Supreme Court Vacancies and the Sheriff of Nottingham

February 23, 2016

Justice Scalia’s death creates a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The next president may have more to fill. Deciding cases as if it were the Sheriff of Nottingham, The Roberts Court is having a major impact on the economy. How those vacancies are filled will make a big difference to all of us.

Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham come down to us from a medieval fairy tale and retellings in print and on film. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain the role of Sheriff of Nottingham type figures in our contemporary world. As fewer people have real power, those who run the government must shovel favors to them. Given how wealthy they already are, they won’t appreciate any but very large rewards. But what government does for the public leaves less for these powerful patrons. So rulers employ modern Sheriffs of Nottingham. It’s what Bueno de Mesquita’s group calls the dictator’s game: by starving the public, dictators have more for powerful supporters – and the more they demand.

Kevin Phillips detailed the enormous benefits that corporations seek and government directs toward corporations and their leaders. Spending on politics has huge returns, driving the fruits of government to the favored few, and dismantling government wherever business prefers to operate in the dark.

Many of us have been fighting against special favors for corporations that exploit workers, the environment and the general public. But it gets worse. As the story of Robin Hood implies, holders of great wealth and power fear the people will take their ill-gotten gains from them. To prevent it  they block opponents from voting, minimize their votes by gerrymandering, and pour large funds into preserving their power while starving the population of public services.

The Supreme Court has been helping. Despite enormous gains by the wealthiest in America, and the declining share of the general public, this Court consistently moves economic benefits from the public to business, from the victims to the predators. The Court reversed the meaning of a 1925 arbitration statute to derail a plethora of state consumer protections and made it almost impossible to sue. Instead, the Court allows corporate defendants to choose who will decide the dispute, and at what cost. The Court undercut both state and federal standards of liability for injury to consumers, securities fraud and the damages available if plaintiffs win. And the Court is waging a battle to strip the unions of power to protect workers.

At the same time, the Court unleashed the full power of corporate treasuries on politics. Those corporate treasuries had barred from politics since early in the twentieth century. And the Court allowed states to make it harder to register to vote by increasing the cost and time to register – making it harder for working class, poor or physically challenged Americans to vote. The Court allows gerrymandering to reshape American politics, and has supported other efforts to entrench political incumbents. The Court topped all that by removing the requirement that covered states pre-clear voting changes, the one weapon of the Voting Rights Act that had worked.

Historians and political scientists tell us that pattern of disparities often leads to the breakdown of democracy, the loss of self-government. Sometimes it leads to violence, like the Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, Death Squads, and the security services of people like Putin. Sometmes the plutocrats simply invite a dictator to take control. Great disparities are dangerous. Instead of moderating these outrages in the name of American tradition, the Court has been making the problems worse, increasing disparities and letting them take over American politics. This Court is a danger to American self-government.

That’s where the 2016 elections matter. Whatever policies candidates claim to support, their judicial picks will have a big impact on what really happens to ordinary Americans and the future of self-government in America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 23, 2016. An expanded essay can be found here.



In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.

The Threat of Self-Styled Armed Militias

May 20, 2014

Some of us remember having to sign loyalty oaths. In the language of the U.S. Supreme Court, one had to swear that he or she had not “advocate[d] the overthrow of government by force, violence, or any unlawful means.” That included the overthrow of “the Government of the United States or of any political subdivisions.” In the 1950s everyone from barbers to professors had to sign those things and even cafeteria workers got fired on mere suspicion of disloyalty, the absence of proof notwithstanding.

Of course it was political. Senator McCarthy famously attacked President Truman and many of the people in the cabinet as disloyal. Republicans attacked Democrats and liberals as if they supported a Communist invasion. It was a campaign of character assassination. Charges were brought without facts that prosecutors were willing to reveal until the Supreme Court pointed out that it had the obligation to insist on fundamental due process like the right to see the charges and confront witnesses. But at least, at some level, however misguided, it was about patriotism.

Now, a group of armed self-styled militiamen blocked the federal government from charging Cliven Bundy the fee for grazing his cattle on federal land. Then they took their weapons to a closed federal canyon, to open it by force for use by ATVs. They bluntly deny the authority of the federal government. To make it worse, prominent Republicans called Bundy’s refusal to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, and the armed intervention of his militia supporters, “patriotic.” Read the rest of this entry »

The White House Butler

September 3, 2013

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s up with gun rights

May 14, 2013

What’s the NRA’s big attachment to assault weapons? Why do we have to suffer the weapons of mass murder?

One NRA member from Texas told an NPR reporter, “As far as I’m concerned, if you can afford to buy a tank, you should be able to buy a tank.” He explained: “the Second Amendment was put in not to hunt, not to go plink at cans, not to shoot at targets. If and when tyranny tries to take over our country, we can fight it.” NRA President Porter, too, wants people to be “ready to fight tyranny.” Porter, told an audience last June, when he was NRA vice-president, that “We got the pads put on, we got our helmets strapped on, we’re cinched up, we’re ready to fight, we’re out there fighting every day.” Read the rest of this entry »

We Will Not Comply

March 5, 2013

Did you hear the demonstrators against New York’s new gun law chanting in unison “We will not comply!”

That’s the problem. Guns allow some of their owners to think that they can define right and wrong and everybody else has to comply. In the hands of some of their owners, guns puff up their sense of self-importance, their sense that laws are written for everybody else but that they are above the law. Read the rest of this entry »

Back from a trip – English and guns

July 24, 2012

I just got back from a trip abroad. We were treated everywhere with the greatest respect while visiting our former exchange student and her family in Serbia and Montenegro, and then in Spain for a meeting, People were happy to help us. We had no Serbian (though I learned how to say “thank you”) and little Spanish (though I studied in high school it’s virtually gone), but they were happy to use whatever English they had. When we couldn’t communicate it was still all smiles. Somehow, only in this country do people believe that English is under fire and all traces of foreign languages should be eliminated, despite the foreign policy disaster if some Americans weren’t conversant with other national languages. Of course there is one place where English really is under fire and has been for decades – Quebec. But I’ve never heard any suggestion that we ban the Quebecois.

That’s what I intended to talk about. But the news here on my return has been overwhelming. Another senseless mass killing of people the murderer didn’t know, had no grudge against, one a six year old child. Read the rest of this entry »

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