Harvey Rosenfield

Harvey Rosenfield has been fighting to protect consumers and taxpayers against rip-offs and abuse for thirty years. He’s the author of Proposition 103, the landmark insurance reform initiative, which has saved Californians more than $63 billion in insurance premiums.

Oct 302012
 

 

I filled out my California ballot today, choosing candidates and wading through the propositions trying to figure out who’s behind what and why. I don’t blame people who feel like bystanders in democracy these days – that some ethereal dispute is underway that most of us aren’t meant to understand. It’s like in the movie “Clash of the Titans,” in which the gods are fighting each other while mere mortals are mostly just trying to avoid becoming collateral damage, dodging the Kraken and other nightmares hurled down upon them from Mount Olympus.

The various official and Super PAC campaigns for the presidential candidates are expected to break the $2 billion barrier by Election Day, a dubious record made possible by several men in black on the United States Supreme Court, whose decision in Citizens United authorized corporations to take control of American politics under the guise of freedom of speech.

In California, meanwhile, well-heeled politicians and special interest partisans in the proposition battles are spending hundreds of millions more flooding the airwaves and mailboxes.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the electoral marketplace is prosperous – like the stock market. Meanwhile, back on the planet, those Americans not employed by the Money Industry (unemployment rate: 4.6%), or its dependent relative the Political Industry, are desperately trying to hang on to a job, or more likely a part-time job. And yet, as my colleague Marty Berg and Ralph Nader have pointed out, neither Obama nor Romney have had anything to say about raising the minimum wage. It’s $7.25 an hour for federal workers; a whopping $8 an hour in California.

We could probably increase the minimum wage significantly just by taxing political advertising in the United States. Doubt that would get past the Supreme Court, though.

It’s not only the amount of money, but how it’s being unleashed: in an extraordinary assault of distortions and lies, raining down on the heads of voters from incomprehensible, sometimes secret sources. Take the California elections, for example. Proponents of Proposition 32 on the ballot insist that by limiting the political activities of unions, it will increase government “transparency.” But the Proposition 32 campaign is being funded by out of state money of unknown origin. The lobbyists hired by Proposition 33, which is 99.4% funded by the long-time CEO of Mercury Insurance Company, sued several of us who are opposed to the measure in court last August. They lost; but last week they claimed that we sued them and we lost. Huh? Then there’s Proposition 37, which would accomplish the unarguable goal of requiring food that is genetically engineered to disclose it on the packaging. You couldn’t possibly understand that from the TV ad against Prop 37, which features doctors and farmers riffing on how Prop 37 will inspire frivolous lawsuits, raise your grocery bills by zillions of dollars and favor dogs over people. It’s the Kraken, beamed into our living rooms to terrorize us.

Figuring out the truth about this proposition is hard enough; figuring out who’s paying for the TV commercials is impossible. No, really: try it for yourself. Watch this YouTube video and see if you can read the 75 words that appear for exactly three seconds in block micro-print at around 27 seconds in. If you pause it and squint, you might catch the names DuPont, Monsanto and ConAgra. Kind of alters your view of Prop. 37, doesn’t it?

The nation’s electoral discourse is so polluted by money-driven deceit these days that it has its own sociological description: “post-truth” politics.

Honesty in campaigns used to be policed by journalists, particularly newspaper reporters, who had the expertise and experience to weigh in on complex issues and call out the liars. But their numbers have dwindled, leaving the combatants (or in the case of the special interests, their highly paid surrogates)  to slug it out. The Golden Rule often determines who prevails: he who has the gold, rules.

Or maybe it makes no difference at all. According to a story in this week’s New Yorker, the Obama campaign has concluded, after an exhaustive study of the 2008 race, that the most effective way to reach a voter is “not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being.” Is it possible Americans have finally figured out that when “the TV tells you” how to vote, as one voter said to me back in a 1998, night after night without surcease, you can probably safely assume the sponsor of that ad is not on your side, and vote the other way? Maybe if someone you trust calls or shows up at your doorstep – but that costs a lot of money, too.

The average American cannot compete against the monied and powerful in the political or legislative arena. That’s the betrayal of America’s Constitution rotting at the core of the Citizens United decision. By equating money to speech, and decreeing that corporations have the same free speech rights as human beings, the high court rendered most Americans mute. We are now spectators, hoping we will somehow see the truth. Or at least not get hurt.

Illustration (c) Charles Lynn Bragg

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Oct 112012
 

The Occupy Movement changed the national policy debate last year, but then its supporters dispersed or – more accurately – were driven out of public parks by the police and winter.

A different kind of occupation has occurred, almost unnoticed, in Los Angeles over the last few weeks.

In late September, thousands of Californians waited in long lines at the Sports Arena in downtown Los Angeles for free medical and dental care provided by Care Harbor, a local non-profit organization. About 6.9 million Californians don’t have health insurance: about 1 in 5. They are not only the poor; about 27% of families making $50,000 or more each year are uninsured. Skyrocketing insurance rates, higher deductibles and dwindling benefits have left many in the middle class without insurance – or greatly under-insured, so that an unexpected illness or root canal can have a devastating financial impact. Thanks to the Financial Debacle, credit cards aren’t much of a fall back anymore. Hence the 3,754 patients, many of whom showed up three days early, grateful to receive the attention of thousands of doctors, dentists and other volunteering medical professionals, even if that meant being treated among strangers in a massive hall with no privacy. The sponsors of the event, now in its fourth year, call it a “health fair.”

Save the Dream

A week later and a few miles north, the line began forming early around the Convention Center, where more thousands hoped for a chance to refinance their mortgages in order to keep their homes. The five day event – part of a national tour it calls “Save the Dream”– was sponsored by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, another non-profit that has stepped into the breach opened by the failure of the marketplace. Operating in triage-like conditions in the conference hall, it arranged refinancing for beleaguered homeowners, many of whom were the victims of predatory lending, who would otherwise face foreclosure.

Monikers like “Health fair” or “Save the Dream” create a comforting, almost festive feeling about these occasions. But they can’t mask the despairing situation many of our fellow Americans now find themselves in.

The New Orleans Superdome 2005

The images of people seeking help with basic necessities – medical care, a place to live – reminded me of the breadlines of the Depression era, before the social safety net was put in place by FDR. The cavernous venues themselves recalled a more dire moment: the gruesome pictures from the New Orleans Superdome in 2005, to which residents were evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, and there left to fend for themselves for days. “I’ve seen things,” NBC News anchor Brian William said of his time inside that nightmare, “I never thought I’d see in the United States.”

The Occupy Wall Street supporters and their local affiliates across the nation were loud and angry enough to get the news media’s attention. A few instances of police brutality certainly helped. For all the many things the Occupy movement subsequently failed to do, like create a political force that could have been deployed in national and local election campaigns, just pointing out the wealth disparity – the 1% versus the 99% – vectored public attention from the abstraction of the national deficit to the concrete pocketbook issue of the imbalance of power between the powerful and everyone else.

But there was relatively little news coverage of the quiet, peaceful members of the 99-percent encircled around arenas that usually cater to business meetings or sports, people whose life stories have been derailed by credit default swaps, derivatives and other shenanigans by speculators over which they had no control.

Wall Street got it’s stimulus package – an estimated $29 trillion bailout, courtesy of  U.S. taxpayers, in the form of cash infusions, tax breaks, and the ability to borrow at an almost zero interest rate from the Federal Reserve. But Main Street’s stimulus package was $700 million – demonstrably not enough to do the job of getting Americans back in their jobs.

Compare the two stimulus packages and explain to me why we can’t afford to address the plight of job-less, home-less and savings-less Americans.

The total debt owed by consumers in this country for loans and credit cards is roughly $12 trillion, according to the latest report. Every dollar of it could have been erased (including everyone’s mortgage debt!) if those trillion$ had gone to taxpayers instead of Wall Street, as I’ve pointed out previously. Imagine the powerful spending effect on the economy if Americans were given the right to borrow from the Fed at the same low rate that the banks do. Or if someone in Congress or the White House had thought to impose a modest cap on interest rates for consumers as a quid pro quo for the bailout money that went to those firms.

Wall Street and its allies in government have tried to diminish the significance of the bailout, noting that most banks and other corporate beneficiaries have repaid most of the money. But that’s not the right way to gauge the value of what the taxpayers did for them.

Say two people are in a boat when it capsizes.  One of them, the captain, throws a life preserver to his passenger. The passenger survives, but the captain drowns. Wall Street would measure the value of that transaction by the cost of the life preserver. The rest of us would say that the rescue came at a much, much higher price.  That price can be measured by the anguish and fear on the faces of those waiting for big box style medical and financial assistance at the Sports Arena and Convention Center.

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Oct 012012
 

Loss. That’s what I felt when I watched the space shuttle land at LAX, carried to our City of Angels on the back of a close relative, the mighty Boeing 747 – twelve years older than the shuttle and, though aging, nearly as inspiring when you happen to see one. I recalled where I was when Challenger exploded – studying in a library for the California bar exam – and when Columbia burned up on re-entry – at a cottage in Idyllwild with my family. But I’m talking about a different kind of loss.

When I was a kid, growing up in the Sixties, America seemed to be the land of limitless possibilities. President Kennedy launched the space program in 1961, promising we would reach the Moon by the end of the decade and though incredible, no one doubted the USA would do it. In the more distant future described by Gene Roddenberry, a “replicator” would eliminate want of food or material possessions and humans would be freed to explore any part of the universe they chose.

Sure, there were serious problems right here on Earth, and in this country, but the War on Poverty, the civil rights movement and a bipartisan roster of widely respected – even revered – public officials seemed determined to get these matters in hand. We were working on them, and nothing seemed intractable. The cynical snicker about the Sixties now. But such was the energy and enthusiasm of the economic prosperity of post World War II United States, an era that is already gauzy like our refracted impressions of ancient Rome.

Just after three in the afternoon on July 20, 1969, my friends and I gathered around the clunky RCA television in our den, understanding that the rest of the planet was doing the same. I was seventeen. Like all kids who grew up in the era before cable TV, video games and the Internet, we had spent many late nights outdoors contemplating the Moon, which seemed to us as distant as adulthood.  Now we could barely discern the astronauts in the grainy black and white images as they walked on the lunar surface, but there was no mistaking the achievement of that day. And though it was America’s achievement, the whole world celebrated.

A few days from now, shuttle Endeavor will be drawn through the streets of Los Angeles– like a funeral caisson for a fallen soldier – by a magnificent technological beast. That journey, at 2 mph, will end at a museum twenty-four hours later. There it will rest much like the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China, monuments to human will and imagination left to puzzle future generations. No ambitious program to explore the universe will succeed the shuttle.

That’s because there’s no money left to pay for our aspirations. The last decade began with a speculation-induced economic recession in 2001. In California, once the home of aerospace, the collapse of the tech-bubble was compounded by the disastrous results of the deregulation of electricity by local lawmakers, which included a bailout for over-priced nuclear power plants that cost consumer ratepayers $28 billion. Then Enron and other Wall Street firms that bought the power plants covertly manipulated the supply of electricity to jack up prices, bankrupting utility companies and forcing the state to buy long term contracts for electricity from the manipulators – at the grossly inflated prices – to keep the lights on and businesses going. The deregulation debacle cost California $71 billion – and the local economy has never been the same.

Many Americans had not recovered from the 2001 recession when the Wall Street derivatives frenzy collapsed in the Fall of 2008. Americans lost their jobs, their homes, their savings. With incomes disappearing, Americans stopped spending. That hurt businesses, especially small businesses that could not borrow. And tax revenues declined. To pay Social Security and jobless benefits, and restart the economy, the federal government spent more than it took in in recent years.

This ignited the raging political debate over the federal government’s stimulus and deficit spending, though few Americans can claim to have been bailed out the way Wall Street was. After taxpayer cash infusions, subsidies, tax breaks and other favors estimated at between $9.7 trillion and $29 trillion, the Money Industry has emerged not merely intact but more profitable than ever.

Add $1.3 trillion for the Afghan and Iraq wars, and you can see why there won’t be a manned mission to Mars anytime soon, much less hyperdrive tours of the galaxy.

Our country paid a heavy price to save Wall Street. Consider that the cost of the getting to the Moon in today’s dollars would be about $26 billion less than taxpayers spent bailing out the insurance giant AIG – about $182 billion. And the Moon program was a massive stimulus program for America in the Sixties, and not just the defense industry. Its benefits included the research and development of a raft of technologies that led to enormous advance in computer, medicine and other industries – not to mention Velcro. Steve Jobs and his colleagues in Silicon Valley didn’t build the modern personal computer industry by themselves: you, the American taxpayer, helped.

Measuring the cost of government assistance to Wall Street versus to business innovators versus to Americans in need compartmentalizes the debate. What does it say about the country – and its future – that the average life expectancy of white Americans who did not graduate high school has dropped by four years, to where it was in the 1950s to Sixties?

Yet a majority of Americans – 54% –believe that the government should do less to solve our country’s problems… though there is a sharp partisan divide on the question, with 82% of Republicans saying less and 67% of Democrats saying more, according to Gallup.

There will be Americans in space in the near future, however. Using the technology and facilities taxpayers built, a number of private companies are developing plans to commercialize orbital space flight, the New York Times reports. And every American who wants to hitch a ride can do so – for somewhere between $50 million and $150 million a ticket, depending on your destination.

As the 747 and the shuttle swung low over Los Angeles, one of my favorite oldies from the Sixties came to mind:

The road is long, with many a winding turn,
That leads us to who knows where, who knows where.

So on we go. His welfare is of my concern.
No burden is he to bear – we’ll get there.

For I know: he would not encumber me.
He ain’t heavy: he’s my brother.

I thought back to that humid afternoon in July, 1969, when Kennedy’s charge was fulfilled by Apollo 11. JFK was gone; along with his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, struck down by hate, fear, madness.  At the time, they seemed to us pioneers in the still young and uncertain cause of Democracy, and had given their lives to better their fellow Americans and the Nation. The sense of  purpose, destiny, determination and sacrifice – shared by the nation – was inspiring. At least to a young guy from a Boston suburb.

 

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Jun 062012
 

The reputation of the United States Supreme Court is in trouble. Americans’ approval of the Court dropped fifteen points from 2009 to 2011, according to the Gallup Poll. Faith in the Supreme Court is dropping right along with confidence in government as a whole. Less than 2/3 of Americans say they trust the judicial branch, Gallup says.

And with good reason. Beginning with Bush v Gore in 2000, the court has issued a series of starkly partisan rulings in favor of conservative and corporate causes.

The decision of the high court that has most inspired outrage and derision in recent years is Citizens United. The Supreme Court rewrote the First Amendment to equate money spent on influencing elections and lobbying elected officials as a form of free speech under the First Amendment. Then the Court granted corporations the same First Amendment rights as humans. This twofer has unleashed a spree of legalized bribery by corporate America that will reach epic proportions in elections this year. It’s also ignited a grassroots firestorm. Where’s Our Money, and many other organizations, are backing a Constitutional Amendment to restore the primacy of humans to American Democracy.

As Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out in his blistering dissent to the majority’s opinion in Citizens United, the decision overturns a hundred years of  Supreme Court rulings upholding restrictions on corporate campaign spending. Such a sudden and profound reversal in what the Constitution supposedly means is an offense in itself. It flouts a core principle of the American judiciary, known as “stare decisis,” which requires judges to respect the judicial decisions of their predecessors. “Stare decisis” is the basis for public faith in the integrity and honesty of judges and courts.

Perhaps for that reason, the Citizens United decision seems to have inspired several former justices of the Supreme Court to speak out.

In late May, now retired Justice Stevens, in a speech at the University of Arkansas, condemned the majority’s opinion in Citizens United as internally inconsistent because it leads inexorably to the conclusion that “the identity of some speakers may provide a legally acceptable basis for restricting speech,” something that can’t be squared with the text of the First Amendment – even as interpreted by the Republican majority in that very case.

Stevens also defended President Obama for taking on the Citizens United decision in his State of the Union speech in 2010, right in front of several of the justices. Which may or may not have something to do with why Stevens was at the White House last week to receive the Medal of Freedom. Stevens took the opportunity to again criticize Citizens United.

Another retired justice has also weighed in, perhaps involuntarily. As Jeffrey Toobin reported in the New Yorker two weeks ago, Citizens United started out as relatively modest challenge to a federal campaign finance law. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative fellow travelers on the Court subsequently decided to use the case as an opportunity to rewrite the First Amendment in favor of big corporations. But Justice David Souter, a fiercely independent and revered jurist, objected to this tactic. According to Toobin, Souter, scheduled to retire in June, 2009, “wrote a dissent that aired some of the Court’s dirty laundry. By definition, dissents challenge the legal conclusions of the majority, but Souter accused the Chief Justice of violating the Court’s own procedures to engineer the result he wanted.” Toobin describes Souter’s draft dissent as “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court.”

To avoid a published dissent that would have profoundly questioned the integrity of his Court, Chief Justice Roberts set the case for re-argument on June 29, 2009.  This highly unusual move kicked the decision over until the next court term. Toobin says that Roberts did this knowing that Souter would be gone by then.

The source for this explosive reporting could be Justice Stevens… or it could be retired Justice Souter himself.

Souter has donated his papers – including presumably his draft dissent in Citizens United – to the New Hampshire Historical Society. Unfortunately, he has barred any access to them for fifty years.

We can’t wait that long. It’s hard to estimate how much damage to American politics will be done between now and 2056. A nation dominated by corporations and mega-wealthy CEOs for the next half-century will look a lot worse than even the corrupt system in effect today.

And the erosion of trust in the integrity of the Supreme Court is something all Americans – not merely we lawyers devoted to justice – should be alarmed about. The judicial branch used to be the one branch of government where the average person could take on City Hall or a giant corporation and expect to be treated equally, free of political influences. Lose that option, and what’s left for the 99%?

Retired justices typically refrain from criticizing their former colleagues. A sense of decorum, and the sanctity of the judicial process, mandates a quiet retirement for most departed members of the Supreme Court. But the integrity of the institution itself is now in question. The rule of law is being supplanted by the political preferences of the appointees on the Court. It won’t be long before the monstrous swelling of money in politics spread by Citizens United directly infects the composition of the high court itself. Those who care about the independence of the judicial branch should do everything in their power to save the Supreme Court. This includes justices who have left the Court.

Like everything else in our democracy, exposure is the first step toward healing. Americans deserve to know what is going on behind those closed bronze doors, above which reads the promise, “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Justice Souter should permit the immediate release of his original draft dissent in Citizens United.

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