Thursday, November 25, 2010

Taking Back Our Lives from the Wall Street Mafia

pm180_150.jpg“Get rid of Wall Street!” says David C. Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy and The Great Turning. Wall Street is about phantom wealth — real wealth is about happy, healthy families, local living economies in balance with Earth’s resources, and caring, resilient communities that provide life’s basics, like food, shelter, and education. To do that, we must change the rules to reduce the power of corporations, the politicians in their pocket, and a destructive money system. ( (From Peak Moment TV)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prosecute Bush (et. al.) for Murder

Famed Charles Manson prosecutor and three time #1 New York Times bestselling author Vincent Bugliosi stars in this most powerful, explosive, and thought-provoking documentary. In The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder

More Homework for Progressives

... it speaks words to my feelings about the hypocrisy of our government, and the books presents a compelling and full spectrum of information that should tug at the conscience of the true Christians in this country - conservative, liberal, or other. It serves as a reminder that "Republican" and "Christian" aren't necessarily the same thing, and that proclaimed "Christian" policies certainly don't reflect the message of a prophet who gave to the poor and pardoned the sinful. In fact, as Dr. Meyers points out, Jesus saved his white-hot anger for the sins of religious hypocrisy.

Alterman, journalist and proud liberal, readies his readership for the coming day when the word liberal is given a wash and rinse after being slimed by conservatives. Arguing that liberals are so downtrodden they may have forgotten who they are, Alterman provides a refresher course, explaining what liberals believe and why liberal policies are reviled, even though most people approve of their basic ideas as long as they aren’t identified as liberal. His insightful examination of so-called liberal problems (secularism, abortion, dovish foreign policy) leads into an extensive and sharp rebuttal of all the crimes attributed to liberals. In ironically entitled chapters—“Why Do Liberals Hate Patriotism?” “Why Do Liberals Blame America First?”—Alterman fights back with facts and wit. He busts myths in “Why Do Liberals Deny America Was Founded as a Christian Nation?” but he owns up to the fact that liberals do like to tax and spend (conservatives do, too, just on different things). Readers of Alterman’s What Liberal Media? (2003) will find some familiar points here, but this rock-’em, sock-’em defense effectively proves that not all liberals are wimps.

Homework for Progressives

The religious right is gaining enormous power in the United States, thanks to a well-organized, media-savvy movement with powerful friends in high places. Yet many Americans — both observant and secular — are alarmed by this trend, especially by the religious right's attempts to erase the boundary between church and state and re-make the U.S. into a Christian nation. But most Americans lack the tools for arguing with the religious right, especially when fundamentalist conservatives claim their tradition started with the Framers of The Constitution. Fighting Words is a a tool-kit for arguing, especially for those of us who haven't read the founding documents of this nation since grade school. Robin Morgan has assembled a lively, accessible, eye-opening primer and reference tool, a "verbal karate" guide, revealing what the Framers and many other leading Americans really believed — in their own words — rescuing the Founders from images of dusty, pompous old men in powdered wigs, and resurrecting them as the revolutionaries they truly were: a hodgepodge of freethinkers, Deists, agnostics, Christians, atheists, and Freemasons — and they were radicals as well.

 As a Harvard Divinity School graduate, his investigation of the Christian Right agenda is even more alarming given its lucidity. Citing the psychology and sociology of fascism and cults, including the work of German historian Fritz Stern, Hedges draws striking parallels between 20th-century totalitarian movements and the highly organized, well-funded "dominionist movement," an influential theocratic sect within the country's huge evangelical population. Rooted in a radical Calvinism, and wrapping its apocalyptic, vehemently militant, sexist and homophobic vision in patriotic and religious rhetoric, dominionism seeks absolute power in a Christian state. Hedges's reportage profiles both former members and true believers, evoking the particular characteristics of this American variant of fascism. His argument against what he sees as a democratic society's suicidal tolerance for intolerant movements has its own paradoxes. But this urgent book forcefully illuminates what many across the political spectrum will recognize as a serious and growing threat to the very concept and practice of an open society.

"Chris Hedges may be the most credible figure yet to detect real-life fascism in the Red America of megachurches, gay-marriage bans and Left Behind books. American Fascists is at its most daring when it enunciates...the perversities that are obvious to those of us not beholden to political exigencies." -- New York Observer

"Throughout, Hedges documents, and reflects on, what he feels is the bigotry, the homophobia, the fanaticism -- and the deeply un-Christian ideology -- that pose clear and present danger in our previous and fragile republic." -- O, the Oprah magazine

"This is a powerful book that looks inside some of the darkest movements on American soil." -- Time Out New York

More Books to Wake You Up


Books to Wake You Up

AlterNet editor Joshua Holland demolishes the Right's biggest and most outrageous myths about the economy
Taxes kill growth. Labor unions hurt their members. Government regulation destroys jobs. These are just a few of the biggest lies in the web of misinformation spun by conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce. Holland's book dissects each malicious fiction to show how the Right is just plain wrong on the economy—wrong on jobs, wrong on the deficit, wrong on taxes, wrong on trade.
  • Takes down old and new conservative myths about the economy, including healthcare, stimulus, progressive taxes, Wall Street regulation, and more
  • Filled with recent quotes from conservative politicians and pundits, from the misleading to the laughable to the totally outrageous
  • Tackles specific aspects of the Republicans' economic agenda, including their 2010 alternatives to Obama's budget
  • Deftly written and rigorously documented by Alternet senior writer/editor Joshua Holland
With the economy set to be the driving issue before and after the 2010 midterm elections, The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy sets the record straight on every part of the conservatives' economic agenda.

From the Back Cover

"Who knew that the daily gusher of corporate myths and right-wing lies could be boiled down to just fifteen big ones? Holland and Team AlterNet toss up all fifteen for us and knock 'em out of the park, while also teaching us how to detect any new twists they might throw out at us. What a handy book!"
Jim Hightower, author of Swim against the Current "A valuable antidote to the brazen lies, calculated deceptions, and vacuous sound bites of those who want to use our government for their own gain rather than to benefit us all."
David Cay Johnston, author of Free Lunch
"Most of the basic facts that people need to know about the economy are straightforward, as this book demonstrates. It is only the bad guys who make things complicated."
Dean Baker, author of False Profits
"Joshua Holland's brilliant, data-rich, accessible, and in-your-face book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy, should be required reading for every American livid about floating a political-financial system that benefits powerful institutionsand megalomaniac leaders."
Nomi Prins, author of It Takes a Pillage
By nearly every conceivable standard, the American economy has gotten steadily worse from the time Reagan took office to the present. The anti-government, pro-corporate agenda has damaged our nation for too long, and yet, turn on Fox News and you'll find them still hawking the same foolish theories, baseless accusations, and bald-faced lies. The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy dissects each malicious fiction to reveal how the Right is just plain wrong on the economy — wrong on jobs, wrong on the deficit, wrong on taxes, wrong on trade. However, Holland goes beyond the most recent Republican talking points to explain the issues with the depth and nuance that you'll need to see through the nonsense rhetoric you're going to hear about the nation's economy for some time to come.

Idiocracy Begins at Home

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
The dramatic story behind the most audacious power grab in American history

The financial crisis that exploded in 2008 isn’t past but prologue. The stunning rise, fall, and rescue of Wall Street in the bubble-and-bailout era was the coming-out party for the network of looters who sit at the nexus of American political and economic power. The grifter class—made up of the largest players in the financial industry and the politicians who do their bidding—has been growing in power for a generation, transferring wealth upward through increasingly complex financial mechanisms and political maneuvers. The crisis was only one terrifying manifestation of how they’ve hijacked America’s political and economic life.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi here unravels the whole fiendish story, digging beyond the headlines to get into the deeper roots and wider implications of the rise of the grifters. He traces the movement’s origins to the cult of Ayn Rand and her most influential—and possibly weirdest—acolyte, Alan Greenspan, and offers fresh reporting on the backroom deals that decided the winners and losers in the government bailouts. He uncovers the hidden commodities bubble that transferred billions of dollars to Wall Street while creating food shortages around the world, and he shows how finance dominates politics, from the story of investment bankers auctioning off America’s infrastructure to an inside account of the high-stakes battle for health-care reform—a battle the true reformers lost. Finally, he tells the story of Goldman Sachs, the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.”

Taibbi has combined deep sources, trailblazing reportage, and provocative analysis to create the most lucid, emotionally galvanizing, and scathingly funny account yet written of the ongoing political and financial crisis in America. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the labyrinthine inner workings of politics and finance in this country, and the profound consequences for us all.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Century of Challenges

Just attended the 2010 International Conference on Sustainability in Grand Rapids where we heard Nicole Foss address some VERY serious issues. The video below is a small snip from a much longer video available at her blog.
To order the interactive video presentation (only $12.50!! ) of her lecture "A Century of Challenges" , PLEASE CLICK HERE

Nicole Foss is senior editor for The Automatic Earth (where she writes as Stoneleigh) and former editor of The Oil Drum - Canada.  Foss recently completed a speaking tour of North America and Europe where she described the interaction of peak oil and debt deflation. Foss also presents at the ASPO-USA conference and the European Biodiversity Conference in Brussels.
You can also listen to an MP3 of her talk here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quantitative Easing Explained

Your Farmer Behind Bars?

What S510 Could Do

By Stanley A. Fishman, Author of Tender Grassfed Meat
There are many reasons to oppose S510, the so-called “Food Safety” bill that will come up in the Senate after the election.
It will do nothing to improve actual food safety, relying almost totally on burdensome paperwork.
It will drive small farmers out of business, because they do not have the resources to comply with the crushing burden of meaningless paperwork that will be required.
The paperwork will have to be done to the satisfaction of regulatory agencies that are heavily influenced by the large agricultural companies, who will be able to use the government to destroy their smaller competition. This has happened before, when the adoption of paperwork-heavy HAACP standards led to the closing of most of the small meat processing plants in the nation. Of course, their business was taken by the giants, and most American meat is packed at huge plants owned by a handful of large companies. And there are more meat contamination outbreaks than ever before.
It will give the FDA the power to control every aspect of how crops are grown. The FDA favors genetically modified crops, pesticides, chemical disinfectants and preservatives, and radiating produce. The FDA would have the power to force these industrial methods on every farmer in America.
But perhaps the worst thing S510 would do is create criminal penalties that could result in 10 years in federal prison, and huge fines. People could go to prison for farming, and for selling food, or possibly even receiving food.
But surely the government of the United States of America, a country that prizes liberty, freedom, and justice, would not send people to prison for a technical violation that hurts no one?
Yes it would, and yes it has. Three people were sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison for importing frozen lobster tails that were wrapped in plastic, not cardboard.

Prison for Packaging

There is a federal law called the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act prohibits the importation of seafood in violation of foreign laws, and imposes criminal penalties for its violation.
A small group of businesspeople had been importing lobster tails from Honduras for ten years, without problems. Every shipment was passed by the FDA and Customs. In 1999 they were arrested and charged with violation of the Lacey Act. According to the government, they had violated Honduran law by packaging the frozen lobster tails in plastic, rather than cardboard. They were also accused of violating other provisions that turned out to pertain to turtles, not lobsters. These lobsters were not an endangered species.
The government sought heavy prison terms. This case was such an outrage that some of the finest lawyers and organizations in the nation came to the defense of these businesspeople, and gave them the best representation possible. The Attorney General of Honduras sent a letter to the court, stating that the resolution in question was void and had never been in effect. His letter was backed by a decision of the Honduran Supreme Court.
Since no Honduran law had been broken, since nobody could possibly be harmed by packing frozen lobster tails in plastic rather than cardboard, surely our government would drop the case?
They did not.

What about the trial judge, surely he would dismiss the case?
He did not.
Three defendants were sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison each, and fined heavily. Their business was destroyed. They were separated from their families. They lost their liberty.
They appealed their convictions. Surely the Court of Appeals would overturn this unjust conviction, and set them free?
They did not.
The three defendants appealed their conviction to the United States Supreme Court. Surely the highest court in our land, the court that is charged with enforcing the constitution, would overturn the Court of Appeals, and do justice?
They did not.
The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case.

Prison for Selling Any Food the Government Considers “Adulterated”?

This “lobster tail” case has established that our Federal government will enforce a bad law. This case has also shown that the courts will not stop the government from doing so. A bad law is a threat to the freedom of everyone.
It is expected that S510 will include, as an amendment, Senate Bill 3767. The amended version of S3767 states in part that:
“Any person who knowingly violates subsection (a),(b), (c),(k), or (v) of section 301 with respect to any food and with conscious or reckless disregard of a risk of death or serious bodily injury shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both”.
The included subsections of section 301 prohibit the introduction of adulterated or misbranded food into interstate commerce, misbranding or adulterating food in interstate commerce, and receiving misbranded or adulterated substances into interstate commerce, among other things.
This means that anyone who sells, produces, or possibly even receives “adulterated” or “misbranded” food with “conscious or reckless disregard of a risk of death or serious bodily injury” could go to jail for ten years.
“Adulterated” has been defined as including any food or that is “unsafe.”
“Misbranded” has been defined as including any food that is marketed or labeled in a way that is “deceptive.”
The statute is very broad. It uses the phrase “a risk of death or serious injury.” This statute does not require a “substantial risk” for prison terms to apply.
It only requires “a risk.” Any risk.
This could mean any risk, even a one in a million risk. Even one in ten million. Even one in a billion.
All the government would have to do is show ANY possibility of death or serious bodily injury.
It is impossible to eat ANYTHING without at least having some tiny chance of death or serious injury, due to choking, allergic reaction, etc.
There is a real danger that all the government would have to do to imprison someone for 10 years is to show that they sold, raised, or even received food that the government considers “adulterated” or “misbranded,” and that they knew the government considered the food to be “adulterated” or “misbranded.”
While I hope the courts would not interpret the law that broadly, and they should not, the lobster tail case shows that we cannot rely on the courts to protect us from a bad law.

The End of Raw Milk?

How does this relate to raw milk? “Adulterated,” according to the FDA would include any substance that the FDA considers “unsafe.” The FDA considers raw milk and cream to be “unsafe.”
The FDA, on its website, warns that the consumption of raw milk can cause “serious illness.” In fact, the FDA‘s page on raw milk warns of a risk of death, as well as serious harm to health. The FDA considers ALL raw milk to be unsafe.
The FDA sent a letter to Morningland Dairy stating that their recalled raw cheese products were an “acute, life threatening danger to health.” This statement was included in the FDA letter, despite the fact that nobody has ever gotten sick from a Morningland Dairy product. The only basis for the danger cited in the letter were tests of cheese that was seized in the infamous Rawsome raid, in California. The cheese was placed in unrefrigerated coolers when seized, in the sweltering heat of a Los Angeles summer. It is unknown if the cheese was even refrigerated before being tested, seven weeks later. The tests were done by the California Department of Agriculture, SEVEN WEEKS after the cheese was seized. No samples were sent to the dairy for independent testing, as required by FDA regulations. But the FDA had no problem in relying on these tests as the basis for their letter, and for their persecution of Morningland Dairy.
These actions show what the FDA will do when they see a chance to attack any raw milk product.
The FDA has also stopped the renowned Estrella Family Creamery in Washington from selling their award winning raw cheese, claiming that the cheese is “adulterated.” Nobody has ever gotten sick from the cheese of the Estrella Family Creamery either, but that does not seem to matter to the FDA.
The persecution of the Morningland Dairy and the Estrella Family Creamery, and others, shows that the FDA will go after small raw dairy producers, even when no one has been harmed.
In addition to the “adulterated” issue, anyone who sells and markets raw milk and says almost anything about the product is in danger of being accused of selling a “misbranded” product, if the FDA considers even a single statement to be “deceptive.”
If S510 passes, would the FDA try to jail farmers who produce raw milk or cheese? I certainly hope not, but I do not want the FDA to have the power to do so.
Given the broad and vague language of the statute, any food or supplement that the government decides is “adulterated” or “misbranded” could trigger criminal penalties, if the government decides that the food or supplement carries a risk of death or serious bodily injury.
S510 must be defeated. If any part of it passes, it must be amended to remove criminal penalties and to exclude small farmers and producers.
This article is not intended to be legal advice. The proposed laws have not yet been passed, and hopefully they won’t be.
Stan Fishman is the author of Tender Grassfed Meat. His book describes in detail how to cook grassfed beef, grassfed bison, and grassfed lamb. The book follows the nutritional principles of Dr. Weston A. Price, and uses only the best natural ingredients. The book can be purchased through Follow Stanley’s blog at

Action you can Take

If you would like to preserve America’s small farms, there is something you can do. See the Action Alert on Food Safety Modernization Act released by the Weston A. Price Foundation.
In regards to the dangers S510 poses to raw milk farmers,  see also, FDA’s Ace in the Hole by Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
Send this post to your US Senators office, directly to the legislative aid that works on agricultural or consumer protection issues. And, please share it with your friends using the share buttons, below.

10 Million Americans May Not Have Heat This Winter

Will You Be Able To Heat Your Home This Winter? Millions Of American Families Will Not
by Michael Snyder - Economic Collapse

Will you have a warm house to come home to this winter?  If so, you should consider yourself to be very fortunate. With the United States experiencing the highest levels of long-term unemployment that it has seen since the Great Depression, millions of Americans families are simply out of money.  All across America this winter, families are going to be forced to make some heart breaking decisions.  For many, the choice will come down to either heating their home or putting food on the table.  According to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, more than 10 million U.S. households will not be able to afford to heat their homes this winter without assistance, which would be a new all-time record.  So, if you are in a position to easily heat your home this winter, be very, very thankful.  The number of American families that cannot even afford the basics of life is growing by the day.
As I have written about previously, millions of formerly middle class families have been absolutely ripped apart by this economy.  There simply is not nearly enough jobs for everyone, and those who have been left on the outside looking in are becoming increasingly desperate.
Of course there is federal help available, but it doesn't go nearly far enough for those who are truly in need.  For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists low income households in paying their home heating bills.  However, the truth is that usually only a small fraction of heating costs are covered.  Nationally, the average benefit represents only about 8% of the average winter heating bill.
Last winter, a record number of U.S. households applied for home heating assistance.  In fact, in 17 states application requests were up more than 20% from the year before.  Due to rapidly spreading poverty, the number of Americans filing for heating assistance is expected to increase even more this winter.
If you cannot heat your home, it is a really, really big deal.  In 2009, a 93-year-old man in Bay City, Michigan actually froze to death inside his own home.
These days, many American families are finding that their budgets are stretched beyond the breaking point.  Most Americans take it for granted that they will be able to heat their homes, but for the poor, being able to have enough heat is a great blessing.  Today, the poorest 20 percent of Americans spend more than 50 percent of their after-tax income on food and energy....

So can't the U.S. federal government just pay for everyone to have heat?
No, they cannot.
The truth is that as millions upon millions of Americans jump on to the "safety net" it is rapidly approaching the breaking point.  For example, 42 million Americans are now enrolled in the food stamp program.  That is a whole lot of hungry mouths to try to feed every month.
Not that feeding hungry people should not be a priority.  It is just that the U.S. government continues to spend way, way more money than it is bringing in and is basically bankrupt at this point.
So what about the states?  Can't they step in and help?
No, the truth is that most U.S. states are absolute basket cases financially.  A recent article that I wrote about the state of California illustrates this point very well.
Unfortunately, most Americans families are just going to have to scrape by the best that they can.
It is hard to even describe the horrible pain that many Americans are experiencing because of this economy.  The following story from the Unemployed-Friends website is from a woman named Leetah who is desperately hoping that her family will be able to get through this upcoming winter....
The place I live in right now has no jobs and no places to live. My fiance, Lloyd, and I have been looking for anything but he lost his job from McDonald's and the factories (the only jobs to make a living off of) consider him an insurance liability. I can't get hired to a factory because of I was fired from our major factory for attendance (I had to miss 3 days of work because I was sick). So we are moving to the Edmond/OKC region where we are hoping to find a job and a place with running water and heating. We've spent the last few years without heat and running water and so having a place with water and heat would be heaven.
Winter is coming up fast and I am so afraid. Last winter we almost died from the cold and now the thought of cold makes my throat close up and my heart pound. But it isn't just ourselves we are looking out for, we have our dog too. Our wonderful APBT Maggie who is 2-years-old and has been with us since she was 5-months-old. She's our baby girl and we can't lose her. We almost lost her to the cold too and it scared me so much. We are going to be living in our car soon with our dog.
I am hoping to be able to keep our food stamps in the new city so we can still eat. I have already applied for ten+ jobs and nothing yet but I am keeping my hopes up. Hopefully it will get easier to find a job once we get there. Then we just have to save up and then we can afford an apartment. Now finding an apartment with my awesome dog is another story.

Please say a prayer for those who are hurting this winter.  This economy has pushed millions of Americans to the absolute edge of despair.  Another participant on the Unemployed-Friends forum named Sanskay sounds like the hard reality of her situation has sucked almost all of the life out of her....
I met the love of my life when I was 19, and we moved in together. He had an excellent job and savings (he was several years older than me), and we decided together that I would stay home. When I was 26, he started feeling sick to his stomach a lot. By the time he was diagnosed with colon cancer (at 33!), it had already spread to his liver. We lost everything to medical bills, treatments, and medications. We fought so hard to prolong his life, and we drained his (our) savings accounts to try to cure him. Well, it did not work. He died in agony.
So then I was 26 and a widow and penniless, and I had not worked since college. I moved back in with my parents and decided to go back to school. Everyone told me that the health care fields were all in demand, so I studied to become an ultrasound tech. I excelled in my classes. It took me two years to do all of my prerequisites before I entered the program. By then, the recession had hit, but everyone at the school told me that I would have no problem landing a job as long as I was willing to move. This ended up being all lies. By that point, they knew that they were having trouble placing grads from 2007 and 2008, but that was never mentioned to me. This was a community college with a good reputation, and not some for-profit school, and I believed them.
I graduated last year (2009) and have been looking for employment as an ultrasound tech for over a year now. I have applied to over 400 jobs. I have gained three in-person interviews and seven phone interviews. None of them have amounted to anything. I am still unemployed. There are many per-diem (they'll call you when they need you, and you have no guaranteed hours) jobs listed, but I cannot move unless I have a full-time job.
It's awful because they are still funneling people into the program and telling them that as long as they're willing to move out of state, they will have no trouble finding full-time work. They're just concerned with keeping the seats full and they don't care if their new graduates are unable to find work. I feel betrayed.
So now I'm 30 years old and still living in my parents' basement, as I have been for years now. I feel like such a loser. My parents paid for my community college degree and my registry exams, which are all worthless now. It's been so long that I have scanned anyone that I don't remember what to do for some of the exams any longer, not to mention what the pathologies look like.
I haven't applied to a job in a month. The official unemployment rate in my county is 15.6%, but the "unofficial" unemployment rate (REAL unemployment rate!) is easily double that. There is no work here, and I have no money to move, and no salable skills even if I had the money to move.
I miss my husband terribly. Suicide has definitely crossed my mind many times, but it would literally kill my mother if I did anything rash (she has a heart condition and can't allow herself to become over-excited or her heart starts beating out of rhythm, which could cause a heart attack). It seems most days that the best years of my life are far behind me and that I have nothing to look forward to anymore.
Hopefully as you read these kinds of stories you feel your heart move.  The truth is that it could be any of us that are next.
In this economy, no jobs is secure.  In this economy, no business is secure.  There is no guarantee that the income that you are enjoying today is going to be there tomorrow.
The U.S. economic system is slowly dying.  There are many that are cheering this downfall, but the cold, hard truth is that tens of millions of us are going to experience horrible economic pain as the economy unravels.
It is not going to be a fun time.  So count your blessings while you still have them.

News from Automatic Earth - Nicole Foss

Barack Obama’s Debt Commission Is An Exercise In Futility – The U.S. Government Will Never Have A Balanced Budget Ever Again
by Michael Snyder - Economic Collapse

In a surprise move, the co-chairs of Barack Obama's national debt commission released their preliminary proposals to the media on Wednesday.  The proposals are actually quite modest - they recommend that nothing be implemented until 2012 because of the weak economy, and their plan would not balance the federal budget until 2037 - but almost as soon as it was released Democrats and Republicans both started screaming bloody murder about how they would not support it. 

The truth is that virtually none of our politicians are willing to make the hard choices that would be necessary to get the national debt under control.  Today, the U.S. national debt is rapidly approaching 14 trillion dollars and it is growing at an exponential rate. It is the single largest debt in the history of the world, and it has increased in size for 53 years in a row. 

It would be very difficult to understate the true horror of the debt that the U.S. federal government has accumulated.  So what is the solution?  As you will see below, there isn't one.  In fact, it will be an absolute miracle if our leaders are able to even slow down the rate at which the debt is growing in the years ahead.
The deficit reduction plan put forward by Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, and Alan Simpson, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming does not even have support from the rest of Barack Obama's national debt commission.  There is no way that either most Democrats or most Republicans in Congress will ever accept it.  But at least the Bowles-Simpson plan is making headlines around the world and has brought the national debt back to the center of the political debate in this country.
In some ways, the Bowles-Simpson plan is a complete and total fantasy.  For example, it assumes that the U.S. economy is going to fully recover and will experience solid growth for many years to come.  That simply is not going to happen.  The prosperity of the last couple of decades has been fueled by the biggest debt bubble in the history of the world, and there is no way that is going to continue.  At some point the U.S. economy is going to fall apart like a house of cards.
But even if the U.S. economy could magically meet the projections contained in the Bowles-Simpson plan, it still contains a whole host of "poison pills" which make it completely and totally unacceptable to both political parties....
  • The plan calls for deep cuts to U.S. military spending.  The Republicans will never go for that.
  • The plan reduces Social Security benefits to most retirees in future decades.  The Democrats will never go for that.
  • The plan raises the Social Security payroll tax cap to $190,000.  The Republicans will never go for that.
  • The plan envisions a very slow rise in the retirement age from 67 to 68 by 2050 and finally to 69 by 2075.  The Democrats will never go for that.
  • The plan includes a "less generous" annual cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits.  Considering the fact that Social Security benefits are already not going to see an increase this upcoming year, this proposal is likely to upset a large number of seniors.
  • The plan calls for the federal tax on gasoline to approximately double by 2015.  The Republicans would never go for that, and if that was ever implemented it would have a very serious negative impact on the economy.
  • The plan would eliminate the deductibility of mortgage interest payments.  Millions upon millions of homeowners would be absolutely furious.
  • The plan would tax health benefits provided by employers.  That would make millions of people very angry.
  • The plan also calls for huge cuts in farm subsidies.  There are a lot less farmers than there used to be, but that would still be extremely unpopular.

But the truth is that hard choices need to be made.  The national debt is spinning wildly out of control.  The U.S. government is essentially bankrupt.
Unfortunately, the majority of the federal budget is made up of entitlement programs.  Entitlement programs are not subject to budget freezes or budget cuts - unless Congress changes the underlying laws.  But any change to major entitlement programs would potentially upset millions of voters.
Not that there are not other areas that could be cut.  Today, the average federal worker earns far more than the average private sector worker.  In fact, wages for federal workers have been escalating at a frightening pace.  In 2005, 7420 federal employees were making $150,000 or more per year.  Today, 82,034 federal employees are making $150,000 or more per year.  That is more than a tenfold increase in just five years.
But any major cuts to federal spending are going to really upset a lot of voters, and our politicians really, really like to get re-elected.  The kinds of cuts that are really needed will never get through the Democrats in Congress and the Republicans in Congress and signed into law by Barack Obama.  There are just way too many things that both major political parties consider to be "untouchable".
Meanwhile, the U.S. government debt continues to explode.  The debt is already so big, interest on that debt is scheduled to escalate so dramatically, and we have made so many unsustainable promises regarding Social Security and Medicare that it is basically impossible to balance the federal budget at this point.  If serious attempts were actually made to balance the budget in 2011, it would likely create a financial panic, and suddenly sucking over a trillion dollars in federal spending out of the system would crash the economy.
The following are 15 facts that reveal just how obscene the U.S. national debt has become, and why it is now basically impossible to balance the budget of the U.S. government at this point....
#1 On average, the U.S. government accumulates about 4 billion dollars more debt each day.
#2 In just the last 30 years the U.S. government has accumulated 12 trillion dollars more debt.
#3 According to a U.S. Treasury Department report to Congress, the U.S. national debt will climb to an estimated $19.6 trillion by 2015.
#4 The U.S. government has to borrow 41 cents of every dollar that it currently spends.
#5 If the U.S. government was forced to use GAAP accounting principles (like all publicly-traded corporations must), the annual U.S. government budget deficit would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 trillion to $5 trillion.
#6 The Congressional Budget Office projects that the health care bill recently passed by Congress will add an additional trillion dollars to our debt over the next ten years.
#7 Approximately 57 percent of Barack Obama's 3.8 trillion dollar budget for 2011 consists of direct payments to individual Americans or is money that is spent on their behalf.  Any attempt to reduce those payments will make a lot of people very angry.
#8 According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2010 the Social Security system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes.  That was not supposed to happen until at least 2016.
#9 Back in 1950, each retiree's Social Security benefit was paid for by approximately 16 workers.  Today, each retiree's Social Security benefit is paid for by approximately 3.3 workers.  By 2025 it is projected that there will be approximately two workers for each retiree.
#10 According to an official U.S. government report, rapidly growing interest costs on the U.S. national debt together with spending on major entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare will absorb approximately 92 cents of every dollar of federal revenue by the year 2019.  That is before a single penny is spent on anything else.
#11 Right now, interest on the U.S. national debt and spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare falls somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of GDP each year.  By 2080, they are projected to eat up approximately 50 percent of GDP.
#12 The present value of projected scheduled benefits exceeds earmarked revenues for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare by about 46 trillion dollars over the next 75 years.
#13 After analyzing Congressional Budget Office data, Boston University economics professor Laurence J. Kotlikoff concluded that the U.S. government is facing a "fiscal gap" of $202 trillion dollars.
#14 At our current pace, the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that U.S. government public debt will hit 716 percent of GDP by the year 2080.
#15 Sometimes we forget just how big a trillion dollars is.  If right this moment you went out and started spending one dollar every single second, it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend one trillion dollars.  The U.S. national debt increased by more than a trillion dollars last year, it will increase by more than a trillion dollars this year and it is being projected to increase by more than a trillion dollars the following year.
We are literally drowning in debt.  We have been living beyond our means for decades, and most Americans do not understand that eventually that is really, really going to start catching up with us.
Already, the United States is fading as an economic power.  According to the Conference Board, China will surpass the United States and will become the biggest economy in the world by the year 2012.
That is just two years away.
So how did we get into such a mess?  Well, it all goes back to the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.  The Federal Reserve was created to enslave the United States government in an endlessly growing spiral of debt from which it would never be able to escape.
That is exactly what has happened.  Our money is actually debt-based.  That is why they are called "Federal Reserve notes".  When the Federal Reserve creates more money for the U.S. government to borrow, it does not also create money for the interest to be paid on that debt.  Eventually the U.S. government is forced to borrow even more money just to keep up with the game.
Today, if you gathered up all of the physical currency from every bank, every business and every individual in the United States, you would not even put much of a dent in the national debt.  That is how bad things have gotten.
A lot of people got elected to Congress by promising to balance the federal budget and by promising to start reducing the U.S. national debt.  But those ships have sailed.  The U.S. government will always have a national debt under the Federal Reserve system, and things have gotten so bad financially for our government that it is now virtually impossible to even balance the budget for a single year.
In the 90s, the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress briefly balanced the federal budget by "borrowing" massive amounts of money from the Social Security surplus.  Using GAAP accounting, the budget was not even close to balanced at that point, but many point to that time as a moment when the U.S. government was at least somewhat fiscally responsible.
Well, the Social Security surplus is gone forever.  Now we have a Social Security deficit which is only going to explode in size in future years.
In addition, the financial condition of the U.S. government has deteriorated enormously over the past 10 years, and things only look worse the further you look into the future.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is falling to pieces all around us.  We are experiencing our longest bout of serious long-term unemployment since the Great Depression, 42 million Americans are on food stamps and the United States is being deindustrialized at a pace that is mind blowing.
As America continues to get poorer, the U.S. government is going to really struggle to raise revenue.  But interest payments and financial obligations are projected to escalate wildly.  At this point it is really hard to envision a scenario that does not lead to the eventual financial collapse of the U.S. government.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Progressives Rules for Raising Hell

10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell

This excerpt from Jamie Court's new book offers ten simple rules that can help an awakened public see and seize the outside opportunities for creating change.
The following is an excerpt from Jamie Court's new book, The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws, and Get the Change We Voted For (Chelsea Green, 2010). 
Turning the tables on a powerful opponent revolves around a few core principles. By understanding what works and what hasn’t for change makers, an informed public can better stake its claim to change. In fact, there are ten simple rules that can help an awakened public see and seize the outside opportunities for creating changes that the vast majority of Americans believe in.
Rule 1: Forcing Opponents to Make Mistakes Is the Goal of Effective Advocacy for Change; Promoting Issues Is Not Enough

Any major change in public policy requires a shift in the balance of power. A big opponent with a self-interest in the status quo stands in the way of the popularly sought reform, or that reform would have happened already. When the powerful opponents of change make egregious mistakes, they vastly amplify the value and force of our campaigns by proving the point we cannot demonstrate on our own: our opponents’ values are out of touch with the public’s.
Every campaign for real change must (1) define an opponent; (2) be waged to trip up the opponent; and (3) be ready to create change from the opponent’s mistakes.
Consider how Congress finally banned so-called drive-through deliveries when HMOs tried to save some money by discharging newborns and their mothers from the hospital as early as eight hours after birth. The practice caught Congress’s eye only after a Kaiser HMO bureaucrat got a little too cute in a memo written to staff at the HMO’s flagship Sunset Boulevard hospital in Los Angeles. A whistleblower gave me the memo, titled “Positive Thoughts Regarding the Eight Hour Discharge.” Among the “reasons” given for hospital staff to explain the hasty departure to new moms were “hospital food is not tasty” and “better bonding with siblings at home.” Our exposure of the memo to the media became big news and was soon the subject of congressional hearings. Not only were the HMOs slighting motherhood, but data showed that newborns discharged early were twice as likely to end up in the emergency room with problems that proved to be expensive.
HMO executives were confronted with their penny-wise, pound-foolish policy. The rare glimpse into the cynical attitude of an HMO administration, coupled with exposures about mothers thrown out of the hospital before they learned to breast-feed, drove a Newt Gingrich–controlled Congress to require that newborns and their mothers not be discharged from the hospital any sooner than forty-eight hours without their consent. Congress rarely acts quickly, but when it does it’s because there is little doubt what the public wants and that those who oppose the public’s interest, like HMOs, cannot be trusted because they are so out of step. Only our opponents’ mistakes can demonstrate so clearly why things need to change.
When opponents of new financial privacy protections claimed our privacy was not at risk, I proved the point in a novel way. I bought the Social Security numbers of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other cabinet officials on the Internet for $26. When California legislation to protect financial privacy stalled in the statehouse, I decided to up the ante. I easily and legally bought the Social Security numbers of all the state legislators who opposed the legislation or refused to vote on it. Then I put up their partial Social Security numbers on the Internet along with the partial Social Security number of Governor Gray Davis. The politicians went ballistic. They called on the California Highway Patrol and attorney general to investigate and prosecute me. Their hot reaction to a risk to their personal privacy proved my point. It allowed me to turn the media spotlight they created onto their own failure to be concerned about the privacy of the public at large. The legislators drew attention to their own hypocrisy. Later that year, the California financial privacy protection legislation was revived, passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Davis.
True change almost always involves a public opinion war with those who control the status quo. This is where President Obama fell down on the job as a health reform change maker. He buckled early on to the drug companies, health insurers, and other medical complex lobbyists, as well as stalwarts in his party, rather than putting them to the test of whether their values were in sync with the public’s. He didn’t think he could fight the barrage of advertising the lobbies could afford to shape public opinion, and in doing that he put too little faith in the public and his own ability to use his opponents’ own weight against them. Obama largely refused to put the opponents of real change in the Capitol and on K Street on the spot so that their mistakes would betray their interest in the status quo. Ironically, his success in finally enact­ing federal health insurance reforms was a result of one health insur­ance company’s big mistake. When health reform looked like it was in the mortuary, Anthem Blue Cross raised premiums by 39 percent in California. President Obama had the good sense to seize on the public outrage and make the company a poster child for reform. The presi­dent effectively used his media pulpit to vector the public anger into a final, successful push for enactment of a new law, even though it had no teeth to stop premium increases like Anthem Blue Cross’s. Obama’s early capitulations to the medical insurance establishment had created a patient protection act that protected the medical industries’ greatest interests and put new financial burdens on most Americans.
Public success often hinges on the quality of opponents’ mistakes and the ability of change makers to exploit them. When opponents make mistakes that show they are out of touch, they amplify our case and weaken their own. Mistakes are the turning points of most populist battles, because mistakes provide the leverage and ammuni­tion to finish the fight.
 Rule 2: To Make Big Changes, Target the Little Things and a Few People
We have only so much energy, time, and capital to spend creating the changes we want. Often the impulse to get involved can be over­whelmed by how difficult it seems to change anything or anyone, particularly powerful institutions, industries, or officials. So it should be a comfort to know this trade secret of change makers: big changes are created by a small number of people who do little things right.
Think Paul Revere. In his bestseller The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell shows how Revere had the right connections to knock on the right revolutionary leaders’ doors, those who knew him, with his “sticky” message: “The British are coming!” Stickiness means that a message has an impact and is memorable. Another messenger who rode out in the opposite direction failed in the same charge because he wasn’t as well connected as Revere, or apparently as persuasive. The Tipping Point, a must-read for effective advocates, sums up a growing body of research that shows how big changes on social issues come down to a few decisions and a few key decision makers. Whether you’re trying to stem the tide of teen smoking, reduce your local crime rates, or sway opinion on any other issue, you need to influence the few to affect the many. Focus on identifying the smallest number of people who have the right connections and who can act with the greatest impact.
The small resources of my consumer group have necessitated that we find the right pressure points—the little things and right people—that will have a big impact. For proof that little things matter, consider the case of what happened after my colleagues and I took Arnold Schwarzenegger’s red carpet away.
After his election as governor during the 2003 California recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger got an even bigger ego. The Republican governor embraced a thoroughly reactionary agenda. Although he had run for office as the anti-politician in a progressive state, Schwarzenegger called students, teachers, firefighters, and even the disabled “special interest groups” in an attempt to cut their budgets and pensions. But Schwarzenegger claimed that the label did not apply to big corporations that funded his campaign committee with tens of millions of dollars.
Shades of the same arrogance had surfaced during the recall, which is why my colleagues and I created “” to publicly track the hidden hand of special interests in the Schwarzenegger administration. We knew the California public would not look fondly upon being been lied to.
Ultimately Governor Schwarzenegger was forced to apologize for his tactics. Chapter 6 offers the blow-by-blow of that campaign, but a key turning point hinged on doing a small thing right. Early on, a small group of us began in-your-face protests, starting at the governor’s house on Super Bowl Sunday, and shadowing him across the state. Ultimately the protests grew to ten thousand strong. We knew that for a celebrity, used to basking in the public’s spotlight, facing angry fans would be debilitating. The psychological turning point in the campaign came midway, during a premier for the Danny DeVito film Be Cool in Sacramento. DeVito was Schwarzenegger’s acting partner in the movie Twins and a close friend.
We knew that if we could keep Schwarzenegger from walking the red carpet into that premier it would be symbolically devas­tating. The mighty California Nurses Association, great progressive allies, rented the Greek restaurant next door to the theatre, a block from the Capitol. Hundreds of nurses occupied the restaurant and its adjoining space on the red carpet with anti-Arnold signs and critical props. Schwarzenegger had to enter the theatre from the back exit. The symbolism said we would turn Arnold’s celebrity around on him and that he couldn’t show his face in California if he continued on his course. The governor suffered a near-knock­out blow at the ballot box eight months later, when all five of the regressive ballot measures he opened fire with post-election were defeated. Schwarzenegger apologized the day after, reversed course, and regained some of his celebrity.
In a populist fight, targeting the right person can change the entire campaign. That’s how Consumer Watchdog ended one insur­ance company CEO’s two-decade war against voter-backed insur­ance regulation and won an end to insurers’ redlining of poor and urban neighborhoods.
George Joseph is one of the four hundred richest men in the United States. He made his wealth from his Los Angeles–based company, Mercury Insurance. No one has more hatred for the insurance-regulating Proposition 103, nor has anyone done more to undo it. Joseph’s company gave millions in campaign contributions to statehouse politicians to undermine the law. When Democrats bucked him, Joseph gave an even bigger, six-figure contribution to the opposite party. That sent a chilly message to both parties’ leaders.
By the time Joseph turned eighty-four in 2006, California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi had at long last finalized rules to end auto insurance rates based on motorists’ zip codes. It was the last unfulfilled promise of the 1988 insurance reform initiative.
Mercury did a lot of business in urban areas, and George Joseph apparently didn’t want to be told that he had to charge people based on how they drive, not where they live. So good drivers in the inner city were being required by the state to buy auto insurance, but insurers would not sell them a policy at an affordable price. In the poorest areas, the cheapest, most basic auto policies cost thousands of dollars a year because insurers didn’t want to sell insurance there. So when the end to zip-code-based insurance was at hand, as final regulations were about to be implemented to make this change real, Joseph gave some top political consultants a big check and a green light to file a ballot measure overturning this long-awaited provision of Prop 103. After almost two decades of resistance, Joseph decided on all-out war.
Our response? We proposed a ballot measure of our own that would strictly curb Mercury’s profits. We started a boycott of Mercury Insurance. But the key to turning George Joseph around was an Internet video we made about him for the “Boycott Mercury” Web site. Robert Greenwald, a friend and the progressive movie director behind Iraq for Sale, Outfoxed, and Wal-Mart Movie, sent a film crew to shadow the octogenarian from his luxurious Hancock Park home to his office. The camera crew confronted Joseph about the initia­tive in his office garage. They asked why Mercury would want to charge African Americans who lived in low-income communities and poorer zip codes more money. An angry letter from civil rights leaders also appeared on his desk. Within about a week, Mercury had withdrawn the initiative. But not before calling my colleague and Prop 103 author Harvey Rosenfield.
Joseph told Harvey his wife had asked him why there had been a video camera at his home. When he explained, she said she also thought it was wrong for his company to charge customers based on their zip code. A few months later, Joseph resigned as Mercury’s CEO, though he retained his position as chairman of the board. New rules charging people based on how they drive, not where they live, finally took effect in 2008. California is the only state in the nation that forces insurers to base premiums on motorists’ driving record, how far they drive, and how many years of experience they have, and not on where they live.
Only a few people were involved; only a small number of actions were needed. Less yielded more—something that is often not the case with staging a mass demonstration or other Herculean labor of protest. For example, for almost a year a group of doctors called “Physicians Who Care” worked to organize massive protests against HMO medicine on “Rescue Healthcare Day.” The lead doctor bothered me nearly daily, and I kept warning him that the key to rescuing health care was what would happen the day after the protest. Nonetheless he continued to believe the outburst of physician energy would change everything. Of course, things didn’t change on their own the day after the protests. The doctor and his group quickly disappeared. I didn’t hear from him again for almost seven years. Just before the 2008 election he e-mailed to ask how he could raise questions about Senator McCain’s failure to disclose his health records. I pointed him to Robert Greenwald, who had already created a video on the topic and a petition signed by thousands of doctors calling for a release of those records. Greenwald started out with only a few doctors but ultimately grew the effort to include thousands, a popular online video, and a front-page New York Times story that turned McCain’s health into a campaign issue.
The question progressives must ask themselves is which small things and few people to target to turn things around.
Applying this to a national scale leads to some interesting options. Obama may not be the leader of the progressive movement, but it doesn’t mean the movement cannot make him move. And if you were going to target a few people for the greatest change, you prob­ably wouldn’t have to look far. Progressives could demand a shake-up at the White House to oust Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The jobs of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers should also be on the chopping block. The strategy of these three men is largely respon­sible for the setbacks for progressives in health care, financial regula­tion, and climate change legislation.
Rule 3: Simple Moral Sentiments Can Change the World When Public Opinion Propels Them
The public’s power to create change against the wishes of powerful interest groups springs from simply phrased, widely shared moral sentiments. A short, simple articulation of the moral viewpoint driv­ing a campaign sums up exactly what we are fighting for or against. The right sentence can rouse public opinion and spread the spirit of change like wildfire.
Here are some of the morals-based phrases that I have put to work:
• Newborns and their mothers should not be kicked out of the hospital eight hours after birth.
• Doctors, not HMO bureaucrats, should make medical decisions.
• Motorists should not be forced to choose between paying for auto insurance and buying food for their family.
• Oil companies should not be able to make more profit by making less gasoline.
• Our private financial information should not be bought and sold like pork bellies to the highest bidder.
• Insurance premiums should be based on how we drive, not where we live.
I have run successful campaigns around each of these irrefutable moral sentiments precisely because big industries and their allies in government tried to refute them. Campaigns for change rely on a social, ethical, or populist belief so powerful that our smartest oppo­nents will not openly take issue with it for fear of losing their stand­ing with the public. Most opponents do argue, though, and that is often their big mistake.
The sentiment of any issue-based campaign should (1) articulate a popular moral principle; (2) be simple and human; (3) put our opponents on the spot and force their tactical decision to support it or oppose it. Clever opponents will claim we are mistaken and that they don’t really disagree with the populist sentiment and don’t violate it. Then we must gather evidence to expose them to win our campaign, which creates opportunities for those with that informa­tion to come forward. Smart campaigners will have the evidence in their pocket first, ready to release once their opponent claims to support the sentiment.
The Kaiser bureaucrats who gave new meaning to the term “maternity leave” showed disregard for social mores about how to treat mothers and reaped their own shame. I spent years, with the help of whistleblowers, proving that HMO bureaucrats did indeed make medical decisions. HMOs tried to argue back with reasons why doctors should be paid bonuses to deny care to patients. They tried to defend their use of accounting manuals to dictate hospi­tal stays and their bureaucrats in far-off states overriding a treat­ing doctor’s decisions. They found out quickly that offending the public’s sensibilities is quicksand for those who want to maintain the status quo.
Campaigns for change, ironically, are often about preserving tradi­tional values like fairness, justice, and privacy. They are about getting back something that has been lost. That is a powerful message that doesn’t frighten the public: it involves returning lost values through new plans, not embarking on a dangerous new course. People fear change, even as they desire it. Popular change almost always is built on the bedrock of existing values that are threatened.
The greatest tactical objective of change makers is to expose our opponents’ opposition to social mores, ethical customs, and the rule of law. Then we seize the moment to reassert these mores through new laws, stronger codes of conduct, or new decisions. The public should recognize these telltale signs and lend their opinion.
When you hear a moral sentiment worth fighting for, go for it. If you are trying to build a campaign, craft a statement that defines it. Moral sentiments have the power to create change when fueled by the last credible source of information in a culture of disintegrating trust: word of mouth. And Americans now have the best conductor of “word of mouth” in human history, the Internet.
Candidates already know how to win elections based on clearly expressed moral sentiments. Here are some of the ones that brought Obama to the White House:
• Health care should be accessible and affordable so that medical bills bankrupt no one.
• Americans must end dependence on the petroleum economy and stop gasoline prices from destroying our economy.
• Lobbyists and special interest groups shouldn’t control Washington, D.C.
Republican senator Scott Brown, who foiled many of Obama’s ambitions on the president’s one-year anniversary in office, was remembered for this sentiment during the campaign: “This isn’t Ted Kennedy’s seat. It’s the people’s seat.”
During campaigns, candidates have opponents to hold them accountable for such sentiments, but, after elections, too many inter­est groups are afraid to hold officials to their campaign pledges for fear of losing access. There’s no more fertile ground for outsiders who seek to hold elected officials accountable to a platform of change than the field of the candidates’ own words on the campaign trail. This was the tactic, for example, that finally forced Arnold Schwarzenegger to redefine special interests to include corporations that were giving him money. Even allies have to be reminded of the sentiments they espouse in order to keep them to reasonable time­lines for taking action. One moral sentiment Americans agree with is politicians shouldn’t forget their promises after taking office.
Rule 4: Forget Sun Tzu: The Bigger the Fight, the Better the Odds; Fight Even If You Cannot Win Today, and Someday You’ll Win without a Fight
Politics may be the art of the possible, but often “realism” or, as Hillary Clinton put it, “reality-based politics” undermines the possibility of genuine political change based on an outside game. By “outside game,” I mean the notion that forces outside the Washington Beltway can move the insiders, based on the power of public opinion. Politicians tend not to believe or put much hope in the outside game unless the public’s sentiment is a clear and present danger for them. Rousing public opinion begins with a strategy to invite conflict.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the classic strategy manual for poli­tics, business, and military conflict. The Chinese general argues that if your forces are unequal to your opponent’s, you should avoid conflict. That may be true for classical warfare, but in the game of populist change, be it a fight with a government agency or a Fortune 500 company, the odds are always unequal. Engaging a fight with a more powerful opponent on an issue that may not seem winnable at the moment is essential because confrontation creates opportunities for your opponent to make mistakes and creates a public record of the battle. Look for the big fight if you want the big payoff, even if you lose some battles.
When our consumer group first took on the HMOs’ cost-cutting practices, many of our allies said they were too strong and we would alienate a potential force for universal health care by trying to bring them under control. But we changed their worst abuses by exposing and confronting them.
When he went to the California ballot with insurance reform Prop 103 in 1988, Harvey Rosenfield had to deal with angering allies who claimed he could never beat the property-insurance industry’s money. Consumer groups and trial lawyers wanted to avert a ballot war and cut a deal with insurance companies, who ulti­mately put their own anti-consumer agenda on the ballot to confuse voters. Harvey wouldn’t back down, even though he had raised no significant money to spend on a campaign. Insurers spent over $60 million against Harvey’s landmark ballot measure and on making the case for their own, and that turned out to be their downfall. The companies so saturated the airwaves with television advertisements against Prop 103 that the public realized insurers were against the measure. That convinced 51 percent of voters to support the ballot measure, because it was the real-deal insurance reform. You have to love populist jujitsu.
When matched against a much more powerful opponent, the more our opponent attacks, the stronger we become. So provoke the more powerful opponent to attack. The more a powerful opponent engages and acknowledges us, the more power our arguments gain in the court of public opinion. When the more powerful opponent lends us his spotlight, he places us on the same stage and credentials our point of view. The powerful attack only when threatened. The more we attack, the more they react, and the stronger we become.
Rule 5: Creating the Record Creates the Seeds of Change
Building a record of one’s battles and one’s opponents’ errors is criti­cal to the power of the less-resourced advocate. Letters, demands, exchanges, and exposés that confront opponents—and force them to respond publicly—create a record that can later be used against your target. In the court of public opinion, creating a public record and forcing a decision maker to respond is the equivalent of the legal discovery process in the court of law. You are trying to uncover a discrepancy and take advantage of a mistake, now or later.
A campaign that can and will create a record is a triple threat to a powerful opponent.
1. We can lose the battle and still negatively affect our opponent’s standing in the court of public opinion.
2. We can lose the battle yet create the conditions by which we can win the war.
3. We can win the battle by forcing our opponent to make a big mistake.
Building a record builds our power and leverage because an oppo­nent who knows of our ability to build the record and willingness to wait for the right moment to use it will have to take us seriously.
Consider the most famous example of a well-fought loss that led to victory. The debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as they vied to become the U.S. senator from Illinois are among the most famous in American history. Lincoln lost the elec­tion, but the record he established in those debates won him the platform to ascend to the presidency a few years later.
Or consider a more recent case from my consumer group’s files, one that shows the value of building a public record on an opponent.
As recently as 2005, then Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was a presumed front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination to succeed President Bush. Today he’s not even in the Senate. Here’s the story.
When Frist controlled the U.S. Senate in 2003 and 2004 as major­ity leader, he made a big mistake. At the time there was little chance that he or the Senate Ethics Committee would respond favorably to my consumer group’s written concerns about his conflicts of inter­est with his family’s business. But we created a record that years later undermined Frist’s power and helped to end his political career.
Frist, a doctor whose family controlled one of the nation’s larg­est hospital chains, was then backing a Senate bill to limit legal accountability for doctors and hospitals when they commit medical malpractice. We publicly demanded that Frist sell at least $25 million of stock he held in the Frist family company, HCA. HCA was one of America’s largest hospital companies and owner of HCI, the nation’s fifth biggest medical malpractice insurer. No one had ever heard of this issue before we put it on the map for the media and opinion leaders, but afterward it was closely tracked.
“HCI, HCA and your entire family stand to profit directly from the passage of malpractice caps legislation,” we wrote to Frist. Of course, Frist did not divest his stock, nor recuse himself from the medical malpractice vote. We got some press at the time, but, more importantly, the record we created came back to haunt Senator Frist two years later.
When Frist finally sold the stock in September 2005, he did it just before the stock price tumbled, suggesting his family had given him an insider tip. A lot of eyes were watching by then. Frist was subpoenaed by the Justice Department and the SEC in an insider trading investigation of his well-timed sale. The investigation was made public two days after we sent another letter calling for an inquiry to the SEC and U.S. attorney. The record we had created years before, when it looked like we could not win the fight, was significant in the demise of Frist’s political career.
The scandal put an end to Frist’s presidential ambitions. His medical malpractice legislation, stained by the insider-trading allega­tion, never passed. The record, not the outcome of the initial battle, mattered most in the end.
Doing the right thing at the right time usually produces the right result in the end. The tension between progressives, who want their officials to stand on principle, and politicians, who want accomplish­ments before the next election, is constant and inevitable. It’s our job to urge the politicians to put what’s right over what’s convenient.
Rule 6: Keep It Human, Put People First
Never underestimate the power of one person’s story to change the world; indeed such stories may be the only thing that ever has. The sincere experiences of individuals who have suffered injustice are the best weapons against injustice. Winning campaigns are about the triumph of fundamental human truth, so real people with genuine stories are the best messengers of populist campaigns.
The language of the status quo is often statistical, actuarial, and data-based. This is not to say proponents of change don’t have science and statistics on their side. It’s just that opponents of change often base their objections on the hard, cold numbers that only accountants can muster and manipulate to show how they will bust budgets, bankrupt businesses, and break up families. My favorite example is tobacco companies’ argument against the Czech govern­ment’s smoking cessation plan. The industry’s actuarial study found that the country’s health care costs would skyrocket since people would live longer.
While it’s tempting to mix it up with scientists when you know you’re right, change-making campaigns typically mobilize the public and affect politics by sticking to the human case. Consider the medical patients’ wars in Washington, D.C., the classic arena where critical public policy battles with significant human consequences are too often fought over statistics and computer models. Powerful opponents use selective data to defuse change. So in the mid-1990s I pioneered a method to make sure Washington politicians looked patients in the eye before they took away their legal rights.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were engaged in a debate over whether victims of medical negligence should have limits on their rights to go to court and recover damages for malfeasance. Of course, the medical-insurance industry instigated that discussion. So we began our first “casualty of the day” campaign. In the pre-Internet world, fax machines were the cutting edge of communication. Every day for five months, every congressional representative, every sena­tor, and key members of the press received a fax with a picture and tragic story of a casualty of medical malpractice who needed his or her rights preserved. I knew the campaign was successful when the medical-insurance lobby’s public relations machine answered back with its own “medical miracle of the moment,” highlighting life-saving medical advances. As I commented at the time, the industry’s reaction was like Ford putting out a press release about every Pinto gas tank that didn’t explode.
The power of the campaign was in its cumulative impact. Every day, another story. Legislative staff and the media paid attention. The drumbeat built. We defended against the assault on injured patients’ legal remedies.
A few years later, the time came to go on the offensive for the legal rights of HMO patients. We warmed up the fax machine again. The HMOs spent millions on television advertising to stop us. Here’s how CNN’s Brooks Jackson described the “HMO casu­alty of the day” campaign at the time: “The industry has its adver­tising too, but far more effective is this shoestring consumer group. A fax a day to keep the HMOs at bay.” The patients-first tactic fueled landmark HMO patients’-rights reforms throughout the nation.
More recently, I saw the “people-first” principle work when one woman with a compelling story was able to fell a whole industry. It’s the case of “Dana vs. Goliath.”
With health insurance costs skyrocketing in 2006, insurers hatched a plan to remove themselves from the patients’-rights laws that were passed in forty-four states in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The industry explained that the insurance companies wanted to “reduce their costs of compliance” so insurance would be cheaper. It sounded simple enough to President Bush and Congress, who were about to enact the plan. Attorneys general, governors, and state insurance commissioners complained, but it looked like the industry had the votes.
Then Dana Christensen came to Capitol Hill with my Consumer Watchdog colleagues Carmen Balber and Jerry Flanagan.
Christensen had been working with my consumer group to warn against the very type of “junk health insurance” policy that we feared would become the norm if state regulation were bypassed. She and her husband, Doug, had been technically insured, yet Dana was left with $450,000 in unpaid medical bills when her husband died of bone cancer.
The fine print in her insurance policy had no limit on “out-of-pocket cost.” So she had to pay most of the costs of his chemother­apy and cancer care. On his deathbed, Doug asked Dana to divorce him so she would not have to be liable for the medical bills. She refused. In the end, only because of a lawsuit under state law, which prevented fraudulent representations, was Dana able to recoup the cost of those bills from the insurer.
Dana flew into Washington on Monday, on the heels of a PBS NOW news story about her case that aired the previous Friday. She held a press conference with Senators Edward Kennedy and Richard Durbin, then lobbied other senators. The power of her story stopped the legislation dead in its tracks.
“What’s the point of paying for health insurance and then, when you need it, discovering the benefits you thought were promised and paid for just aren’t there?” Dana asked. “That’s what happened to my husband Doug and me.”
Human truth is very hard for a human being, even the most hard­ened Washington politician, to turn away from.
Rule 7: Make It Personal for Decision Makers
Confrontation creates change in human beings. It forces them to evaluate their positions because it warns of the consequences if they do not. If you want recalcitrant decision makers to change their ways, confront them personally and publicly about their actions. Don’t just tell them why they are wrong; show them how their position reflects on their personal character.
Publicly confront them in a way that forces them to examine their person, not merely their positions. Then they must take inventory of what you have described and stand by it or change it. Successful decision makers typically change to conform with deep-seated social mores and ethical customs. Sometimes they even become your allies. Less-successful opponents compound their mistakes and dig themselves in deeper, which can give us more leverage over them. Making it personal means not name-calling or making spuri­ous allegations, but forcing a confrontation with an opponent on the battlefield of values.
When he was in the California Legislature, Gray Davis, who later lost a recall election as governor in 2003, sponsored legisla­tion to put the faces of missing children on milk cartons. When my consumer group wanted to force Davis, as governor, to sign a strong HMO patient protection law in 1998, Harvey Rosenfield came up with the idea of putting the governor’s face on faux milk cartons. “Missing: California Governor. Last Seen at Fundraiser with HMO Executives.” We printed up thousands of the cartons and delivered them to hotel rooms in the San Francisco Hilton the night before Davis was scheduled to give a big breakfast speech. The flyer had all the details about how Davis met behind closed doors with HMO executives, raised big campaign contributions from them, and said he would not sign the tough patient protection law we wanted.
Davis received a chilly reception at the breakfast speech. He was upset by our tactics, especially a letter about the issue that we had Ralph Nader send to him, and went into a San Francisco Chronicle editorial meeting with a chip on his shoulder and angry that, as the governor, he was being taken to task. At that editorial board meet­ing he was asked about the patients’ rights legislation and made his big mistake. He said of the legislature, “Their job is to implement my vision.” When those words appeared in the newspaper, he was forced to retreat. The legislature put a very tough piece of legislation on his desk and he signed it. After the HMO patients’ bill of rights signing ceremony, Davis stopped me as I was walking in a crosswalk. He leaned out of the backseat of his Lincoln town car and said, “Jamie, you have to give me high marks for this one. I want to see it on the front page.” Never underestimate politicians’ regard for their self-image.
Making it personal obviously often comes with a personal cost. The governor was very angry with us for a long time. We heard from donors that Governor Davis had personally called them and asked that they not contribute to our group. I knew one of the organiz­ers of that Gray Davis breakfast very well. He wouldn’t talk to me for years. I have no doubt, though, that had we not personalized the issues, Davis would have carried through on his threat to veto the stronger patient protections.
Rule 8: Seize the Moment—Don’t Pick Your Time, Have the Goods and Let Your Time Pick You
Timing is the fulcrum of populist power. We cannot always choose it but we have to be ready for it to choose us. Create the record, plan for the right moments, and windows of opportunity should open to our advantage. These rare openings are awakenings in a public consciousness about an issue that can trump the human tendency to fear transitions and change itself. Moments of opportunity, events that focus public opinion like a beam, must be seized or they are lost. If it seems like the right time to jump into a campaign, don’t wait.
For example, the collapse of Enron following the burst of the dot-com stock bubble left people wondering what had happened not only to their nest eggs, but also to corporate governance rules. Our consumer group knew it provided a moment to act.
In the 1980s, an industrial accident led to a new California law requiring that managers tell regulators about workplace hazards or go to jail. We wanted the same individual accountability for corpo­rate executives on financial matters. Our first stab at reform was California legislation requiring that executives report financial fraud to government authorities or face jail time. We also wanted to create new protections for whistleblowers and a 1-800 hotline for them to report problems. Big business targeted the bill for defeat, calling it “tattletale” legislation and claiming the disloyal should not have new rights.
In the end, the legislature and the governor bowed to popu­lar opinion and granted whistleblowers their protections. They wouldn’t, however, make individual corporate executives person­ally liable for their financial statements. It took the U.S. Congress to do that a little later, seizing on the idea under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Corporate executives today must personally sign their financial statements and are personally accountable for the veracity. There is not a single provision of Sarbanes-Oxley that CEOs complain about more, which makes us happy and shareholders a little more secure.
Or consider the case of our “Rx Express.” The 2004 presidential election provided a moment of clarity for many Americans about the high cost of prescription drugs. The issue infected the presiden­tial debate between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. So our consumer group chartered two private trains—dubbed the Rx Express—to take seniors to Canada to buy cheaper drugs, right in the middle of the presidential debates. My colleague Jerry Flanagan wanted to show how Americans pay about 60 percent more for prescription drugs than the people of other nations. The next president would then have to lower prescription drug costs.
One train went up the West Coast, another up the East Coast, picking up seniors along the way while we held whistle-stop press conferences in their communities. A train began in Florida and stopped for passengers and press conferences all the way to Toronto. The other train did the same from San Diego to Vancouver. In Canada, the Rx Express riders saved an average of 60 percent off the prescription drug prices they paid in the United States for a total annual savings of $2,000 each. And the journeys made a big impres­sion, in the media and with the presidential candidates.
The Rx Express train trips generated more than three hundred television appearances, with a Nielsen audience of sixty-five million, sixty newspaper articles, and one hundred radio interviews. The provi­sion of prescription drug benefits to seniors became a central issue in the election and ultimately translated to an expansion of Medicare, albeit a faulty one that will be corrected at the right moment.
We had one amazing windfall of luck during the trip, when the Bush administration tried to intimidate our seniors. Government officials boarded the eastern-seaboard train at its last stop before the Canadian border looking for drugs. On the night of a presidential debate no less. Of course, that mistake only gave Jerry and his crew of seniors another round of media stories. The only error we made was not asking then state senator Barack Obama to come along. Had we, he may not have been able to retreat in 2009 from his campaign pledge to reduce the nation’s prescription drug bill through bulk purchasing.
Rule 9: Exploit a Powerful Opponent’s Fear of Falling to Achieve Victory without Combat
Our powerful opponents, if they’re smart, will always be more afraid of us than we are of them. We have far less to lose. I had that revela­tion early in my career as a public advocate. At the time, I worked as an advocate for the homeless and was vacationing with my wife on the Yucatán Peninsula near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. As I ascended the great pyramid, the congressional welfare reform fight was on my mind—in particular how to fight on behalf of people most others in America didn’t care about. At the homeless shelter where I worked, there were several children. Their mothers did not have child care, so they couldn’t hold jobs and keep a roof over their children’s heads. But Congress wanted to take away their aid with­out providing them the child care they needed to go to work.
I remember how the climb up the narrow steps was hard and the view of the surrounding jungle was magnificent. But what really stuck with me was the feeling of standing at the top, on the broad plateau looking out on the dense forests of the Yucatán. My knees went weak. There was plenty of space to stand, yet as I looked toward the edge, I could not help fearing that I would fall, as improbable as I knew it was. It occurred to me then that this is how those at the top of any pyramid of power must feel—fearful of the fall, worried about their knees being cut out from under them, ever conscious of the ineluctable force of gravity pulling them down. It spurred me on to more aggressive tactics to get elected officials to pay attention to the families in our shelter.
I have taken that lesson with me. Exploiting our opponents’ fear of their own missteps, of falling from their perch, is the quickest way to win. Show them how bad they look early on in order to have them change course or preempt an attack. It’s a lesson some colleagues and I recently put into practice against the leaders of Yahoo and Intel to stop an assault on class action lawsuits in California.
In 2007, Intel was a household brand with tremendous popular approval. That’s probably why the company was called on to chair a corporate consortium in California bent on eliminating consumer class action lawsuits. The consortium chose Intel—rather than one of its drug companies, tobacco makers, or insurers—to occupy the top spot as it filed a ballot measure to put up so many legal hurdles that ripped-off consumers would never have been able to file class action cases holding the responsible corporation account­able. Before signatures were even collected to place the initiative on the ballot, though, a group of us trying to stop the effort caught a huge break.
I heard on National Public Radio that Intel was in the middle of a flap over an insensitive advertisement that many considered racist. The print ad, which had been published overseas, featured a white manager standing over six African-American sprinters kneeling before him. The ad proclaimed, “Maximize Your Power.” Intel withdrew the advertisement and apologized. Still, I knew immediately that Intel had made the fatal mistake that could be used to force withdrawal of the initiative. Its brand was now vulnerable. A major purpose behind class action lawsuits is to protect the civil rights of Americans, and Intel had shown a callous disregard on matters of ethnic sensitivity.
During the next two weeks, my consumer group launched an Internet campaign that asked, “Is Intel racist inside?” We called on the company to withdraw both the advertisement and the initiative. After our e-activists sent thirty thousand faxes online to the board of directors and kicked up a lot of bad press, Intel and its corporate consortium announced that the initiative would not go forward. In an internal e-mail to the consortium’s board of directors, a propo­nent blamed the retreat on the fact that the initiative campaign would be more “high profile” than initially anticipated.
“Fear of the fall” was directed not only at Intel, but at one of its key board members, Susan Decker. Decker had just taken the reins at Yahoo, right after CEO Terry Semel resigned for a major misstep. We knew Decker was particularly vulnerable to criticism as a new CEO. So a member of our group, Chris Lehane, who had been a lawyer and spokesperson in the Clinton White House, and Will Robinson of the New Media Firm created and produced a cable television ad that ran in Silicon Valley targeting Decker and provid­ing her office phone number.
The ad opened with the Yahoo logo flashing on a white back­ground while the announcer declared, “Yahoo is a leading global brand.” Then a photo of Decker swept in next to the Yahoo logo and the announcer continued, “And as president, Susan Decker helps set Yahoo’s vision.” The Intel logo swooped in, too, and the announcer added, “But she’s also on the board on Intel.” At that point, an image of the controversial Intel advertisement slowly crept onto the screen. “And Intel had been using advertising that has been called offensive, even racist,” said the announcer. Eventually, the image cut to a ballot box, and word discrimination with a big “no” circle over it. “Now,” continued the announcer, “Intel is supporting a ballot measure that makes it tougher to fight discrimination, and harder to stop big corporations, HMOs, and oil companies from hurting consumers.” At the ad’s close, the Enron logo flew in and pushed out the word discrimination, then “HMO” pushed out “Enron” and then finally an oil derrick pushed out “HMO” and the image changed back to Susan, with her phone number plastered below. The voice-over concluded, “So call Susan, and tell her maybe it’s time to start bring­ing Yahoo’s vision to Intel.”
The same week the advertisement aired, Intel decided to with­draw its ballot measure. Fear cuts both ways, of course. The public’s fear of change is often the target of our opponents’ campaigns to defeat reform. Special interest campaigns to stop popularly sought-after changes operate from a standard playbook that feeds upon the public’s well-conditioned fears and seeks to distract from the public benefits of a reform. Seeing through the standard ploys, though, may make it easier to resist them. The following table shows six of the most common “fear points” that opponents of change use in both their political attacks to counter reform and the claims they frequently make. You may recognize how the GOP and the medi­cal-insurance complex effectively used these arguments in the court of public opinion to fear-monger about the Democrats’ health care reform plan during 2010. The Tea Party’s playbook is little different, as it’s been constructed by many longtime GOP operatives, like Dick Armey, looking for a more populist chorus.
Appeals to the public’s fear that destroy reform efforts are typically strategic arson: a fire of fear sparked on the dry brush of parched populist ground. For example, the drug companies and insurers could ignite Americans’ fear of the bureaucrats in President Clinton’s health care plan because the Clintons failed to keep the populist soil fertile by engaging public opinion. Instead, the Clintons engaged in back-door negotiations with so-called stakeholders. President Obama fared far better with his health reform effort during the summer of 2009,when it contained a public health insurance option to compete with the private health insurance market, supported consistently by the vast majority of Americans in poll after poll. Obama lost ground to the fear factors only when he abandoned the public option and his progressive base. That’s when support for his plan fell under the 50 percent mark. The best prevention against public fear destroying a populist campaign for change is to constantly nourish public opinion and stay true to your message and values.
Rule 10: Don’t Worry about Your Seat at the Table; Find the Rock to Throw through the Window
The big coalition, the most famous names, or the politically diverse negotiating partners do not signal that the changes being espoused reflect a consensus about the public’s opinion—or even have a chance of success. In fact, when insiders are all on the same page, it’s very likely that their proposal won’t shake things up at all. Shaking endangers their interests.
Copyright Chelsea Green 2010 -- All Rights Reserved
Jamie Court’s new book, The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws, and Get the Change We Voted For, was just released by Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Court, an acclaimed consumer advocate, is president of Consumer Watchdog.