Archives

Uncategorized

Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog. Written by Dan Conrad.

When President Obama gives his upcoming State of the Union address we will hear those famous words uttered: “Ladies and Gentlemen: the President of the United States.” After the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding campaign contribution limits, one has to wonder if in 3 years we will hear something slightly different: “Ladies and Gentlemen: the President of the United States presented by AT&T.” As the new president enters the magnificent chamber of the Cheetos House of Representatives, filled with both House members and members of the Flomax US Senate, it may be a good time to pause and wonder where it all went wrong.

On Thursday the Supreme Court made a sweeping ruling regarding the treatment of corporations and limitations in campaign spending placed on them by numerous laws. [Note that you can download the entire ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n) from the Supreme Court website.] The Roberts Court, which pledged to follow precedent and decide only narrow issues of law to avoid so-called “judicial activism”, went far beyond the narrow issue of the case in its ruling to make drastic changes to the law. The actual issue of the case involved part of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that prohibited “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or unions from being broadcast or transmitted 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election. The case was brought by a conservative non-profit group Citizen’s United, that wished to air a scathing documentary about Hillary Clinton on the eve of presidential primary elections. Their argument was that this provision allowed the Federal Election Commission to limit free speech.

Instead, the Court went back and reevaluated the entire treatment of corporate contributions in campaign finance. For decades there have been laws limiting the ways that corporations may participate in political campaigns. Essentially, the law allowed limits to be placed on personal contributions directly to a candidate, however, there is no limit on contributions that an individual makes on their own. Individuals are free to spend as much as they want in support of a given candidate so long as they purchase the airtime, ads, etc. themselves. This policy, however, did not extend to corporations, and laws routinely placed limits on the amounts and times when a corporation could spend to support a specific candidate. Thursday’s ruling essentially breaks down the distinction between corporations and people for free speech purposes in campaign finance and election spending.

It appears a corporation could now spend whatever they want, whenever they want, in support of a specific candidate, so long as they do not give directly to the candidate. Justice Stevens, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, read his dissent from the bench (a rarely exercised act used to express extreme displeasure in the Court’s ruling.) He stated that the ruling was “profoundly misguided” and that “[t]he court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.” According to the NY times article, President Obama concurs as he:

“…called [the ruling] “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

This ruling could have a chilling affect on the environmental community given the fact that many of the opponents of environmental regulations are large corporations. Politicians will now not only fear they will not get corporate donations by supporting a certain issue, but will also fear that supporting an issue may result in a corporation spending millions to campaign against them during the next election. For the sake of knowing where we stand, I propose that politicians should be required to wear NASCAR jumpsuits and adorn their desks with the logos of those who paid to get them there. At least then we will all know who they really represent. When a Senator votes to allow drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge we can simply look at the giant Exxon emblem on their jacket and know who placed the vote. While the ultimate ramifications of this ruling remain to be seen, don’t be surprised if we look back at this day with nostalgia as we do on New Year’s Day now, when you look at your buddy and say “I remember back when the Peach Bowl was actually called the Peach Bowl and not the Chick Fil-A Bowl.”

Uncategorized

Can the U.S. learn lessons from Japan’s economic troubles of the last decade? Yes indeed. Not from a new Washington Post article, though.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Amity Shlaes argues that Japanese investment in infrastructure offers a cautionary tale for Barack Obama. This is true, but not at all in the way Shlaes alleges. After studying Japan for eight years and living there for a time, I can say that the Post article presents a deeply distorted picture that needs debunking before it spreads.

First, understand this: Though there are common elements to their respective crises, comparing infrastructure policy between the two nations is like comparing burgers to sushi. It’s shortsighted and silly to compare a small, island nation with limited infrastructure capacity – a country whose public transportation system, 15 years ago, was ahead of where we are today – to the vast United States, where we’ve habitually underinvested in community needs.

America is unlikely to run out of areas, urban or rural, in desperate need of upgraded bridges, new bus and rail transit projects, or communities in need of jobs. That’s why Gavan McCormack, a well-respected progressive Japan scholar, is 100 percent correct to rail against Japan’s construction-industrial complex when he’s quoted in the Post article. Because of the construction industry’s huge lobbying influence in Japan, many unnecessary (and ecological harmful) projects were launched.

This is a spot-on criticism of Japan that applies not at all to the United States. I’m certain McCormack would be horrified to learn his work was being cited in the same breath as a Heritage Foundation study, and deployed to argue against public works projects on a different continent.

There are three major lessons we can learn from Japan’s response to their financial crisis:

What was Japan’s biggest mistake? Not acting fast enough. Though the economic problems were rooted in the 1980s bubble and the collapse started in the early 1990s, public sector funds weren’t used to rescue troubled firms until 1996. This allowed the crisis to deepen considerably, which made the road back much tougher.

Among mainstream Japanese economists, this is taken as a given. That’s why their government’s experts are calling America’s quicker response “encouraging.”

Is public investment necessary? Absolutely. Almost all experts agree that the problem wasn’t that Japan spent money on public works: it’s that they failed to do so fast enough and — due to political factors — they didn’t put the money in all the right places.

Is public investment sufficient? Absolutely not. Japan needed, as the U.S. needs, improved regulatory oversight to hold shady dealers accountable and guard against future troubles. Sound regulatory policy could have prevented both crises, and it’ll be necessary to stop future collapses.

Of course Japan made errors, and of course we should learn from those missteps. The keys to getting it right: act fast; invest in the real economy, putting people to work and meeting critical human needs; and resist the deregulatory impulse at every turn.