Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Monday, August 08, 2011

Leap of Faith - The making of a Republican front-runner

The transformation of Michele Bachmann from Tea Party insurgent and cable-news Pasionaria to serious Republican contender in the 2012 Presidential race was nearly complete by late June, when she boarded a Dassault Falcon 900, in Dulles, Virginia, and headed toward the caucus grounds of Iowa. The leased, fourteen-seat corporate jet was to serve as Bachmann’s campaign hub for the next few days, and, before the plane took off, her press secretary, Alice Stewart, announced to the six travelling chroniclers that there was one important rule. “I know everything is on the record these days,” Stewart said, “but please just don’t broadcast images of her in her casual clothes.”

Bachmann, a two-term member of Congress from Stillwater, Minnesota, is an ideologue of the Christian-conservative movement. Her appeal, along with her rapid ascent in the polls, is based on a collection of right-wing convictions, beliefs, and resentments that she has regularly broadcast from television studios and podiums since 2006, when she was first elected to Congress. Often, she will say something outrageous and follow it with a cheerful disclaimer. During the last Presidential campaign, she told Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, that Barack Obama held “anti-American views” and then admitted, “I made a misstatement.” (In 2010, she said that she had been right about Obama’s views all along: “Now I look like Nostradamus.”) In the spring of 2009, during what appeared to be the beginnings of a swine-flu epidemic, Bachmann said, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

Credibility, Chutzpah and Debt

To understand the furor over the decision by Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, to downgrade U.S. government debt, you have to hold in your mind two seemingly (but not actually) contradictory ideas. The first is that America is indeed no longer the stable, reliable country it once was. The second is that S.& P. itself has even lower credibility; it’s the last place anyone should turn for judgments about our nation’s prospects.

Let’s start with S.& P.’s lack of credibility. If there’s a single word that best describes the rating agency’s decision to downgrade America, it’s chutzpah — traditionally defined by the example of the young man who kills his parents, then pleads for mercy because he’s an orphan.

America’s large budget deficit is, after all, primarily the result of the economic slump that followed the 2008 financial crisis. And S.& P., along with its sister rating agencies, played a major role in causing that crisis, by giving AAA ratings to mortgage-backed assets that have since turned into toxic waste.

Mitt Romney: Obama Is 'Out Of His Depth,' The Nation's Security Is At Risk

CONCORD, N.H. -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney blamed President Barack Obama Monday morning for Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade U.S. debt, saying the nation risks losing its sovereignty if it does not take "corrective action."

"The failure of the president to reignite this economy and get people back to work is one of the reasons we're seeing such high levels of deficit and why the debt continues to grow at such an alarming rate," Romney said.

"We need to put more Americans back to work and I'm afraid the president is just out of his depth when it comes to understanding how the private economy works."

Going Down With the Dow

It’s panic time on Wall Street, with the S&P dropping 4 percent on Thursday and more than 11 percent over the past two weeks. Apparently traders were not too impressed by the deal between the White House and Congress on raising the debt ceiling.

Of course, the most obvious explanation for the plunge is the prospect of a collapse of the euro. The debt problems hitting Ireland and Greece have spread to two of the four eurozone giants, Italy and Spain. The prudes at the European Central Bank are going to have to relearn economics very quickly—their cult of 2 percent inflation is bringing down the house. They have come to the point where they have to choose between abandoning the cult or ending the euro. Naturally the prospect of the dissolution of one of the world’s two main currencies is going to unnerve the markets.

The other big factor depressing stock markets is a set of weak economic reports that indicate the US economy is barely growing. The most important of these reports was the second-quarter GDP numbers, which showed the economy growing at just a 1.3 percent rate. This was coupled with a sharp revision to first-quarter data that showed growth of just 0.3 percent. This growth is far too slow to keep pace with the growth of the labor force.

Washington and Wall Street Asked for S&P's Downgrade

"Okay Congress: You want us to be more aggressive with our ratings and not just stamp AAA on any old bond? Then how about this -- you're downgraded." This proclamation wasn't a part of Standard and Poor's statement on its decision to lower the U.S.'s sovereign debt rating from AAA to AA+ on Friday, but it could have been. The agencies have been taken a beating for their lack of leadership in risk assessment over the years, particularly for their failures during the housing bubble. So what happens when one of them finally takes a bold, contrarian stance? Washington and Wall Street are even angrier.

Environment Canada in 'complete and utter turmoil' as feds prepare to slash 776 jobs

OTTAWA—Environment Canada workers are in "complete and utter turmoil" as 776 public servants wait to learn where they will be working, or if they will be working for the government at all in 90 days, says Bill Pynn, national president of the Union of Environmental Workers, which represents 476 of the workers affected.

Inside the department, "people are questioning, 'Why you, not me?' " said Mr. Pynn.

The department's announcement on Aug. 4 that it is putting 776 workers on notice, with plans cut 300 of their positions in the next three months, caught public service unions by surprise, Mr. Pynn told The Hill Times last week.

Among the affected workers are almost 100 physical scientists, 19 meteorologists, 45 computer scientists, chemists, biologists and engineers.

The restructuring at Environment Canada affects 11 per cent of the department's 7,000-person workforce.

S&P pantsed by U.S. Treasury

I have been reluctant to condemn the credit-rating agencies for sovereign downgrades because it seemed like shooting the messenger. As the bond markets have noticed, a few European countries have serious fiscal problems. Blaming the raters for also noticing did not seem like an effective response.

However, I think that Standard and Poor's decision -- alone among the major raters -- to downgrade the U.S. has severely discredited the agency (bad pun intended). The U.S. Treasury has posted a stinging note about a calculation mistake underlying this decision. Interestingly, the magnitude of S&P's error was equal to the amount by which it judged the U.S. deficit-reduction plan to fall short: $2 trillion over ten years.

Paul Krugman emphasizes the amateurish nature of S&P's mistake. But what strikes me is that, when Treasury officials pointed out the error, the agency just changed its main rationale for the downgrade and immediately proceeded with the public announcement. It seems that S&P had made up its mind and did not want to be confused by the facts.

I Heard It Through The Baseline

Oh, my. Treasury has a fact sheet explaining that $2 trillion error by S&P; it may sound technical, but to anyone who follows budget issues, it’s a doozy.

When the Congressional Budget Office “scores” policies, it does so relative to a “baseline” — a set of assumptions about what would happen in the absence of that policy. The normal CBO baseline — mandated by Congress — assumes that discretionary spending will rise with inflation, but no more. This isn’t realistic most of the time, since the demands for government services rise both with growing population and in many cases with rising economic activity; that’s one reason CBO always provides an “alternative fiscal scenario” that’s supposed to be more realistic. Under current conditions, however, with Obama already committed, even before the debt deal, to fairly harsh austerity, the zero-real-growth baseline is more realistic — and it’s how the debt deal was scored.

But S&P initially assumed that the debt deal was subtracting off a quite different baseline.

The point here is not so much the $2 trillion, which makes very little difference to real US fiscal prospects; it’s the fact that S&P stands revealed as not understanding basic analysis of budget estimates. I mean, I don’t think I would have made that mistake; real budget experts, like the people at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, certainly wouldn’t have.

So what we just saw was amateur hour. And these people are pronouncing on US credit-worthiness?

Source: New York Times 

Harper pushing Rousseff on currencies may herald G-20 spat

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper may clash with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff Monday as she rejects pressure to scale back capital controls aimed at checking a rally in her country’s currency.

Harper is in Brasilia for talks that will include currency policies, Brazil’s ambassador to Canada, Piragibe Tarrago, said last week. Harper may push Rousseff to rely less on capital restrictions, such as taxes on bond purchases by foreigners, which are undermining prospects for a G-20 agreement on resolving global economic imbalances, said John Kirton, co- director of the University of Toronto’s G20 Research Group.

Brazil may be preparing “more dramatic” currency policies that could have “a negative ricochet effect on how the G-20 framework for strong, sustainable economic growth unfolds,” Kirton said. “For that reason alone, Canada does need to try to move our Brazilian colleagues into doing something that doesn’t damage the broader G-20 process.”

Ford's school advertising suggestion criticized

A comment by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford suggesting advertising be allowed inside school buildings is causing some controversy.

Speaking on a local radio station last week, Ford suggested companies could pay to advertise on gym floors and walls inside schools.

In the Thursday interview on the Fan 590, Ford said it's ridiculous that school gymnasiums sit empty when they could be generating revenue.

Parent Leslie Middaugh said schools aren’t the right place for advertising.

Solar power firms clouded by fears about program’s future

In October, 2009, Ryan McCalley traded in the cool fog of San Francisco for the warm glow of Ontario’s burgeoning solar industry.

His plan was to build a residential solar company, taking advantage of a financing incentive the provincial government was rolling out that fall.

That incentive was the feed-in-tariff (FIT) program, introduced as part of the Liberal Party’s Green Energy and Green Economy Act, to subsidize electricity generated by renewable sources of power and heralded as the most progressive scheme of its kind, earning accolades the world over.

Neil Macdonald: God and taxes, how America is governed

I've never quite figured out how evangelical Protestantism and extreme fiscal conservatism are entangled. But they are, at least here in the U.S.

Apparently, the God worshipped by the most fundamentalist of born-again Christians prefers small government. He does not approve of raising taxes, even on the rich. (Some might say especially on the rich.)

I had all this explained to me years ago, shortly after arriving in the States, by a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most powerful evangelical denominations in the country.

This preacher was more intent on explaining why abortion is murder and homosexual behaviour should be criminalized. But he took the time to explain how God's plan applied to government finances, too.

The fact that wealthy Americans pay much lower taxes than wealthy people in any other developed country is, apparently, God's wish.

GOP Causes S&P Downgrade, but Republican Candidates Blame Obama

It is clear from Standard & Poor’s statement downgrading the federal government’s credit rating that they place the blame squarely on Republican actions and policies. Two of S&P’s biggest concerns about whether the U.S. will pay off its debt are whether Republicans will be so insane as to refuse to lift the debt ceiling, a possibility Republicans intentionally stoked fears of, and whether the U.S. will raise much needed tax revenue. Specifically, S&P changed its baseline assumption from the Bush tax cuts expiring on schedule in 2012 to them not doing so because Republicans are so insistent that they must be renewed. “We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues,” wrote S&P. That adds $4 trillion over ten years to the projected deficits.

So, how are Republican presidential candidates responding? By blaming President Obama, instead of their co-partisans in Congress who are actually responsible. “America’s creditworthiness just became the latest casualty in President Obama’s failed record of leadership on the economy,” said front runner Mitt Romney in a statement. “His failed policies have led to high unemployment, skyrocketing deficits, and now, the unprecedented loss of our nation’s prized AAA credit rating.” Apparently, Romney knows better than S&P itself why they downgraded our credit rating, and it has nothing to do with lost revenue due to Republican tax cuts, or Republican threats not to pay our debts (a fairly straightforward threat to our creditworthiness if ever there was one.) No, it’s just because of our economic performance, which Romney seems to think is determined entirely by the actions of the president and is in no way beyond his control.

“Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”: Barbara Ehrenreich on the Job Crisis & Wealth Gap

Standard & Poor’s announced Friday it has downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history. The move by S&P, one of three leading credit rating agencies, came just days after Congress approved a $2.1 trillion deficit-reduction plan. "In some ways, that is in another world from most Americans and their day-to-day struggles. What is it going to mean to you if you have no job now?" says our guest, Barbara Ehrenreich, who has just published the 10th anniversary edition of her book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America." In the book, Ehrenreich tells the story of life in low-wage America and tries to earn a living working as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing home aide and Wal-Mart associate. Ten years later, she compares the current situation of low-income U.S. workers to "third-world levels of poverty."

Source: Democracy Now! 

Verizon Labor Strike: Defense Of Middle Class Jobs, Workers Claim

NEW YORK -- Outside Verizon corporate headquarters in downtown Manhattan, a group of more than 40 union employees gathered wearing red shirts and placards proclaiming "CWA on Strike For Middle Class Jobs."

Over 45,000 Verizon workers -- 35,000 represented by the union Communications Workers of America, 10,000 by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- went on strike early Sunday morning when contract negotiations between the unions and Verizon broke down. The workers are striking, they say, because the company wouldn't budge on the nearly 100 concessions headquarters has asked employees to make on a set of broad-ranging issues. At the top of the list: wide spread wage cuts, increased employee contributions to health care plans and pensions -- which the company has proposed to freeze for current employees and eliminate for new hires.

National Women's History Museum Placates Conservatives To Get Bill Passed In Congress

WASHINGTON -- Nearly a year after two alpha males on Capitol Hill slew a bill to allow a National Women's History Museum here, the head of the nascent project has quietly taken steps to placate conservative critics.

A former executive director of the Eagle Forum, which led the fight to defeat an Equal Rights Amendment for women, is among several conservative women who have been added to the museum's board.

An online biography of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, part of a virtual museum to build awareness of the project, has been "revisited" to remove "subjective" details.

And on Mother's Day, the museum added a virtual exhibit on motherhood alongside sections on women workers, soldiers, spies and suffragists.

Bachmann: Tea Party Queen

Barreling past Iowa’s iconic cornfields aboard a blue campaign bus, Michele Bachmann tries to explain the uncanny political force that has catapulted her from a backbencher in Washington to a leading contender on the presidential trail. She has just finished electrifying a crowd in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, with a folksy assault on a bloated federal government that she and her Tea Party compatriots routinely vow to dismantle. “Obamacare” will be repealed in a Bachmann administration, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota vows. G-men won’t tell you what lightbulbs you can use, either. And more of your hard-earned money will end up in your pocketbooks, not on the ledgers of mindless bureaucrats.

Former U.S. Officials Make Millions Advocating For Terrorist Organization

WASHINGTON -- The ornate ballroom of the Willard Hotel buzzed with activity on a Saturday morning in July. Crowded together on the stage sat a cadre of the nation's most influential former government officials, the kind whose names often appear in boldface, who've risen above daily politics to the realm of elder statesmen. They were perched, as they so often are, below a banner with a benign conference title on it, about to offer words of pricey wisdom to an audience with an agenda.

That agenda: to secure the removal of the Mujahedin el-Khalq (MEK) from the U.S. government's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. A Marxian Iranian exile group with cult-like qualities, Mujahedin el-Khalq was responsible for the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s, along with staging a handful of bombings. But for a terrorist organization with deep pockets, it appears there's always hope.

A vile logic to Anders Breivik's choice of target

In Anders Behring Breivik's ideological self-justification as well as in reactions to his murderous act there are things that should make us think. The manifesto of this Christian "Marxist hunter" who killed more than 70 people in Norway is precisely not a case of a deranged man's rambling; it is simply a consequent exposition of "Europe's crisis" which serves as the (more or less) implicit foundation of the rising anti-immigrant populism – its very inconsistencies are symptomatic of the inner contradictions of this view.

The first thing that sticks out is how Breivik constructs his enemy: the combination of three elements (Marxism, multiculturalism and Islamism), each of which belongs to a different political space: the Marxist radical left, multiculturalist liberalism, Islamic religious fundamentalism. The old fascist habit of attributing to the enemy mutually exclusive features ("Bolshevik-plutocratic Jewish plot" – Bolshevik radical left, plutocratic capitalism, ethnic-religious identity) returns here in a new guise.

Is America Ready for 'George W. Bush on Steroids'?

HOUSTON -- The days leading up to "The Response," Texas Gov. Rick Perry's prayer rally at Reliant Stadium, had looked a little grim for the governor and the event's organizers. Only about 7,000 people had confirmed that they would attend a venue that seats 71,500, and the controversial roster of sponsors -- including the American Family Association, which is labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- drew as much attention as the event's stated purpose of praying and fasting for the nation's improvement.

At least from the standpoint of attendance, though, things didn't turn out so bad. The consensus estimate put the crowd at around 30,000 people, and it was a diverse group of many backgrounds and ethnicities. So were the speakers. And while a number of them have a history of making extreme and ugly pronouncements, the general tenor of the event did not reflect that. (Which is not to say that people won't find cause for offense.) It was as much a Christian rock festival as anything else.

How Sarah Palin Got a AAA Credit Rating for Alaska

In light of Friday's decision by Standard and Poor's to downgrade the United States' credit rating to AA+, it's worth mentioning again -- as I first did in this Atlantic piece -- that Alaska recently had its bond rating raised to AAA for the first time in the state's history, largely due to fiscal improvements brought about by Sarah Palin while she was governor. The state currently enjoys a $12 billion budget surplus. I was reminded of this fact over the weekend by Ian Lazaren, the indefatigable supporter-cultist behind

These Guys Will Stop You From Killing Your Boss

The Primary, tall and flinty with a graying goatee, has decided he's in the mood for shopping, a development that's got David Perez all worked up. I'm sitting with Perez in a Chevy Silverado in downtown Santa Monica. A fit ex-Marine, Perez is in charge of the Primary's six-man protection detail. For 20 minutes, we've been waiting around in a grocery store parking lot, but now the Primary has parked his Porsche 911 Carrera at a shopping strip nearly a mile away. Though Perez already has three "countersurveillance" experts on the scene, he's antsy to join them. His client has a stalker, whom one of the team members had spotted earlier. The Silverado crawls through glacial traffic. "You're driving like an old lady!" Perez barks. "Catch the green!"

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business: Attacking members' interests

Why does the so-called Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses push a far-right agenda that benefits the country's richest corporations and individuals at the expense of independent businesses?

Well, it's not that complicated, really. Like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which doesn't represent the interests of Canadian taxpayers, it's fair to say based on its actual behaviour that the CFIB is a typical example of pure, unadulterated AstroTurf pretending to serve the interests of one group while actually working against them.

"AstroTurfing," colloquially speaking, is the establishment of groups that really represent commercial or political special interests while purporting to look out for "grassroots" citizens. This activity is named for a brand of synthetic carpeting that is designed to look, from a distance, like real grass.

We're in For a Rough Ride

No job creation, rising distrust in government, and a future of political brinkmanship mar the debt-limit "compromise."

Congress’s 11th-hour decision to raise the debt limit after agreeing to a $2.4-trillion deficit-reduction package may have averted economic calamity, but the United States is not out of the woods yet. The long-term effects of the protracted and fractious debt-limit negotiations, coupled with a deficit-reduction package that does nothing to put people back to work, tells me that we’re in for a rough ride.

Taking the Axe to Education

Canadians have cause for worry as the U.K. guts its higher-education funding.

Imagine your premier announcing that, over the next few years, funding for universities will be cut by 80 per cent, undergraduate tuition will triple, and a loan system resulting in lifetime debt for about 30 per cent of students will be imposed. While many are vehemently opposed to this policy, your government pushes ahead anyway. A year later, the changes have been implemented despite massive student, faculty, staff, and institutional resistance.

Thankfully, this nightmare scenario is not the case in Canada. Across the pond, however, it is a harsh reality. Over the past year, the United Kingdom’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has announced sweeping reforms of public higher education. The government is carrying out these cuts to education in the context of a massive budget-cutting exercise: Politicians argue that the deficit is too high, and that the government needs to cut costs in order to balance its books. This rationale was used to gut the main operating grant for universities over the course of five years, replacing this lost revenue with a 300 per cent hike in the tuition cap; by 2012, universities will be able to charge up to £9,000 ($13,803 CAD), up from the current cap of £3,375 ($5,176 CAD).