The Case for Unions

Published: The Daily Dot (October 9, 2015)

On Wednesday morning, Huffington Post employees sent out a letter to their colleagues calling for them to unionize. “We believe organizing is the best way both to preserve what’s already working and to bring about positive change,” they argued. “Simply, a union will give us a voice in our newsroom’s future.”

The Huffington Post writers may be making headlines right now with their movement to unionize, but they are hardly the first online publication to work toward that goal. Gawker’s media staff made the decision tto unionize back in June, followed swiftly by Salon, Vice, the Guardian, Al-Jazeera America, andThinkProgress. Considering that increasing numbers of Americans are receiving their news and political opinions from the Internet, the digital media unionization trend is noteworthy.

This raises an important question: Do unions work? In short, yes they do. When unions are stronger, the rise in wages increases broader purchasing power among consumers, feeding economic growth and enabling employers to hire even more workers.

What’s more, unions actually improve the economic status of non-union workers as well as unionized ones. Since the benefits that accrue to organized workers frequently become the norm within their respective industries, employers that don’t have a unionized workforce face pressure to provide similar wages and other perks—lest they face a labor problem of their own.

What’s more, unions actually improve the economic status of non-union workers as well as unionized ones.

Perhaps most importantly, widespread unionizing would significantly alleviate income inequality in this country. “One big reason America was far more equal in the 1950s and 1960s than now is unions were stronger then,” explained former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. “That gave workers bargaining power to get a fair share of the economy’s gains—and unions helped improve wages and working conditions for everyone.”

He also pointed out that America’s peak years of inequality, 1928 and 2007, were immediately followed by the worst economic crashes in our recent history. On both of those occasions, unions were significantly weaker than they had ever been before.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t disadvantages to unions. In a piece for Business Insider defending unions, Henry Blodget noted that unions can create a divisive culture within companies, drive businesses to move jobs overseas, become career employment for their (often overpaid) leaders, and force employers to treat all workers equally regardless of their relative skill and effort.

These are serious problems that, in the past, have convinced many Americans to think twice about supporting unionization.

Yet as Blodget himself points out, “great companies in a healthy and balanced economy don’t view employees as ‘inputs.’ They don’t view them as ‘costs.’ They don’t try to pay them ‘as little as they have to to keep them from quitting.’ They view their employees as the extremely valuable assets they are (or should be). Most importantly, they share their wealth with them.”

So why did unions become so weak? Much of the problem can be traced back to a single origin—the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Back in 1981 (less than seven months into his first term), Reagan famously threatened to fire nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off an illegal strike. After following through on his threat for all employees who didn’t return to their posts, Reagan established a precedent wherein the power of strikes to assert employees’ interests was lost.

These are serious problems that, in the past, have convinced many Americans to think twice about supporting unionization.

Before Ronald Reagan’s termination of the airline workers, strikes were commonly used to force both public and private sector employers to be responsive to employees’ demands. When Reagan terminated the airline workers, however, he emboldened businesses to view it as culturally acceptable to simply replace unhappy employees, rather than listen to and accommodate them. Today, employees who try to unionize their work force have a one-in-five chance of being fired for doing so, regardless of whether their efforts are legal or have legitimate grounds.

Reagan’s game-changing decision occurred more than three decades ago. Today, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—recently unveiled a plan to make it easier for workers’ to join unions.

“Millions of Americans who want to join unions are unable to do so because of the coercive and often illegal behavior of their employers,” Sanders argued. “The benefits of joining a union are clear: higher wages, better benefits and a more secure retirement. If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class, we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country.”

While legislation like Sanders’ proposed Workplace Democracy Act is a good start, it won’t be enough. Another important step is spreading information about why unions are so important. Although 58 percent of Americans approved of labor unions as of August, that number was consistently north of 60 percent before 1972.

Right now, many Americans don’t fully understand the benefits of being in a union, and as a result, they don’t prioritize it as highly as they should. The fact that the Sanders campaign is gaining traction by focusing on labor issues is certainly a promising step in the right direction, but it is a trend that needs to continue outside of the realm of presidential politics as well as within it.

Although 58 percent of Americans approved of labor unions as of August, that number was consistently north of 60 percent before 1972.

Perhaps the best observation about the importance of labor unions came from, ironically, the Republican president who happened to govern this country at the time when they were strongest—Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Unions have a secure place in our industrial life,” he observed. “Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

This is precisely the point: At the end of the day, a worker’s ability to join a union is nothing more or less than an individual’s desire to have some measure of control over their compensation and workplace environment. More than an economic issue, unionization is a matter of civil liberties. When the workers at the Huffington Post decided to unionize, they weren’t simply fighting for more money, but for the ability to have their contributions to that publication given the respect it deserves.

Let’s hope the rest of America will someday follow their lead.

The worst thing about Uber’s predatory surge pricing is that everyone is doing it

Published: The Daily Dot (October 6, 2015)

Since early 2012, the mobile company Uber—a ridesharing app that helps consumers request cabs and other transportation services with their smartphones—has employed a form of price gouging known as “surge pricing.” The controversial and often costly practice uses an algorithm to increase the price of service during peak hours—when there’s high demand and low supply. Because Uber’s software allows the company to keep track of how many drivers are on the road (compared to how many potential customers are in need of its services), the company can automatically jack up or reduce fare rates.

While Uber’s practices have generated bad buzz for the company, that isn’t stopping others from dipping their toes in the water. Disney plans on surveying guests to determine how they would react to various price fluctuations at its theme parks, with the goal being to determine whether the company would profit by increasing prices during high-traffic holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. In addition, the table management company OpenTable has found that certain diners would be willing to pay top dollar to guarantee reservations at fancy restaurants during the dinner hour rush. Table8 has followed suit, as has another app for hailing transportation, Lyft.

But there’s a problem with surge pricing becoming the new normal in American businesses—it’s terrible for companies and even worse for consumers.

If this sounds like an invitation for exploitation, that’s because it is. During ahostage crisis in Sydney, Australia last December, Uber decided to jack up its prices—while civilians were fleeing for their lives. The company even tweeted, “We are all concerned with events in CBD. Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area.” Although the company later apologized and offered refunds to those who had paid more than $100 to escape from the crazed gunman, the company hasn’t abandoned the practice altogether.

Indeed, Uber staunchly defends surge pricing as being in the best interest of their customers. “The bottom line is that the only real alternative to dynamic pricing is a ton of customers staring at screens that read ‘No Cars Available,’” wrote Uber board member Bill Gurley in a blog post.

If this sounds like an invitation for exploitation, that’s because it is.

Gurley repeated the earlier stated myth that by raising prices during times of low demand, Uber incentivizes drivers to hit the road and, thus, increases customers’ chances of being picked up. He argued, “The idea that Uber could make its network available in a normal state and at a normal price while demand is increasing and supply is shrinking is quite simply unfeasible.”

Yet as journalism professor Nicholas Diakopoulos explained in the Washington Post, an analysis of Uber’s publicly available data in the Washington, D.C. area reveals that surge pricing actually redistributed drivers who were already on the road rather than encouraging new ones to hit the pavement.

“It appears that rather than getting more drivers on the road in the short-term, Uber’s surge pricing instead depletes drivers in adjacent areas,” Diakopoulos observed. “A price hike in one area means drivers move there, but away from another, leaving it underserved. If someone in the newly underserved area now needs a car they wait longer, or perhaps a surge price has to come into effect to get a car over there. At the end of the day, the Uber system appears to be more about re-allocation of existing supply.”

In contrast, there are ways to potentially incentivize drivers to appear on the road that don’t involve surge pricing. When Gett launched in New York City, it promised customers that it would never use surge pricing. Although the company does pay its drivers more during busy times, it takes the money out of its own cut and instead aims to make up the difference by acquiring more business due to its lower rates. CEO Shahar Waiser said, “On some rides we lose and on some rides we win, but we always keep commitments to both sides.”

But the fact that there hasn’t been more opposition to the practice—and companies like Gett willing to stand a stand against it—proves that we are too often willing to accept predatory pricing as a negative externality of the so-called “free market.” After all, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pointed out, airlines have been employing surge pricing for years. In response to a Valleywag article critical of the company’s practices, Kalanick tweeted:

 

“12/24 7am SFO to LAX 1-way/coach delta $660, same flight on 1/7 $58 – 11.3x Surge Pricing – calling FBI/FTC/BBB/Valleywag to vent grievances”

And there’s a reason that surge pricing remains incredibly common—it continues to have staunch defenders. Even outside the Uber ranks, there are plenty ofeconomists and pundits willing to defend it. As Professor Peter Fader of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business put it, surge pricing is “a good thing in most circumstances” for pretty much no other reason than “it is a more natural way for markets to operate.” Although the evidence doesn’t point to the practice’s effectiveness, Fader’s comments show the enormous complacency around the issue. Because that’s the way things are, the logic goes, that’s the way they should stay.

During a hostage crisis in Sydney last December, Uber decided to jack up its prices—while civilians were fleeing for their lives.

But despite the enormous power held by corporations like Uber, consumers can still have the final say. If riders want to put the kibosh on surge pricing, they should simply refuse to patronize companies that use it.

Many business leaders agree. “At the moment, price surging just seems to drive your customers to the competition,” argued Zel Bianco, the CEO of Interactive Edge in a discussion on RetailWire. Camille P. Schuster, the president of Global Collaborations, Inc., concurred with his assessment: “While surge pricing has the opportunity of generating more margin, it also has the opportunity of decreasing demand as consumers walk away when they are unwilling to pay the higher price. If consumers walk away from your company to a competitor they may not come back to you.”

So if you want to reward companies for gouging their customers, feel free to keep paying 1.5x for your Uber during peak hours. But as you’re about to hit that “Request” button, don’t let the company fool you into thinking this is the way things have to be. It might be common, but surge pricing is anything but normal.

Here’s the real reason Scott Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race

Published: The Daily Dot (September 22, 2015)

On Tuesday morning, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) announced what many had widely speculated, following a nationwide drop in support: He is dropping out of the presidential race. Walker emphasized in a Facebook post that he hopes his withdrawal will encourage a more “positive” race. That’s a nice message, but optimism isn’t entirely the reason for his withdrawal: The presidential hopeful simply ran out of money.

According to the New York Times, “Walker was among the most successful fundraisers in his party, with a clutch of billionaires in his corner and tens of millions of dollars behind his presidential ambitions.” However, this didn’t allow his campaign to cover all of its expenses, as running for president is increasingly expensive. “Super PACs, Mr. Walker learned, cannot pay rent, phone bills, salaries, airfares or ballot access fees,” the Times’ Nicholas Confessore wrote.

As a result, despite being on pace to raise up to $40 million by the end of the year, Walker’s Super PAC was unable to keep his candidacy afloat.

This matters, especially in a presidential race that is estimated to amass record campaign donations—and spending—from candidates. Former Secretary of StateHillary Clinton and former Florida governor Jeb Bush are likely to shell out at least $2 billion on their bids for the White House, which is double the sum thatPresident Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns racked up in 2012. For those who aren’t billion dollar candidates, it’s hard to compete.

That’s a nice message, but optimism isn’t entirely the reason for his withdrawal: The presidential hopeful simply ran out of money.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry also learned this lesson—after becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to drop out of the race. Although Super PACs like Opportunity and Freedom PAC had accumulated $13 million in order to gradually roll out a detailed campaign plan for Perry, it quickly found itself redirecting funds to Perry’s field operations in Iowa, after the candidate fell below fundraising expectations. When even that wasn’t enough to improve Perry’s fortunes and he withdrew from the race, the Super PACs were forced to refund the money to their donors.

As Yoni Appelbaum of the Atlantic points out, many observers assumed that Super PACs would fundamentally transform the dynamic of presidential elections by allowing wealthy benefactors to prop up their favorite candidates—even if they’d run out of money.

Subsequent events have revealed a couple of problems with this assumption. As already discussed, there are limits to what Super PAC money can pay for in a campaign. Whereas “hard money”—that is, funds acquired directly from individual donors up to the $2,700 limit—can be used for any legitimate campaign expenses, Super PAC funds can only pay for things like television ads.

Although the Perry and Walker campaigns apparently hoped they could use positive advertising to offset their lack of funds for field expenses, political realities quickly demonstrated that this was not the case.

In addition, because Super PACs are legally prohibited from working too closely with the campaigns they’re meant to help fund, candidates are in a catch-22 when it comes to staffing them: If they ask their savviest and most trusted advisers to helm these operations, they forfeit the services of their best talent. But if they don’t assign such individuals to take charge of their Super PACs, they run the risk that the organization might develop an independent streak—instead of serving their own interests.

For those who aren’t billion dollar candidates, it’s hard to compete.

As Molly Ball observed in The Atlantic, this proved particularly problematic for Walker, whose Super PAC was run by Keith Gilkes (who ran Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor and his 2012 recall effort) and Stephan Thompson (who ran the governor’s reelection campaign in 2014). Because Gilkes and Thompson were no longer able to communicate with Walker himself, the governor had to rely on a new slate of top advisers. The result was an embarrassingly mismanaged campaign replete withwidely publicized gaffes that left his political brand in tatters.

There are two takeaways from this. The downfall of Perry and Walker demonstrates that—instead of Super PACs allowing the super-rich to even further game our political system–there are limits to how far a candidate can go without broader popular support. “There is something democratic about grass-roots, widespread money support,” explained former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “There is something anti-democratic about… propping up a candidate who can’t make it.”

At the same time, it says a great deal about our political system that Walker and Perry were so dependent on large sums of money in the first place. For one, it demonstrates that our election season is broken—increasingly long and bloated, with a high barrier both to entry and to remain in the race. Whereas underdog candidates used to regularly upset the race, it is now exceedingly rare for anyone who isn’t an early frontrunner to outlast the first few primary or caucus elections.

In the 2012 race, GOP candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t peak until months into the race, while Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) wasn’t able to mount a real challenge to Romney—the assumed frontrunner—until that January. If that were the 2016 contest, neither of them would have lasted long enough to ever pose a threat.

Our election season is broken—increasingly long and bloated, with a high barrier both to entry and to remain in the race.

While presumptive nominees and candidates with built-in name recognition inevitably benefit from this system, it discriminates against lesser-known alternatives by denying them the capital they’d need to become competitive. If you start out out in last place, it means you’re likely to stay there.

If the odds are stacked against true outsiders—those who don’t have Donald Trump’s massive net worth or campaign war chest—the public is taking notice. According to a New York Times poll taken last June, 84 percent of Americans believe money has too much influence in politics. While 77 percent Americans additionally want to limit the amount that individuals and private groups can give, politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) support the public funding of elections. “The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue,“ Sanders has said. “It is an American issue.”

He’s right: This isn’t about polling numbers or whether you support Rick Perry or Scott Walker; it’s about the state of politics in 2015. A true democracy cannot exist if presidential candidates are being defeated by their checkbooks instead of at the ballot box.

5 Reasons Why the U.S. Election System is On Life Support

Published: Question of the Day (August 11, 2015)

The United States election system may not be fatally flawed, but in many ways it’s on life support.

Here are five reasons why that is the case:

1. We make it harder for people to vote.

For one thing, as Eric Black explained in an article for MinnPost, most democratic nations don’t require citizens to register to vote — it happens automatically. “In general, the governments know the names, ages and addresses of most of its citizens and — except in the United States — provide the appropriate polling place with a list of those qualified to vote,” Black writes. By requiring citizens to register, the American government adds an extra step to voting that increases the likelihood busy eligible citizens won’t bother to turn out on Election Day. In addition, Voter ID laws and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act (which required states with a history of discrimination in voting to obtain federal preclearance before changing their voting laws) has even further reduced voter turnout. In the 2014 midterm elections, the first to be held since the Supreme Court ruling, only 41.9 percent of eligible citizens turned out to vote, the lowest number since the Census started collecting voting activity in 1978. The decline was strongest among racial minorities and individuals with low incomes.

2. It is ridiculously expensive to campaign for a higher office in this country.

During the 2012 presidential election, the Obama and Romney campaigns each spent more than $1 billion each ($1.123 billion and $1.019 billion, respectively); during the 2014 midterm elections two years later, roughly $3.67 billion was spent in congressional races throughout the country. What’s more, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice determined that the influence of big money was increased by the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which ruled that campaign contributions by nonprofit corporations (later extended to for-profit corporations and labor unions) were protected by the First Amendment. Among its findings: Spending by Super PACs and other outside groups doubled between the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, PACs have spent more money in competitive races than the candidates themselves or the political parties, and more than $600 million of the more than $1 billion contributed to super PACs came from 195 individuals and their spouses — more than 60 percent of the total.

3. We gerrymander our legislative districts.

This practice is practically as old as America itself. Named after Vice President Elbridge Gerry, Gerrymandering is a process in which congressional districts are redrawn by the party in power to give it an unfair advantage in future elections. For instance, although President Obama’s reelection in 2012 helped Democratic congressional candidates win 1.4 million votes more than their Republican opponents, Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 census and midterm elections allowed them to maintain a 33-seat advantage in the House of Representatives. Even worse, there is a movement afoot to extend gerrymandering to presidential elections through various plans to only give the winner of a state’s popular vote two electoral college votes, with the rest being divided up by congressional district. This system is already in place in Maine and Nebraska. And speaking of the Electoral College…

4. The Electoral College diminishes the value of the popular vote.

When you vote in a presidential election, you aren’t actually selecting a presidential candidate, but rather for a slate of electors in the Electoral College. There are many disadvantages to the Electoral College system, including the possibility that it will elect a candidate who didn’t win the most popular votes (which has already happened four times, most recently in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush), disproportionately increasing the importance of “swing states” (i.e., states with large allocations of electoral votes that could vote either Democrat or Republican), and allowing presidential candidates to ignore states that are either solidly for one particular party or too small to be politically valuable. Finally…

5. Our two-party system has encouraged divisiveness and gridlock.

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted last year, Americans are more divided by ideological lines — and those ideologies correspond more closely to their partisan affiliation — than at any other time in the last two decades. “The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%, and ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past,” the study reported. “As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” This goes a long way toward explaining the constant gridlock between the two parties — although most Americans would prefer bipartisanship, the ideological extremes within the Democratic and Republican organizations have disproportionate power in the nominating process and wind up forcing elected officials to eschew compromise.

Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian have more in common than you think

Published: Daily Dot (June 16, 2015)

Back in 2008, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released an ad attacking Democratic nominee Barack Obama for being a “celebrity.” To illustrate his point, McCain’s commercial included a picture of so-called “celebutante” Paris Hilton. After all, what better way to make Obama’s bid for the Oval Office seem absurd than to compare his career with that of someone whose name literally appears next to “professional celebrity” in the Urban Dictionary?

This brings us to our question of the day: Why is Donald Trump, who just announced that he is running for president, taken somewhat seriously as a candidate on the Internet, despite being no different than other professional celebrities, like Hilton or Kim Kardashian? No one seems to think he can win, but at least he wasn’t laughed out of the room. Can you imagine if Paris Hilton ran?

But make no mistake about it, Trump is just as much of a professional celebrity as any celebutante.

Born into a privileged family—his father, Frederick C. Trump, built the real estate empire that carries the family name—Donald Trump became a national figure during the 1980s, when his opulent lifestyle and flair for brazen self-promotion made him the perfect poster child for the zeitgeist of that era. He nicknamed himself “The Donald,” married a supermodel (and then was mired in a high-profile divorce), and managed to keep himself in the public eye as a reality TV star long after other ‘80s business icons had faded from our cultural consciousness.

The only meaningful difference between Trump and the likes of Hilton and Kardashian (besides their gender) is that Trump has been a miserable failure in his businesses.

This may be hard to believe, given how frequently Trump touts his own business savvy, but the record doesn’t lie. Innumerable Trump business ventures have failed, from entertainment resorts and hotels to mortgage companies and airlines, and he has had to file for corporate bankruptcy at least four times. What’s more, despite presenting himself as a fiscal conservative, Trump’s continued presence as a major financial figure is largely due to the aid of the federal government; when it was revealed in 1990 that The Trump Organization was $5 billion in debt, The Donald only survived thanks to a federal bank bailout that allowed him to defer on the $1 billion of debt personally guaranteed by Trump himself.

Make no mistake about it, Trump is just as much of a professional celebrity as any celebutante.

By contrast, both Hilton and Kardashian have had considerable successes in the business world. Hilton was named Variety’s “Billion Dollar Entrepreneur” in 2011 due to her success in parlaying her personal brand into a reality TV show, a modeling career, and “collections of handbags, watches, sunglasses, fragrances and clothing.”

Similarly, Kardashian appeared on the cover of Success Magazine the following year thanks to a wide range of flourishing business projects that included “a skincare line, five DASH clothing boutiques around the globe, a book titled ‘Kardashian Konfidential,’ a Kardashian Khaos lifestyle boutique inside The Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, a Kardashian Kollection handbag line, a Kardashian Kolors nail polish line for OPI, a fragrance, clothing collections with Sears and Bebe, and a sold out Belle Noel jewelry collection for Bloomingdale’s, among others.” Just last year, she made an estimated $85 million from her Kim Kardashian: Hollywood mobile game.

None of this means that Hilton or Kardashian are qualified to be president. While the ideal of a businessman president may appeal to a certain segment of conservative and libertarian voters, Americans have historically voted for candidates based on their political or military backgrounds. Until George W. Bush, no American president had even held an MBA, and the last time America elected a president best known for his business career (Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1928), the promise that his business acumen would ensure national prosperity was obliterated by the Great Depression.

Having said that, if one wishes to argue that business success is indeed a valid qualification for the presidency, Hilton and Kardashian make far more sense than Trump among the professional celebrity set. Yet even though the Internet would laugh at either Hilton or Kardashian if they announced a presidential campaign, Trump is (at least ostensibly) taken seriously. Why?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that sexism is the major variable here. In an article for Business Insider last year, Lisa Eadicicco discussed how many of the most successful female business entrepreneurs have stories of being asked to sexualize themselves in order to succeed (this may be a good time to reevaluate the cultural significance of those Hilton and Kardashian sex tapes). Gene Marks of Forbes explained the problem more directly in his editorial, “Why Most Women Will Never Become CEO”:

Ever seen what it’s like to be a woman in today’s workplace? Sure, things have come a long way since the days of Mad Men. I don’t see guys patting their secretaries on the backside or calling them ‘honey’ or ‘darling.’ But the sexism is still there. It’s just more concealed.

I’ve been in more than a few meetings where once an attractive female staffer leaves the room one or two of the guys will comment on her hotness. … Guys are still checking out the girls in the office. I see their body language noticeably change whenever a pretty female employee enters the room. Words, thoughts and important points are missed because of a new perfume or a low cut blouse. It works the other way too. The less attractive female employees are also frequently ignored… for the opposite reason. Men are still trying to take women seriously in the workplace.

As we can see, the attitudes in America’s boardrooms easily spill out into its political culture. When Trump condescendingly dismissed the political ambitions of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in a statement that specifically mentioned her being a woman twice, the mainstream media paid little attention to either the brazen hypocrisy of his claim or the mansplaining tone that he used when making it.

Similarly, despite having a business career that is no less rooted in professional celebrityhood than those of Hilton or Kardashian, Trump is still widely regarded as a respected businessman, even though his female counterparts are still chiefly regarded as tabloid fodder.

The bottom line is that, if Trump is going to be covered online as a serious presidential candidate, then anyone else boasting a similar background deserves the same coverage and de facto credibility. On the other hand, if the notion of a Hilton or Kardashian presidential campaign strikes you as self-evidently absurd, than it’s time to stop letting Trump benefit from male privilege and ridicule his real candidacy as much as we would any hypothetical candidacy from the day’s most prominent celebutantes.

As a parting gift, I leave you with Paris Hilton’s response to John McCain’s “Celebrity” ad, which showed far more humor and self-awareness in two minutes than Trump has displayed in his entire career.

3 things Americans need to do if they’re sick of money in politics

Published: Daily Dot (June 12, 2015)

A new Iowa group wants to teach the Internet about the evils of money in politics. Called “Iowa Pays the Price,” the Washington Times reports that “the group plans to spend about $500,000 on an educational campaign that will include social media and online videos.”

However, the Internet seems to already share the sentiment. Last week, a comprehensive survey by the New York Times discovered that 85 percent of Americans support campaign finance reform. A whopping 84 percent of the respondents argued that “money has too much influence” in politics today, and 66 percent believe the wealthy have more influence on the political process than ordinary Americans.

That said, although Americans would support measures like limiting the amount of money individuals and groups can contribute to political campaigns (77 to 78 percent) or requiring third-party groups to disclose the identities of their donors (72 percent), 58 percent believed these kinds of reforms aren’t likely to happen.

The main takeaway from these polls is that, while Americans want to find a way of getting big money out of politics, they aren’t entirely sure how to make that happen. This can be gleaned not only by their overwhelming pessimism, but by the fact that national politicians have spent years promising to implement meaningful campaign finance reform, only to allow the issue to fade from public consciousness once they’re actually elected.

As campaign finance reform picks up steam on Twitter and bipartisan groups push solutions to the issue, the push to #GetMoneyOutofPolitics is becoming one of the defining issues of the 2016 campaign. Here are three things Americans need to do if they’re serious about getting money out of politics.
1) They need to encourage their politicians to pass the many common sense campaign finance bills that have been proposed in the past

When the Tea Party forced our government to shut down a couple years ago, they inadvertently demonstrated that grassroots campaigns can overpower the desires of moneyed interest groups. After all, Wall Street was fiercely opposed to the shutdown, as were most Americans who didn’t share the Tea Party’s extreme right-wing fiscal agenda. Yet even though politicians too often vote with their pocketbooks, the Tea Party had repeatedly demonstrated its electoral power to Republican legislators. As a result, these politicians were receptive to demands that they would have otherwise ignored at their wealthy backers’ say so.

Unfortunately, when it comes to issues that would actually curb the political power of the super-rich—as opposed to simply hurting the economy, which was all a government shutdown accomplished—Americans don’t exercise this same vigilance in monitoring their elected officials.

For example, last year Senate Republicans blocked the passage of a constitutional amendment (which had overwhelming support from that body’s Democrats) that would have allowed federal and state lawmakers to override recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned previous campaign finance reform laws (more on that in Point #2). Republicans justified this by arguing that the bill would have threatened First Amendment rights, a position that 54 percent of Americans’ reject.

Nevertheless, Republicans wound up handily triumphing in the 2014 midterm elections, which can be understandably interpreted as a sign that while Americans care about campaign finance reform, most can be sufficiently distracted from it on Election Day that they won’t punish politicians who block it.
2) They need to pay more attention to our Supreme Court judges

Although more than three out of four Americans want to limit the amount wealthy individuals and groups can spend on elections, they generally approve of how the Supreme Court is doing its job, even though the conservative majority on that bench has done everything in its power to allow the rich to continue controlling our political process.

The Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2010 made it legal for corporations and unions to spend as much money as they want on advertisements and other political tools to defeat specific candidates, provided only that they don’t donate that money directly to other candidates. In the McCutcheon vs Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2014, they declared the FEC’s biennial limit on campaign contributions was unconstitutional, effectively allowing single donors to spend as much as $3.5 million on candidates, PACs (Political Action Committees), and political parties.

While it would be bad enough if the problem was simply that five of our nine Supreme Court judges had an out-of-touch stance on this issue, the stench of corruption permeates their rulings on campaign finance reform.

A year after the Citizens United ruling, Common Cause (a liberal nonprofit group that focuses on creating more transparency in American politics) filed a petition with the Obama administration in 2011 that accused Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of “participat[ing] in political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the decision.” They specifically pointed to a retreat hosted by Koch Industries, in which Scalia and Thomas were featured speakers, as well as the work of Thomas’ wife as founder and CEO of the conservative advocacy group, Liberty Central.
3) They need to find creative ways of using the Internet to empower less wealthy candidates

It is often forgotten that Americans have been using advances in technology to spread political ideals on the grassroots level since the days when our republic was in its infancy. Our national postal service, which was established in 1775 to facilitate communications during the Revolutionary War, became the most extensive in the world after President George Washington signed the Postal Service Act of 1792 into law. He did so in part to help ordinary citizens spread information and politically organize by sending political literature (usually newspapers and pamphlets) through the mail.

In this way, Washington joined many of his fellow founding fathers in believing that the government should help ordinary citizens avail themselves of the latest technological advances (in this case with the printing press, which had been used to great avail in spreading the ideals of the American Revolution) to become more active and empowered citizens.

Just as the postal service was the information superhighway of the late 18th and early 19th century, the Internet is the best vehicle for directly combatting the effects of money in politics today. It already has an equivalent of the Postal Service Act in the High-Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991, which created the National Information Infrastructure and is generally responsible for expanding public access to the Internet and launching the Internet boom of the 1990s. (Notably, its author was a young Senator from Tennessee named Al Gore.)

Numerous studies have found that the Internet has already radically transformed American politics, particularly by empowering ordinary individuals to express ideas and mobilize as never before, whether on the right (such as the Tea Party) or the left (such as the grassroots movement that elected and reelected Barack Obama).

Yet the medium is capable of doing so much more. At a time when the cost of campaigning has skyrocketed out of most Americans’ reach due to transportation and advertising needs, the Internet offers a fertile ground for potential candidates who don’t have the money to buy air time or personally stump from town-to-town. For that potential to be realized, however, Americans need to make a point of paying attention to Internet-only candidacies. Instead of clinging to old-fashioned notions of how politicking should occur (door-to-door canvassing, renting space to deliver speeches, etc.), they should recognize that making these practices a sine qua non for political success limits those without the financial means of doing them.

As such, they should be open to candidates who may only appear on their own websites or through YouTube videos. At a time when public financing of candidates and opening political debates to third parties are widely discussed as ways of curbing the power of big money in our bipartisan system—and not without good reason—it is disappointing that more creativity hasn’t been applied to tapping into the potential of a medium that could render traditionally-financed campaigns and televised debates obsolete altogether.

Thanks to The New York Times, we now know that most Americans support the ideals behind campaign finance reform. They want our democracy to be as open as possible and understand that the corrupting influence of big money is hindering that. To achieve these goals, however, they need to hold politicians and judges accountable for their decisions on issues related to campaign finance reform, as well as change their own way of viewing political campaigns.

7 times Bernie Sanders broke the Internet

Published: Daily Dot (May 19, 2015), Salon (May 23, 2015)

Say what you will about the presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), but if nothing else, it has certainly introduced some interesting ideas into America’s political debate. Considering that the most recent polls show Hillary Clinton with a nearly five-to-one lead over her nearest rival, this can only be viewed as a positive thing.

As Reddit’s favorite politician, Bernie Sanders has enormous influence on our political discourse, and his recent policies have been making huge headlines on the Internet. Here are seven ways in which our national discussion on a wide range of issues could be transformed by the Sanders campaign.

1) Guaranteeing free college

In a press conference on Monday, Sanders advocated that the government fund tuition at four-year public colleges and universities through a so-called Robin Hood tax on Wall Street, one that would set a 50 cent tax on every $100 of stock trades on stock sales, as well as lesser amounts on other financial transactions.

While Sanders’ critics are expected to denounce the plan as socialistic, the Vermont Senator is quick to point out that similar proposals are already in effect and successful elsewhere. “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people,” Sanders points out. “They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

Although Obama promised free community college for students who qualify, Bernie Sanders’ proposed policy shows that with America’s burgeoning debt crisis, we need to go even further.

2) Addressing income inequality

In an interview with the Associated Press confirming his presidential run, Sanders cited America’s growing income inequality as one of the chief motivators behind his campaign, a well-timed stance given the recent #FightFor15 on Twitter.

“What we have seen is that while the average person is working longer hours for lower wages, we have seen a huge increase in income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching obscene levels,” Sanders argued. “This is a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful, and is not working for ordinary Americans.”

Sanders has proposed a number of reforms to solve this problem, from legislation that would close corporate tax loopholes to raising the minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, a rate Sanders describes as a “starvation wage.” For the working poor, getting by continues to be a daily struggle, and Sanders is fighting to change that.

3) Regulating Wall Street

If you think Sanders’ free college plan has Wall Street concerned, you can only imagine how they feel about Sanders’ proposed bill for breaking up banks that are considered “too big to fail.” In fact, polls show 58 percent of likely voters agree with his basic argument that “if an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist,” indicating that merely denouncing Sanders as a radical won’t necessarily work for this measure.

What’s more, banking lobbyists are concerned that anti-bank sentiment within the Democratic grassroots could push Clinton to the left on this issue. “The prospects of it becoming law are nil,” reported one banking lobbyist to the Hill. “But we care about whether this impacts Hillary and whether she’ll try to pander to the far left.”

But for the millions who continue to be affected by the 2008 crash and the effects of the American banking bubble on our Great Recession, it’s not just about pushing Hillary to the left. It’s about pushing America forward.

4) Legalizing marijuana

Although Sanders told Time magazine that he doesn’t consider marijuana legalization to be “one of the major issues facing this country,” his sympathies on the subject are pretty clear.

“If you are a Wall Street executive who engaged in reckless and illegal behavior which helped crash the economy leading to massive unemployment and human suffering, your bank may have to pay a fine but nothing happens to you,” he explained in an AMA session on Reddit. “If you’re a kid smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine, you may end up in jail for years.”

He also supports increased use of medical marijuana and takes pride in the fact that no one was arrested for marijuana possession or use when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt. Given the negative impact of three decades of the War on Drugs on incarcerating urban residents at disproportionate rates, particularly black men, this is a policy that is long overdue.

Although Hillary has vowed to fight the prison-industrial complex, Sanders shows he’s already ready to take the first steps.

5) Fighting free trade

There is another issue in which Bernie Sanders may push Clinton to the left: free trade.

Although hardly a trending topic, Sanders is a longstanding opponent of international trade agreements like NAFTA that he believes work against the interests of average American laborers. His current target is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being pushed by the Obama administration despite the fact that its provisions have not been made public.

“It is incomprehensible to me that the leaders of major corporate interests who stand to gain enormous financial benefits from this agreement are actively involved in the writing of the TPP,” Sanders wrote in a letter to the Obama White House, “while, at the same time, the elected officials of this country, representing the American people, have little or no knowledge as to what is in it.”

6) Confronting climate change

Sanders’ has made no secret of his contempt for global warming deniers. To embarrass anti-science Republicans, he introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution in January that simply acknowledged man-made climate change was real and needed to be addressed. By voting in favor of the measure, Congress would do little more than place itself “in agreement with the opinion of virtually the entire worldwide scientific community.”

Although the amendment was tabled by a mostly party-line vote of 56-42, Sanders’ reputation as an unwavering advocate of pro-environmental policies when dealing with climate change hasn’t gone unnoticed. Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC dedicated to addressing global warming, ranked Sanders as the number-one climate leader in the Senate.

7) Criticizing Israel

If elected in 2016, Sanders would be America’s first Jewish president, and that makes his willingness to criticize Israel all the more significant. During a town hall event last year, Sanders got into a shouting match with constituents who were angered by his statement that Israel “overreacted” in its military campaign against Hamas and was “terribly, terribly wrong” for bombing UN facilities.

His stance on Israel could hardly be described as blindly pro-Palestinian, however. In the same town hall meeting, he acknowledged that Israel was in a tricky situation because Hamas was firing rockets from populated areas, but he has no love for Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, distinguishing himself as the first Senator to openly refuse to attend Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Sanders’ views on these issues, the odds are still far greater than not that he won’t receive the Democratic nomination next year. In addition to being on the far left in his own party, Sanders is a septuagenarian from a minority background who hails from one of America’s smallest states.

At the same time, he is still giving voice to a series of positions that deserve a more prominent place in our political debate. When all is said and done, this can only be a good thing.

The real reason Mike Huckabee keeps running for president

Published: Daily Dot (May 6, 2015)

Shortly after Mike Huckabee ended his campaign for president in 2008, he began another career—this time as the host of his very own show on Fox News. If you want to understand Huckabee’s reason for making a recent entry into the 2016 race, you must start by recognizing that being an Also Ran can be very, very profitable.

After all, Huckabee’s chances of actually winning are quite slim. “Mr. Huckabee would seem to face greater obstacles than during his first presidential campaign, when he battled only a couple of rivals for the party’s conservative base,” writes Trip Gabriel of the New York Times. “Now half a dozen or more declared and likely candidates appeal to social conservatives, and Mr. Huckabee’s party has moved further rightward.”

If his vulnerabilities among the GOP’s conservative base weren’t damning enough, he is also damaged by his own checkered history when it comes to espousing ideas that are (to put it generously) controversial:

These tweets demonstrate that the Internet is very much aware of Huckabee’s past views on gay rights, such as quarantining AIDS victims and supporting legislation permitting discrimination against gay people, as well as his paranoid Christian agenda in general. (Remember that time he claimed the American government was trying to criminalize Christianity?) Although presidential nominations are snagged by appealing to one’s party base, general elections are won by winning over the center, and considering that the American center opposes the injection of religion into politics, Huckabee’s very political brand guarantees his own unelectability.

If you want to understand Huckabee’s reason for making a recent entry into the 2016 race, you must start by recognizing that being an Also Ran can be very, very profitable.

Naturally, one must wonder: Could Huckabee really be deluded about his own chances of winning? If not, what possible reason could he have to enter the campaign?

“Huckabee is one of a number of people who have managed to make a career out of staging one long, endless, futile presidential run,” explains Drew Magary of GQ. “If you have enough money, a few rich benefactors, and a handful of bafflingly stubborn constituents, you can usually cobble together a campaign that is doomed to fail, but deliberately so.”

Politicians from both parties indulge in this practice. Rudy Giuliani earned more than $9.2 million in speakers fees in the year before his 2008 presidential campaign, while Hillary Clinton has been to known to accept as much as $200,000 for individual speaking engagements since her tenure as Secretary of State came to a close.

Other pricey Also Rans include Al Gore, whose agency requires him to be compensated “$100,000, plus travel, hotel, security, and per diem expenses”; Mitt Romney, who has averaged between $40,000 and $60,000 per appearance since his unsuccessful 2012 campaign; and Howard Dean, who has been paid $20,000 for speeches as short as 10 minutes in duration.

Nor is it merely speaking that can rake in the cash for an erstwhile presidential contender. A study by the University of Minnesota’s Eric Ostermeier determined that Sarah Palin—who voters with good memories may recall toyed with a presidential bid in 2012 before being snapped up by Fox News—earned $3 million during her three years as a commentator there, averaging out to $15.85 per word.

Though not earning nearly as much as Palin, many political observers theorized that Huckabee decided against running for president in 2012 because he’d have to give up the $500,000 annual salary from his show.

Dr. Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for graduate studies at Fordham University, argues that former presidential candidates can successfully demand egregious sums of money because they have star power. Strate told the International Business Times, “For some, there is the basic interest in being associated with a celebrity, the prestige that comes with the presence and participation of a famous and influential individual.”

Hillary Clinton has been to known to accept as much as $200,000 for individual speaking engagements since her tenure as Secretary of State came to a close.

The digital age has only exacerbated this trend. “Throughout modern campaign history successful candidates have tended to outpace their competitors in understanding changing communications,” explained a 2012 Pew Research Center study on Web and social media use during that year’s presidential election. This ranged “from Franklin Roosevelt’s use of radio, to John F. Kennedy’s embrace of television, to Ronald Reagan’s recognition of the potential for arranging the look and feel of campaign events in the age of satellites and video tape.”

Whereas previous technological advances merely extended the reach of a candidate’s message, however, the Internet allows them to remain in the public eye as long as they can generate headlines on Twitter. Candidates who are able to flourish in this climate may not have demonstrated an ability to effectively serve in public office, but they certainly prove something else entirely—namely, that they are marketable commodities.

While it’s bad enough that former politicians have the ability to so egregiously cash in on their fame, the more-likely-than-not phony campaigns of candidates like Huckabee take the problem of money corrupting politics to a whole other level.

Aside from the questionable fiscal ethics of conjoining a bid for elected office with one’s personal financial agenda, running for president simply to make money later distorts our democratic discourse. Every candidate who campaigns insincerely takes time, money, and attention away from those making good faith bids for power. Even worse, when a genuine candidate and a mercenary one have overlapping constituencies, the unelectable alternative can take votes away from the option who could realistically advance the cause of his or her constituents.

In the case of candidates like Huckabee, the toxicity of their cause is in its own right a problem.

Of course, in the case of candidates like Huckabee, the toxicity of their cause is in its own right a problem. Despite the enormous strides made in recent years on issues like gay rights, there are still many Americans who wish to make a political crusade out of denying basic civil liberties to men and women with different sexual orientations.

Even though he won’t become president, and is unlikely to be the Republican nominee, Huckabee’s candidacy will still serve as a focal point for anti-gay bigots throughout the country, giving them an outlet to exercise (at the very least symbolic) electoral power. To play this role sincerely is deplorable; to do so with the primary goal of making money is even worse.

At some future date, a historian studying the early 21st century may look back at the hucksterism of men like Mike Huckabee and wonder how he got away with it. For now, unfortunately, we have to live with yet another doomed campaign.

It’s going to be a long election season.