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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Walmart, HSBC, and the irrelevancy of laws and morals

So Walmart says it bears no responsibility (transparently false) for the Tazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh because the work was being done under orders from a subcontractor, and without Walmart’s permission. And HSBC is going to buy its way out of potential criminal charges over allegations of illegally moving money for drug dealers and nations under international sanction, because to send guilty bankers to jail might endanger the massive bank’s existence.

When committing an immoral act, or an illegal act, has no consequence, why have morals or laws at all?

We have in recent decades seen a massive swing by various levels of government to put corporate and financial interests ahead of the interests of people. It’s a major propellant in the move to globalism, removing barriers to the flow of goods and cash that allows corporations more freedom to operate. But their freedom has led to a sharp decline in the health and vitality of American communities, from the standards of living that have crumbled across much of the country, to the education and health of our citizens. And it is in part because the people making decisions at corporations know they most likely will get a pass from the legal system and, of they are not caught, a bionus from their bosses.

Instead, in the case of HSBC, there will be a fine, maybe a lost job or two for show, and then business as usual. With the fine not coming from the pockets of the miscreants, but from the shareholders.

From the New York Times this morning, on HSBC:
Given the extent of the evidence against HSBC, some prosecutors saw the charge as a healthy compromise between a settlement and a harsher money-laundering indictment. While the charge would most likely tarnish the bank’s reputation, some officials argued that it would not set off a series of devastating consequences.

A money-laundering indictment, or a guilty plea over such charges, would essentially be a death sentence for the bank. Such actions could cut off the bank from certain investors like pension funds and ultimately cost it its charter to operate in the United States, officials said.
And from a separate item on Wal-Mart’s Nixonian evasions of responsibility:
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said the new documents raised additional questions about Walmart’s role at the factory.

“If Walmart’s claim that they were the victim of one rogue supplier had any shred of credibility, it’s gone now,” he said. “Walmart is limited to one of two options — to say, yes, we know these suppliers were using the factory or, two, we have no control over the supply chain that we’ve been building in Bangladesh for more than 20 years.”
Nope, wasn't us, Walmart says, it was those uncontrollable subcontractors who do our bidding to drive down costs to keep our goods low-priced for the American consumer. And the consumer is always right.

You know, we vote with every dollar we spend. So spend more wisely. And morally. And, dare I say, righteously. Read More 
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The fine line between tax incentives and extortion

The New York Times is publishing some strong work diving deeply into a practice that I've long found bizarre, and corrosive to stable communities - the granting of tax incentives to companies to attract development, or to keep them from leaving.

I wrote about this, but not with much depth, in my Detroit: A Biography. Former Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, even as he took part in the bidding, used to argue that communities competing against each other for corporate investments does nothing but reward corporations. He was right then, and the problem continues. Corporations play local governments against each other to gain the best tax-reduction deal they can, often just shifting the jobs from one site in a metro area to another. And when the commitment expires (or sometimes before, as the Times reports), the companies pull out anyway. Ultimately stockholders benefit, but the community the business abandons suffers; the community that wins the business suffers in increased infrastructure costs and reduced tax support; and that second community suffers again when the corporation's next move is overseas.

The practice ought to be banned, but good luck getting any such measure through Congress (and it would likely face a Constitutional problem over states' rights anyway). The practice is yet another example of governmental support for corporations and businesses ahead of communities. And yes, I know these deals create jobs, but as the Times analysis shows, the cost does not equal the benefit. From the story:
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.

Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.

While some jobs have certainly migrated overseas, many companies receiving incentives were not considering leaving the country, according to interviews and incentive data.
The Times also put together a searchable database of the concessions. It's a sobering overview of a misguided practice, and one that adds yet another layer of financial stress to communities reeling under the recent recession; balky hiring by companies hoarding cash instead of investing; unfunded state and federal mandates; and this bizarre expectation of voters that they shouldn't have to pay for basic services.

It's a mess, and one without easy solutions - and no discernible political will. Read More 
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On Election Day here in the United Stasis of America

Well, if you read my post from the other day, you know that I’m happy with yesterday’s presidential election result. But I greet it not with a sense of elation, but rather a sense of relief. And a bit of resigned foreboding, for in the end, after all those hundreds of millions of dollars spent in campaigning up and down the ticket, very little has changed.

The best news: The Tea Party-infused ideas that the Romney-Ryan ticket brought to a national referendum were rebuffed, and one can only hope this means the end of it. Though I doubt it, and that brings us to the bad news. The Senate remains Democratic, and the House remains Republican with no meaningful shift in the ratio of seats. More significantly, the Tea Partiers retained their clout within the Republican caucus in the House, even if they lost some seats, or chances for seats, in the Senate.

What this suggests is that across a broad electorate, the hard-right positions that cropped up during the campaign were rejected. But with the inherent corruption of gerrymandered Congressional districts, those ideas stay alive. If we’re ever going to find a way out of this morass of partisanship in Washington, we’re going to have to find a way to blow up the redistricting process, end the gerrymandering of safe seats for both parties, and move to a open primary system across the nation in which the top-two vote-getters in a primary face off in a general election in non-gerrymandered districts.

Otherwise, the system remains locked in stalemate here in the United Stasis of America.

Ironically, the framers of the Constitution saw the House as being responsive to the mercurial whims of the electorate, as the members face election every two years. The Senate was the to be the chamber of stability, with members selected every six years on a rolling schedule (one third up for election every other year). But with gerrymandering of Congressional Districts - unanticipated by the framers - the House members are now nearly as stable under a system in which the only real change seems to come from political pressures within the two major parties (Tea Partiers winning primaries in GOP-heavy districts, for example).

And so the nation toddles dysfunctionally on. And, as Billy Bragg sang, all we get is the sound of ideologies clashing:
While we expect democracy
They're laughing in our face
And although our cries get louder
The laughter gets louder still
Above the sound of ideologies clashing

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In defense of some fellow undecideds, as I vote by mail

Well, we sat down Friday night for our annual date with the election guide, and to fill out our absentee ballots. It was finally time for this undecided voter to decide, and decide I did. But my indecision was not what you might think.

There's been a lot of noise about those who remain undecided in what has been a presidential campaign of stark contrasts. And a lot of mockery of us undecideds, from our purported stupidity to our lack of a political gyroscope. To which I call bullshit. For two key reasons. One, we aren't all centrists wavering between right and left. And two, some of the most unthinking people I've encountered during my many years of political campaign coverage are those who make up their minds early, and for irrational reasons. Talk about an unthinking engagement with the political process, how about all of those folks who vote Democratic or Republican simply because that's what they always do? Even when their candidate lacks the credentials or credibility to hold public office?

I'm quite certain I follow political campaigns and issues much more closely than the average person, and more closely than many of those who've disparaged us undecideds for our perceived lack of engagement. So my ballot was not cast in a fog. It was well thought out.

In fact, I knew early on who I would not be voting for: Romney. Naked political ambition unleavened by a discernible philosophical framework is a recipe for leadership disaster. He persuaded me during his rightward lurch in the GOP primaries that he was indeed the Etch-A-Sketch candidate, and as a result not someone to be taken seriously sitting in the Oval Office. I became convinced that if he was sincere about many of the positions he had taken, he would lead this country into a Depression-style crisis domestically, and into warrantless wars overseas.

My indecision came over Obama, for whom I voted with pleasure in 2008 (note: as a matter of professional habit I did not vote in elections I covered; I stopped covering the 2008 race in September, so felt free to cast a ballot in that one). He could have been an agent for real political change, but over three years Obama proved to have been a much better campaigner than leader, and to have been co-opted by the Clinton-style pro-corporate centrist policies of the core Democratic Party. He entered office with serious political capital but squandered much of it. It wasn't all bad. The auto bailout was a significant success, and I believe some of his other policies mitigated the economic disaster brought on by the Republicans.

But there's more at stake than money. The health care plan, lauded by Democrats, was too little for the problems we face. Obama could have done better. He was slow to get us out of the wars he promised to get us out of (and added troops to Afghanistan); Guantanamo Bay is still a prison for suspected terrorists (many of whom are being held on the sketchiest of evidence); the National Defense Authorization Act that Obama signed is chilling in its unconstitutional throwback to the McCarthy era; the Obama administration has been even less open than the Bush Administration, as hard as that is to conceive; and Obama is still campaigning about the need to close loopholes that reward corporations for shipping jobs overseas - something he campaigned on the first time around, to little effect.

So my indecision was not between Obama and Romney, but between Obama and someone else. I often turn to the Peace and Freedom Party for my protest vote, but they nominated comedian Roseanne Barr, a joke I can't go along with (and, frankly, destroying its credibility as an alternative party). The Green Party has put up a serious slate led by Jill Stein. And I almost sent my vote there. But in the end I went with Obama essentially as a loud rebuke - well, as loud as a single vote can be - to the Republican Party and its policies, and to the Machiavellian candidacy of Romney/Ryan.

But I'm not happy about it. I may have voted for Obama, but I'm still ambivalent about his leadership, and stand in stark opposition to what the one-time Constitutional law college instructor is doing to our civil liberties.

So in the end, I guess I took the turn Ralph Nader has cried against for years: Don't vote against something, vote for something. This time, I voted against. And while four years ago I voted with a sense of hope, this time it is with a nagging fear that I may have made a mistake. I hope Obama wins, but more significantly, I hope he proves that my fears are unwarranted. Read More 
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On global warming, presidential politics, and irony

As you know, we spent most of the summer on the road driving cross-country where, as you also know, the weather set all sorts of records for heat. We encountered 107 degrees in Austin, 102 in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and high 90s just about everywhere else. You all sweated through it, too.

A couple of weeks ago, scientists reported that the Arctic ice cap had reached a modern low as a result of global warming, and one expert predicted it could melt completely by the time of the next presidential election. Some 4.6 million square miles of ice melted, with 1.3 million square miles to go, all over the course of a summer. Yes, it will refreeze, but the issue is the thaw's devastating effect on Arctic life and its unknown influence on the world's weather patterns. And the receding ice means more of the environment exposed to human degradation. Where environmentalists see disaster, capitalists see dollar signs.

Yet, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in a New Yorker blog post, the single biggest threat to our health and safety is an asterisk during the presidential campaign. We focus on the inane (exercise routines and gaffes) over the insane (our environmental and energy policies) at a moment of great world peril. From her post:
You might have thought that with the Arctic melting, the U.S. in the midst of what will almost certainly be the warmest year on record, and more than sixty per cent of the lower forty-eight states experiencing “moderate to exceptional” drought, at least one of the candidates would feel compelled to speak out about the issue. If that’s the case, though, you probably live in a different country. Remarkably—or, really, by this point, predictably—the only times Mitt Romney has brought up the topic of climate change, it has been to mock President Obama for claiming, back in 2008, that he was going to try to do something about it.
Romney's election, I think, would be a disaster for the country, but he's right to mock Obama's environmental policies. More drilling in the Arctic and piping crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico are not only risky, they continue our dependence on fossil fuels.

Here's where the irony comes in. As temperatures increase, more people use more electricity to run air conditioning systems, which means burning more coal, which adds more crud to the atmosphere exacerbating the global warming that makes us turn to the air conditioning .... you see where this cycle leads. And no, the irony hasn't escaped me that we encountered all that summer heat while driving cross-country, adding our own little puffs of carbon emissions to the weather engine (we don't have air conditioning in our house).

There are a lot of incidental arguments for not dealing with this problem - we need power for industry, jobs, etc. - but none of them come close to the argument for doing something. The earth will go spinning on. The mountains will rise and erode. The seas will surge and churn.

We're the ones making that environment more and more inhospitable to human life. And we're the only ones who can do anything about it.

So let's talk about that. No, let's do something about that. Read More 
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A couple of words about SOPA

No. Learn.
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On the most significant political poll question

Like a lot of people, I've been watching the unfolding fight for the Republican presidential nomination with a sense of fascination. I'm not going to get into a back-and-forth about the merits/non-merits of the individual candidates, but it is remarkable to see how unsettled the Republican electorate remains in Iowa. (For political junkies, I recommend this site, Real Clear Politics, which does a great job of tracking the myriad polls.)

Most of the coverage of the recent polling is on who's leading, the classic horse-race approach. But to me the significant aspect is how little voters are connecting with any of the candidates only four days before the caucuses. The most recent NBC News/Marist Poll finds only two of five likely Republican caucus-goers "strongly support" the candidate they tell pollsters they are currently backing. Another two of five said they "somewhat support" the candidate, and one in five said they might vote differently than for the candidate they had just told pollsters they were supporting.

And that's just among those expressed a preference. More broadly, 12 percent of those who said they were likely to attend the caucuses next week said they were still undecided.

That's a lot of turmoil, especially when you look at the spaghetti bowl of a chart above tracking the field in polls over the past few months.

Meanwhile, President Obama's approval rating is below his disapproval rating in most polls, though neither number is above 50 percent. That makes him vulnerable, obviously, though the general election is a long way away, and Obama has largely sat in the sidelines while the Republicans have beat him up with their rhetoric. It will be a whole different environment come next September, when the general campaign kicks into high gear.

What a spectator sport. Read More 
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On protests, and why 'the goals' are irrelevant

The national media have been slow to decide that the anti-Wall Street protests are newsworthy enough to cover, and their confusion remains considerable. We'll set aside speculation about how deeply covered the protests would have been had they involved Tea Partiers outside the Capitol Building and move on to something more troubling: Many of my journalistic colleagues don't seem to understand what they're looking at.

A story from the Washington Post popped up earlier today under the headline, "‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests gain steam, but movement’s goals remain unclear," seems perplexed by an inability to find someone in charge to give voice to a specific agenda.

The New York Times had a piece on Friday that was even worse, taking an arch, mocking tone about the names and ambitions of a handful of the participants. You can imagine The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley figure peering down his nose, amused and bemused by all those poor people. Two participants, we are told, stopped by for a few days at the start of a ramble around the country. Two others were named Hero, and Germ. Though maybe not, We're told in the lede that Germ was there, but the story says the two rambles met him at a homeless shelter in Rhode Island. But once you have a name like that in hand, well, it just has to get in the story somehow. "Most of the demonstrators are in their teens or 20s," the story says, "but plenty are older. Many are students. Many are jobless. A few are well-worn anarchists. Others have put their normal lives on pause to try out protesting and see how it feels." Yes, darling, such a lark, shall we trot down to the protests, then, and see how it feels?

More problematic than these stories - there are many others - and their inability to crystallize and present what has been happening, is the presumption that the protests have to have a unified agenda - a list of demands to be met. A way to keep score for the eventual dissection of who won and lost.

But sometimes a scream of frustration, and of rage, is just as simple as it sounds.

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On CNN, the Tea Party, and blogosphere blowback

I posted an item a couple of days ago calling into question CNN's ethics in teaming up with the Tea Party for the debate in Florida, and argued that no media outlet should co-sponsor debates with the entities they are supposed to cover. That sparked some rock-throwing by a few folks that I feel needs addressing.

First, in the initial post, I wrote that CNN didn't team up with political progressives to co-sponsor a debate in the 2008 campaign. Faulty memory: A commenter on a post at Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism site (see below) pointed out that CNN had teamed with the Congressional Black Caucus and its Political Education and Leadership Institute for a presidential debate in South Carolina. Though one might argue the CBC's institute isn't necessarily politically progressive, the point is right: CNN did team with a splinter political group then, and I had forgotten it. So consider that corrected.

But it doesn't change the basic premise of my argument. In fact, I fault that partnership, as well. The media should not partner with the groups they are covering. This item by P.J. Salvatore criticizes my logic, but then misconstrues what I wrote.
Also, Martelle’s logic fails him a second time: he complains that only two parties are represented while also taking the stance that the tea party shouldn’t be represented because it’s an entity to be covered — which conflicts which his complaint that only two parties are ever represented. He suggests that the tea party is a third party, thus this would be a fulfillment of his request. But it’s a conservative group, so again, his bias is betrayed, all while complaining about bias. If Martelle intended to define irony with his remarks, he’s brilliant; it it was unintentional, he’s comedy gold.
I did not say the Tea Party shouldn't be represented, I said CNN should not be represented, at least as a co-sponsor. To be as clear as I can: No media outlet should partner with any political group - left, right, or center - for things like debates. If the Democrats or Republicans or Tea Party or Green Party or whomever want to hold a debate, by all means cover it. But don't sit on the panel and ask the questions. A better approach is for the media outlets to hold their own debates and invite the candidates they feel have something to add to the discussion, and from whom voters need to hear. We should act from outside the political process, as journalists, not from within it as partnered participants.

Further, a consequence of the media's joined-at-the-hip relationship with the Commission on Presidential Debates - controlled by the two major parties - is that it lets the two major parties select from whom the American voters will hear. That cedes too much authority to the parties. That's also something, one would think, that the left and the right would both find problematic. And something that the media should be writing about, instead of tacitly endorsing by taking part.

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CNN and its ethics problem with the Tea Party debate

There's another debate tonight among the main candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination, part of what will seem an endless series, no doubt. But this one is bothersome from the standpoint of journalistic ethics. (See my followup post On CNN, the Tea Party, and blogosphere blowback).

Why is CNN teaming up with a splinter political movement - the Tea Party - to sponsor a debate?

It's bad enough that the main presidential debates, once the two major party candidates have been chosen, are self-selected affairs run by the Democratic and Republican parties. The media accede to this construct, which baffles me, given the implied message it sends that the media perceive the Democrats and Republicans as the only parties worth hearing from. Under the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates (the nonprofit the parties operate to attract primarily corporate donors and fund the debates), only candidates who have drawn at 15 percent support in five national polls are eligible.

But our role as journalists should make that objectionable - the two major parties in effect stage a political show, and the media goes along with the self-selection as a fait accompli (and I have covered my share of those). So the media coverage becomes an affirmation of the political process instead of dissecting it, objectively and independently, from the outside. We should be telling voters about the disparate voices and viewpoints, not serve as an echo chamber for the two major ones.

But tonight's debate from Florida goes even farther down the ethical hole. A major cable network is teaming up with a political splinter group as an (apparent) equal partner in a televised event. CNN didn't team up with political progressives, who helped shape the 2008 presidential campaign, during that election cycle. Yet here it is proudly teaming up with the Tea Partiers (who, they keep telling us, aren't even an identifiable group, but a shared mindset). My guess is CNN is more interested in wresting viewers from Fox than in maintaining its own credibility.

It is through independence that journalists maintain our legitimacy, and our (fading) credibility. Not by sharing our outlets' names on banners with the entities and people we are supposed to be covering. This is basic ethics: Don't share the bed with the subjects of your journalism.

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