Nov 17 2013


Many years ago my best friend gave me a subscription to the New York Review of Books for my birthday. He said that he thought I would like the articles because they were well written, well argued and thorough. In the intervening more than a decade, I have carted piles of unread issues from apartment to apartment and from room to room in unsuccessful attempts to ‘organize,’ but I have never let my subscription lapse.

It can be difficult to set aside the time (measured in hours) to read and digest the minority of articles in each issue that I find intriguing, but I abhor recycling a single issue without at least flipping through it to make sure there’s nothing I need to read.

The current stack has 6 or 7 issues in it going back several months. In a fit of “this room must be cleaned now” last week I grabbed the stack and headed for the recycling bin. Sitting in the kitchen by the recycling bin, stack on my lap, I thumbed through the oldest issue (July 11, 2013). The cover bears an image of a motorcycle (and rider) shooting out of a fiery explosion, with all the subtlety of an 80s action movie. I thought “well this one should go quickly” and started flipping through the pages. There was an article on ‘American foreign policy in retreat’ that I read the beginning of and decided wasn’t for me. An article on Susan Sontag, flip, one on Sylvia Plath, flip, hmm, maybe I should read this article on “How Austerity Has Failed.” Twenty minutes later, I redouble my efforts to put the first issue into the bin.

Although ostensibly a ‘review’ containing book reviews of newly (and not so newly) published works, the NYRB is much more than a compendium of book reports. The authors (many of whom are well-known figures themselves) do an excellent job curating a number of different works on a similar topic and use their own expertise to tease more from the book(s) than I sometimes get from reading the original work. Each issue also leans towards items of current importance, be that scientific discoveries, legal decisions, social phenomena, etc.

I decided to skip a number of interesting looking articles on fine art and artists and was closing in on the rear cover when I opened the page to David Cole’s article Should We Discard the Constitution (probably behind a paywall). Now I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time reading an article on the importance and relevance of the constitution to the modern world from a hard wooden chair in the middle of the sterile white kitchen. So I retired stack in hand back to the comforts of the living room easy chair and put my feet up.

The article is a review of an academic work (On Constitutional Disobedience by Louis Michael Seidman), which argues that the constitution (or at least some parts of it) is anachronistic and out of phase with the modern world. My favorite Seidman quote in the article is this thought experiment:

Imagine that after careful study a government official—say, the president or one of the party leaders in Congress—reaches a considered judgment that a particular course of action is best for the country. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room with new information: a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves might have disagreed with this course of action. Is it even remotely rational that the official should change his or her mind because of this divination?

The quote reminded me of something that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito of all people said. In oral arguments about violent video games Justice Alito quipped to the lawyer ‘what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games and if he enjoyed them.’ I assure you that I’m not going to often quote one of the current Supreme Courts most despicable members, but I think it’s important to see that even the most conservative legal minds must recognize that our country is fundamentally different than it was at conception and that those differences translate into a need for new ideas and new solutions. We can see this easily in the 27 amendments that we’ve made to the Constitution since it was originally drafted.

The article did an excellent job teasing out the principles that we should use in defining a government. Cole discussed the protections afforded by the constitution to those who might be oppressed if we made our decision solely on the basis of majority rule. Forty-five minutes later when I finished the article, I was engaged and glad that I hadn’t just chucked the issue without reading it.

And that’s exactly why I have have the stack!

The stack!

The stack!

Feb 6 2011

Letter to the Editor: Corporate Personhood

For the one year anniversary of the Citizens United v FEC decision. I wrote my first Letter-to-the-Editor and sent it to several local and national papers.

I found it very difficult to make a cogent and insightful point in 150-200 words which is what the majority of papers dictated. In the end, even though I wasn’t completely happy with my efforts, I thought it was still worth sending (to add my voice to the others that editors are hopefully receiving). Since I didn’t hear back from any of the papers I assumed that it just hadn’t been selected, but I noticed today that at least a few did print it. So you can see my freshman attempt at letter to the editor writing here:

Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)

The Columbian (Vancouver, WA)

Dec 1 2010

Winner take all politics

Tonight I attended an Alliance for Democracy sponsored talk by Paul Pierson on his new book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Richer Richer- And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. The talk was pretty interesting. It began with a brief synopsis of the book and then was mainly a discussion about wealth inequality and politics.

Over the last 30 years the share of income devoted to the top .1% has more than quadrupled. In the vernacular of current political science books, we have gone from Broadistan (1900-1970s) to Richistan (post 1970s) with an unprecedented amount of wealth concentrated amongst the absolute richest members of our society. Among economists conventional wisdom states that this is because of technology and globalization. As the world has become increasingly technological, high tech skills become more in demand which necessitates both expensive equipment and also expensive education, which means that those with means begin to separate themselves at an increasing rate. Dr. Pierson argued against this conventional description on several fronts. He pointed out that globalization has been a factor in all nations (and in many moreso than the US, because we have lower trade levels than many developed nations), but that none have seen the same level in inequality that we’ve witnessed here. Also, education alone can’t account for the change, since the vast majority of our most educated Americans do not fall into the top 1% of earners. Rather Pierson believes that the American government since the 1970s has been succumbing to increasing pressure from special (moneyed) interests and has been creating new legislation in some cases, and failing to create legislation in other cases that would have served to curb the increase in wealth inequality.

Part of the problem has been the rampant rise in lobbying over the last few decades. Pierson pointed out that corporations spend far more money on lobbying than they do on elections and that the corporate rule of thumb is that ‘influencing whoever is elected is much more important than electing your favored candidate.’ Lobbyists are able to have tremendous impact because they are extremely organized, persistent, have access to officials and are well funded. Leaving out the funding part (because Pierson didn’t talk much about it), Pierson advised that groups wishing to combat the influence of corporations in politics will need to focus on being organized (think clear, consistent message) and also persistent (exerting pressure consistently, not just during election years, or on specific measures) to be effective.

Pierson attempted to present his position as hopeful, because he does believe that our elected officials can influence wealth inequality and thus improve it in the future (unlike former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who believed that “[wealth inequality] is simply an economic reality, and it is neither fair nor useful to blame any political party”). At the end of our discussion however, I didn’t think the audience seemed very hopeful. The status quo seems so entrenched and enriched, it’s hard to imagine the circumstances that would allow for a radical shift.

On my way home, I couldn’t stop thinking about Dr. Pierson’s dismissal of campaign finance reform as a top action item for those of us who are looking for ways that we can help improve our society so I wrote him the following email:

Hello Dr. Pierson-

I was fortunate enough to to attend your talk this evening in Portland and had a follow up thought.

My thought deals with the question I asked you about the asymmetry between lobbyists being able to exert immediate and tangible punishments or rewards to elected officials (eg “We will cease contributing to you if you vote the wrong way on this”) whereas regular citizens can only threaten (or offer) vague and time-delayed indications of votes. You agreed that this discrepancy is a problem, but that with better organization and communication through technology it might be possible to better influence elected officials (through more credible delivery of votes? through more calls/emails to their office?).

I’m writing because as I was biking home from the event I thought I should advocate to you that campaign finance reform should be higher on your list of action items.

I think when that woman asked about campaign finance reform (CFR) you said that it wasn’t at the top of your list because (1) it’s unlikely to happen, and (2) most of the money spent to influence politicians is spent on lobbying and not campaign contributions (correct me if I’m wrong here, I was taking notes and trying to follow the conversation at the same time). I’ll deal with both criticisms, and I’ll try to keep it succinct; I do value your (and my) time.

You’re probably right that significant campaign finance reform is unlikely to happen imminently but as you repeatedly called attention to this evening, it’s an uphill battle for almost any changes to occur in the current climate. I think that CFR is more likely than most issues to be tackled because it has such broad appeal. From the Tea Party to the Green Party, even a significant portion of congress supports reform. We recently had Lawrence Lessig speak (in the same venue a few weeks ago) about his new project Fix Congress First ( and he had some staggering statistics about how many people believe that the fundamental problem with congress is that it’s corrupted by money. There was also the study done with congresspeople which found that their (self-reported) percentage of time spent fundraising was 30-70% and that the majority would like for it to be less. So I think that this could be an issue with legs if there was coordinated effort to bring attention to it. If you were thinking it was unlikely because of the Roberts Court, then I think that there’s still some legislative room for improvement. Although justices have perversely decided that it is unconstitutional to limit the ability of corporations to spend in an election, they have repeatedly indicated that there is a legislative option for publicly financed elections, which in some cases would serve a similar effect. (Tragically, our voter owned election system that we’ve enjoyed for the last 5 years in Portland was voted out in our recent election.)

As for your other point regarding CFR, I wanted to draw attention back to my question about the difference between a lobbyist and a concerned citizen. I think there are some organized grassroots groups that attempt to speak with elected representatives on a variety of issues and convince them to vote a certain way. In my mind, the primary difference is not that a lobbyist is better organized or more persistent (although I’ll concede that in many cases they are both), but is instead that lobbyists are able to reward or punish using large sums of money. Being able to offer a check that will reduce the fundraising burden of a representative is a big deal, and the bigger the check, the bigger the deal. Under the current system, even a highly organized and persistent group who lacks funding will be unable to influence (or possibly even access) an elected official who needs to be generating funds (constantly) for their reelection. If some kind of CFR was enacted that served to magnify the donation power of individual citizens (of limited means) then the challenges of organization, persistence, and education about dry legislative issues would be surmountable. Without CFR, I can’t see how even a group of highly organized and persistent non-professional lobbyists could hope to counteract the moneyed interests.

Thank you for agreeing to come and speak to us. I purchased your book and look forward to reviewing the full-treatment of your argument.

Best wishes
James Ofsink

So we’ll see if he responds (not that I really ask him to). It’s true that I’m looking forward to reading through his book.

In writing this post, I also found this interesting graphic of the real vs: perceived income inequality in America.
Real vs. Imagined US Wealth Distribution

There’s more info on the chart here.

Feb 1 2010

Citizens United v. FEC decision

I’ve been really fired up for the last week or so regarding the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in which 5 out of 9 supreme court justices held that corporations have the same first amendment rights as individuals (in fact more with respect to the issue at hand) with respect to political speech. I’m not a lawyer and won’t do justice to all the nuances in the case, but it seems that the supreme court has severely departed from its previous precedent as well as overturned decades old legislation.

I hope to write a more complete response once I’ve had time to work through the decision, which will require some close reading as well as a legal dictionary. I started reading the dissenting opinion a few days ago after a friend recommended it.

Thus far, the dissent seems to be a pretty damning condemnation of the majority opinion. I’m not sure about what the normal tone of these is, but I was surprised to see:

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

-Justice Stevens from dissenting opinion (page 177)


Unlike our colleagues, [the framers of the Constitution] had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individ­ual Americans that they had in mind.

-Justice Stevens from dissenting opinion (page 124)

I also contacted all of my elected representatives regarding the issue, as well as the larger issue of corporate involvement in the political process. Lastly, I’ve started looking into ways to get involved in remedying the situation, but it seems like the way that the decision is written requires a constitutional amendment in order to overrule it.

Which is not to say that I’m opposed to that avenue, or really any avenue which shifts the balance of power away from larger corporations and back to individuals, I’m just not sure that this issue has the popular appeal necessary to inspire the political force that would be required to do that. The last time an original amendment to the constitution was proposed was 1971! (Although the 27th Amendement was passed in 1992, it was originally submitted in 1789.)

Given the political lethargy of the last several decades (generations?), I’m skeptical to say that this issue would be able to galvanize the necessary support to carry through to an actual amendment. Instead, I predict there will be some band-aid legislation that addresses campaign finance in minor form (eg Save Our Democracy) while failing to address the underlying issues. In light of this, I’m still figuring out where my efforts should best be spent on this issue. Email me if you have a suggestion.