Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Who drives regulation?

May 2, 2011

In a framework where issues must be black and white with no shades of gray, it may make sense from a progressive perspective that any form of regulation on business enacted by government is a “win” on behalf of workers and consumers. However, in the current age when we often hear politicians discuss deregulation, it is important to understand how reality is much more complex than this.

For example, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 made it illegal to form a “combination or conspiracy” to restrain trade in interstate or foreign commerce. However, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the act in such a way as to make it largely harmless with decisions like U.S. v. E.C. Knight Co. in 1895, which held that a monopoly in sugar refining was a monopoly in manufacturing, not commerce, and, thus, could not be regulated through the Sherman Act. During the “progressive era,” meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt gained a reputation as the “trust-buster” and signed into law such legislation as the Meat Inspection Act, the Hepburn Act to regulate railroads and pipelines, and the Pure Food and Drug Act.1

So, were such cases of regulation “wins” for workers and consumers? Well, certainly many citizens benefited to some extent from these changes. Were these new regulations “losses” for corporations? Well, certainly some corporate elites opposed such regulation. However, in some ways, the reforms of this era were an attempt at achieving stability after the financial panic of 1907, while perhaps being sped up by the growing strength of the Socialist party, the IWW, and other trade unions. As opposed to fighting against regulation, it was a “qualitative shift in outlook” toward “enticements and compromises” among many corporate elites2 that facilitated Roosevelt’s partnership with business leaders to guide relatively modest reform. As Roosevelt explained about his reform strategy to his concerned brother-in-law on Wall Street, “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country” (p. 351).1 In other words, many reforms of this era can be viewed as proactive measures crafted by corporate and political elites working together in an attempt to achieve stability and ward off the potential for more radical reforms that might be forced upon them if workers organizations continued to gain momentum.

The self-regulation of markets by corporate elites is noted by David Harvey, who explains that “unbridled competition among the capitalists has the potential to destroy the work force, the very source of surplus value itself. From time to time, the capitalists must in their own interest constitute themselves as a class and put limits upon the extent of their own competition” (p. 30).3 He notes that Marx interpreted the early English factory acts as an attempt “made by a state that is ruled by capitalists and landlord” to “curb the passion for a limitless draining of labour power” which had “torn up by the roots the living force of the nation.”4 Harvey suggests, “there is, then, a distinction – often rather hazy – between regulation of this sort and regulation obtained through victories of the working class and its allies in the struggle to obtain a reasonable working day” (p. 30).3 Such complexities are important to consider as we think about regulation in the 21st century and ask questions such as: when republicans and democrats “battle” over reform, does one party represent the interests of corporations and the other the interests of workers, or do the two parties represent slightly different strategies for continuing the conditions for maximum corporate accumulation?

Sports Connection: The NCAA is, perhaps, a useful case study in self-regulation. The NCAA formed, in effect, when Teddy Roosevelt threatened to intervene in college sports if changes were not made (he had summoned college athletics leaders to two White House conferences to encourage reform). In order to ward off external regulations that might be placed upon college athletics from the outside, 62 colleges and universities formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (precursor to the NCAA) in 1906.

References:

1. Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1942-present. New York: HarperCollins.
2. Wiebe, R. H. (1966). The search for order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill & Wang.
3. Harvey, D. (2006). The limits to capital (new and fully updated edition). New York: Verso.
4. Marx, K. (1887). Capital: vol. 1.

Social movements and observations from a day in Wisconsin

March 21, 2011

Given my interest in social movements (such as the Nike social movement that gained momentum in the late 1990s), I have been intrigued by the rallies taking place in such locations as Wisconsin and Michigan. With the chance to gain some first hand insight about these events, I spent a day at the state capitol in Madison, WI on Tues., March 15. Throughout the day, there were relatively sporadic groups of protesters around the capitol. There was little organization to the protests, as many individuals indicated they came out briefly during a lunch break or slipped away from work for an hour or two. This is perhaps not surprising as it was a Tuesday and Governor Scott Walker had signed the bill on the previous Friday. However, in speaking with people throughout the day, we heard about a rally to take place at 4 o’clock that afternoon in front of the M&I Bank building across the street from the capitol.

For context, M&I Bank took money during the TARP bailout, has donated to the Walker campaign, and is involved in a forthcoming buyout that will move its headquarters out of state to Chicago – a deal in which CEO Mark Furlong will receive an $18 million bonus after the sale closes. The rally featured approximately 150 people marching in front of the bank, carrying signs, and chanting slogans. The rally itself appeared to receive some brief coverage by one of the local TV affiliates, but not much else. A more thorough account of the rally can be found at PR Watch.

Perhaps the most interesting event happened as the rally was culminating with some brief remarks from speakers, including Peter Rickman of the UW Teaching Assistants’ Association. At one point – and I’m not sure how to best word this, but I’ll describe the guy as “overenthusiastic” – a man demanded the megaphone from Rickman, which he reluctantly handed over. This impromptu speaker opened his remarks by saying that he was just arrested the other day “for no reason” (a statement which, upon later reflection, I question). The man identified himself as “Union Mike from Vegas” and went on to talk for 30 seconds or so about something not particularly intelligible, including a recommendation to eschew traditional currency for copper and zinc. After reacquiring the megaphone, Rickman continued speaking. Another man at the rally then diverted Mike’s attention by conducting a pseudo interview with him, after which another individual asked him to come across the street to speak further, helping to diffuse the situation. This example serves as a useful case study about how to deal with an “overenthusiastic” protester who shows up at a rally, and I think the organizers did a pretty good job in this case.

Just when it appeared the situation with our overzealous friend from Sin City had been diffused, State Senator Glenn Grothman began crossing the capitol lawn toward M&I Bank. Grothman, the assistant majority leader of the senate, had referred to the protesters as “slobs” in previous remarks. As Grothman approached the bank, he was recognized by some protesters, who began chanting “shame, shame, shame!” Grothman then entered the bank building. I think it’s worth asking why he would wait until the middle of the protest to enter the bank, but, who knows, he may have had a really urgent deposit. Anyway, after a couple minutes, Grothman exited the bank, at which time he was again greeted by the ire of many at the rally. As he crossed the street, however, Grothman was intercepted by none other than Mike with what was later described as a “big bear hug.” Several protesters concerned with this turn of events were able to facilitate in ending the embrace after 3-4 seconds of awkwardness. Interestingly, once this event was chronicled in a police report, it received coverage far exceeding the original rally. For example, local TV affiliates, the Wisconsin State Journal, and smaller local newspapers took interest in the squeeze, as, of course, did bloggers.

A final interesting note to this event is that Grothman has claimed the police are not properly protecting M&I Bank from protesters. One question that comes to mind is: what would Grothman consider an appropriate level of “protection”? Throughout the rally I witnessed that day, at least four police officers stood within about 50 feet of the protesters. They appeared to be closely observing the rally, and I’m sure they would likely have intervened if any  violence had taken place. But short of that, what intervention would he have the police take during a non-violent protest?

Official recognition of corporate political control?

January 26, 2010

On Thurs., Jan. 21, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling did away with corporate campaign finance limits. Since then, a number of commentators have discussed the concerns such a decision raises. Matthew Yglesias, for example, points out that Bank of America dedicated $2.3 billion to marketing in 2008 and, thus, would have the budget to mount a $100 million series of scathing attacks on a Senator who pisses them off. Once one senator goes down for having crossed BofA, how might this impact other elected officials? Left I on the News points out that in some jurisdictions, judges are elected officials; imagine trying to sue a corporation in a courtroom presided over by a judge who just had his/her campaign financed by that corporation. Newsweek, meanwhile, brings up the question of how this might allow multinational (foreign?) companies to influence elections in the U.S.

Ultimately, an important question is how this will impact politics and government in the U.S. My initial reaction is it probably won’t signal that big of a change. In other words, anyone who thought corporations didn’t have a tremendous amount of influence in politics prior to this ruling would be very mistaken. Will it increase corporate influence and make policies even more favorable to corporations? I would imagine so, but to what extent? In some ways, might it make things more honest (i. e., shifting spending from “front groups” to the corporations themselves)?

SPORT REFERENCE: The NCAA states its core purpose as being “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” Seemingly, however, another major purpose of the NCAA is to help bring tremendous amounts of money into college sports (e. g., the current 11-year, $6 billion deal between the NCAA and CBS to televise the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament). Despite this, the NCAA’s purpose says nothing about working to maximize revenue. Many would argue that the introduction of such massive amounts of money helps create a situation in which the educational experience of the student-athlete is not paramount, creating a conflict between the NCAA’s stated purpose and its actual role. If the NCAA were to explicitly state that revenue generation is one of its core purposes, this likely wouldn’t do much to address the potential problems caused by commercialization in college sports. It might, however, make the NCAA more honest. Similarly, might the official recognition of corporate political influence at least make things more honest?

Haiti, aid, and U.S. priorities

January 24, 2010

Why was aid relatively slow to arrive in Haiti following the earthquake that struck the country on Tues., Jan. 12? Well, a common explanation given in the U.S. media seemed to be that Haiti’s lack of infrastructure, coupled with the massive damage caused by the earthquake, made getting supplies into the country and then delivering those supplies very difficult.  While I believe this is a partial explanation, I came across some information buried near the end of a piece in the New York Times that suggests the reason may be more complicated.

According to the article, Haiti appears to have an airport with only one working runway. Due to an agreement with Haiti, the U.S. is now managing air traffic control at that airport. While the airport is able to accommodate about 200 flights per day, Jerry Emmanuel, air logistics officer for the UN World Food Program, explained that most of the flights had been reserved for the U.S. military to land troops/equipment, lift Americans and other foreigners to safety, and “secure” the country. Even though the World Food Program had tried to land flights of food, medicine, and water as soon as two days after the earthquake, it was not allowed to do so until Sat., Jan. 16 (four days after the earthquake), because of the priority given to U.S. military flights.

Who should be “in charge” of the relief effort and how should priorities be balanced? Should Americans and other foreigners in Haiti be entitled to help before the citizens of the country? How would all of this be viewed by those outside the United States?

“Terrorism” and irrational fear

January 11, 2010

My position has generally been that it is reasonable for people to have some fear about “terrorism,” but many have a level of fear that is disproportionately (and damagingly) high.  Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, had an article appear in the Wall Street Journal that, in many ways, expresses this view. Briefly, as Campos says, life is full of risks, and of all the risks we confront each day (particularly living in America), terrorism is a very minor one. Such a position, of course, is not politically acceptable.

As Campos points out, about 6700 Americans die each day, 1900 of whom are less than 65 years of age. About 120 people die in auto accidents, 50 are murdered, and 85 commit suicide in this country each day. Yet while Americans are largely willing to submit to (if not demand) incredibly invasive (and generally ineffective; i. e., making people remain in their seats for an hour prior to landing) air travel security measures designed to make us “safe” from terrorism (Campos uses the term “security theater”), they are largely unwilling to accept such restrictive measures concerning gun ownership or driving — measures that would likely save many more lives than the air travel “security theater.” (Of course, such fear of “terrorism” is problematic not only because it leads many to accept restrictive security measures, but also because it justifies events such as our invasion of Iraq, countless civilian deaths in drone attacks, etc.)

While Campos’ article gives some interesting insight into the irrationality of fear of “terrorism,” it still leaves the question of why such a disproportionately high level of fear exists.  Is it because what we label “terrorism” is an example of “them” (non-Americans, non-Christians, people of color) doing something to kill “us” (white, Christian) Americans?  I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, but I would suspect it has something to do with this type of “othering.”

UPDATE: Nate at fivethirtyeight.com had a piece on the odds of being the victim of terrorism in the U.S. He calculates that when you boarded any given flight in the last decade, the odds of that flight being subject to a terrorist incident were 1 in 10,408,947 (compared to the odds of being struck by lightening in a given year at 1 in 500,000). In other words, if you boarded 20 flights per year, you were still more likely to be struck by lightening than to be the victim of terrorism.

UPDATE 2: Despite all of this, it appears that “terrorism” is still of major concern to many Americans. In fact, “terrorism” ranks third, just narrowly trailing the “economy” and “jobs,” on the list of the American public’s priorities for government according to the Pew Research Center. Again, this brings me back to the question of what factors drive so many Americans to have such a significant concern with terrorism?