A Proposal for Reform

Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United States and Feather Quill

Here’s my premise.

The proper role of government is to protect and ensure the welfare of the people.

A government is most likely to carry out the interests, and thus welfare, of the people if it reflects the will of the majority – that is to say, if it is democratic.

Our existing government reflects the interests of a rich oligarchy.  Its electoral process has been corrupted by the influence of money and has led to a dangerous level of income inequality.   Our government  protects and benefits the rich rather than the population at large.

Our government should therefore be reformed.

The following principles would ensure a public-interested democracy ;

Campaign finance reform.  Private money in elections should be strictly limited.  The precise mechanism is less important than the principle.  A reasonable approach would be to provide a set amount of public financing to the top four parties in the prior election and limit private donations to $200 per individual per candidate.  Corporate money should be prohibited.

Prohibit gerrymandering.  In this computer age, gerrymandering – the creation of safe electoral districts – is highly effective in removing accountability.  Accountability is the life blood of democracy.  Therefore independent commissions should oversee reapportionment of all electoral districts, using advanced computer algorithms to maximize competitiveness.

Prohibit regressive systems of taxation.  Government policies must not act to increase income inequality.

Guarantee universal health care.  The point of government is the welfare of the people.  What could be more central than protecting health?

Guarantee public education through four years of college or the equivalent.  Education is necessary to the welfare of both the individual and the society.

Restore the Fairness Doctrine for mainstream broadcasting.  Our system of government has been distorted by the twenty-four hour propaganda of media outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart which, for ideological purposes, spew a steady stream of false and malicious news.  An independent, nonpartisan, commission should review mainstream broadcasts.  Intentional broadcasting of political slurs without evidence – such as the Obama birthing movement – should lead to fines or loss of license.

Require adherence to environmental principles of sustainability.  Protection of the environment is a necessary precondition to protection of public welfare.

Adopt a parliamentary system of governance similar to those used in Western Europe.  The current American system has led to dangerous gridlock when control of Congress and the Executive have been split, while failing to provide useful checks on power when both are controlled by the same party.  Its weakness is especially visible at this moment when there is no effective system to limit the authoritarian practices of Mr. Trump, or to remove him without an impeachment requiring proof of crimes or misdemeanors.  Importantly, parliamentary systems allow removal of the executive by a vote of “no confidence”.  The term of any particular government without election should be limited, perhaps to four years, to ensure accountability to the public.

The Constitution should be amended as necessary.

Investigating Trump

3-mayflower

The Mayflower Hotel

When Richard Nixon was investigated for his role in Watergate, the underlying story was relatively straight-forward.  A group of Republican operatives was caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex.  The gist of the investigation was whether Nixon was somehow involved.  Basically, there was one act and an ensuing cover up.  No one got confused trying to understand which particular malfeasance was being talked about.

Trumpgate is much more complex because the actions that are being unveiled are substantially more wide ranging.  Here’s my list for keeping track:

The Trump-Russia Scandal:  US intelligence has confirmed that Russian operatives actively undermined the integrity of the 2016 election, among other acts releasing hacked emails and misinformation intended to damage the Clinton campaign.  Numerous Trump aides were in contact with Russian officials during this period and many of the contacts were initially denied.  Several theories have arisen as to what was going on, including the possibility of direct collusion between Trump and Putin to swing the election, the possibility of an oil deal underlying such cooperation, and the possibility that Trump was compromised by Russian intelligence.

Here are a couple recent pieces addressing where that stands.  Jefferson Morley article posted on Salon,  5 key questions about the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation“.  Read the Morley piece for five areas he would like investigated.

See also Seth Abramson’s Twitter threads.  Following these threads is a bit more work – Abramson hasn’t yet collected it together, or if he has I didn’t find it.  Still, the threads are compelling and raise questions concerning  whether a deal for oil was cut at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, and concerning the Christopher Steele dossier.

Secondly, Was there a Domestic Manipulation of the Election?  Did Trump operatives work with a faction in the FBI New York office to manipulate intelligence information?  Again, see Abramson, in The Huffington Post,   The Domestic Conspiracy That Gave Trump The Election Is In Plain Sight.”

Here’s Abramson’s lead: “Information presently public and available confirms that Erik Prince, Rudy Giuliani, and Donald Trump conspired to intimidate FBI Director James Comey into interfering in, and thus directly affecting, the 2016 presidential election. This conspiracy was made possible with the assistance of officers in the New York Police Department and agents within the New York field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All of the major actors in the conspiracy have already confessed to its particulars either in word or in deed; moreover, all of the major actors have publicly exhibited consciousness of guilt after the fact. This assessment has already been the subject of articles in news outlets on both sides of the political spectrum, but has not yet received substantial investigation by major media.”

Read Abramson for the underlying allegations.  I found the information concerning Erik Prince new and interesting.  Abramson notes that “Erik Prince—the founder of Blackwater private security, one of Trump’s biggest donors, a conspiracy theorist who’d previously accused Huma Abedin of being a terrorist in the employ of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a man who blamed Clinton family friend and former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta for outing him as a CIA asset in 2009″ was actively involved in the Clinton disinformation campaign.  Prince, it turns out, is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother.  Consider this excerpt: “It seems clear that Giuliani, who was the top surrogate for the Trump campaign and in near-daily contact with the candidate, acted under orders from Trump, and that Prince either acted under orders from Trump or Steve Bannon—well-known to Prince from their mutual association with, and financial investment in, Breitbart and its ownership, including Robert Mercer—and, moreover, that all those associated with the conspiracy were subsequently rewarded. Erik Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, was named Education Secretary by Trump, despite having no experience for the job other than advocating sporadically for charter schools in Michigan. Prince himself was named a shadow adviser to Trump, even though, by November 8th, the fact that his statements to Breitbart had been part of a domestic disinformation campaign was clear. Prince is so close to Trump that he appears to have been present at the election-night returns-watching party to which Trump invited only close friends and associates…”

Violation of The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  Third, while the questions of Trump’s collusion with Russia and manipulation of the FBI seem to be the most visible areas of investigation, Adam Davidson in The New Yorker, “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal”, presents a strong case that Trump violated The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by partnering with organized crime in a Trump hotel project in Azerbaijan.  I am puzzled that Davidson’s piece has gained so little traction in Congress, given that proof could be reasonably obtained through available paper and money trails.

Violation of the Emoluments Clause.  Even more puzzling is the failure of Congressional members to pursue Trump’s violation of the Emoluments Clause, given that Trump is profiting from a world-wide web of business ventures that create an inevitable tangle of conflicts of interest.  Trump, in public view, benefits every time a foreign entity contracts with a Trump facility.  There was a brief flurry of headlines when China granted Trump valuable patents.  It is difficult to construct an innocent explanation for the Republican leadership ignoring such a direct and visible Constitutional challenge.

 

Slip Sliding Toward War

 

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Bombing in Mosul

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy warned yesterday in The Huffington Post that Trump is building up troops for a ground war in Syria.  See  “Trump Is Dragging Us Into Another War… And No One Is Talking About It“.  Here’s Chris:

“Quietly, while Americans have been focused on the ongoing drama over repealing the Affordable Care Act and the new revelations about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, President Trump has been busy dramatically expanding the American troop presence inside Syria. And virtually no one in Washington has noticed. Americans have a right to know what Trump is planning and whether this will lead to an Iraq-style occupation of Syria for years to come  Without any official notification, Trump sent 500 new American troops into Syria, ostensibly to take part in the upcoming assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. News reports suggest this deployment may just be the tip of the iceberg, with some saying that the plan is for hundreds more American troops to be added to the fight in the coming weeks. No one actually knows how many troops are inside Syria now, because the administration has largely tried to keep the build-up a secret.”

And yesterday,  The Washington Post ran this article by Missy Ryan and Loveday Morris, “U.S. military acknowledges strike on Mosul site where more than 100 were allegedly killed‘”   This is The Post lead:    “The U.S. military acknowledged for the first time Saturday that it launched an airstrike against the Islamic State in the densely packed Iraqi city of Mosul, where residents say more than 100 people were killed in a single event.  If confirmed, the March 17 incident would mark the greatest loss of civilian life since the United States began strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria in 2014.”

We don’t need to be rocket scientists to read between the lines.  Trump wants to escalate the conflict in Syria and he is not going to wait to develop consensus, or consult allies, or, for that matter, consider consequences.  His Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon wants a war.  Trump needs a war to distract from his collusion with Russia and his legislative healthcare disaster.  As Chris Murphy warns, we are being brought deeper into war, willy-nilly, and with not a whisper to the press – “the enemy of the people”.

In that context, take a look at Abby Martin’s excellent new podcast on Steve Bannon.  I’ve suggested in previous blogs that Bannon is an existential threat, not just to us but to all humanity.  See Who are Bannon and Trump,   McCarthy, Evola, and The Camp of the Saints,  and Darth Bannon.  Bannon is fascinated by war.  He has publicly proclaimed that we are at war with Islam and will be at war with China in five years.  He is a primary architect of Trump’s Muslim ban.  He wishes to deconstruct our government – that is to say remove the social safety nets, the regulatory system that protects stability in the the economy, and the environmental protections that are necessary to protect the planet.  He is also the vehicle of right-wingnut billionaire Robert Mercer, who is brilliantly exposed by Jane Mayer in  The New Yorker,  in The Reclusive  Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind The Trump Presidency.   What Abby Martin does that you haven’t seen is given depth to who Bannon really is.

With Trump and Bannon at the helm,  with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell leading Congress, our country is in serious peril.  In the near term, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and thousands more of our own young men may die in Syria and Iraq for no clear or considered policy.  Worse still, Bannon puppet-master Robert Mercer is a “nuclear power” enthusiast who proclaimed that those outside the blast-zone at Hiroshima and Nagasaki received “health benefits”.  Not kidding.  See Jane Mayer’s article cited above.  Defeating the foolish right-wing effort to repeal Obamacare is not nearly enough.  We need to force an investigation and impeachment of Trump now.

The Rise of the Investigative Journalists

6The cries over the demise of journalism have proven to be overblown.  While the content of the local dailies is often disappointing, a surprising number of excellent journalists have risen to the challenge posed by Trump.  I have noted several of them in my “related links” site and have referenced many in my blogs over the past several months.  The New Yorker in particular deserves notice for the articles by Jane Mayer – “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind The Trump Presidency” and by Adam Davidson – “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal”.   Mayer’s article exposes the role of right-wing oligarch Robert Mercer in funding the rise of the alt-right.   Davidson writes about Trump’s partnership with the organized crime Mammadov family in Azerbaijan.  But the fact is that investigative jounalists publishing through numerous sites are making a difference.  Recent articles by Michael Winship, Steve Harper, and others at Bill Moyers’ site Moyers and Company, have been connecting the dots on Trump’s collusion with Russia.  Maggie Haberman just wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times , “Roger Stone, the ‘Trickster’ on Trump’s Side, Is Under F.B.I. Scrutiny“ setting the connections between Roger Stone, Trump, Manafort, and the Russians.  Less known web sites like Slate turn out fine articles.  In “Gutter Trash  Sebastian Gorka’s ties to a group of Nazi collaborators is a new low for Donald Trump’s administration”, Michelle Goldberg helped detail the contacts of Trump aide Sebastian Gorka with the Hungarian-Nazi Vitézi Rend.  See also David Cay Johnston’s May 23, 2016 article in Politico   Just What Were Donald Trump’s Ties to the Mob?“.

Today, I’d like to cite Michael Tomasky’s article in the April 6 New York Review of Books, “Trump: The Scramble”.   Tomasky does perhaps the best job yet in describing the dynamics of Republican complicity with the non-ideological Trump.  Here’s an excerpt from his analysis of Mitch McConnell:  “McConnell is one thing. He has no policy commitments, beyond his hope that all campaign finance regulation might someday be wiped off the books. He just wants the power of his majority, and if it’s Trump who happens to be the facilitator and guarantor of that power, fine by him.”

And, by contrast, Tomasky on Paul Ryan:  “Ryan is another matter, indeed the opposite: he has many policy commitments. You might think that would give him reason to take stands against Trump, but in fact it is precisely his policy commitments that keep him tethered to Trump. Ryan wants to dismantle the welfare state. So the devil’s bargain he has made, and this is true of many congressional Republicans, is that they will support Trump, let him deport Muslims and crack down on undocumented Latinos, let him depart from party orthodoxy on trade, let him pursue risky and maybe even sinister policies with Vladimir Putin, turn a collective blind eye to the manifold ways in which he dishonors the office, as long as the president signs whatever legislation they bring to his desk that rips the bricks out of the wall of the liberal state. They will hope in the meantime that he doesn’t start World War III or hand state secrets to the Russian FSB.”

This is all good stuff.  Read Tomasky.  Read them all.  The journalists are back.  I’m hoping they bring Trump and his cronies down.

Refugees in Crisis

jakevkmozezvexml1ksdyh804cxsi6cfmpcz4cyfk3zaov09ykt2fngyb2gwe0cw-1-400x532While Trump drags us into domestic turmoil, taking potshots at access to health care, Meals on Wheels, and “fake news”, nominating cabinet officers who will dismantle their departments and a Supreme Court nominee beholden to the rich, he has succeeded above all in one particular.  He has driven coverage of the refugee crisis from the media front page.  Yet, even now, the crisis continues to escalate, swamping the resources of aid organizations and European states.  The Trump response has been to delay existing efforts to resettle any refugees in the United States, bar entry of any refugees from six Muslim countries, and slash our country’s budget for aid and assistance.  Nicholas Kristoff’s op-ed in the Sunday New York Times addresses this national scandal:  “‘That Food Saved My Life,’ and Trump Wants to Cut It Off“.

Here’s part of Kristoff’s intro:

“’We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations,’ warned Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief. ‘Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death.’

How is Trump responding to this crisis? By slashing humanitarian aid, increasing the risk that people starve in the four countries — Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. The result is a perfect storm: Millions of children tumbling toward famine just as America abdicates leadership and cuts assistance.”

He continues:

“It’s important to note that ‘all of these crises are fundamentally man-made, driven by conflict,’ as Neal Keny-Guyer, C.E.O. of Mercy Corps, put it. And the U.S. bears some responsibility.

In particular, the catastrophe in Yemen — the country with the greatest number of people at risk of famine — should be an international scandal. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, has imposed a blockade on Yemen that has left two-thirds of the population in need of assistance. In Yemen, ‘to starve’ is transitive.

The suffering there gets little attention, partly because Saudi Arabia mostly keeps reporters from getting to areas subject to its blockade.”

“Likewise,” says Kristoff, “the government in South Sudan this month denied me a visa; it doesn’t want witnesses to its famine.”

Please take a look at Kristoff’s column in full.  It is on point, articulate, and an improvement on anything I paraphrase.  I’ll just add my two cents in this:  First – the neglect by Trump of our humanitarian obligations, both at home and abroad, is a national disgrace that has and will continue to sully the reputation of this country. There’s no excuse for our failure to address this unnecessary human suffering.  Secondly – even pragmatically, Trump is destabilizing such order as remains in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  The world is suffering from ever growing populations of millions of desperate people, populations whom Trump visibly disdains and on whom he turns his back.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that what goes around comes around.

Birds of a Feather

200_s“Birds of a feather flock together.”  So what birds does our president flock with?

Long time friend and confidant Roger Stone –  the Trump operative who knew about the Russian hacking of John Podesta’s emails before they were leaked.   See yesterday’s blog “Leave No Stone Unturned” and Maggie Haberman’s New York Times article  “Roger Stone, the ‘Trickster’ on Trump’s Side, Is Under F.B.I. Scrutiny“.  Trump met Roger Stone through the red-baiting lawyer for Joseph McCarthy and for New York crime families, Roy Cohn.

Former Campaign chief Paul Manafort – most recently in the news for alleged money laundering and work for Putin oligarch Oleg Deripaska.  Described in the Associated Press article byAP findings on Trump associate’s work for Russian oligarch“.

Chief Strategist Steve Bannon – former head of extreme right fake news site Breitbart and apostle of right-wing hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.  See my blog Who are Bannon and Trump and Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article  “THE RECLUSIVE HEDGE-FUND TYCOON BEHIND THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY“.   Extreme right-wing ideologues, Bannon and Mercer would like to destroy the existing governmental infrastructure.  See also this article from McClatchy by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon,  “FBI’s Russian-influence probe includes a look at Breitbart, InfoWars news sites” which suggests that Russian operatives may have used Breitbart and other right-wing media outlets to disseminate their misinformation.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned in disgrace after lying about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador.  Flynn is well described by Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker article, “Michael Flynn, General Chaos.”  Read the Schmidle article for its insights on Trump’s attraction to a right-wing nutcase and Islamaphobe.

Former advisor to the Trump campaign on foreign policy, Carter Page.  What you need to know about Page is in the Washington Post article by Julie Pace, “Ex-Trump adviser Carter Page at center of Russia storm“.   Like Manafort, Page left the Trump campaign when his Russian connections became too visible.

And Trump himself?  How Trump does business, and with whom, is set out in an article in The New Yorker by Adam Davidson, “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal“,  which presents substantial evidence that Trump, himself, violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in partnering with the Mammadov family in investments in a Trump Hotel project in Baku, Azerbaijan.

crows-fin-smLooks like a flock to me.

Leave No Stone Unturned – Cohn, Trump, Stone, Manafort

stones-by-nemo-starRead this article by Maggie Haberman in the March 21 New York Times,  Roger Stone, the ‘Trickster’ on Trump’s Side, Is Under F.B.I. Scrutiny“.

In July 2016, Trump said the following at a Florida news conference: “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”   See “Trump urges Russia to hack Clinton’s email” by Michael Crowley and Tyler Pager in Politico.  As I have previously noted, that comment by Trump was more than a tease; it showed an awareness of the ongoing Russian hacking campaign.

As Haberman notes, Trump long-time friend and associate Roger Stone did the same thing, showing advanced awareness of the hacking of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.  Writes Haberman, “Mr. Stone, 64, is the best known of the Trump associates under scrutiny as part of an F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference in the election.  John D. Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman whose hacked emails were released by WikiLeaks, accused him in October of having advance warning of the hacks, which the intelligence community has concluded were orchestrated by Russia.   ‘Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel,’ Mr. Stone had mused on Twitter before Mr. Podesta’s emails were released.”

The following from Haberman is all that is needed to understand what is going on:   “Mr. Stone…  met Mr. Trump through their mutual mentor, the McCarthy-era fixer and lawyer Roy M. Cohn.  Mr. Stone learned from Mr. Cohn that all press is good press, and to hit back, hard and often, and he is doing just that.”   I’ve focused on the Trump – Cohn connection in several blogs, most recently in Donald Trump and Organized Crime.   For someone mentored by Cohn,  nothing is unthinkable – even Treason with Russians.  But there is more,  a further Haberman kicker showing a genesis of the Russian links:

“[Stone] got his real start in national politics with the Reagan campaign in 1979, and was once partner in a white-shoe lobbying firm in Washington, alongside his old friend, Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman and has also been under scrutiny for his ties to Russia.”  Manafort is also under investigation for his actions in the Ukraine.  See this article on Manafort in Politico, by Kenneth P. Vogel, Josh Meyer, and David Stern:  “Manafort sought for questioning – in D.C. and Kiev.”   An excerpt (but be sure to read the link for all the allegations against Manafort!):

“Another revelation about Manafort’s work in Ukraine surfaced Monday night, when The New York Times reported on documents that it said appeared to show that the Party of Regions tried to hide a $750,000 payment to Manafort by funneling it through an offshore account and disguising it as a payment for 501 computers.

A Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, who has alleged that Manafort was paid millions of dollars illegally by the Party of Regions, released the documents to the Times, and announced a Tuesday news conference in Kiev ostensibly to highlight them. Before the Times story posted, Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the documents would reveal ‘how Manafort legalized money paid by ousted President Yanukovych.'”

The pressure in the pressure cooker is building.  Stay tuned.

No to the Shameless Stolen Seat – No to Gorsuch

d17dd976320e6a63beb7ce78b523a345There are three primary reasons that Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to sit on the Supreme Court should be rejected:

First:  A prior candidate, Merrick Garland has already been nominated for this vacancy by President Obama.  Garland is a highly qualified jurist and an ideological moderate and the Congress was constitutionally bound by their respective oaths of office to consider the President’s nomination.  The Republicans, without good cause, refused to do so.  The Republicans should not be rewarded, and the Supreme Court delegitimized, by that refusal.  This argument is well set out by University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey R. Stone’s article in The Huffington Post,The Gorsuch Nomination And The Rule Of Law“.

Stone writes in part, “In a completely unprecedented abuse of power, Senate Republicans, under the ‘leadership’ of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), refused to confirm, or even to consider, Judge Garland’s nomination. This unconscionable maneuver was nothing less than a dishonorable and dishonest effort to steal this seat on the Supreme Court for the right wing.

Senator McConnell had the audacity to maintain that the ‘people’ should decide who should fill this particular vacancy on the Supreme Court. By employing his duplicitous strategy, he managed to shift this appointment from a President who had won the popular vote by a margin of five million votes in 2012 to one who lost the popular vote by a margin of three million votes in 2016.

This crass and unprincipled manipulation of our democracy should not be allowed to succeed. Anyone who cares about the proper and legitimate functioning of our American democracy must oppose Judge Gorsuch’s nomination, not because he is unqualified, but because of the undermining of our American democracy by Senate Republicans. Anyone who cares about the rule of law should oppose this nomination.”

Here’s Russ Feingold making the same point in The Guardian in an article “If Gorsuch is confirmed, the legitimacy of the US supreme court won’t recover“.

Second:  The legitimacy of the nomination of Gorsuch by Trump remains in doubt while suspicions remain that Trump, himself, colluded with Russians to illegally undermine the 2016 election.  Evidence to date leaves no doubt that Russians, in fact, meddled in the election during a period in which they were in communication with Trump’s aides.  Moreover, the narrow margin of victory in the election was within the range where the illegal meddling may have been decisive.  Given that the Supreme Court seat is for life, action on the nomination should be withheld pending investigation of the election, the Russian role therein, and any collusion on the part of the President.

Here’s Nick Knudsen making the same point in The Huffington Post in  “Senate Democrats: No SCOTUS Pick for a President Under Investigation“.

Third:  Gorsuch was nominated by Trump to pass Trump’s campaign ideological litmus test.  Gorsuch represents a generational shift moving the power of the Court to the far right – he will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, uphold Citizens United, support corporate interests over rights of people, and allow fundamentalists to substitute their religious claims in place of established law.  Those results are unacceptable. The far right wants to seat Gorsuch  to advance their substantive power grab and to carry out previously determined policies rather than to sit as an independent judicial arbiter.  Those results would remove the constitutional right of privacy found in Roe for women to determine whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.  And Gorsuch would uphold the nonsensical finding of Citizens United that corporations are entitled to the rights of individuals and that corporate funding of election campaigns is constitutionally protected.  That ruling undermines the democratic rights of the poor who, while retaining a right to vote, cannot buy access to the media and the market place of ideas.  In short, the nomination of Mr. Gorsuch  must be resisted if we are to retain a tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Note also that the vote on Gorsuch is itself a test for whether Senate Democrats are willing to resist or whether they are complicit.  Any Senator who votes to confirm should be removed at the next election in which they stand for office.

Fear and the Laws of Liability

 article-2207737-152e27e1000005dc-25_468x314American exceptionalism, that disease characterized by a smug assumption that all things American are superior, has kept the public blind to advances in other cultures.  Universal healthcare, available throughout the modern world except here, is the best example.  But we also know that internet speeds throughout Asia are typically faster than ours.  Our legal system does not always stand up to scrutiny either.  NPR yesterday carried a show “Comparing family life in New Zealand and the U.S.“, including a discussion between NPR’s Lulu Garcia Navarro and the writer Dan Kois.  Here’s the part I found most interesting:

“UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Squealing).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds like a whole lot of fun. What could be the problem?

KOIS: Well, so, you know, here in our neighborhood, the kids just really run around in packs. It’s been quite astonishing to see, in a way that reminds me of my own childhood but doesn’t remind me of my kid’s childhood in Arlington, Va., where they’ve been growing up. You know, 9-year-olds walk together into town to buy ice cream together. And everyone uses the trampoline, this neighborhood tramp, as it’s known. You know, some family got a cheap trampoline from a relative. And they installed it in someone else’s front yard for the express purpose of having neighborhood kids jump on it whenever they want.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about liability laws? This is like – I’m just hyperventilating being in America thinking about this.

KOIS: Right? Well – so that’s what happens when we tell Americans this story. They all – they ask about liability. Right? That’s the immediate American response. Surely some kid would break his arm on the neighborhood tramp, and then his parents would sue the parents who have it in their yard. And that would be it. That’d be the end of it. But in New Zealand, personal injury lawsuits are essentially nonexistent thanks to this government-run accident compensation board, which pays for any injuries stemming from any kind of accident, no matter whose fault it is….”

So here’s what I find interesting.  The rise of draconian and fear inducing liability laws in the US is relatively recent –  it occurred largely during my lifetime.  When I was growing up in the 1950s, there were no helicopter parents.  Kids hung around together, spun on the go-rounds in the park, or hung from the jungle gyms.  We played baseball in the street, and waited for a good snow for the snow ball fights.  Or we sledded down a local hill – Starr Street – no parent in attendance, no Town “road closed” signs.  We had “kid” chemistry sets with real chemicals and what kid didn’t know how to make a tinfoil rocket out of match heads?

The kaybosch on all that fun (more than fun really – let’s call it the real world experience from which we learn how to climb a tree, or ride a horse, or fix a car)  was caused in significant part by the rise of the liability awards, liability insurance, and the influence of the insurers.  Unlike New Zealand, where accident victims are compensated from a government-run fund, in the US, an accident victim must find someone to sue for having caused the accident.

A little legal history.  Until the mid-20th Century, personal injury lawsuits were relatively rare and awards were typically small.  To win required proof of fault – you had to prove that the defendant intended to cause the injury, or should have known he might cause the injury.  Under that standard, many people injured in accidents could not recover – quite simply most accidents were not foreseen or caused with intent.  That standard suited the corporations most often involved in the serious industrial accidents.   Workplace accidents were ultimately addressed by workers compensation laws – not unlike the New Zealand system – to avoid the litigation and so that anyone injured was compensated.

However, outside of the workplace, accidents, as always, continued to happen just as the availability of, and cost of, medical care, was growing exponentially. Injured plaintiffs began to sue parties who were less clearly at fault.  They hired lawyers who earned a third of any award they might get and who were particularly  creative in finding liability, in pushing the liability envelope.  Over time, the courts and state legislatures, faced with injured and potentially destitute plaintiffs, decreased the “fault” standards, assisting the search for a party with “deep pockets” – or at least with liability insurance – who could be made to pay up.  This trend peaked with the flamboyant plaintiffs’ lawyers, the “kings of tort” who won some clients astronomical verdicts.  See this link to the Wikipedia note on the famed, and feared, tort lawyer Melvin Belli.

That system of relying on law suits to compensate the injured is what we have in the US today, haphazardly compensating some injured parties.  But it has notable flaws.   First, many  injured parties fall through the cracks – no one is found liable, or there isn’t any insurance.  And actual awards can vary to a staggering degree depending on the skill of the lawyers, the jurisdiction, the sympathy of the jury, and a thousand other factors.  Secondly, litigation in the court system is notoriously burdensome, both on the state and on the litigants.  As noted, a third of any award is taken off the top just to compensate the plaintiff’s lawyer, a major flaw if the concern is to assist the injured party.   Law suits are really best used only as a last resort.  Claims for auto accidents, for example, are now often handled under state “no fault” statutes.  And finally, the changes in the law that removed proof of meaningful fault has made all of us potential defendants.

Our current remedy is to purchase liability insurance.  We cross our fingers.  We avoid anything that seems dangerous.  We hope that nothing bad happens – that the mailman doesn’t slip on the walk and that the kid doesn’t injure someone playing baseball.  And we hope that our $300,000 policy will be enough even though our insurance agent told us we need a million dollar policy, or five million.  In short, we live in fear lest, god forbid, someone is hurt and we are sued.

Which is an overlong way of saying that New Zealand set the balance right in creating a compensation fund, and, more importantly in providing universal health care that can be relied on for any person injured.

So, are you tired of living in fear of lawsuits?  We could get smart, look to New Zealand, and rewrite the laws for accident compensation, health care, and liability.  My guess is that the insurers and the litigation lawyers would cry foul.

 

Five Principles for a Social Democracy

agamemnon-in-stormOur democracy is facing an existential crisis.  If we are to right the ship and restore a government whose primary concern is the good of the people, we need to ensure that our candidates represent our values.  Given the current corrupting influence of  corporate and billionaire donors, we need to require that, to receive our votes, a candidate meets a litmus test supporting a social democratic system.  My ambition is that each federal and state election in 2018 has at least one candidate running who meets these standards.  If an incumbent does not provide assurance of support, we should install an appropriate replacement.  I propose the following five principles:

  1.  Protection of the Democratic Process:  Our candidates must support campaign finance reform to remove the corrupting influence of corporate and billionaire donations, establish independent redistricting commissions to end gerrymandering, end efforts to suppress minority voting, and eliminate the Electoral College so the Presidents are elected by majority vote.

  2.  Universal Healthcare:  The United States is alone among modern countries in failing to recognize access to healthcare as a human right.  Our candidates must support a single-payer health system in line with the European model, and removal of the insurer middleman.

  3. Protection of the Environment:  The United States and the World are racing toward an environmental crisis, highlighted by, but not limited to, global warming from carbon emissions.  Candidates must support strong environmental laws,  national and state environmental protection agencies, and research focused on mitigating the coming disasters.

  4. Education:  The recent election provided a graphic demonstration of the failures of our system of education to embue necessary skills at critical thinking.  Candidates must support a four-year college education for qualified students or similar technical education as may be appropriate.  That education must ensure that students receive basic scientific and liberal arts exposure sufficient for them to participate meaningfully in our democratic society and hold a useful position in the economy.

  5. Human Rights:   Our candidates must support the national premise that “all men are created equal”.   That includes the equal legal rights of all persons regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, or preferred lifestyle, the autonomy of reproductive rights for women, and the fundamentals engendered in our bill of rights, including freedom of speech, rights to privacy, and the protections of due process of law.

    If we are to change the way in which our government functions, we need to seize the reins and understand what we are fighting for.  These five principles would provide a good start.