Sunday, June 1, 2014

What broke Washington: Philip K. Howard, Esq., Unmasked

According to Philip Howard, a Washington lawyer who represents corporations and does their will, the ills being suffered by our society are due to too many laws and regulatory restraints. Howard has whined about this many places, but most recently in a Washington Post OpEd. This sounds a lot like what Republicans have been telling us for years. The American Legal Exchange Council (ALEC) has been conning Republican state legislatures into limiting the ability of the average citizen to sue a corporation which has harmed them. Republicans call this "tort reform". I call it, protecting corporations from the consequences of their own crimes.

Enraged citizens forced tobacco companies to put warning labels on their deadly products by suing corporations in court with class action suits. People dying of cancer on account of exposure to asbestos forced corporations to pay for their medical bills using class action suits. Drivers forced car makers to recall dangerously defective models by suing them in court. Now, citizens are suing coal and oil companies to stop them polluting the environment with mountaintop removal, fracking, and greenhouse gases.

These crimes have been huge and corporations would have gotten away with them but for laws that protect us. The conspiracy of energy moguls to keep spewing out greenhouse gases is the most deadly of all these crimes. Worldwide, millions of people are threatened by global warming, but the energy companies spend millions on propaganda trying to convince us that there is no problem here, and we should just move on. The problem affects the entire planet, of course, and we have nowhere to move on to.

Lawyer Howard does not attempt to hide his sympathies. He lists the plaintiff's bar as one of the culprits in What Broke Washington. The plaintiff's bar is what gives people the right to sue corporations when they lose a lung or break a leg due to some action of an irresponsible corporate executive. Without a plaintiff's bar, corporations can do as they please and let the public pay to clean up the mess later. Some people call this policy "libertarianism". I call it plutocracy, the rule of the many by the most wealthy.

Howard claims another problem is our huge deficit. Many others disagree. They say the deficit is not now nor ever has been a problem. We can pay it down slowly, when the economy is healthy, but we should never make budget cuts that affect the poor when the poor are already bearing the brunt of failed policies of the past. We should rather force the wealthiest 1% to disgorge their millions through a tax on wealth that they can well afford and that will not affect the other 99% of Americans.

Howard blames our failure to repair our aging roads and railroads on Obama and the economic stimulus act passed in 2009. The economic stimulus act budgeted a mere 3% for road repair. Somehow, Howard expects us to believe that the law itself is to blame, perhaps by magic. But it was politicians, Republicans and conservative Democrats, who cut infrastructure funds from that bill and concentrated on giving tax refunds. Tax refunds may be laudable, but they will never repair our potholes.

Lawyer Howard is trying a classic courtroom maneuver, getting his readers to ignore the real problem by pointing to smaller, inconsequential ones. Everyone knows (or should know by now) that what broke Washington is the influence of corporations and their money. Congress can't pass an energy bill, or an immigration bill, or a farm reform bill, or a tax reform bill, or an infrastructure repair bill, because conservative congressmen are too cowardly to vote against the lobbyists who fund their campaigns and send them on junkets to Abu Dhabi.

The solution to congressional deadlock is not to further weaken laws that protect the people from the powerful and irresponsible 1%. The solution is to elect congresspersons with brains and backbones who will pass laws necessary to resolve our problems. These congresspersons will necessarily represent the people and not the 1%. This is a meaningful goal, and not impossible. Lawyer Howard's suggestions would make the 1% happier and sink the rest of us deeper into the morass of plutocracy.

Howard has formed Common Good, a non-profit organization, to push these libertarian doctrines. On its home page, Common Good pretends to be a non-partisan reform coalition, with new ideas. On closer examination, these claims prove false. The Advisory Board includes some middle-of-the-road Republicans like Howard Baker and Jeb Bush. Otherwise, the Board is not a coalition at all, but a bunch of Republicans and corporate front groups like the Manhattan Institute and the Blackstone Group. The ideas Common Good espouses, as noted above, are not new and have been advocated by ALEC and the ultra-conservative American Tort Reform Association, since as early as 1986. I conclude that Common Good itself is a front group for medical corporations and legal firms that want to limit their liability while they continue to kill us.

There once was a liberal on the Common Good Advisory Board: George McGovern. He is still listed on their "about-us" page, but McGovern died in 2012. I don't blame Common Good for mentioning him, though. They want to preserve a semblance of bipartisanship that no longer exists.

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