Special Moyers Show

On February 1, 2010, in Background and Research, Corporations, The Public, by Tiffiniy Cheng

One of our favorite lawyers and an ANWF helper, Zephyr Teachout, was on Bill Moyers this past Friday. “The JOURNAL explores what the Supreme Court’s decision means for campaign finance reform and the future of our democracy with legal experts Monica Youn, of the Brennan Center for Law and Justice at NYU School of Law and Zephyr Teachout, of Fordham University’s School of Law.” It’s inspiring to watch these two women do a perfect articulation of what’s wrong with money is free speech that the Supreme Court has now legalized.

This is an entertaining hour — watch it here.

Supreme Court lifts the ruse

On January 21, 2010, in The Public, by Joe Costello
This Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance
of corruption.
That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt.
– US Supreme Court, Citizens United vs FEC


That might be the biggest punchline in the Court’s chock-full of laughs decision removing the already limited restraints on corporate control of the election process. Never has the First Amendment been brought so low in service of the few trampling on the rights of the many. But that’s what the Court’s for, isn’t it?
We’re going to hear much wailing from good government and campaign finance folks, but really, the Court did us all a favor. It removed the ruse. All you have to do is peruse Open Secrets for a few minutes to see how pervasive and powerful corporate money is in our political process. Or as Justice Stevens noted in his worth reading dissent:

So let us be clear: Neither Austin nor McConnell held or implied that corporations may be silenced; the FEC is not a “censor”; and in the years since these cases were decided, corporations have continued to play a major role in the national dialogue.

Over the course of the last century pretty much every effort to rein in corporate power has been a dismal failure. Today, political and economic power is concentrated in mega-corporations to an extent not reached even at the height of the Gilded Age. And one government institution, more than any other, has both created and protected corporate power, it is the Supreme Court. So, today’s decision certainly has much precedent.

This republic and the modern corporate structure were birthed in the same era, and at the very best conducted an uneasy relationship. At the dawn of the first Gilded Age, the great grandsons of America’s second president John Adams, Henry and Charles Adams would warn in their “Chapters of Erie”:

“And yet already our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control, while individual capitalists, who long ago abandoned the attempt to compete with them, will next seek to control them. In this dangerous path of centralization Vanderbilt has taken the latest step in advance. He has combined the natural power of the individual with the factitious power of the corporation. The famous “L’Etat, c’est moi” of Louis XIV represents Vanderbilt’s position in regard to his railroads. Unconsciously he has introduced Caesarism into corporate life. He has, however, but pointed out the way which others will tread. The individual will hereafter be engrafted on the corporation, democracy running its course, and resulting in imperialism; and Vanderbilt is but the precursor of a class of men who will wield within the State a power created by the State, but too great for its control. He is the founder of a dynasty.”


In fits and phases over the course of the next 150 years, the republic has tried to address the questions of corporate power, never with much success. The main obstacle being the question of corporate power requires a fundamental grappling with the basic structures of power. Questions that have for the most part been strenuously avoided for over a century, that is, since the corporations gained enough power to stifle debate. The real underlying question of corporate power has to do with fundamental political physics. Power is like gravity, it attracts. Once you create a mass of power, such as a giant corporation, it automatically begins attracting all the power around it. The only way to stop it is by breaking it up.

This was understood a hundred years ago in the anti-trust debates and the thinking of such people as Louis Brandeis. It was wisdom of the old republic. Democracy, any self-government, is inherently decentralized. Yet this notion was lost and no more so with the New Deal, which made an assertion that the power of corporations could be measured with an equal and opposite governmental force. But anyone without blinders can see clearly in 2010, this approach has failed.

The Court’s decision allows us to have a more fundamental debate, one in which the power of our mega-corporations is put front and center. A debate that gets to fundamental issues of power across our society, and thus to the very question of what we call government. The US constitution was once a radical and visionary document on implementing self-government. After 200 years, it is now used to thwart those very ends.

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1. Supreme Court kills public discourse, 2. lobbying money of the biggest banks, 3. Goldman Sachs bonuses, 4. Obama decides to try out breaking up the banks in a few ways.

1. Public discourse getting crushed: “A divided Supreme Court on Thursday swept away decades of legislative efforts to restrict the role of corporations in election campaigns, ruling that severe restrictions on corporate spending are inconsistent with the First Amendment’s protection of political speech. ”

2. The HIll: “Eight of the nation’s largest banks spent nearly $26 million lobbying federal lawmakers in 2009, during one of the most tumultuous periods in financial history… The banks spent nearly 6 percent more on federal lobbying last year compared with 2008, according to a review of congressional lobbying records. The banks spent $25.8 million on lobbying in 2009 and $24.4 million in 2008, the two years at the heart of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

3. Goldman Sachs bonuses announced today. In a year or two, we will forget what caused the crisis. But for now, GS has heard the public outcry a little bit and lowered their bonuses. From some public interest groups: “This reveals more than simply hubris. It shows that Wall Street believes that nothing has changed. The terrible truth is that so far, thanks to their own continued success in lobbying for their narrow interests, even as they have benefited from trillions in public support, they are right. Income disparity between executives and ordinary workers. While Wall Street paid record bonuses and compensation in 2009 to its top executives and traders,[6] rank and file workers continued to get squeezed.  Like other hard-working Americans, thousands of front line bank workers were laid off or had their pay cut last year.  In fact, average real hourly wages for nonsupervisory workers in financial services increased only one cent between January and September of 2009,[7] even though total compensation at the top six banks last year was up 17% from a year earlier.[8] The record bonuses did not trickle down to ordinary bank workers. This had also been true in the boom years before the collapse.  Between 2001 and 2007, average compensation overall at the top six banks and their predecessors did not even keep up with inflation, increasing only 15%.  But at the same time, the top five executives at each of the six banks saw their average compensation more than double from $9.8 million in 2001 to $22.5 million in 2007.”

4. WE have been leading on the fight for breaking up the banks – Obama hears us now that Brown won the Senate seat. Bloomberg: “President Barack Obama today will propose limiting the size and trading activities of financial institutions as a way to reduce risk-taking, an administration official said.” AP: “But his announcement Thursday will broaden those measures, particularly by endorsing Volcker’s proposal to restrict proprietary trading by commercial banks. Such a limit would separate commercial banks from investment banks, a line that was blurred a decade ago by the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act. That restriction would affect some of the nation’s biggest banks, including banking giants Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.”

TOMORROW A BIG DECISION ON OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM.  Should corporate spending trump all?

This article in the LATimes lays out the issue very well and is certainly worth the read. The point is that corporations planned to expand their powers through the judicial system a while ago. They have been successful at pushing the idea that their campaign dollars are free speech. The end vision for them is that elections will be determined solely by money and they would by default win. I  have written here before on this issue -  money is not free speech because money is a unit of measurement in and of itself and free speech is an inalienable, indivisible right that is not quantifiable and shall not be quanitfiable. No one’s free speech is more valuable than another’s.

“Corporations are pitching a bizarre product — a radical vision of the 1st Amendment. It would give corporations rather than voters a centralrole in our electoral process by treating corporate political spending as protected speech. If this vision becomes reality, businesses and other big-money players will spend billions either hyping their preferred candidates or running attack ads against elected officials who don’t support their preferred agenda. Voters will be forced into a couch-potato role, mere viewers of the electoral spectacle bought and paid for by wealthy companies.”

Americans will have a lot of soul-searching to do when the Supreme Court makes their announcement, most likely tomorrow. You can join us in opposing this measure now, so that we can stand up for ourselves and our society and so that future generations can learn from those who stood up against bad decisions for society. Public Citizen is leading an effort against this upcoming decision (if the decision is for corporate spending). — Please sign up for Don’t Get Rolled”