Category: Government & Politics

Better ethics rules needed at all levels of government

Ethical standards can be high or low. The following activities were considered ethical by the offending members of Congress, according to a story in The Washington Post:

“A California congressman helped secure tax breaks for racehorse owners — then purchased seven horses for himself when the new rules kicked in.

“A Wyoming congresswoman co-sponsored legislation to double the life span of federal grazing permits that ranchers such as her husband rely on to feed cattle.

“And a Pennsylvania congressman co-sponsored a natural gas bill as Exxon Mobil negotiated a deal that paid millions for his wife’s shares in two natural gas companies founded by her great-great-grandfather.”

Such stories tend to confirm our fears about many who represent us in government. It appears these members of Congress did nothing considered wrong under the ethical rules they have established for themselves.

As you would expect, the three incidents noted above are not the only questionable activities the Post uncovered. They were “among 73 members of Congress who have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation in recent years that could benefit businesses or industries in which either they or their family members are involved or invested.” That’s 73 out of the 535 members of the House and Senate.

“The practice is both legal and permitted under the ethics rules that Congress has written for itself, which allow lawmakers to take actions that benefit themselves or their families except when they are the lone beneficiaries. The financial disclosure system Congress has implemented also does not require the legislators to identify potential conflicts at the time that they take official actions that intersect or overlap with their investments.”

“Members of Congress contact the House and Senate ethics offices thousands of times each year to seek legal advice on a range of activities, including their work on legislation that might pose a conflict. Between 2007 and 2011, lawyers for the two committees issued at least 2,800 written opinions to lawmakers, sent 6,500 e-mails containing advice and provided guidance over the phone 40,000 times, according to records kept by the two committees.

“The committees rarely discipline their own, instead providing advisory opinions that generally give support and justification to lawmakers who take actions that intersect with their personal financial holdings, according to interviews with nearly a dozen ethics experts and government watchdog groups. And though Congress has required top executive branch officials to divest themselves of assets that may present a conflict, lawmakers have not asked the same of themselves.”

It’s time we had better rules for all lawmakers at all levels of government–from the president to school board members. With tighter rules about profiting from government work, we might get more lawmakers committed to the promoting the common good, not their personal and family wealth.

By the way, the guy who bought the horses is no longer in Congress. He now works for a “large lobbying firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, whose client list is broad and in recent years has included gambling companies that own racetracks, lobbying records show.”

The “Lie Factory” is still in business

Election year warning: Everything you hear and read is not necessarily true – especially when it comes to TV advertising, direct-mail campaigns and speeches. The news media help us sort through the political fog, but it is going to take some work to get to the truth.

There are, however, some highly paid people out there betting that we will not be willing to work to get to the truth. They’re convinced we will take whatever they say as true. They are paid political consultants, and they work for both political parties.

It all started with two Californians – Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker, founders of Campaigns, Inc., in 1933. Most of us have never heard of this couple, but they shaped modern political campaigning. A new article in The New Yorker titled, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” tells the story of Campaigns, Inc. Read it and you will hear its reverberations in today’s political advertising.

Baxter and Whitaker made their reputation by orchestrating the defeat of Upton Sinclair in his 1934 run for governor of California. They were hired two months before the election, devoured all of Sinclair’s writings, and then took quotes from his fiction and attributed them to Sinclair, as if they were the author’s words not the fictional character’s. The quotes ran every day on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. “Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.”

Baxter later said, ”Sure, those quotations were irrelevant. But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.”

The New Yorker story says:

“No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting, an industry unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. … Political management is now a diversified, multibillion dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from this year’s Presidential race to the campaigns of the candidates for your local school committee.”

Well, the reference to school board elections is probably a stretch on The New Yorker’s part, at least in non-metro areas, but there is no doubting the broad influence political consultants now play in American politics.

“Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book,” The New Yorker says. And see if some of that “rule book” doesn’t seem to be behind today’s political messages. Here’s the magazine’s description:

“Never lobby; woo voters instead. ‘Our conception of practical politics is that if you have a sound enough case to convince the folks back home, you don’t have to buttonhole the Senator,’ Baxter explained.  Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one. … Attack, attack, attack. Whitaker said, ‘You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!’

“Never underestimate the opposition. . . . Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good. . . . Never explain anything. ‘The more you have to explain,’ Whitaker said, ‘the more difficult it is to win support.’ Say the same thing over and over again. ‘We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,’ Whitaker said. Subtlety is your enemy. . . . ‘A wall goes up,’ Whitaker warned, ‘’when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.’

“Fan flames. ‘We need more partisanship in this country,’ Whitaker said. Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. ’ The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,’ Whitaker advised. ‘But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.’ You can put on a fight (‘he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled’’), or you can put on a show (‘he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades’): ‘So if you can’t fight, Put ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.’

“Winner takes all. ‘If you launch a campaign for a new car, your client doesn’t expect you to lead the field necessarily in the first year, or even the tenth year,’ Whitaker once said. ‘But in politics, they don’t pay off for PLACE OR SHOW! You have to win, if you want to stay in business.’”

That philosophy, set forth decades ago, shows why politicians campaign as they do today and why they govern as they do. “Winner takes all.”

If these techniques are still effective, I guess it means Mr. and Mrs. Average American citizen still doesn’t want to work or think. It is, however, something that can be changed – by each of us.

Iowa Caucuses: Romney and Santorum

Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, won the Iowa Caucuses last night but only by a margin of eight votes. The big news is that Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, surged late and finished virtually tied with the front-runner.

Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul came in third, followed for former Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrinch and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Afterward, Perry headed back to Texas, his campaign apparently over.

It will now be interesting to see what happens with Santorum. He is the more conservative family-values candidate against Romney, the establishment Eastern money candidate. I see no way either one can beat President Obama unless the latter really does something stupid. Santorum is too far right to win a general election, and Romney cannot motivate the conservative base of the Republican Party.

I do think Romney will get the nomination because of his money, but we shall see.

That’s my prediction now. We’ll see what happens.

Government regulation is necessary

We hear lots of voices today speaking against government regulation. Let me be one of those taking the opposite position. It is absolutely essential to promoting the common good in America that we continue to put in place and enforce wise regulations.

Are there bad regulations? I’m sure there must be because there are good and bad of almost everything government does. For instance, there are examples of bad military spending, but that doesn’t keep us from understanding the value of military spending. We push instead for good and wise military spending and work continually to weed out the bad.

Likewise, government regulation is essential. Let’s simply work to week out the bad.

Rusty Pritchard has written an exellent article related to regulation regarding mercury levels. I could not find an easy way to link to the story itself, so I have pasted it below. On the Evangelicals for Social Action web site, the story is located on a page with other stories.

The story deals with a specific issue but makes some excellent broader points about government regulation, as well.

The World Is Watching
by Rusty PritchardCreation care opponents have thrown caution to the wind. Emboldened by demagogues like Glenn Beck, they’re not averse to painting as “totalitarians” anyone even slightly concerned about pollution, resource conservation, biodiversity loss, or energy efficiency.The Washington Times published a piece on May 19, 2011, by creation care critic Cal Beisner purporting to reveal the “hidden dangers” in the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Among their “dangerous” prayer requests: reducing mercury pollutionthat passes from pregnant mothers to their unborn babies.Aside from being a worthy cause in its own right, the campaign seemed to me to be good apologetics as well. Here were evangelical Christians claiming publicly that God’s call to compassion and wise dominion extends to stopping air pollution that affects our most vulnerable citizens, growing the credibility of the pro-life witness by linking it to more than fighting abortion (the frequency of which, we must all admit, remains our greatest current national travesty), and doing so with smart, well-documented research and policy recommendations.  I personally know of formerly pro-choice environmentalists who have changed their positions on abortion because of encountering pro-life evangelical environmental advocates.

But the most visible anti-environmentalists never let concerns about the church’s witness in the world overcome their fundamental desire to fight even the suggestion that democratically elected governments might use their regulatory authority to protect the environment. The libertarian ends consistently trump the means, and evangelism tends to be the first casualty, with regard for truth a close second.

 
 

In Beisner’s critique, he constructed two straw-man claims that EEN’s materials didn’t make; and even the way he rebuts the fictitious claims reveals a lot about his commitments.

Beisner said EEN claimed “the main source of mercury pollution is dirty air released by coal-burning power plants” and that international sources are more important. Beisner apparently didn’t read the materials he was criticizing, because they didn’t say what he said they did. Apparently the Washington Times can’t afford fact-checkers. EEN gave a quite detailed explanation on the sources of mercury pollution, and the relative contribution of domestic and international sources, which varies from place to place (they even provided a map).

But the reason Beisner invented that red herring is that he sniffed out an attempt to strengthen regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants. He challenged a fictitious version of EEN’s claims about sourcing, because he didn’t want to draw attention to their well-researched claims about the economic benefits from regulating mercury emissions (which predict $60-140 billion in total health benefits, or a return of $5-13 for every $1 invested in meeting the regulations).

It wouldn’t be surprising, when we look back from the future, if the costs of limiting mercury went down relative to predictions and the benefits went up. That’s been the case with other environmental regulations as well—something even those opposed to regulations at the time now admit. Since we enacted the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the economy has grown 64 percent while air pollution has gone down 41 percent, a puzzle to those who predict economic collapse in the face of strong environmental regulations.

Beisner goes on to accuse EEN of being a mouthpiece for the environmental lobby, repeating someone else’s suspect talking points about how bad mercury is for fetuses. But he ignored the peer-reviewed scientific literature the EEN documents clearly cite—again, he simply makes stuff up about EEN and its campaign to suit his own rhetorical purposes.

Beisner gives a drastically lower figure for unborn babies afflicted with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood—but he doesn’t say where he got his figures. So it turns out that Beisner committed the vice he (wrongly) accuses EEN of. EEN cited multiple studies that demonstrate not just how many infants are affected by mercury in utero but also to what degree, and (crucially) puts a dollar value on the health benefits of mercury pollution reductions. 

I’m sympathetic to the problems of exaggeration and the nuances of weighing costs and benefits. I railed in the past about the irrational fears some parents have about the tiny amounts of mercury in vaccines, when the private and public health benefits from being vaccinated so far outweighs any negligible risk. Atmospheric mercury emissions are a different case—but it’s an empirical question, not an ideological question. Because Beisner is motivated chiefly by a libertarian worldview, he simply assumes that the costs of reducing mercury emissions will outweigh the direct and indirect benefits, when the best evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.

Beisner is certainly a devoted advocate. He is faithful to his ideology and political positions and tireless in their defense. There is indeed a strong case to be made for the free market and for capitalism; environmental policies for a flourishing economy would be much better if they reflected the concerns of economic conservatives. That case is not made stronger, however, by a sloppy critique that runs roughshod over facts or by deafness to reasonable counterarguments.

Beisner cites, without apparent sense of the irony, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in reference to prophecies, the readers are told to “test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”). Free market advocacy and creation care advocacy can be done with care, rigor, and honesty.  When the lost world is watching the way we argue, it is a necessity.

Editors’ note: We invite readers to sign EEN’s End Mercury Poisoning Pledge.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the cofounder and president of Flourish (FlourishOnline.org), a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.

 
 

Intergenerational justice

I just received a letter from Evangelicals for Social Action. They are launching a campaign for intergenerational justice, which puts a new twist on government deficits.

The letter from ESA President Ron Sider references the growing US budget deficit, which “amounts to us living off our grandchildren’s credit card.” 

I have grandchildren, and I surely do not want to be a burden to them, especially after I’m gone.

Sider continues: “We want things now that we can’t pay for, and we purchase them anyway, piling up debt that our young people will one day have to pay in the form of increased taxes, etc. This isn’t just unfair–it is unloving, unChristian, and an agregious example of financial irresponsibility. …”

OK, there’s nothing new there, but Sider states it well. What I like is that he has connected this issue with justice, which is big with God, if you take the Bible seriously.

Then Sider adds an important qualifier: “I am not saying that a temporary substantial budget deficit was a mistake in order to avoid a depression. I think that was the right policy.” Then comes the “but” statement. “But we have been increasing the national deficit for a decade, and current projections show it will get worse in the next years.”

Well said. Those of us who supported the Bush and Obama bailouts to avert a worldwide depression can still put our citizenship feet down and say deficit spending needs to stop. And in saying that, some of us older ones need to put Medicare and Social Security on the table for consideration of cuts. Yikes!

But, let’s be honest, none of us want our grandkids to suffer to make it easy on us. Thanks ESA.