Archive for January, 2010

Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech

There are two questions: whose speech were they referring to and what constitutes speech?

The Supreme Court just ruled that corporations have the same rights as people, and that speech can be interpreted very loosely.  Having read the opinion of the court, I think the dissenting opinion is much stronger (link).

Justice Stevens, writing the dissenting opinion, said that the First Amendment to the Constitution does not apply to corporations (i.e., corporations are not people):

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.

The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they 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.

In the footnote, Stevens points out that “speech” means just that (it doesn’t include campaign contributions):

In normal usage then, as now, the term “speech” referred to oral communications by individuals. …  Given that corporations were conceived of as artificial entities and do not have the technical capacity to “speak,” the burden of establishing that the Framers and ratifiers understood “the freedom of speech” to encompass corporate speech is, I believe, far heavier than the majority acknowledges.

Let’s think about this logically for a minute.  If corporations bribing financially contributing to political campaigns is considered ‘speech,’ and therefore protected by the Bill of Rights, then what else should be considered speech?  Examples of ‘speech’: threats, bribes, violence, rape.  Seriously, there are a lot of ways to express ourselves other than audible speech or written words.  Does congress not have a right to restrict any of it?

The other issue, of course, is that the spirit of the Bill of Rights is to protect the rights of individual people.  I should have the right to voice my opinion.  But, I’m okay with restrictions on how much I can donate to a campaign, in order to prevent the wealthiest from having too much influence.  That’s because I don’t think of campaign contributions as speech.

Why does this matter?  Jamin Raskin gives an example:

I looked at just one corporation, Exxon Mobil, which is the biggest corporation in America. In 2008, they posted profits of $85 billion. And so, if they decided to spend, say, a modest ten percent of their profits in one year, $8.5 billion, that would be three times more than the Obama campaign, the McCain campaign and every candidate for House and Senate in the country spent in 2008. That’s one corporation. So think about the Fortune 500. They’re threatening a fundamental change in the character of American political democracy.

Libertarian types seem to be happy about this ruling, saying it is a victory for free speech.  I would really like to hear a compelling case that campaign contributions are speech — the kind of speech that the First Amendment was written to protect.  I’d also like to see a strong case on the side of corporations having the same rights as people.  I’ve been looking, and so far, I haven’t found anything.


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No Excuses

Let’s take a look at David Brooks’ Haiti column

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.

Yes, if Haiti was a wealthier country the damage would not have been nearly as bad.  I agree with that.

Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world.

The world has spent a lot of money in the developing world, but it’s unclear to me if the goal was to generate growth.  Well, growth in the developing world at least.   As stated in this editorial:

The World Bank, IMF and WTO were not created with poverty alleviation primarily in mind. They were designed at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July 1944, to fulfill quite another agenda. To cite Henry Morgenthau, then US Treasury Secretary and president of the conference, the purpose was, “the creation of a dynamic world economy,” to sustain the domestic American economy’s continuous expansion by ensuring it sufficient access to foreign markets and raw materials.

The decision-making structures of all three institutions [IMF, Word Bank, WTO] continue to ensure that the major industrialised countries, led by the United States, and influenced by their corporations, set the agenda.

Now, it’s possible that the major industrialized countries (meaning, powerful interests within those countries) really do want to get rid of poverty in places like Haiti.  It’s possible, I suppose.  If that’s how the world worked.  But really, don’t powerful groups have to look out for their own interests first? (otherwise the leaders of those groups will get replaced by people who will)

Let’s not forget that our involvement in Haiti has not exactly been one of generously giving aid, trying to help them get out of poverty.   Ted Rall summarizes:

Despite having been bled dry by American bankers and generals, civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed President-for-Life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Duvalier’s brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30,000 Haitians and drove educated people to flee into exile. …

Upon Papa Doc’s death in 1971, the torch passed to his even more dissolute 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The U.S., cool to Papa Doc in his later years, quickly warmed back up to his kleptomaniacal playboy heir. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Castro’s Cuba, Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International. The money was placed in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.

The Duvalier era, 29 years in all, came to an end in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France, saving him from a popular uprising.

Peter Hallward also summarizes our involvement there:

This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.The noble “international community” which is currently scrambling to send its “humanitarian aid” to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.

Aristide’s own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.

Anyway, regardless of how cynical you are about the aims of the IMF, World Bank and WTO, let’s at least agree that Brooks is making a strong assumption (that the world was generously trying to help Haiti).

Next, Brooks says

The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have received aid, like Haiti, have not.

True, but the causal arrows are probably in the opposite direction of what he is suggesting.  If one country is given aid and another isn’t, these countries are probably different in many ways.  How could this not mostly be confounding?  [n general Brooks makes causal statements too frequently.  see my comment here for example]

Next, Brooks says this:

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

What evidence does he have that Haiti’s culture contributed substantially to their poverty level?  He made a very strong statement, one that would be difficult to prove even with careful study.  But there was no careful study here, just a lazy attempt at finding a causal explanation based on crude differences between countries.

Brooks continues:

In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

“Harlem Children’s Zone … are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care.”  It sounds like HCZ is  like a boot camp, where kids are given tough love and teachers will accept No Excuses.  But wait a minute, the HCZ web site doesn’t paint that picture at all:

Harlem Children Zone’s Single Stop program was initiated as a tool to reduce poverty within the zone’s 100 blocks. Each week at various sites, Single Stop provides clients with access to a broad assortment of useful services. Free of charge, workers offer advice about securing public benefits, access to legal guidance, financial advice, debt relief counseling and domestic crisis resolution. All of the guidance is provided through confidential, one-on-one sessions.

They are trying to reduce poverty??  What happened to No Excuses?


Harlem Gems is an all-day pre-kindergarten program that gets children ready to enter kindergarten. Classes have a 4:1 child-to-adult ratio, teach English, Spanish and French, and run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. HCZ runs three pre-kindergarten sites, serving 200 children.

Hm, this Tough Love No Excuses® program has a 4:1 chid-to-adult ratio.  I wonder if that contributes to it’s success far more than the ‘fact’ that it’s run by “people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care.”


Harlem Peacemakers, funded in part by AmeriCorps, trains young people who are committed to making their neighborhoods safe for children and families. The agency has 86 Peacemakers working as teaching assistants in seven public schools, serving 2,500 students.

Having 86 volunteers (funded by gov’t) in 7 schools couldn’t hurt.  Tough Love, man.

I could go on and on.  This HCZ sounds exactly like the kind of touchy-feely holistic approach to child development (starting at birth, working with parents, low child:adult ratio) that have been ridiculed by the right wing, No Excuses crowd for so long.

If you really want to see No Excuses programs in action, watch the documentary Hard Times at Douglass High.  Watch that, and then tell me if you think No Excuses applied to the Principal of that school.

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When my 5 year old son watches a cartoon and I’m in the room, he keeps checking to make sure I am watching it with him.  Literally every few seconds he turns his head to check on me.  It’s clear to me that he enjoys it a lot more if I am there to share in the laughs.  So, even at a very young age people seem to enjoy things more if someone else experiences it with them.

My previous post on the topic.

It seems to at least be true for humor and light entertainment.  I definitely enjoy comedies more at a movie theater or at home with friends than by myself.

I’m trying to understand it.  I don’t think food tastes better if other people are eating and enjoying it with you (you might enjoy the company, but the food tastes the same).  So why do things seem funnier if other people are laughing?

Tangentially related point:   serious movies, movies that are kind of intense and emotional, I’d often rather watch alone.  I agree with Jim Emerson that some movies are too personal to share with an audience.

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From Pulp:

The bartender was an old guy, looked to be 80, all white, white hair, white skin, white lips.  Two other old guys sat there, chalk white.  Looked like the blood had stopped running in all of them. They reminded me of flies in a spider web, sucked dry.  No drinks were showing.  Everybody was motionless.

“Has anybody here seen Cindy, Celine or the Red Sparrow?” I asked.

They just looked at me.  One of the patrons’ mouths drew together into a little wet hole.  He was trying to speak. He couldn’t do it.  …  The bartender remained motionless.  He looked like a cardboard cutout.  An old one.  Suddenly I felt young.

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