed when feasible, and starting with President Woodrow Wilson, U.S. troops were sent in on almost any pretext. In Asia, even before the U.S. program of genocide in the Philippines, we started manipulating the Chinese and forced Japan to provide fueling stations for the U.S. Navy (which needed to refuel on its way to and from bullying the Chinese).

Many Americans wished we had done some interfering with the Spanish Civil War and the National Socialist rise to power in Germany in the 1930's. They argued that if we had supported the Republicans in Spain, World War II would not have happened. That, and Pearl Harbor, was pretty much the end of non-interference. During World War II the U.S. even set up the United Nations to provide a fig leaf of democracy for the new global empire. Internal interference became the rule.

Unfortunately the new bossing-other-nations-around foreign policy of the U.S. has not been used to promote democracy, freedom of religion and speech, and other rhetorical ideals. In every case the sole deciding factor has been the "interests," mainly economic, but sometimes strategic, of the capitalist, imperialist class. Examples could fill a book on U.S. (or global) history since World War II. Just a few:

When it looked like elections would result in parties winning that were not considered "pro-U.S.," the U.S. has installed dictators. South Korea, South Vietnam, and Iran, were major examples in the 1940's and 1950's. Most Latin American countries have suffered at times under U.S. backed military regimes in the last half-century.

Elections are only encouraged when they will get rid of anti-U.S. regimes. This was true in Eastern Europe. The elections held in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been shut down had anti-U.S. politicians won them. We saw that in Algeria in the 1980's. Only elections won by pro-American political parties are honored by the State Department.

Somalia is a rather spectacular case of counter-productive interference in foreign nations. The United States did not like a mildly Islamic regime (the Islamic Court System) so we paid to overthrow it. The result was a de facto government by Al Shabaab fighting a non-stop civil war with a U.S. appointed and financed "provisional" government. The holocaust of the Somali people this past decade can be directly attributed to the actions of the U.S. governments led by Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

But what else would you expect from the new, pseudo-democratic American corporate security state?

Aside from the likely Green Party presidential nominee, Jill Stein, the only current presidential candidate who supports non-interference as a foreign policy is Ron Paul. Hopefully when the election comes around you will be able to vote for non-interference, rather than feeling you have to vote for one or the other of the two corporate security state nominated candidates.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Legal Basis for the Separation of States

Suppose the citizens of one of the states constituting the United States, for whatever reason, wanted to separate from the United States. How could they do that?

So far in U.S. history there is only one precedent. The states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, by the end of 1861, withdrew from the United States of America by votes within their states. President Abraham Lincoln, supported by a Republican Party-controlled Congress, simply made war (the Civil War) on the untied states, and the federal government won that war.

Since then the predominant thinking in the re-United States has been that a state cannot separate from the Union because military force will be used by the federal government to overcome any such manifestation of local democracy. Kind of like when Czechoslovakia tried to opt out of the Soviet Block. Because the issue of slavery was entangled with the issue of separation of states during the Civil War, it is still hard to have a rational discussion of the topic.

Clearly the U.S. Constitution allows for an amendment that would either allow a particular set of states to separate, or would set rules for separation in general. In fact, one could dissolve the entire Union with a Constitutional amendment. However, before writing such an amendment, we should look at the Constitution as it now stands.

Reading the Constitution, you will not find a single phrase that says that a state cannot withdraw from the union. Nor does it say that a state can withdraw. This is not that different from many issues of federal powers. How broad the specific powers granted the the Federal government are to be in practice has been a constant source of argument and litigation since the ink was dry on the original Constitution.

A majority of Americans opposed the Constitution as written at the time. To get it passed by the nine required states a great deal of bribery and intimidation was used. Also, it was promised that a number of amendments would be appended to the Constitution, to make the package more attractive.

Regarding the separation of states, clearly Amendment X, the Tenth Amendment, has the greatest bearing. Many people voted for the new Constitution with the idea that their state could withdraw from the Constitution if the whole experiment did not work out. They feared a central government that could become as tyrannical as the British Empire had been. Hence the amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

I don't think you can get more clear than that without illegally declaring war on your neighbors, as Abraham Lincoln did. No where in the Constitution did it say that the Federal government could prevent a state government from withdrawing. The power to decide whether to be part of the United States was clearly a power "reserved to the States."

To force people to be governed against their will by any government, including the Federal government of the United States, is against the natural right of the people to govern themselves. That was recognized by the architects of the American revolution, or at least was prominent in their rhetoric.

If citizens of a state should ever decide they want to separate from the United States, I suggest they go about it with more care than the State of South Carolina did in 1860.

First, the government of the State in question should write a state law saying that it has they right to separate and is indeed separating. Then this should be the basis of trying a case in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court is most likely, in fact certain, to rule that the State cannot secede by virtue of its own legislation. The point is not to expect an honest verdict, but to get a statement of why they cannot rule themselves, and of the construction of the Constitution the court uses to rationalize this un-democratic ruling.

Then, having been ruled to still be part of the United States, the state needs to introduce legislation in the U.S. Congress allowing it to leave. Its leaders should also try to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment making it clear what the rules are for leaving.

Of course, this whole path could be cut off by a Constitutional Amendment saying, roughly, "no State shall be allowed to separate from the United States, and the President and Congress shall have the power to use the military to enforce this provision."

The United States went to a great deal of trouble to break up the former nation of Yugoslavia just a couple of decades ago. We broke Vietnam in half in the 1950's when we did not like the projected outcome of elections there. I don't see why U.S. states should not be granted the same rights of divorce that the U.S. empire has so gladly imposed on weaker nations.

On the other hand, no one should want a messy divorce. Any such separation should be mutual and amicable.

But, given sufficient unaddressed grievances, a Declaration of Independence, backed by the right to self-defense, may be worth a try.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Immigrants and Housing Proposal

I was surprised to find the following in the New York Times this morning:

"Two senators, Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, have proposed a bill that would offer three-year visas to foreigners who spent at least $500,000 to buy homes in the United States. But the idea has many opponents who fear expanding the nation’s oversupply of workers (a worry not shared by a fair number of economists)."

That was in a longer article, Goodbye House, Hello Pot Plantation by Catherine Rampell. There are over 1.2 million for sale and empty houses in the U.S. today, including hundreds of thousands repossessed by banks but being held off the market. On the other hand moving the unemployment number back to 5% would soak up all of this housing (partly in the form of rentals) and create more than enough demand for another construction boom.

We are in a massive housing and economic Catch 22. We probably can't get to 5% unemployment unless there is strong new construction. Housing construction requires local labor (can't be done overseas) and the materials used themselves are heavy enough that shipping is a large cost component, so they tend to be regional as well. In addition banks are reluctant to loan to home buyers. That would change if housing prices firmed.

I proposed moving house-buying immigrants to the front of the line back in A Cheap, Quick Housing and Economy Fix [November 18, 2008]. A number of people thought it was a good idea, but getting traction in anything related to immigration is difficult.

If you want to look at the Lee-Schumer bill or track it through Congress, it is S. 1746: Visa Improvements to Stimulate International Tourism to the United States of America Act. Here is the key text:

(a) Nonimmigrant Status- Section 101(a)(15) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended by section 5(a), is further amended by adding at the end the following:
‘(X) subject to section 214(t), an alien who, after the date of the enactment of the VISIT USA Act--
‘(i)(I) uses at least $500,000 in cash to purchase 1 or more residences in the United States, which each sold for more than 100 percent of the most recent appraised value of such residence, as determined by the property assessor in the city or county in which the residence is located;
‘(II) maintains ownership of residential property in the United States worth at least $500,000 during the entire period the alien remains in the United States as a nonimmigrant described in this subparagraph; and
‘(III) resides for more than 180 days per year in a residence in the United States that is worth at least $250,000; and
‘(ii) the alien spouse and children of the alien described in clause (i) if accompanying or following to join the alien.’.
One of my complaints about the New York Times and other traditional web sources is that they hate it when a link takes you off their site, unless it is a paid ad. Not only do they not link to one of the bill tracking sites (there are several), they do not even give the official name of the bill, or its number. So getting more detail is unnecessarily difficult in this hyperlinked age. That is poor reporting, in my view. Probably not because of the reporters themselves, but because of "policy."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Richard Grossman, Compost in Peace

Richard Grossman, a noted political activist in the United States of America, died this November 22, 2011. Richard was known for his criticism of for-profit corporate control of the American (and global) political system, economy, and culture. Richard had no issues with criticizing other dissidents who did not agree with him on strategy and tactics. To honor his memory, I will not refrain from criticism (as is typical in a requiem) while I share my personal experiences about Richard.

Richard tried to influence the discourse of American environmental and pro-democracy dissidents, with varying degrees of success. I had never heard of him until my wife, Jan Edwards, began working with Alliance for Democracy and made herself the first modern crusader against the legal doctrine of corporate personhood (c. 1999). I could not say exactly when Richard came into the mix, as I was never "wowed" by him or his organization, POCLAD (Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy).

But at some point, when Jan was determined to get the City of Point Arena to pass a law against corporate personhood, I became aware that she was talking on the telephone to one Richard Grossman, among others. Richard never really adapted to computers (he was born on August 10, 1943), but large packages of xeroxed copies of old articles about corporate power began arriving at our house.

Jan had a fixed idea that corporate personhood was the central evil of the modern era. Richard did not agree with that; he tried to expand her attention to other issues of corporate power. But he did provide us with a lot of material about corporate personhood, notably Personalizing the Impersonal: Corporations and the Bill of Rights by Carl J. Mayer [Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 4, March 1990] and a series of articles from the 1950's by Howard Jay Graham. These were fine, but too much, too fast to serve as introductory material.

No one at POCLAD had written anything substantial about corporate personhood. Jan, assigning duties to our small local team of activists, decided I should write the first modern introduction to the topic. This resulted in Santa Clara Blues: Corporate Personhood versus Democracy.

With a million things going wrong in the world, do-gooders argue among themselves about priorities, strategies and tactics. Richard stated, strongly, that he thought the environmental and social justice movements were taking the wrong approaches. He believed that because of corporate power activists might win an occasional point (the Clean Air Act, or temporarily protecting an individual habitat) but were regularly losing ground on the whole.

Richard Grossman wanted to challenge fundamental legal doctrines that (with money) are the foundations of corporate power. These include, but are not limited to, corporate charters being treated as contracts, the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, limited liability, and the ability of corporate money to influence elections.

The question activists asked, in return, was how was that to be done? What was to be sacrificed (streams, mountaintops, oceans, human beings) in the meantime if activists stopped what they were doing and all ran to law libraries and spent a half-century arguing for legal reform?

Richard's point was not to train more environmental or social justice lawyers. They are plentiful enough, so much so that many can't earn a living, or even end up being employed by corporations. He did not want to fight corporations within the law. He wanted to change the law.

Changing the law really happens in only one of three ways. You can win Supreme Court cases. You can change the law with legislation. Or you can have a revolution and write the law anew.

The Revolution never came in Richard Grossman's lifetime. This is the sad fate of most revolutionaries. I cannot fault Richard for trying, and for thinking outside the usual boxes.

Knowing a little history, however, makes one wonder if Richard ever deserved to be the intellectual leader of American dissidents, as was clearly his wish. Richard moved from being the executive director of Greenpeace in the 1980's to a messenger of the nature of corporate power.

It was not a new message. You probably did not know old-time American Communist Party members, but they talked a lot about corporate power. It tied in well with their strategy of radicalizing labor unions so that the working class (or at least its authoritarian vanguard) could come to power in this bastion of capitalism. Anarchists, too, long pre-dated Grossman in their analysis of the System, but did not care to try to change obscure doctrines like corporate personhood. They wanted, and want, to go straight to building a new society out of the ashes of the old.

Without the legal framework of corporate power we would most likely just have private ownership of large businesses, much as is the case in the Soviet Union today.

How do you de-power the ruling class when they can buy politicians and courts and, yes, can even divert activist organizations simply by strategic donations of money? Richard could never answer that question. Perhaps simply raising taxes on the rich, in particular with estate taxes, would do the trick. Taxes could break up the growing "title of nobility" that the Constitution warns against in Article I, Section 9.

Perhaps with a third party. Perhaps with the tactics being practiced by CELDF or MoveToAmend (both groups spawned by Grossman). Perhaps by anarchists, or communists, or social democrats, or revolutionary environmentalists. Why, it is not absolutely impossible that reforms could come from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

No one knows. Richard Grossman's greatest trait was his willingness to revise his views. He kept revising them until the day he died. Maybe if more people did more thinking outside their usual boxes, we might collectively find a solution that can transition us to an environmentally sound, ecologically sustainable, and culturally rich world.