Lee Drutman

The Donald Trump era requires a new theory of conspiracy theories

Richard Nixon may have had his enemies list, but no president has ever publicly embraced conspiracy theories quite like Donald Trump. From claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States to insisting that millions of people voted illegally in 2016, Trump’s rise and presidency have been filled with vague, false accusations targeting his enemies. When one drops, another follows. Trump only gave up on birtherism during the presidential campaign by preposterously declaring that it was his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, who had first raised doubts about Obama’s origins.

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Americans Are Far Less Conservative Than the Right Wing Claims

Among the many memes floating around in the wake of the 2010 election is that America has taken a rightward turn, and conservative pundits seem re-energized in calling America a center-right nation. After all, a plurality of American voters (42 percent) now call themselves “conservative” — as compared to just 35 percent who say they are “moderate” and 20 percent who say they are “liberal.” Two years ago, moderates and conservatives both were at 37 percent.

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Can Threats and Living in a State of Anxiety Push People to Conservatism?

Over the past year, a conservative right-wing movement has found a loud political voice in the United States. Strongly anti-government, the movement seems largely oriented around a message that anything the Obama administration wishes to accomplish is an attack on American tradition, and it is up to them to stop this radical socialist agenda emanating from Washington to preserve the country.

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Corporate-Owned Papers Near the Border More Likely to Run Anti-Immigrant News and Views

The images of immigration Americans get from newspapers and television generally tend to skew negative. A 2008 Brookings Institution report, for example, described coverage as a "narrative that conditions the public to associate immigration with illegality, crisis, controversy and government failure." The report blamed such coverage for the political stalemate that has snarled any legislative progress.

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Why Do Conservatives Like Stephen Colbert?

So ... Stephen Colbert doesn't really mean all those wacky liberal-bashing things he says, does he? Comedy Central's The Colbert Report is obviously a parody of a wing-nut right-wing talk show. Right?

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Are Older People Happier?

This article originally appeared on Miller-McCune.com.

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Still Needed: Corporate Reform

It is becoming increasingly apparent these days that corporate reform isn't really happening in Washington. In the last few weeks, we've witnessed a below-the-radar rollback of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, continued corporate earnings restatements, foot-dragging by a Congress unwilling to move ahead on the next round of critical corporate reforms, and the continuation of brazen Bush administration policies to further deregulate the energy and telecom sectors.

Chances are, though, most people didn't really notice. That's because they've probably been paying attention to the latest developments on Iraq. How cleverly Bush has been able to change the subject.

Whatever happened to all that concern about the more than one million Americans who lost their jobs in the cascading corporate scandals? What about the $175 billion investors lost in their retirement accounts? Have we forgotten already about the despicable behavior by executives at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco?

Not so fast, say more than 200 groups who this week joined forces to release the Unity Platform on Corporate Accountability, a comprehensive outline of specific proposals designed to significantly transform the relationship between corporations and society.

The groups, which include Public Citizen, Global Exchange, the Institute for Policy Studies, Rainforest Action Network, Co-op America, 50 Years is Enough, CorpWatch, the Alliance for Democracy, and Citizen Works, want to make sure corporate excess doesn't go away as an issue until it goes away as a problem.

The Unity Platform "represents a cohesive analysis shared by diverse strands of the grassroots corporate accountability movement," said Charlie Cray, director of the Corporate Reform Campaign at Citizen Works. "Despite the inertia in Washington, it reflects the popular view that there needs to be further and deeper change in how we govern corporations."

"Corporate greed and abuse remains one of the top issues for most Americans," added John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. "It will come back strong in the months to come."

The groups' agenda calls for public funding of elections, an overhaul of corporate governance, controls on speculative investment, stronger labor and environmental obligations, an end to international corporate welfare and a redefinition of financial accountability, among other proposals.

"We should be at a political crossroads today, developing ways to foster real corporate accountability," said Joshua Karliner, senior adviser to San Francisco-based CorpWatch. "Unfortunately the drum beat of war is drowning out the public outcry against corporate corruption. This not only undermines corporate reform, but also creates a climate in which Bush's agenda to further deregulate big business, one of the principle causes of Enron, may well prevail."

As Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy & Environment Program notes: "Despite the crushing failure of telecom and energy deregulation, the Bush Administration continues to advocate for increased deregulation of these sectors."

The groups decided to release the platform this week in response to the disappointing corporate reform inertia in Washington, so as to return some energy into the important work of curbing corporate power and greed.

Such a spark is much needed. After all, consider these recent developments:

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George W. Bush: Corporate Confidence Man

President Bush sure likes to talk tough. To hear him tell it, "My administration will do everything in our power to end the days of cooking the books, shading the truth, and breaking our laws." He wants to restore "confidence" so much that he used the word 13 times in his speech on Wall Street, and nine times at a press conference the day before.

Despite all the rhetoric about getting "tough" on corporate crime, Bush’s Corporate Responsibility program involves a long list of tepid reforms -- what you’d expect from a president desperate to keep the current crisis from becoming a major political liability for his party and his presidency.

There are some good incremental reforms related to corporate governance and reporting contained in Bush’s proposal, such as prohibiting company loans to executives. But most of the proposed reforms are the kind of false posturing that corporate America has proven so capable of in recent years.

Take, for example, Bush’s cornerstone Executive Order establishing the Corporate Fraud Task Force. It sounds good. But there’s no additional funding or staff, just a directive that a bunch of government agencies talk to each other more often about the things you’d expect they’d be talking to each other about a lot these days -- securities fraud, mail and wire fraud, money laundering and tax fraud.

Or take Bush’s call to increase the SEC’s budget by $100 million; a pittance compared to what SEC observers say is needed. Just two weeks ago, the House voted 422-4 to increase the SEC’s grossly underfunded $430 million budget by 77 percent. Bush’s increase barely matches a request made in March by SEC Chair Harvey Pitt to increase the commission’s staff and pay; a request that was denied.

Bush praises the House for "passing needed legislation to encourage transparency and accountability in American business." But the Republican bill he refers to does nothing of the sort -- it punts the issue to the SEC for further study. He says he wants the SEC "to adopt new rules to ensure that auditors will be independent," but he refrains from supporting a bill currently on the Senate floor (the Sarbanes bill) that would do this by separating auditing and consulting and rotating auditors.

Bush also praises the House for passing pension reforms that will "expand workers’ access to sound investment advice, and allow them to diversify out of company stock." But that bill requires workers to wait three years to diversify out of company stock -- far too long when executives can sell whenever they want. Bush says, "What’s fair for the workers is fair for the bosses." But the House Republican bill that he praises actually would remove a provision that requires employers to offer the same plan to all employees.

Many of Bush’s proposals are articulated in vague language that would presumably be subject to much interpretation. For instance, the Bush plan includes: "require corporate leaders to tell the public promptly whenever they buy or sell company stock for personal gain." But what does he mean by "promptly" -- waiting 34 weeks?

What’s more telling are the things that Bush leaves out. For example, he says that an executive "whose compensation is tied to his company’s performance makes more money when his company does well; that’s fine. And that’s fair when the accounting is above-board." But although Bush says he wants the issuance of options approved by shareholders, he doesn’t say he wants them expensed. Allowing stock options not to be expensed essentially means allowing companies to continue issuing stock options to top executives without telling investors of the cost, cutting into profits to enrich the top brass while diluting shareholder value.

Bush also offers no support for corporate whistleblower protections, a valuable tool to prevent corporate crime, even though such provisions have strong support in Congress. He also failed to use one of the greatest deterrents against corporate crime within his power: debarment. The federal government could and should refuse to do business with companies that are serious and/or repeat lawbreakers.

The President says, "I challenge every CEO in America to describe in the company’s annual report -- prominently, and in plain English -- details of his or her compensation package, including salary and bonus and benefits." How about requiring it? Why not go a step further and place a cap on the ratio of CEO pay to entry-level pay to ensure CEO pay doesn’t get even more out of hand? The average CEO is paid 531 times the pay of the average worker. If the minimum wage had risen between 1990 and 2000 at the same rate as the rise in CEO pay, it would now stand at $25.20/hr.

Bush also failed to address the growing trend of companies reincorporating in offshore tax havens to cheat the U.S. out of tax dollars. Companies that reincorporate to offshore tax havens where corporate laws are weaker and the courts don’t recognize judgments from U.S. courts, for instance, may be able to claim an exemption from new SEC rules that require CEOs to personally vouch for financial statements.

Bush says that the corporate crisis was "long in the making, and only now coming to light," because he wants to blame Clinton. But his "new Ethic of Corporate Responsibility" doesn’t address the fundamentalist deregulatory agenda that led to the crisis, which his own party championed from Reagan through the Contract with America. In fact, both parties helped deregulate the energy sector (both still support energy deregulation) and pushed other deregulatory initiatives that proved a breeding ground for corporate malfeasance, such as the Public Securities Litigation Reform Act.

Given the number of corporate scandals that have emerged in recent months, virtually everyone now agrees that the problem is not "a few bad apples" but a broad systemic crisis. The President’s long-awaited "New Ethic of Corporate Responsibility" falls far short of the fundamental corporate reforms needed to protect workers, the environment, consumers and shareholders.

Charlie Cray is the director of the Campaign for Corporate Reform at Citizen Works in Washington, D.C. Lee Drutman is the Communications Director for Citizen Works. http://www.citizenworks.org, (202) 265-6164

America the Fat

How times have changed. It used to be that a few extra chins was a sign of prosperity, a rarified symbol of wealth. Now it's a national health crisis with costs estimated into the billions. According to Surgeon General David Satcher, three out of five Americans are overweight. This year, 300,000 Americans will experience a death hastened or even caused by obesity. Experts predict this number to continue to inflate, soon surpassing tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death in this country.

So, how did things get so bad?

Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here and blame the fast-food industry, which feeds one in four Americans on any given day with its fatty burgers and greasy fries and corn syrupy soft drinks, according to Eric Schlosser's book, 'Fast Food Nation'

I'm going to take a chance and blame television, which consumes four hours of the average Amercian's day with such scintillating programs as 'Temptation Island,' 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' and the Spanish-language favorite, 'Uga Uga,' according to TV Free America.

And for good measure, I'm even going to blame the automobile, which has made our life so easy that we don't even have to walk anywhere anymore. Meanwhile, only one in five Americans gets all sweaty from a good old-fashioned work-out on a regular basis, according to NPD Research

The crisis is especially acute among our young, where the number of overweight children is up about 50 percent in the last 15 years, to about 14 percent. Oddly enough, the last 15 years have also seen a massive boom in the amount of programming on television as well as an explosion in the popularity of video games. The average kid now spends three hours daily in front of the television, according to TV Free America. Video games are now an $8.2 billion a year industry, even more than the $7.75 billion dollars in annual movie sales (another sedentary activity), according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. So, in short, kids are sitting home playing video games and watching TV when they could be out playing soccer or something.

Meanwhile, fast food restaurants aggressively court children with in-store playgrounds and happy meals featuring the latest toy, soda companies ceaselessly target school districts for exclusive deals to install vending machines, and junk food manufacturers advertise incessantly during children's television shows.

The easiest thing, of course, is to blame our schools. And that's exactly what Surgeon General Satcher does in his report. He recommends our schools to jam more physical education into their cirricula and to cut the fats and up the vitamins in school lunches. Well, duh.

The second easiest thing to do is to blame communities for a lack of parks and sidewalks and places where people can exercise freely. Satcher does this too.

The hard thing to do is to blame the fast food industry, to blame television, to blame junk food. This Satcher does, but only very weakly. For example, he suggests that the restaurant industry provide 'reasonable portion sizes.' But is a quarter-pounder with cheese really an unreasonable portion?

So what can be done? Could we treat fast food companies the way we treat, say, tobacco companies, limiting their ability to advertise and requiring health warnings to come on the package of every bacon cheeseburger? Could the family of a long-time McDonald's customer sue after he dies early of a heart-attack brought on by too many Big Macs? What if food packaging required nutrition information on the front of the box instead of the side? Could we limit the amount of programming on television to certain hours? These are enticing possibilities. But not likely ones.

One reasonable step is to educate Americans more fully about the choices they make every day, how just 30 minutes of walking a few days a week can make a real difference and how a bucket of fried chicken can ruin their life. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and billions of dollars of health care costs are at stake here.

But the odd thing is that many Americans are already concerned with their weight, constantly fretting over added pounds and frantically trying newfangled diets. And when asked, almost half of Americans say they watch too much television. So why the disconnect?

I'll tell you why. We are constantly subjected to incessant ads by fast food and junk food companies, ads designed to appeal to our hunger sensations, not to our better judgement. Television and its $40 billion a year in advertising gives us a milion sex- and violence-laden incentives to stay seated, but few to go out for a walk. Anybody who's been on a diet or an exercise regiment can tell you it takes some willpower. And not all of us have the willpower to withstand constant marketing assaults to us to stay seated and enjoy our Big Mac. Until we are free of those constant marketing assaults, winning the battle of the bulge will likely be a losing fight.

Lee Drutman is a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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