Tag Archives: transparency

“Family Values” need a check

In the past decade or three, the United States has seen massive growth in organizations with “family” in the name. Generally speaking, these groups frequently emphasize the need to protect “the Family”, which is spoken of as if it were a delicate platonic ideal subject to shattering if even modestly questioned. While it’s obvious that I disagree with their working definition for which people constitute families and which don’t, it seems like we should all be able to agree that support for families, platonic or otherwise, is a social good.

It would seem that way, sure, but there’s a point where that sort of logic becomes an apologetic for nepotism (or as some have called it along with associated behaviors, “amoral familialism“). The culture in the US certainly seems to favor family in an abstract sense but there’s some indications that this valuing of family reaches a pathological level that threatens the larger social safety net. No one exemplifies this more than Republican Candidate for President Willard “Mitt” Romney. Our inability to notice this specific flaw in him is a worrisome indicator of our capacity to address the need to balance a valuing of family with protecting and investing in society as a whole.

At least three generations of Romneys
(Mitt Romney, his wife Ann Romney, their three sons and their wives, and 15 grandchildren – originally from here.)

Most reporting on Romney’s seemingly infinite tax scandal has focused on his personal power of deception (in refusing to release the normal number of returns) or the web of professional relationships surrounding his likely lies (namely the role of his lawyers and other legal associates in tightly containing and selectively releasing the information). The few reports on his finances that look at how he seems to have both legally and  “extra-legally” accrued massive funds to pass on to his children typically focus on the technical details. The driving concerns are what financial methods he’s used and what their legal statuses are. In the one thorough explanation of his use of family-oriented tax deductions and loopholes that I’ve found, it was noted:

Romney’s individual retirement account, which he said in a financial statement filed in June is worth between $18.1 million and $87.4 million, may be used to benefit his children […] When beneficiaries inherit an IRA, they are required to take distributions based on IRS tables that use life expectancies. The younger the beneficiary, the less they have to withdraw each year from the account. That can benefit children or grandchildren because assets in the IRA can continue to grow tax-deferred […] Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, proposed in February to require younger beneficiaries who inherit IRAs to pay taxes over five years instead of spreading them over their lifetime, which would raise an estimated $4.6 billion for the Treasury over the next decade. The plan didn’t advance.

If not legally questionable, this practice is at least ethically questionable. As a candidate Romney has equated paying income taxes with social responsibility. Sheltering what is for all intents and purposes his income, so that his children and grandchildren can live in luxury, regardless of the larger social cost, fails his own moral test. It’s a clear sign that just as he has been accused of proposing government by his socio-economic class for his socio-economic class, he prioritizes “people like him” over others. In this case, he wants to shield generations of his family from the “burden” of contributing to the entire rest of the United States in the form of modest taxation.

Tellingly, this is not one of the loopholes that Romney has specified wanting to eliminate to make his proposed tax cuts revenue neutral. Undeniably, Romney is a man who values “the Family”, but when that’s a value placed above all else, there are clear social costs that we need to realize.

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Constitution and Culture

TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence

Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.

While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.

The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-

“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”

The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:

“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated,  not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.

Guards outside of the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan 2004.Turkish youth federation protesters who would be accused of terrorism

(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)

The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.

But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.

The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.

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What do you do with a country like Russia? And who can and should do it?

TW: political killings, electoral rigging, silencing protesters

If you have a good memory, you’ll recall the on-going indications from the Romney campaign that as possible future President, Romney would reignite the Cold War with Russia. I’m curious to see if the recent crackdown on foreign-funded (including US-funded) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, will elicit US pundits to proclaim him to be a visionary who foresaw the coming conflict with Putin’s Russia. The obvious problem is how this is necessarily an issue of American foreign policy and furthermore one that requires decisive action on the part of the President. Russia’s problems so far have been internal in nature, even with the constant talk of “foreign agents.” Charging the opposition with being foreign collaborators or lackeys has been Putin’s response to the protests since they began almost a year ago against blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections. This is not a strategy unique to Russia, nor even the eastern hemisphere.

This newly proposed policy has everything to do with domestic politics in Russia, especially those pertaining to civil liberties and transparent political processes. The electoral system is fundamentally fixed – for years violence against journalists has shut down effective reporting in the country, advocates of democracy and transparency have long alleged that domestic donors are threatened with arrests or violence, and last minute “fixes” from ballot stuffing to voter intimidation have become common. As demonstrations late last year and early this year continued – alleging all sorts anti-democratic efforts – the protest band Pussy Riot stormed the altar of Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to protect them from Putin. The performance was filmed and distributed online after their arrest for hooliganism and insulting the Russian Orthodox faith (as one band member put it “I’m Orthodox but hold different political views” from church officials who urged the country to reinstate Putin as President).

(The original protest with the now famous song “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away”)

The problem for Putin is clear – anarchist and feminist critiques of the de facto one party rule of Russia are getting a lot of attention and going mainstream. With the clear evidence of electoral rigging provided by better-funded NGOs like Голос (translatable as “Vote” or “Voice”), which had navigated the attacks on domestic financial supporters by looking for international support, popular movements hostile to the Putin presidency are developing.

Protests in Perm
(Protesters for the release of Pussy Riot in Perm, Russia, holding up a sign saying “the arts are the territory of freedom.” Originally from here.)

In a country where the bureaucracy is explicitly manipulated to invalidate most challengers’ candidacies and protesters are threatened with lengthy jail sentences, it’s unclear exactly what a Romney-led United States could do to help. Most of the population of Russia isn’t threatened with political killings – so a military intervention seems to be not only tactical nonsense but an ethically impractical solution. Sanctions are well-established non-starters. The EU has far more in the way of economic and political ties to Russia, and so far they’ve been leading the charge with all the diplomatic pushes they can.

If Romney honestly wants to help the people of Russia, and this isn’t empty posturing to make the US vote like it’s the 1980s again, he should be specific about what powers he sees the American presidency having which could be used to assist efforts to reinstate democratic and transparent governance in Russia. As with many other issues, he needs to be specific, if he’s going to speak up on this topic again.

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The translucent political system of the United States

At the beginning of the week, Rachel Maddow reported on a small change in FCC filing procedures that’s put up online public records of election advertising. Those were previously only accessible in physical form and piecemeal spread out across several locations. While this does reduce the difficulty for the average person to access vital information, it’s not by much. Say, for instance, you’re interested in seeing what groups have purchased advertising advocating against the proposed labeling of genetically modified products in California – searching for ad buys across the entire state requires a state code that’s not listed on the “transparency” website. Even if you want to electronically go through the major media markets in the state, many stations haven’t bothered to list their political advertising, or incompletely list that an unspecified amount of time was purchase for an unspecified amount of money by mostly unspecified donors to the official anti-labeling fund.

With such spotting records of how the opponents to this public proposition (number 37 on the ballot this fall) have spent their funds, it makes more sense to look at their overall total “war chest” – which the California Secretary of State is obligated to make available online. Of course, the average person is going to simply look in those files under general information, which misleadingly only lists the total contributions as of June 30, 2012, creating the impression that only slightly more than a million dollars has been donated to this campaign. Oddly enough, the same general information section also specifies the subtotal of those funds raised in the previous three months, because that’s truly key information.

If a reader were to dig deeper, however, they might notice that the “Contributions Received” subsection strangely lists donations during the first half of the year and the month of July, with the additional information of what company or individual donated but without a helpful total (so grab a calculator if you really want to know). Additionally confusing, however, is that the section for “Late and $5000+ Contributions Received,” which seems like a narrow category is actually the most complete list, containing all contributions of more than $5000 and all contributions following the later end of July cut-off date. It still fails to provide any sort of tabulation of the overall amount donated into this fund – so again hopefully you’re quite good with sums.

While I don’t know the origins of this convoluted tracking and “transparency” system, companies seem quite capable of manipulating them – as the scarce million dollars most clearly listed are dwarfed by the more than twenty-five million dollars actually donated to this fund. Most companies, namely Monsanto which alone donated more than four million dollars, have waited until after the two cut-off points for “on-time” donations, and consequently aren’t overtly listed. Their reasons for funding the opposition to this proposition are clear – labeling allows genetically modified food products to enter the market place without being subject to public scrutiny, something that the public has strongly opposed, and for quite some time. Already, with ads suggesting that the regulations are inconsistent or nonsensical and fundamentally unrelated to genetically modified products, powerful businesses have been able to reduce the massive super majority in favor of labeling into a significant majority in favor of the proposition.

(Images like the above, originally posted here, have been part of an online ad blitz against proposition 37. They blatantly contradict scientific studies, such as this one.)

Making a further dent into public opinion, however, is going to require serious investment in advertisements like the above that can call into question the clarity of the issue. Likewise, the businesses that would suffer from the details of their products being known cannot be seen as pushing this information (that tends to make concerned consumers only more vocal) – so donating after their contributions would be more clearly listed gives them some cover from negative reporting.

In spite of that apparent strategy, some media sources, namely the Los Angeles Times and Ballotopedia, were able to report accurate figures of how much known companies were contributing to oppose proposition 37. Unfortunately, both point back to California Secretary of State’s records, which seem to disagree with them – stating that only a mere million dollars have been contributed to the campaign. You can see where this could easily go if reporting on the attempt to swing this election were to gain traction, as recent problems with “fact-checking” show.

The only long term solution here is to fundamentally repair these efforts at transparency – recording both how much advertising a campaign purchases and how much and from whom a campaign raises funds. The currently inconsistent records at best leave an incomplete picture on how public opinion is being manufactured and at worst are deliberately manipulated by funders to gain at least a sheen of innocuousness.  Our current system isn’t transparent, but translucent, and the powerful seem to manage what can be seen of their actions and what can’t.

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