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It’s Not about Taxes

I live in California, and you may have heard that we’re having a bit of an argle-bargle about a budget in this state.

The history, for those who’d like it: Back in the 1970s, enough Californians felt their taxes were too high to limit property taxes by law. The limit is low, (1.5%, I thought, but wikipedia says 1%) and — this is the biggest deal — the assessed value of the property can’t increase more than 2% a year until it’s sold. The new assessed value is then based on that sale price. You’ve probably heard about property values in California. A house worth $60,000 in 1978 is worth $600,000 now, but it’s taxed at around $100,000. There’s something to be said for this in the case of retirees on fixed incomes, for instance. However, they forgot to limit it to people of limited means. It applies equally to movie stars. And to commercial real estate which can stay in the same hands forever, even when it’s sold, through the magic of shell corporations. That turns out to be a loophole big enough for the whole state to fall through. . . . Proposition 13, as it’s known, also said that any tax increase had to pass with a two-thirds supermajority. We have two, count ’em, two, Republicans more than a one third minority. So that voting bloc, in its infinite intransigence, can stop any budget from passing. The situation is not helped by a Gropinator who vetoes legislation just to show off, as far as I can tell.

(Update: I should mention that the up-to-the-minute blog for all things to do with politics in California is calitics.com.)

On to the gnarly present. As Krugman wrote, California may once again be ahead of the curve in showing what happens when a bunch of Republicans decide to play politics with the future. This is not, at this point a faults-on-both-sides situation. This is a bunch of Republicans playing politics with the future. They have made the (apparently accurate) judgment that repeating NO NEW TAXES on an infinite loop will keep getting them re-elected till hell takes over.
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THE most serious question at Sotomayor’s hearing was asked by… Franken?

Holy Hemiola, Republicans are a repetitive bunch.  Did any one of them ever have an independent thought?  The way they zeroed in on her “wise latina” word combination was like some SETI scientists looking for meaningful patterns in vast field of verbal graffitti, like none of the other billions of words Sotomayor has ever uttered made sense.  In some very no-so-subtle ways, they managed to communicate that a latina woman should show more deference to a southern white gentleman, that life experiences are strictly forbidden for Democrats but perfectly OK for Republican nominees like Concerned Alumni of Princeton Alito and “high tech lynching” Thomas, and that with 7 white men out of 9 members of the court (that’s 78% for those of you who are keeping track), this is a population that needs to be protected, the poor things.  Let me get this straight:  white males are the downtrodden of the earth, put upon and underpriveleged and that’s why we need so many of them on the court.  Women?  ehhhhh, not so much.  I would hope that women voters in Republican districts would keep this in mind when they go to the polls in 2010 but as my mom says, people have short memories.  They will forget what empty headed, arrogant, clueless, condescending jerks Jeff Sessions and Lindsay Graham were.

Franken, on the other hand, will be known for his Perry Mason moment instead of the most important question asked at the hearings.  Here’s the question:

Now, you may be wondering why Franken would be concerned with “net neutrality”.  I’m going to take a guess here that it’s for the same reason he was a founding member of Air America.  Back in 2003, corporate media controlled the horizontal and the vertical.  Well, it still does.  The propaganda might be coming from a pseudo-Democratic White House but it’s still propaganda and there are precious few sources of push back.

Air America’s flagship station was a tiny station in NYC, WLIB, with a very weak signal.  In central NJ, just 36 miles away, I could barely pick it up on my car radio.  During some of the more critical news stories of 2003-2004, I couldn’t get it at all.  There was a competing station from Indiana, of all places, that was a superbroadcaster.  The Indiana station would crank up the volume up to 11 and blast right wing talking points, overwhelming that tiny whisper from Air America.  I noticed that Indiana wouldn’t always be blasting away.  It only happened when I wanted to hear a different opinion on an important news story.

That left me with live streaming Air America from the internet.  Now, I might live right in the heart of telecommunications R&D central, not far from ATT and Lucent and all the rest.  But my internet providers are very, VERY limited.  There are days that I swear they are blocking access or slowing down the download speeds to sites I want to access.  I’m sure I’m just being paranoid but isn’t this Franken’s point?

Who owns the internet?  Is it the corporations who laid the cables or us?  Do we have a right to access it to exercise our first amendment rights or is it possible for a Supreme Court judge to say, “I said you have a right to free speech.  I didn’t say Verizon FIOS had an obligation to carry your words to the rest of the world.  If you want to be heard, buy a megaphone and try not to get arrested for disturbing the peace”

The corporations might say they own the cables but *WE* paid for them.  Everytime we made a phone call or emailed our mothers or purchased that electric raclette grill from amazon or downloaded Lady Gaga from iTunes, we pay for laying down new lines through the hefty fees added to our bills every month.  Isn’t that the excuse that these companies are always making for raising the rates?  They have to add new lines, update the technology?  Ok, we paid for that.  Did we forfeit our right of free speech when we entered into an agreement with these companies?  That is essentially the question Al Franken asks.  Sotomayor responds that it depends on the policy established by Congress.

Ahhh, back to those bastards.  So, if Congress gives away the store to ATT, FIOS, Embarq and the like, is our only recourse to vote them out of office?  And if we want to run alternative candidates, how to we make sure these candidates get a fair hearing?  The internet has the capacity to change the electoral landscape by allowing candidates to circumvent the corporate media gatekeepers.  But if you don’t have free, unfettered access, is this really possible?  Is it possible that in 2010, we will see candidates who want to primary incumbents blocked by service providers from doing so?

The problem is not a hypothetical “maybe”.  It could happen now.  The question goes to the very heart of our system of democracy.  The right to free speech, to be heard, to foment insurrection if necessary, was the first right that was granted to us in the Constitution by people who knew what it means to need to overthrow your government.  These days, we would prefer to overthrow our government at the ballot box. But if you can only make your voting decisions based on disinformation, if it is legal for corporations to promote disinformation for its own benefit and if those corporations are granted the protection of “personhood”, doesn’t this infringe on the rights of the individual to be heard and have the power of full citizenship?

We need only look to Iran for the answer to this question.  Their election was highly questionable, so highly questionable that they demanded a recount or a new election.  Instead, the government cut off their access to the internet, their ability to organize and then ruthlessly suppressed the protestors.  Could it happen here?  Hell, yes.  All we need is a bunch of hyperbolic blowhards on cable news networks terrifying people into thinking it could provoke another 9/11 and we’re there, baby.

How do we prevent that from happening?  That’s essentially what Franken is asking.  How do we exercise our free speech when someone else has our voice and can turn down the volume?  Does that old playground boast, “It’s a free country, I can say whatever I like” still have any real meaning?  Sotomayor’s answer, to me, was less than satisfying.  I think she will be deferential to the corporation’s lawyers when the issue finally makes it to the USSC.  I’ve been wrong before but let’s just call it a hunch.  It’s like her answer on abortion.  Yes, women have a right to privacy with their doctors- under certain circumstances.  Maybe I’m dense or something but if someone else is setting the “circumstances” under which you have a right to privacy, then there isn’t much privacy.  But I digress.

The more important issue is freedom of speech.  It precedes all others.  It allows you to question authority and persuade your fellow citizens.  Without it, there would be no discussion of abortion or gun rights or health care.  Or at least, no competing opinions.  And as technology has changed the way we access our information, allowing us to benefit from the internet’s advantages of speed and relational information, those of us who do not control that access will be at a severe disadvantage as citizens.  We might as well be wearing a gag.

Which is just how the monopolies like it.

Podcast of the day: Control of the media has been going on ever since there was a printing press.  Check out Melvyn Bragg In Our Time’s Seventeenth Century Print Culture.  King Henry VIII was one of the first to crack down on the press by banning the vernacular bible and forbidding women and servants from reading it.  They might get the notion that they knew what it meant.  Sounds like Lindsay Graham’s kind of guy.


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Friday Morning at The Confluence

North Dakota sunflower field (posted just because I like it)

North Dakota sunflower field (posted just because I like it)

Rather than posting lots of links this morning, I decided to highlight just a few stories that interested me.

New Jersey Governor’s race

First up, a story that will warm the cockles of Riverdaughter’s heart: Jon Corzine’s wealth has deteriorated so much that he has to beg for campaign donations. Karma’s a b&tch, ain’t it?

Mr. Corzine, 62, famously spent $60 million of his own money on a record-shattering Senate race in 2000, then $43 million more laying siege to Trenton four years ago.

But now, after a costly divorce and a steep decline in his net worth, Mr. Corzine, the onetime chief executive of Goldman Sachs, is in the unfamiliar position of seeking donations to help foot the bill for his campaign.

Awww…poor guy. Thanks probably to Corzine’s sellout of Hillary Clinton voters (Clinton won the New Jersey primary by 10 points) at the Democratic Convention last August, President Barack Obama showed up yesterday at a $5,000 to $10,000 a plate luncheon expected to raise around $1 million. But that’s just a downpayment on the $15 million Corzine hopes to raise from donations so he doesn’t have to spend more than $25 million of his own money.

Bernard L. Schwartz, the retired chairman of Loral Space & Communications, said a somewhat downcast Mr. Corzine visited him in Manhattan recently to ask for money. The governor offered a clear-eyed assessment of his chances against Christopher J. Christie, a former federal prosecutor and the Republican nominee, telling Mr. Schwartz the race would be costly and he could not guarantee a victory as a return on Mr. Schwartz’s investment.

“He said it was going to be a tough race,” said Mr. Schwartz, a major Democratic donor. “He was not happy about it.”

Mr. Schwartz wrote a $25,000 check.

Obama also attended a rally with Corzine, who is trailing in the polls behind Chris Christie, his Republican opponent. Ha. ha. ha.

Goldman-Sachs and the Bilking of the American Taxpayer

Matt Taibbi has a new post up about Corzine’s former employer Goldman-Sachs and their massive second quarter profits–even more massive than predicted.

So what’s wrong with Goldman posting $3.44 billion in second-quarter profits, what’s wrong with the company so far earmarking $11.4 billion in compensation for its employees? What’s wrong is that this is not free-market earnings but an almost pure state subsidy.

Last year, when Hank Paulson told us all that the planet would explode if we didn’t fork over a gazillion dollars to Wall Street immediately, the entire rationale not only for TARP but for the whole galaxy of lesser-known state crutches and safety nets quietly ushered in later on was that Wall Street, once rescued, would pump money back into the economy, create jobs, and initiate a widespread recovery. This, we were told, was the reason we needed to pilfer massive amounts of middle-class tax revenue and hand it over to the same guys who had just blown up the financial world. We’d save their asses, they’d save ours. That was the deal.

Instead the big investment banks–Goldman-Sachs most of all–are laughing their asses off at us taxpayers who were suckered into handing over the contents of the U.S. Treasury to a bunch of bankster greedheads. Instead of returning any of the money to taxpayers, the banksters are using their profits to pay out more million dollar bonuses to themselves.

Taibbi lists five types of government funding that have enabled Goldman to rake in the huge profits they just reported, including $10 billion in TARP funds and $13 billion more from the AIG bailout. Goldman has now paid back the $10 billion, which was basically an interest-free loan from you and me; but the government still holds warrants to buy G-S stock at low prices in order to make some money back for us taxpayers. Guess what? Goldman is trying to weasel out of that deal now; and they’ll probably succeed, since they are pretty much in control of our government.

Taibbi:

Taken altogether, what all of this means is that Goldman’s profit announcement is a giant “fuck you” to the rest of the country. It is a statement of supreme privilege, an announcement that it feels no shame in taking subsidies and funneling them directly into their pockets, and moreover feels no fear of any public response. It knows that it’s untouchable and it’s not going to change its behavior for anyone. And it doesn’t matter who knows it.

Here is an interview with Taibbi and Mike Lux on the Goldman-Sachs “coup” by Laura Sanders.

How the Corporate Media Cannibalized Michael Jackson

I’m going to be honest. I never enjoyed Michael Jackson’s music or had any interest in him as a person other than realizing that he probably had a rather interesting psychological disorder: Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). People who suffer from BDD are obsessed with perceived flaws in their appearance and go to extremes to correct these imagined or exaggerated defects, often having multiple cosmetic surgeries. Jackson may very well have had several other types of psychological disorders. When Jackson died, it really had little effect on me and I was surprised to see how many Conflucians were very upset by his death. Nevertheless, Chris Hedges, a very fine writer, has a long piece at Alternet about Jackson that gave me a lot to think about. I highly recommend it. Here are just a few of excerpts:

The commercial exploitation of Michael Jackson’s death was orchestrated by the corporate forces that rendered Jackson insane. Jackson, robbed of his childhood and surrounded by vultures that preyed on his fears and weaknesses, was so consumed by self-loathing he carved his African-American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask and hid his apparent pedophilia behind a Peter Pan illusion of eternal childhood. He could not disentangle his public and his private self. He became a commodity, a product, one to be sold, used and manipulated. He was infected by the moral nihilism and personal disintegration that are at the core of our corporate culture.

[….]

The stories we like best are “real life” stories—early fame, wild success and then a long, bizarre and macabre emotional train wreck. O.J Simpson offered a tamer version of the same plot. So does Britney Spears. Jackson, by the end, was heavily in debt and had weathered a $22 million out-of-court settlement payment to Jordy Chandler, as well as seven counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent in order to commit a felony. We fed on his physical and psychological disintegration, especially since many Americans are struggling with their own descent into overwhelming debt, loss of status and personal disintegration.

[….]

The moral nihilism of our culture licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, ridiculed and voted off any reality show….Life, these shows teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and constant quest for notoriety and attention. And life is about the personal humiliation of those who oppose us. Those who win are the best. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are ugly or poor, are belittled and mocked. Human beings are used, betrayed and discarded in a commodity culture, which is pretty much the story of Jackson’s life….Compassion, competence, intelligence and solidarity are useless assets when human beings are commodities. Those who do not achieve celebrity status, who do not win the prize money or make millions in Wall Street firms, deserve their fate.

It’s an angry article. Hedges used Michael Jackson’s life and death to demonstrate the cruel emptiness of our media culture. But he could have found many other celebrity examples. We build these people up, and then we tear them down. And we tear ourselves and each other down at the same time.

Health Care “Reform”

Will we actually get reform? Frankly I doubt it, but you never know. A miracle could happen. Here are few health care stories I came across late last night.

Senator Max Baucus is complaining because Obama is opposed to taxing health care benefits.

Maybe Montanans will return Baucus to the Senate if he makes them pay taxes on their employee benefits. I don’t think it would go over that well here in Massachusetts. What about in your state? Could it be that public rejection of Baucus’s idea is the reason Obama changed his mind about using a benefits tax to pay for a windfall for insurance companies?

Someone leaked the news that more than 50 House Democrats have banded together to oppose a health care plan they see as unsatisfactory.

Progressive Democrats are taking a hard stand on health care reform, with a majority committing to oppose any health care reform package that doesn’t include a robust public option. On Wednesday, they got an inadvertent assist by an anonymous leak of their “whip list.”

A whip list, which is generally tightly guarded, is used by congressional leaders to keep track of the private pledges made by members before a vote. The list is kept private to encourage frank answers from members so that leadership can gather accurate intelligence.

Ezra Klein claims Senator Ron Wyden has an idea that will “save health care reform.” Then he goes into a long, complicated explanation of something that sounds to me like a very bad idea. What is heck is wrong with just expanding Medicare to cover everyone? Why not single payer?

Please feel free to use the comments to post any stories that have piqued your interest.


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