Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Man Behind The Curtain

As a common man in an uncommon country, I must admit there are times I just don’t get it. It isn’t hard to figure out the two parties and what they stand for, but it is how some of the role players are accepted. This is especially true when some of the role players are supporting only a small fraction of the party.

After all, each party is gunning for the barest of majority votes to when the election seats up for grabs in 2012. In fact, the majority isn’t even necessary for the presidents, what with our screwy electoral voting system handing over all the value of the state electoral count for a simple plurality of votes. The congressmen, however, are on their own with direct votes from the voters.

The truly special role player for the GOP is a person no one elected, no one petitioned, does not have any public office, and isn’t accountable to the public. That person is Grover Norquist. For those that don’t know who he is, Grover founded the “Americans for Tax Reform” and to this day is the head cheese of this organization. To say he founded it might be a misnomer; it was more a case that one sunny day he was sitting on a park bench and decreed that he would start an organization.

It would be possible for any of us to create an organization, such as “The Center for Disposable Diaper Recycling”, and in all likelihood, it would be gone quickly. But through some effective speaking and the backing of those well off that don’t like how the government takes some of their hard-earned money to go to expenses like food stamps, Mr. Norquist has been able to keep ATR on a flourishing trend.

It has been so successful that Grover Norquist created a special tax pledge for all Senators and Representatives to sign. It is a rather simple document, a single page, with spaces for the signer and a witness, and dates. If you haven’t seen it, just click here: I’ve seen more complicated employee bathroom policy agreements.

The impact belies its size. Basically, this hamstrings the signer to NEVER raise taxes, including provisions that ends tax cuts even if the tax cuts were a temporary measure designed to help with a short term funding problems (like flaccid economies and other small matters), no excuses. 

There was a day and a time when two parties battled over legislation, many of which had provisions to provide the public services necessary for the well-being of our nation, provisions that may or may not include tax changes. Since two sides look at such legislation with differing viewpoints, it was necessary to compromise in order to get anything done. Some of those compromises included tax changes. If a budding congressman is dealing with this type of legislation and this budding congressman signed the ATR tax pledge, compromise is surely a ghostly prospect. 

And here is one aspect the typical GOP voter doesn’t really get: Grover Norquist is not one of us. Grover Norquist never had a tough day in his life. As the son of a Polaroid Corporation V.P., Grover never had to scrounge for a meal, worry about having decent clothes, or go to a plain old state university or local college. Grover is a person of privilege. I’m sure he didn’t need to work or carry monstrous school debt to pay for his Harvard College education. His opportunity came to him the first day he took a breath in this difficult world. He can’t fathom what it means to not eat for a day or if he has a serious medical need, worry about how the medical bills get paid or wonder where his next job comes from. He is one of the lucky few that had a great start and wants to keep those like him from having to support the opportunity for others.

Grover Norquist’s one accomplishment is how he has elected officials running scared. People that we have elected to hold office, sworn to uphold the Constitution and represent the constituents that put them in Congress, are now beholding to a man that says you can vote for any legislation as long as there are no additional tax revenues in that piece of legislation no matter how beneficial it is. To do otherwise is to invite certain opposition, guaranteed to be a well-funded, to be faced in the next primary election.

It is one thing to have conservative principles and to legislate honorably by pressing for bills supporting a conservative position, but it is another to reduce those options equated to drawing a line in the sand to appease a person not voted into office by a single person. To do so is to eliminate the democratic principle of representative government by the public to representation by the few. Our nations motto, “E Pluribus Unum” will be changed to “Unum Super Multis” – One Over The Many.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nuns Whack Paul Ryan's Hand With Ruler

Synopsis: A group of Catholic Sisters are on a nine-state bus tour that will protest the Ryan budget. I have some thoughts on whether this is a case of religion crossing the line into political action.

I can’t stop thinking about this. The visualization of a group of nuns traveling through nine states and making 30-odd stops to spread their view of how the Ryan budget will decimate the poor, just makes me smile. Part of it is that I still picture nuns in their traditional habits as they go about scolding people and politicians in a manner fit for a church school. Not that it is accurate, but the visual image persists. Another is that there is legitimate concern the safety net for the poor and near-poor is at risk of being eliminated in the guise of deficit reduction and somebody is trying to do something about it. Deficits are not good, but to all but eliminate financial aid to the poor is something that should be fought without a good fight. In this light, the Paul Ryan budget raises the white flag. Lastly, is the irony; Paul Ryan and John Boehner are Catholics and they claim this bill falls in line with the ideals of their faith, a notion scoffed at by the good Sisters.

On another level, this road show makes me a little uneasy also. The fact that this trip is going through nine states, many of which are battleground states that could swing the result of the election, it is hard to ignore that this has all the elements of a political rally. This is clearly a religious group and they are spreading a message that has one party happy as the LA Kings winning the Stanley Cup and the other party muttering under their collective breaths.

I was never a fan of the clergy using their pulpit in churches across the USA as a method to spread a particular viewpoint. It seemed to be an unfair use of the influence they had garnered over the years by trusting congregations, only to squander the influence on political muscle designed to get an edge for their religious doctrines. It was usually partisan and self-serving. Fortunately, it had been slowed by threats of removing the church tax-exempt status if their messages strayed too much from the church’s creed.

Can the same be said for the Nuns On The Bus tour? Maybe. First of all, the nun tour is sanctioned by the Network Lobby, an organization championing social justice. There is just enough independence to suggest that other than a connection between Catholics and social justice, it is not a religious organization. Why do I have the feeling it is a hair-splitting detail? 

Second, it is truly a commentary on a particular bill submitted in the Congressional House for consideration. The only facet suggesting this is a political protest against one party or the other is how lopsided the indications are should there be a vote. There will be few crossovers as the GOP vote for it and Democrats vote against it. If it was a bi-partisan bill, would it have been equally political?

Third, it isn’t really a election issue at this point. Yes, Mitt Romney did say that he supports the Ryan bill and Obama has been against it, but there hasn’t been a clash – yet. As long as it is pointed at the bill and why it should be voted down, this tour shouldn’t be considered political election material until one side or the other starts lobbing shots between the two camps. As the election approaches, this will become a livelier political football as talk about the deficit heats up, trying to decide what can be eliminated and what can be saved.

I’m giving a pass to the nuns. It would have been easier to do so if the trip didn’t entail passing through a lot of purple states, but their goal isn’t greater attention to the Catholic faith as much as it is to save many of the poor additional anguish on an already difficult period.

Meanwhile, watch and listen to the nuns-on-wheels. They offer a viewpoint that is worthwhile. On one of the cable news shows, Sister Simone Campbell summed up the problem quite nicely: “We have to take care of our debt situation in our nation, but that is not because of social services, that’s because we went to war and slashed taxes.” You go Girl!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Change the channel; Mute the sound; TURN IT OFF!

Synopsis: Political ads have never been a good source of information for electing candidates to office, and it is only getting worse. The good news is we can do something about it.

I have been watching some of the “mini” campaigns taking place that have led to what appears to be and bitter and expensive fight by the Democrats and GOP as the general election date approaches. The mini campaigns, such as state primaries, voting on referendums, and recalls of contentious statutes passed by state legislations, have served as a precursor to what is next. It is far from encouraging.

For instance, take the Proposition 29 tobacco tax referendum recently voted upon in California. In a nutshell, the referendum would have taxed a pack of cigarettes an additional $1.00 which would go towards cancer research and other health causes related to cigarette usage. Up until a few weeks prior to the election date, it was warmly received according to the polls and appeared to be a shoe-in for passage. For the most part, people agreed with the proponents that maintained it would be a deterrent to smoking because of the expense and it would help with greater research efforts. The opponents argue that it doesn’t help California’s budget hole and there was no guarantee where the money was going, much of which might leave the state. The opponents were losing this argument.

That is, until the political ads started to appear in force. Backed by the Tobacco Trade Institute, an organization supported by the major tobacco businesses, poured millions of dollars into the political referendum to persuade people in voting Proposition 29 down. The ads focused on lack of accountability, no specific benefit for treatment, and how dollars would go out of state. If you weren’t exposed to the blitz, here is a 30-second commercial just to whet your whistle: No on Proposition 29 ad

Now, I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of the referendum, but it was interesting to see how an almost sure victory for those that wanted the measure passed turned into a loss in a short period of time. The tobacco groups spent over $40 million dollars to blanket the population with ads that, if any independent voice would attest to, contained a minimum of true statements, several half-truths, and at least one or two lies. The plastering of all the anti-tax advertising did have a very significant effect on the outcome of the election. In short, advertising works and works well.

Think about it. I would bet almost all voting Californians had a decision on how they felt about which way they would vote on this issue once they heard about the referendum. Some of them changed their minds, enough to swing the election result from passage to rejection. But I would also bet that most people would say it wasn’t the political ads that moved their vote. People don’t want to think any amount of advertising moves their position on a given issue or candidate. To say we are suggests we are weak-minded and gullible to the persuasiveness of Madison Avenue. The truth is, we are. If we weren’t, the billions and billions of dollars plunged into product marketing advertising wouldn’t be spent.

So here comes another big presidential election with a lot at stake and, more importantly to big interest groups, policy changes that could materially affect their bottom line. Sheldon Adelson, the gambling tycoon from Las Vegas, has suggested he will offer $100 million dollars of his own spending to the Romney SuperPacs. Total spending just on the presidential campaign is guaranteed to exceed a billion dollars for Romney with Obama’s expected to be a little less. They are spending about $6-7 on every man, women, and child in the USA to compel voters to vote their way. Just like the Proposition 29 referendum ad blitz, it is likely to contain a mixture of truths, half-truths, and downright lies. From the standpoint of providing a reasoned and informed decision to which is the best candidate, they offer nothing. Even if you like the candidate, it doesn’t do any good to use as a source to rebut views others may have. The best thing we can do is to not watch them. This totally diffuses the effect and impact of the mega-blitz advertising efforts done by the few individuals and interest groups supporting them.

Because the advertisements are blanketed on all forms of media, what can you do to avoid the onslaught? It’s everywhere! How can they be avoided?

I know this may seem like a foreign concept, but we don’t HAVE to watch them. Really! Nothing is forcing you to put up with the crap and substanceless content. It isn’t even that hard. Take TV. A political ad comes up on the screen, you can A) mind-numbly watch the stupid ad or, B) turn off the ad. Answer: B. And, you have several possible actions to accomplish B. You can change the channel. You can mute the sound and talk with others while you wait. You can leave the room (it would be a great time to go to the bathroom or get a snack). You can even do the ultimate form of rejection; TURN IT OFF!

Come on, we all have remote controls, use them to beat away this form of noxious persuasion. Can you imagine the effect if millions of people did this? How many stations and broadcast networks want people to change channels or turn off the TV because of advertising they find offensive. If there was a significant number of verifiable viewership loss due to political ads, wouldn’t the television stations try to avoid political ads? Maybe this is just a dream and has no chance of happening, but if would be nice to see a deterrent to political ad broadcasting instead of the positive boondoggle they now reap because of the dollars poured into their revenue stream. We can effect change by voting with our remote controls.

By the way, this works for radio, internet, phones, and any other form of mass advertisement. They all have alternatives. For myself, I have developed the habit of moving to a different tab on my internet browser while an ad plays and then switching back when it is over. This is a good tip for all you Zynga Word With Friends players out there stuck watching an ad for hair removal or whatever. They don’t know you aren’t watching them.

Look, it is important we fight back against the negative benefits of the caustic vacuous political ad content prevalent in modern campaigns. If they were to become a reliable source of information to provide an informed view of the candidate or issue, obviously it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not going to happen and they will use the one strength they have; give zillions of bucks to spread lies and deceit. The funny thing is, it depends on us in putting up with it. We do have the final say. We can decide not to listen. The only thing we need to do is to consciously act and negate their attempts. Here is my mantra for the remaining election period:

Change the channel; Mute the sound; TURN IT OFF!