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MARTIN GILENS SPEAKS AT PLYMOUTH STATE

If the “central characteristic of democracy is responsiveness of government toP4070011 the interests of citizens,” as Martin Gilens says,  then ours is failing miserably.

Professor Gilens, prime author of a much-cited article showing that the US government responds to the interests of wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies, not to ordinary people, presented his findings tonight at Plymouth State University.

Gilens, a professor of political science at Princeton, analyzed responses to 1779 survey questions collected from 1981 to 2002 to test whose opinions mattered.  With his co-author, Benjamin Page, Gilens examined the views of average citizens, defined as those at median levels of income, the views of wealthy individuals, and the positions held by the most powerful interest groups (https://i0.wp.com/cdn2.vox-cdn.com/assets/4315381/Gilens1.png“Most of them are business oriented,” he said.).  Then they looked at the outcomes of policy debates.

What they found is that the preferences of ordinary people have virtually no impact on policy.  The opinions of wealthy individuals and organized interest groups, however, have a considerable effect. 

“People with resources call the shots and ordinary citizens are bystanders,” he said. 

It’s not a matter of political parties and which one is in power.  If one looks at issues such as trade policy, tax cuts, or financial de-regulation, politicians of both major parties have enacted policies favored by elites.  “Priorities the public expressed are https://i2.wp.com/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/assets/4315397/Gilens2.png

not the priorities of our government,” Gilens said.

Gilens’ research was reported in “Testing Theories of American Politics:  Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” published in 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.   Frequently referred to as “the Princeton study,” the Gilens and Page paper has been used to state the USA is now an oligarchy. 

Not so fast, Gilens says.  Yes, it’s true that ordinary people are largely ignored and that high percentages of the rising amounts of cash flooding the political system come from a relatively small collection of wealthy individuals.  And it’s also true that running and winning elections demands ever larger campaign funds.   But Gilens  holds onto hope that a movement like the early 20th century progressives can rise up to challenge the policies of the New Gilded Age.   

“No single reform” will do it, Gilens believes.  But campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, electoral reform, and the rise of civil society and labor groups just might stop the trend toward oligarchy.  That will be “a decades long task,” he says.

Devil is in the Details of Budget Proposal

Another version of this was published in the Concord Monitor.

The budget proposal now under consideration in the House Finance Committee calls for a $7 million cut in the budget of the Sununu Youth Services Center, the state’s residential detention center for juvenile offenders. It also mandates “the option for the Department to enter into contracts to operate the facility.” The outsourcing provision would be included in HB 2, the budget “trailer bill.”

We’ve been around this block before.

In 2011, the budget trailer bill, HB 2, mandated creation of “a committee to develop a plan for privatizing the department of corrections,” and specified that “on or before September 1, 2011, the commissioner of administrative services shall issue a request for proposals by vendors for provision of correctional services or any other services provided by the department of corrections.”

That line, buried in what became Chaptered Law 0224 when it passed on June 22, 2011 and became law without the signature of Governor John Lynch eight days later, set in motion a costly two-year investigation into the possibility of outsourcing the state’s prisons to a for-profit firm.

First, staff at the Departments of Corrections and Administrative Services spent five months preparing three lengthy “Requests for Proposals” to solicit interest from private firms.

The responses from four companies, which arrived between late January and early March. There was so much paper in the bid documents — said to be so bulky they filled a room at the State House Annex – that the State needed an outside consultant. It took four more months, and an appropriation of $177,000, for the state to hire MGT of America to analyze the proposals.

It took nine months for MGT to compete its report.

Among its findings were that the “annual compensation for security staff” in the bidders’ business plans “was one-half the current compensation currently paid to similar positions in the state.”

High Turnover, Low Safety

“The state should be concerned that this significantly lower wage may make it difficult to maintain a trained and experience staff,” MGT said. “This could result in high turnover and ultimately impact and safety and security of the correctional facilities.” In other words, the way to make a correctional facility profitable is to lower the wages and benefits paid to workers. That dooms the facilities to dependence on workers who hope to leave and find a better job, not the kind of people we want to manage adult or juvenile corrections.

Based on the consultant’s report, the State “determined that it was in the best interest of the State to cancel the solicitation process,” according to a report released in April 2013, nearly two years after the process started.

“The decision to cancel, after having invested so much time and consideration, was not made lightly,” the Departments of Corrections and Administration said.

With that in mind, we should not go lightly into a new privatization process, this time for youth corrections.

Evidence from around the country has shown that for-profit companies are ill equipped to handle the responsibility of incarceration, whether the prisoners are juveniles or adults. Their facilities tend to be under-staffed, less secure, and don’t even save money for taxpayers.

Riots and Abuse in Florida

Just last week a riot broke out at the Les Peters Academy, a juvenile correctional facility near Tampa, Florida. It’s the third time violence has broken out at one of G4S Corporation’s juvenile facilities, and that’s just in the Tampa area. The State of Florida is investigating “whether all policies and procedures were followed.”

Last summer Florida cancelled a contract with another for-profit operator of youth detention facilities, Youth Services International, after evidence of excessive or unnecessary use of force. The company is barred for a year from bidding on new contracts, but it still runs nine other Florida facilities.

A lengthy report by Chris Kirkham for Huffington Post says “those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades.” Not only that, according to Kirkham, Florida’s “sweeping privatization of its juvenile incarceration system has produced some of the worst re-offending rates in the nation.”

Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, who has documented abuses at for-profit facilities in Arizona and nationwide, says “the track record in juvenile facilities is even more horrifying than the usual for adult prisons.”

We’ve been around this block before. Let’s not go there again.

Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire Co-Director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization devoted to social justice and peace.

P3130011

Money is Not Speech and Constitutional Rights are for Human Beings

Following an unusually placid series of votes approving budget items, Canterbury, New Hampshire’s annual Town Meeting came to life during a debate over a resolution calling for a Constitutional Amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

Discussion began with a well delivered speech by Laurie Lockwood, who said that due to the 2010 ruling, “there can now be no effective restraint placed on campaign spending by corporations, Political Action Committees, unions,  or groups of any kind.  If you have a mailbox, a radio, or a TV, you are aware of the results.”

Lockwood explained that the purpose of the resolution is to pressure Congress to act, in accord with Article Five of the US Constitution.  Amendments are rare, P3130042

Laurie Lockwood

but not unprecedented, she said, and it is our duty as citizens to take action.

The resolution was pretty straightforward, calling on the town’s elected officials to support an amendment to the US Constitution establishing that “only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights; and money is not speech, and  therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

Without change, according to Lockwood, we will have more “nasty, expensive elections that discourage participation, and we end up with representatives who are indebted to wealthy and powerful interests.”

In a thinly veiled reference to the brothers Koch, Lockwood said “fossil fuel interests have already pledged to spend a billion dollars on the 2016 elections.” 

When she finished, many town residents applauded and it looked for a moment like we might proceed to a vote without further remarks.  But Howard Moffett, a retired attorney who serves as one of Canterbury’s State Representatives, decided to share his reservations.  Although he had voted for similar resolutions at the State House, he said he was concerned that language calling for the end of corporate personhood went too far.  He said he would have preferred the resolution was drafted differently, but that he would support it because “we just have too much money in our politics drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.” 

Rep. Moffett’s statement elicited a invitation for him to elaborate on his concerns and a request for information about how the resolution had been drafted.  Rep. Moffett spoke again briefly, and I addressed the origin of the resolution and its relationship to others being considered all over the country, which together can create a groundswell of pressure on Congress to act even if they don’t share theP3130015 exact same wording.  

Another voter asked about corporate personhood, which brought Laurie Lockwood to the microphone again for a short history lecture. 

Finally Judy Elliott took the floor.  “We want to make it clear that corporations do not have the right to spend unlimited money on elections.”  That was the last word.

Wayne Mann, the town’s Moderator, called for a vote, which in Canterbury is conducted by voters waving a green card for “yes” or a red card for “no.”  There were a few “no” votes, but no doubt that the resolution had the overwhelming support of the citizens present.   

The vote followed weeks of organizing by a small, informal committee of Canterbury residents who worked together to draft the resolution, collect petition signatures, organize an educational program at the library, and talk up the issue in town.   Canterbury now joins dozens of other New Hampshire towns, and hundreds across the country, that are calling for the Constitution to be amended.  

Disclosure: the photos of people voting were taken during earlier votes, not the vote on Article 9, the resolution on Citizens United.

 

 

 

“Even a Senator Can Learn Something”

I wrote this for the American Friends Service Committee’s “Governing Under the Influence” website.  See more at http://gui.afsc.org/

The Concord Snowshoe Club, a rustic and out-of-the-way venue in New Hampshire’s capital city, was the site of a kick-off event for Senator Lindsey Graham’s possible presidential campaign on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Hosted by the City Republicans, the “Politics and Pies” event was free, open to GOP members and unaffiliated voters, and open as well to the press.  Senator Graham arrived on time, took a position by the fireplace, gave a short speech about his priorities, and responded to questions for more than an hour.

Graham is an aggressively hawkish critic of President Obama’s foreign and military policy, but at the same time takes a perspective on domestic issues that tends P3080063toward the pragmatic rather than the ideological.   Immigration is an example.

Graham was among the 14 Republicans who voted with the Senate majority for a complex immigration reform bill in 2013.  Had it passed the House, the bill would have increased funds for “border security” (i.e. more police, soldiers, weapons, and fences for the US-Mexican border) and created a tortuous path that would have enabled many of the country’s 11 million undocumented residents to gain legal status and qualify eventually for citizenship.  Graham described it as a “rational and practical” approach to immigration.

In the Q&A session, I asked Senator Graham about the budget provision which mandates that federal authorities have 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day.   “The big beneficiaries of this seem to be the private prison companies, the for-profit companies, which is where about half of the immigrants are housed.  And of course they turn around the profits and lobby for more prisons and immigration policies that benefit them,” I said, asking how we can get to a rational policy in the face of such realities.

“I thought I knew everything about immigration until now,” Senator Graham responded.  “Even a Senator can learn something.”

Without discussing the detention bed mandate, Senator Graham launched into an explanation of the need for immigration reform, starting with the fact that the reason so many immigrants are coming here is to work and that the country has a long-term labor shortage.   The Senator also believes GOP support for immigration reform will help the party woo Hispanic voters.

In response to a question from Rev. Dwight Haynes about a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Graham said he “would like to control money in politics to the extent that it will destroy the political process.”

“Here’s what we’re going to lose in democracy if we don’t have control over the money.  The most influential people in the country will be the ones with the most money, and the ads you see on TV ad nauseum, you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know who’s responsible for them.”  Graham said he wouldP3080048 support a constitutional amendment as long as it applies to union funds as well as funds from corporations.   Then he joked he wouldn’t walk as far as Granny D did. 

Senator Graham spent much of the time outlining his support for higher levels of military spending, aggressive action in the Middle East, and a “generational struggle to defeat radical Islam.”

“You could close Gitmo tomorrow and give the Palestinians everything they’ve ever hoped for and this would still be trying to kill us, Israel and everybody that disagrees with them because God commands them to do so,” he said.  “They’re crazy.”

Senator Graham has launched a political committee, Security Through Strength, to help him “’test the waters’ for a potential 2016 run for president.”  We can look forward to picking up where this discussion left off next time he’s in town. 

The notion of designating a holiday for Ronald Reagan has reappeared at the NH State House in the form of HB 448, establishing February 6 as “Ronald Reagan Day.”  The bill begins:

The general court finds that:

I. President Ronald Wilson Reagan, a man of humble background, worked throughout his life advancing freedom and serving the public good, having been employed as an entertainer, union leader, corporate spokesman, Governor of California, and President of the United States of America.

It goes on from there.

“Freedom?”  “Public good?”  Not so fast.

With a pubic hearing on this bill scheduled for tomorrow, it’s timely to re-publish this piece I wrote when the  notion of a Reagan Day appeared a decade ago.  

But first it should be noted that HB 448 does not actually make Ronald Reagan Day a holiday.  State holidays are designated in Chapter 288 of the State’s statute book.  HB 448 merely orders the Governor to issue a proclamation each year on February 6, Reagan’s birthday, by adding a provision to an existing law concerning an annual proclamation of Genocide Awareness Day.  

I offer this to spare future governors from the obligation:

“NEW HAMPSHIRE REMEMBERS RONALD REAGAN” blared the banner hanging from the State House a few days after his death last June [2004]. Remember Reagan? Indeed I did. In fact, I remembered him speaking from the front steps of the State House September 18, 1985. It was only a month after the New York Times had exposed his government for giving secret support to the Nicaraguan “contras” in violation of the will of Congress.

“Rebels fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government have been receiving direct military advice from White House officials on the National Security Council,” Joel Brinkley wrote in a front page story.  Military aid to the contras had been outlawed by Congress the previous year. “The operation has been run by a military officer who is a member of the National Security Council,” Brinkley reported. It was one of the first public references to Oliver North.

Operating from bases in Honduras (where John Negroponte was U.S. Ambassador), the contras were known for attacks on schools and clinics. Reed Brody, a young attorney, visited Concord three months before Reagan to describe interviews he had conducted with Nicaraguan civilians about the contra attacks. “They attack towns, civilians and civilian leaders, and economic sites. They tend to do it with a barbarity that was difficult for me to understand,” Brody told the Concord Monitor [June 6. 1985].

Speaking at a public event in Concord, Brody, [who later became] a Special Counsel at Human Rights Watch in New York, quoted from a statement of a lay pastor about an attack on a Nicaraguan village. “We found [Juan Perez] assassinated in the mountains,” swore Innocente Peralta. “They had tied his hands behind his back. They hung him on a wire fence. They opened up his throat and took out his tongue. Another bayonet had gone in through his stomach and come out his back. Finally they cut off his testicles.”

The World Court, formally known as the International Court of Justice, ruled in 1986 that the United States had violated international law “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua.” Specific acts the Court found to be illegal included the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, a trade embargo, attacks on ports, and publication of a training manual instructing the contras in commission of acts that violated humanitarian law.

The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives.”

In other words, the Reagan Administration committed acts of terrorism.

Twenty years after Reagan’s visit to the State House, New Hampshire’s legislature is considering a proposal to declare a New Hampshire holiday in his name. In the words of Reagan’s widow, “Just Say No.”

I was honored once again to be invited to offer the “communi8ty update” at Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast.  Here’s what I said on January 19 at the Alpine Grove in Hollis:

Honor and pleasure to be invited back. Thanks to Irving, Linda, Ray, and Governor Hassan. And congratulations to OBU for the 31st annual breakfast.

I want to begin by saying a few words about inequality, and I’ve learned that a trick to effective public speaking is to tell people stuff that they already know.

We know that for most families, most workers, most ordinary people, take home pay has been stagnant since the 1970s, two generations.

At the same time we know that the rich are getting richer.

The ultra rich are getting ultra richer.

The mega rich are getting mega richer.

And the giga rich are getting giga richer.

This has caused economic inequality to rise to record levels.

And we know that when race is added to the equation the situation is even more unequal. Net worth of white families is five times that of black families.

I think we know what Dr. King would say about that. He would say,

“The misuse of capitalism can lead to tragic exploitation.”

We know what Martin Luther King would do because we know what he did. We know what he was doing at the time he was killed. He was supporting working people in a strike for dignity in the workplace and calling on the federal government to take sides with the locked out, the cast out and the left out.

What else do we know?

We know that fifty years ago at this time Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were engaged in a dramatic campaign in Selma Alabama to win the right to vote for Black people who had been denied their rights.

We know that after marches, arrests, beatings, and several murders of voting rights activists that the Congress approved the Voting Rights Act. At last it became possible for African Americans to use the ballot to elect people who would respond to their interests.

What’s the state of voting rights now? It’s not good.

We know that in state after state – including New Hampshire – legislatures have adopted laws like photo ID requirements and other restrictions that make it harder for people to vote when we ought to be making it easier.

We know that the US Supreme Court struck down an essential element of the Voting Rights Act.

And we know that five years ago this Wednesday, the Supreme Court declared that since corporations are people (really) and money is speech (yup), that restricting the ability of corporations to invest their money in the electoral system violates the first amendment protection of free speech. This widened the gates for floods of corporate cash into our electoral system. Instead of one person one vote we are getting a one dollar one vote democracy.

We know what Dr. King would say, something like, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are going to be a truly great nation you must solve this problem.”

I want to suggest a couple ways we can help solve this problem.

First, at the State House this year there will be a mighty fight over the state budget. The question our lawmakers will face is whether they will protect the interests of the well off or take the side of the locked out, the left out, the least of these. They will also consider a range of bills dealing with voting rights, some to make it harder to vote, some to make it easier, and some to reduce the influence of money in our elections.

You may have heard about a group in North Carolina, headed by Rev. Dr. Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, that brings a prayerful presence into their state capitol every week. They call it “Moral Mondays.

We’ve got a group like that here. We call ourselves “New Hampshire Voices of Faith.” Mondays are pretty quiet up in Concord, so we’re more likely to show up for “Witnessing Wednesdays,” bringing a multi-faith, prayerful presence for justice into the State House. We’ll be calling on our lawmakers to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Look for us on Facebook at NH Voices of Faith. And if you are not receiving my weekly “State House Watch” newsletter by email, let me know and I’ll add you to our mailing list.

But we’ve got another big opportunity, one that comes around every four years.

New Hampshire has the eyes of the world on us because of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The candidates are already among us. You might need to set some extra tables for next year’s breakfast. That means we’ve got the opportunity – and with that the responsibility – to let them know what’s on our minds. As Governor Hassan said, “democracy is not an every other year sport.”

At the American Friends Service Committee, we’ve got a new project we call “Governing Under the Influence.” It’s about the excessive power in the hands of big corporations – corporations that profit from violence, corporations that profit from prisons, corporations that profit from war. It’s about demanding that the democracy believe in is rooted in the one person, one vote principle, not in rule by those with the most money. We’ll be keeping track of the candidates’ whereabouts. Get in touch if you want to get involved.

But by all means use every opportunity to tell the presidential wannabes what is on your mind.

We who lift up the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. know that the struggle can be hard. We know the struggle can be long, but that ultimately we have faith that the power of the people can be stronger than the power of money, that justice can prevail over injustice, that love can prevail over hate.

Will we let anybody turn us around?

This article was first published in the Concord Monitor, January 15, 2015

When President Lyndon Johnson reached Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by phone on January 15, 1965, it wasn’t to offer birthday greetings. The president wanted to strategize about voting rights.

The two leaders were at the peak of their popularity. King had recently returned from Oslo with the Nobel Peace Prize and was gearing up a voting rights campaign centered in Selma, Alabama. Johnson, elected by a landslide two months earlier, had boldly called for “enforcement of the civil rights law and elimination of barriers to the right to vote” for African Americans in his January 7 “State of the Union” speech.

“We take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is,” the president told Dr. King. “That’s right,” King responded.

But between the two leaders and realization of voting rights stood the power of southern politicians and the often violent enforcement of white supremacy that blocked blacks from the voting rolls in southern states. In Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was the major city, only 335 blacks were registered to vote by fall, 1964, despite repeated efforts. Outside Selma, black majority rural counties had no black voters at all. Attempts to register could provoke beatings, firings, or worse.

Before the Selma-based campaign led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of people would be arrested for peaceful protests, dozens would be beaten, and at least three – Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo– would be murdered by white supremacists. In Jackson’s case, the killer was a state trooper. (Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student from Keene, would be murdered three weeks after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.)

One Person, One Vote Principle is Under Attack

Fifty years later the principle of one person, one vote is again under attack, though the forces arrayed against democracy are less bloody.

For starters, federal election law been tilting toward the power of dollars and away from votes – just look at the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. In a 2013 case, Shelby vs. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School calls “a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting.” Congress has power to rewrite the provision and restore this power to the Justice Department but has taken no action to date.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Court famously affirmed the principles that corporations are people and money is speech, thus opening the gates for floods of corporate cash to pour into the election system. In 2014’s McCutcheon decision, the Court enabled donors to invest as much as $2.4 million in congressional candidates every two years. Then Congress piled on at year’s end with a last-minute amendment to the budget bill that raised the limits on contributions to political parties from $97,200 a year to $776,000.

Meanwhile the states have again become major battlegrounds for voting rights. According to the Brennan Center, 21 states, including New Hampshire, have approved measures to restrict voting since 2010. These include Voter ID requirements, laws making it harder to register, reduced voting hours, and measures making it harder for people with criminal records to regain their voting rights.

Race Still Drives Attacks on Voting Rights

“Race was also a significant factor,” the Brennan Center reports. “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election.”

New Hampshire is likely to see further efforts to erode voting rights in 2015. Bills to restrict same-day registration and suppress student voting are on the legislature’s agenda.

It’s not like the country has a problem of too many people voting. Nationwide, only 35.9% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014. In New Hampshire, 47.6% of eligible voters went to the polls – hardly a figure to be proud of if we really believe in government of the people by the people and for the people.

Fortunately, lawmakers and voting rights advocates are taking action. In New Hampshire, bills are being proposed to make it easier to cast absentee ballots and to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the General Election.

A bi-partisan bill to put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act is likely to return to Congress. At the grassroots level, a growing nationwide movement is calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish clearly that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are intended for actual persons, not corporations, and that government regulation of campaign finance can be accomplished without infringing on political speech. In New Hampshire, more than 50 communities already have adopted resolutions backing such a measure.

The January 19 holiday marking Dr. King’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision on January 21 can be occasions for us to re-assert our commitment to democracy. Shall we overcome?

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