Posts Tagged ‘advocacy’
[One of series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article.]
Every year public companies must file what’s called a 10k report with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). This is a summary of the firm’s financial performance. There are stiff penalties for lying to the SEC, and investors aren’t too thrilled with less than the truth either.
These are powerful incentives for honest accounting, so you can accept 10k statements as reasonably credible accounts of what a firm really thinks.
Here’s what the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison management firm in America, had to say in its 10k about the risk to their profitability:
“A decrease in occupancy levels could cause a decrease in revenues and profitability.”
Similarly, the Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut), the second-largest American prison management firm, reports in their 10k:
“…most of our revenues are generated under facility management contracts which provide for per diem payments based upon daily occupancy.”
Right away, we see a problem. The costs of prison management are borne by you and me, the taxpayers. We want this done effectively at reasonable cost with minimal overhead expense, like a non-profit organization.
Private prison management has a different goal – to make money. They provide a service, and expect to make a profit over and above their costs. Here’s a clear misalignment between the wishes of the taxpayers and the wishes of private business.
Profits can come from cutting costs or increasing income. Private firms can be expected to attempt both.
Cutting costs too steeply has consequences. Here are some of the cost-cutting techniques that private firms have implemented at prisons:
In 2008, private prisons in Texas paid their corrections officers $24,000/yr – that works out to $12/hr – which was $2,000 less than the lowest salary earned by personnel doing the same work at public-run prisons. Result? A sky-high staff turnover rate of 90 percent. Imagine the chaos in your workplace if 90 percent of your co-workers left each year.
The U.S. Department of Justice notes that public prisons average 5.6 inmates per officer, whereas private prisons average 7.1. A point and half difference might not seem like much at first glance, but remember some of the population we’re dealing with here has a history of violence and aggression. The lower ratio exists for a reason. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has observed, “the greater the inmate-to-staff ration, the higher the levels of serious violence among inmates.” If security becomes too lax, prisoners escape. It does happen.
Some prisoners are more expensive than others. Some due to health care, some for behavioral management. Troublesome inmates tend to get transferred out to state facilities, so taxpayers pay twice – once for the inmate, and again to sustain the private firm’s profit margin.
The other strategy – increasing income – requires more inmates, creating a powerful incentive to generate high incarceration rates. That strategy is part of CCA’s proposal to buy and operate state prisons:
“An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”
Now think about that. It creates a contractual obligation to keep the prisons as full as possible. How would that obligation be fulfilled?
CCA already has some ideas. They’ve hired several lobbying firms to support legislation that will – surprise! – likely result in more inmates.
The current focus is on immigrants. After 9/11, the industry saw opportunity in the new anti-immigrant sentiment and spent millions in support of legislation that would increase detentions. Since 2002, CCA alone has spent more than $17 million to lobby Congress.
The Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) saw the value of their contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expand from $33.6 million in 2005 to $163.8 million by the end of 2010.
In the most recent report available, “Prisoners in 2010”, the U.S. Department of Justice graphs the growth of federal and state inmate populations since 1990:
1990 was the first year that CCA contracted with the federal government to handle immigrant detainees.
Can you think of other areas for prison growth? Remember, the United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and at this writing most prisons are still owned and operated by the public. What could happen to prison growth fueled by the profit motive and contractual obligations to keep prisons full?
Take that thought one step further. What if cheap labor became available in prisons? It’s already happening. The America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted, and the Department of Justice implemented the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).
The lion’s share of income from the program pays for inmate’s room and board. An obvious strategy looms — fill prison beds, get the inmates to work off a big chunk of their own costs, and pocket the difference.
Good business? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. A column by Liam Denning opens with the business perspective:
“Imagine a real-estate business where your tenant finds it hard to move and you provide the barest of amenities. No, this isn’t the world of the New York apartment landlord. It’s the private prison business.”
I’ll leave you with a final question.
If private prison firms succeed in replacing public prisons and expand beyond immigrants, where will they look for further growth?
[One of a series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article.]
“The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads.
“And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials …
The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America – except whether we are proud to be Americans.”
– Robert Kennedy, 1968
Money in politics is nothing new — corruption has always been part of governance. It accumulates like rust on steel and barnacles on boatsides. Without regular maintenance, the decay grows and overwhelms the structure it builds upon. We recognize the problem, we understand we must deal with it — especially when there comes a point where corruption crosses a line from gaming the system to being the embodiment of evil.
Case in point: The Red Light Cam Scam. Traffic cameras — specifically the timing of the yellow lights — have been manipulated to optimize the chances drivers will cross the stop line at red lights. Here we have a system of traffic lights, designed to protect the safety of all — ALL, mind you, including children — and it’s being shamelessly perverted to generate money. If that’s not evil, what is?
In Orlando, courts are administering disparate treatment to citizens who fight back against unfair red-light camera tickets and those who passively accept the status quo.
We see a similar pattern emerge in lobbies to defeat efforts to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthier food. While the First Lady is advocating change in how food is created and marketed to children, food industry representatives are working to thwart movement in that direction.
For example, Reuters reports that 24 states and five cities contemplated taxes on soda to discourage consumption. Every single proposal failed, save one in Washington State — a tax of two cents per can. One win in 29 tries. But even there, an industry consortium mounted a $16 million referendum drive that defeated the tax proposal. Zero for 29. All this in direct conflict with a clear good — the health of our children.
There were congressional consequences as well. Supporters of the food and beverage industry saw contributions from PACs increase. Senator Tom Harkin, who supported tougher food standards, got nothing at all from the food and beverage people. That’s how Washington works.
The American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC — is now working with industry leader ExxonMobil on disclosure rules for the fluids used in gas extraction. Why should you care? Because the ‘fracking’ technique injects these fluids into areas that may also contain groundwater used as drinking water.
If gas extraction products might be contaminating your drinking water, wouldn’t you want to know about it? ExxonMobil wants to limit disclosure by invoking a trade secrets clause in relevant law. And as far back as 2005, at the behest of energy interests, Congress exempted the practice of fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Corporations have, by law, a fiduciary duty to maximize profits. Moreover, CEOs, shareholders, and management all have ample incentive to bolster their income. Everyone wants the best deal. But when business effectively substitutes dollars for votes in our representative government, when it actively subverts our health, safety, and natural resources in the pursuit of endless growth, it has embraced evil.
This is why we fight.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
Teen advocacy comes in a variety of forms and purposes, covering issues like juvenile justice, education, civil rights and assistance for at-risk youth in America and around the world. Some organizations are student-led and others, in areas such as juvenile justice, are managed by professionals with experience and expertise in related fields. Many advocacy organizations are nonprofit and work with limited resources and some are politically active. These organizations have established track records for effective and ongoing advocacy.
The Vera Center on Youth Justice works for fairness in policy and practice, promoting reform in the areas of the status offender system, detention centers, treatment placements and the management of justice system data on juveniles. Goals include spotlighting systems that emphasize punishment over treatment, identifying inhumane conditions and disproportionate targeting of minorities.
A similar organization, The Campaign for Youth Justice, has a single, clear aim: to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system. It also serves as an information clearing house, with a variety of reports, fact sheets and poll data.
The Energy Action Coalition educates and advocates on a variety of issues related to the extraction, generation and consumption of energy supplies, with an eye toward the future and the risks of climate change. Some of the specific issues the coalition addresses include fracking, the planned Keystone XL pipeline, mountaintop removal, strip mining and coal plant proliferation.
Advocates for Youth has existed since 1980, with a focus on adolescent reproductive and sexual health both in the U.S. and developing countries. Their credo regarding responsibility reads, “Society has the responsibility to provide young people with the tools they need to safeguard their sexual health, and young people have the responsibility to protect themselves from too-early childbearing and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.”
The Student Press Law Center addresses First Amendment rights and censorship of student publications, both online and in print. Their website offers links to legal assistance, a Freedom of Information letter generator, legal guides, FAQs, a law library and a blog.
The United States Student Association bills itself as the largest, oldest student-led organization in the country. Their action agenda encompasses student debt, immigration reform and shared governance of campus policies. The USSA policy platform includes 29 items and includes expansion of basic education, voter ID law, the Equal Rights Amendment and support for the Violence Against Women Act.
At Risk, at Home and Abroad
Big Brothers and Big Sisters has paired role models with at-risk youth for over a century, first as separate organizations working with girls and boys, then together as one organization since 1977. They operate in all 50 states and 12 countries. An independently funded 18-month study found that participants in Bigs and Littles programs were 47 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, and 52 percent less likely to skip school.
Voices of Youth is a program funded by UNICEF, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund. They are active in human rights for children and teens, poverty and hunger, education, health, the environment and the effects of violence and war.
A series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012.
How Congress Can Get Its Mojo Back (796 words)
Why We Fight (687 words)
How to Stop the Fundraising Hamster Wheel (795 words)
Why Your Education Costs More Than Health Care (980 words)
Profit-Driven Prisons: Path to Prison Labor? (1019 words)
Extraction of America (906 words)
Getting Things Done – The United Republic Edition (1220 words)
[One of a series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article here.]
I grew up watching politics the way most guys watch sports. I learned about the different teams, the players, the coaches, the history of the game. As I approach the big 5-0, I’ve seen how the game has changed over the years.
I came of voting age when Reagan took office, and he had my support. He was genial, funny, warm and friendly. He didn’t waffle – you knew where he stood. Back then I had an older friend, a preacher for a small church, who supported Carter. When I told him I liked Reagan, he stopped talking to me.
Ayn Rand was big back then. One of her acolytes, a fellow by the name of Robert Ringer, wrote books like “Looking Out for Number One”. I read Rand and Ringer and the logic seemed impeccable. Individualism – being self-supporting, self-reliant and independent – had a lot of appeal to an impressionable teenager.
Here we are, 32 years on. The nation has certainly moved rightward during my adult life, fueled by large infusions of corporate cash. Money has always been an influence in representative democracy – in both of our major parties – so that’s not new. What’s new is the scale and scope. Over the last five years, Senator John McCain has joked that Congressional approval ratings among voters are so low – nine percent – it’s now down to blood relatives and paid staff.
You do realize that the public prestige and power you possess is illusionary, don’t you? You spend most of your time begging rich people for money, then doing their bidding. You rationalize that you’re a victim of the system, that you do the best you can within the constraints you face. You enjoy attention from the media, you have staff who echo your convictions, and local people who regard you with some measure of awe. But you also know, deep down, that you’re being pimped out to interests that regard you as a tool, a means to an end.
To be fair, to a large extent you are a victim of the system. Maybe you participate in it fully aware of your role. Ok. But realize as you do so, you corrode the very foundation of civilization. The foundation is built upon trust. With every campaign contribution that circumvents the values of your constituents, every bribe that persuades you to discard your own values, you undermine the webs of trust that have been painfully constructed over centuries.
Most of you are lawyers – you know something about contract law. Contracts backed by a standards-based justice system make it possible to agree on terms and do business with reasonable confidence. When that confidence evaporates, when trust has no firm foundation, nations fail. The U.S. economy recently took a direct blow to the face and went down hard after it turned out a real estate bubble was based on lies and manipulation. We can’t take this kind of punishment indefinitely.
Representative democracy can’t be limited to the players who have the most cash. Business has a huge role, but business is nothing without customers. If the playing field is tilted toward business and consumer interests are neglected, business will also suffer. We need balance. Without that balance, the American economy will take on water and sink just as surely as the Titanic did. You may find yourselves going down with the ship.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to go on with these wild income disparities. Most importantly, we need to break away from the pattern that favors the most monied players. And the people best positioned to make that break are you. All of you, in both parties, and especially those of you in the leadership. You are kidding yourselves if you think your role is advancing ideological goals.
Your role, too often, is prostituting your country for the benefit of corporate interests. Sometimes their interests are aligned with countries’ interests, and sometimes they’re only aligned with their own. You need the wisdom to recognize and understand the difference, and possess the independence and ability to act accordingly. How ironic that Congress has grown reliant – dependent – on corporate cash to remain in office.
When I was a young man contemplating the American political landscape, the middle class was strong. Today it is being decimated by a dollar that has lost much value, faltering employment, deep debt and uncertain prospects for upward mobility. The values of independence and self-reliance will crumble if “my way or the highway” remains the credo of congressional leaders. Hold your noses and figure it out. Work together. Build a new campaign finance structure that allows you to wean yourselves from large donors.
If you want respect – lasting respect, real respect – get it done. We’re watching…and voting.
[One of series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article here.]
You know there’s too much money in politics. You know business showers money on congressional representatives who vote their way. You may not realize that congressional representatives deliberately play coy on certain issues, delaying resolution for the purpose of raising more funds.
Much has been made of the return on investment gained by lobbying. A now-famous study by the Social Science Research Network documented the ROI on lobbying in favor of the American Jobs Creation Act. 96 firms plowed $282.7 million in lobbying for passage and reaped $62.5 billion in tax savings. The ROI math works out to 22,000%.
But there’s an ROI in the other direction too – when congressional representatives see an issue they can use for fund-raising purposes. If you’ve ever wondered why congress seems obsessed with certain issues that bear little relevance to most citizens, you may find they’re using the issue to shake the money tree.
Lawrence Lessig examines this in his new book, Republic, Lost. In an interview with the Boston Review, he noted:
“In the first quarter of this year, what was the number one issue that Congress addressed? In the middle of two wars, a huge unemployment problem, huge budget deficit problem, still issues about health care, still no addressing global warming—what’s the number one issue they addressed? The banks’ swipe-fee controversy. Why do you address the banks’ swipe-fee controversy? There is not one congressman who decided to run for Congress because he thought, “I’m going to deal with the problem of the banks’ swipe fees.” It’s only because if you can dance as a congressman with a little bit of uncertainty of which side you’re going to come down on in this controversy, millions of dollars gets showered down upon you because there’s $19 billion on the table depending on how this issue is resolved.”
This is not to say that every senator and representative relishes the opportunity to focus on issues that affect funding. In fact, most of them hate the process of fund-raising.
“The only two [politicians] I know who enjoyed [fund-raising] both went to prison.”
– Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.)
The reality is that regardless of how populist our congressional members are, they are trapped in a system that rewards corruption and punishes earnest reform. Fund-raising takes up so much time, little remains for serious deliberation of vital issues. Holding public office is like running in a hamster wheel. Every fund-raising cycle, which begins immediately after winning office, means running even faster just to stay in place.
You probably know through personal experience how this works. The American dollar’s value has fallen 30% since 2000, and consequently many people have been forced to take second jobs just to make ends meet. Both incumbents and new candidates for public office face the same challenge – they have to work ever harder to raise enough just to stay in the game.
If you’d like a more detailed look at how that time is spent, Nate Thames of ActBlue and Ryan Borek of the Take a Stand PAC share their observations.
The problem is systemic and structural. We’ve bumbled along with the setup we have because, paradoxically, cultural inertia has its own momentum. But we also have a cultural convention that says if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The existing system is clearly broken – unless you’re a lobbyist – and badly in need of fixing.
There is a proposed fix: the Fair Elections Now Act. The act levels the playing field by providing matching funds at the level of 5:1 for candidates who raise funds from small donors in their home states. To qualify for matching funds:
- Contributions are limited to $100
- House candidates would have to collect 1,500 contributions from people in their state and raise a total of $50,000
- Senate candidates would have to raise a set amount of small contributions amounting a total of 10% of the primary Fair Elections funding. The number of qualifying contributions is equal to 2,000 plus 500 times the number of congressional districts in their state.
- Qualifying House candidates receive $1,050,000 in Fair Elections funding split 40% for the primary and 60% for the general.
- Qualifying Senate candidates receive $1.25 million plus another $250,000 per congressional district in their state. The funding is split 40% for the primary and 60% for the general election.
There’s more – see the Fair Elections Now site for details.
This is a plan for public campaign financing, paid for with a small percentage of the largest government contracts going to fund Senate races, and 10% of auction revenues from broadcast spectrum funding House races.
Participation is voluntary. This bill can mitigate – not eliminate – dirty money in politics, but it’s a start. And we have to start somewhere.
[One of series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article.]
The entire reason for United Republic’s existence is made plain on its front page – we are here to Get Money Out of Politics. The primary source of money in politics is corporate lobbying at all levels of government – local, state and federal. Combating the corrupting influence of legalized corporate bribery (see Citizens United) is a daunting task – I’ve likened it to being a fireman facing a raging 20,000 acre fire. Greed and corruption certainly has the capacity to burn down the global economy.
So…where to start?
Begin by recognizing corporate lobbying activity for what it is – a sophisticated, defensive organism, evolved over time toward pro-active self-preservation – highly resistant to attack, requiring multi-pronged approaches to overwhelm defenses. But much like living organisms, even trans-national corporations have vulnerabilities.
Regardless of specific strategies, there are three ironclad rules that apply if we are to get money out of politics:
You must organize.
You must communicate.
You must be relentless.
Let me restate that:
We must organize.
We must communicate.
We must be relentless.
Because none of us working independently will get this done.
No firefighter can put out a 20,000 acre fire. No citizen can sway the votes of every congressman. No one lobbyist can pass a new law – unless he comes with, say, 20,000 Ben Franklins to help make the case. Either way, it’s a numbers game – votes and dollars. Dollars can buy votes. But this is still a democracy, and voters can overwhelm dollars when they are sufficiently energized and organized.
You must take action, but for your effort to yield results, you must coordinate your effort with others.
The good news is, with Net access at our disposal, we are in a better position to organize than ever before. The main hurdle to doing so is an old one – apathy, our own and that of others. Daily people will tell you we live in an oligarchy or plutocracy, that political parties and candidates are all the same, that voting doesn’t matter. That attitude is poison for change – treat it as such. As Robert A. Heinlein noted:
“Of course the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you – if you don’t bet, you can’t win.”
United Republic is a platform for organizing. Use it. Not only online, but in your local real world.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
This oft-quoted recognition of reality is focused on people in power, but the people in power are only half of our situation. The other half are the voters who select the leadership. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, had something relevant to say about that recently when asked what he would do if he were President:
“One objective reality is that our government doesn’t work, not because we have dysfunctional politicians, but because we have dysfunctional voters. As a scientist and educator, my goal, then, is not to become President and lead a dysfunctional electorate, but to enlighten the electorate so they might choose the right leaders in the first place.”
The point here is not to belittle voters, but to recognize that all efforts to reform power structures will fail if we keep electing leaders who obstruct and dismantle reforms. That’s not to say we should abandon reform, but we badly need a focus on education and enlightenment of the electorate.
This means changing the culture we live in. The single greatest influence in that direction over the past 30 years has been the Occupy movement, which raised awareness of gross inequities in income. Although the full potential of Occupy remains unrealized, it has already begun what we need to continue – inform, educate, enlighten. That’s how culture is changed. The impact of cultural change can be lasting.
“The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
Occupy’s initial tactics have been blunted, but the strategy of getting attention while bypassing traditional media remains essential. Here again, we’re looking at a numbers game. Traditional media, primarily the large television networks, count audiences in the millions. Online audiences are smaller and fragmented. How can we reach larger audiences and deliver our message – get money out of politics – in a way that resonates with people who discount any message that isn’t from someone they already know and trust?
We must earn trust. That’s precisely why United Republic’s credo includes a commitment to non-partisanship. Regardless of whether you view it as realistic or not, a non-partisan approach is the only way to get people communicating. Hyperpartisanship simply drives people back to their skirmish lines. Verbal grenades soon follow. Fragging each other doesn’t get us closer to our goal.
The fastest, easiest way to earn trust is to listen – even if you have to grit your teeth and bite your tongue to do it.
Before you respond, remember this – facts follow feelings.
Meaning: empathize first, acknowledge their concerns and fears. When you can, acknowledge that you share the same concerns and fears – from a different perspective. Use facts to explain why. If you overlook and dismiss how others feel, they sense this quickly and dismiss your facts. Trust blown, game over.
This approach requires us to get out of our comfort zones and engage with people we might not ordinarily deal with. And again, it’s a numbers game. You plant a thousand seeds through conversations. Some will take root and flourish, others won’t. That’s why you must…
Not relentless in the sense of an obsessive zombie in search of brains. This is about being relentless with yourself. Yes, you have many other obligations and responsibilities – school, family, work – and just the thought of evangelizing for the ideals you care about may be exhausting.
But let’s eat this cow one hamburger at a time. If you lack experience engaging with others, you’ll surely stumble and make mistakes. Ok – learning experience. Get over it, try again. And again. And again, with different people. When you get the hang of it, go back to the folks you messed up with and try again. You will make some new friends along the way, sometimes with people you never imagined you’d be friendly with.
Anytime you tackle something new, the early efforts are always hardest – that’s why it’s called a learning curve, and the curve goes UP. But eventually the art of persuasion becomes a skill like riding a bicycle – once you know how, you can can communicate your point of view effectively enough that you’re understood and respected. Practice and persistence pays.
All of us working together through United Republic is a wholesale operation for culture change. Individually we are the retail operation – we engage people one on one, changing minds, changing hearts, changing culture. But it only happens if we actually do it. So make a plan, make some mistakes, learn, and keep at it until we Get Money Out of Politics.