New Issue of The People’s Censored

June 28, 2012 in The People's [Censored], Uncategorized by CourtneyHorne

We have a new issue of The People’s Censored out just in time for the National Gathering and the 4th of July. Enjoy.

by Bryan

Outside “The System”

June 20, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge

“If you want to affect any real change, you have to work inside the system.”

There’s not a self-identified occupier who hasn’t heard these words or something to their effect. I would almost guarantee it.

Being one of those “occupiers”, I don’t agree with this assessment of the situation, not entirely at least. At the same time, I’m not writing this essay to argue against it. Instead, I’m writing to analyze the commonly accepted definition of “the system” and the repercussions of allowing the political establishment to control the terminology we use.

When this refrain is sung, it often falls from the mouth of Democrats who, not unlike concern trolls, claim they support the aims of the movement but are worried about the strategy of working “outside” the system. The problem arises then as to their misconception of what constitutes the system. This refrain is invariably followed by a chorus of vote, vote, vote. A chorus that reveals the depth of the singer’s political analysis.

“The system”, according to those who hum the tune thus described, only allows us to express ourselves once every three or so years–depending on the level and branch of government. The only thing we can do to affect it is to vote for a representative, is to play their game. Everything else is outside.

I think this a limited vision of the system. Our democratic process as it stands was not forged in the voting booths, it was forged by the masses in their workplaces and in the streets, forcing the establishment to pay attention to the very people our government was created to represent.

Women and blacks didn’t win suffrage by playing electoral politics, they won it by taking their bodies and voices directly to the people. Workers didn’t win a shorter workweek by electing a savior to think for them, they won it by shutting down their factories and reminding those in power who really makes this country run. We will not win our government by replacing one politician with another, we will do it by taking control of our own lives.

Throughout history, “the system” has been affected by more than the voting booth. Marches and protests do in fact constitute working within the democratic system. We can now see that the song we started this essay with is misguided, because we are already inside, we don’t have to move to get here.

That’s the very problem. We are too far inside. We were born inside. We grow up in the system’s schools. We are taught history according to the system. We are thus formed into the cogs and springs and gears that keep the system running.

If we ever want to make any useful, lasting change, we’re going to have to finally break out of the system. That won’t be an easy task.

I picture us as the first astronauts, born on Earth and told we will never be able to leave. After a long period of research and testing on Earth, we make our first forays outside of the atmosphere, outside of the system.

First U.S. Space Walk

Ed White made the United States' first spacewalk on 3 June 1965 during the Gemini 4 mission.

The Paris Commune! Tahrir Square! Zuccotti Park!

The experiments are relatively brief, and they always end in a return to Earth as we know it, but the experiences are invaluable. We utilize decision making methods that are unheard of within the narrow confines of the system. In doing so, we accomplish feats unimaginable and convert all those who experience the wonders of outer space to a higher level of social consciousness. Through our experiences, we learn that what we once thought was impossible only needs to be attempted again and again.

So, though I agree that we must work inside the system–since that is what we have–to reclaim our democracy, we must also take the fight into our own spaces, out among the stars, where we can shape the new possible. Only then will we come to a planet on which human needs are more important than profiteering, and only then can we imagine the structural changes that will save us all.


by Bryan

Pigeonholed: The story of a PR game Occupy can only lose.

June 18, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge

Pigeon Hole

In the beginning, no one knew how it all started. No one really could. I’m not even sure we’re far enough away from then to be able to say with any certainty still today. So, I’m not going to try to get things exactly right. There’s no use for that now. Instead, I want to give a brief outline of my experiences of the Occupy movement, and extrapolate from there as to where I think we need to go.

In its earliest incarnations, I heard of the movement as a planned day of rage. I was unimpressed. At this point, I was still firmly inside the machine, both body and mind. As such, I ignored that initial spark that started off the occupation of Wall Street.

For some time before Adbusters made their call to occupy in New York, Stop the Machine had been planning an occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. These were no starry-eyed activists. They were veterans of anti-war protesting, and veterans of wars, and they were composed of an advanced layer of the working class. In October of 2011 their occupation started and it has not stopped to this day. But, the mainstream media didn’t care about them. They had been rabble rousing for years by that time. Much too long for cable TV’s attention span.

About a month earlier, a small group of anarchists set up camp in Zuccoti park. It wasn’t their first choice of sights, and it wasn’t their only option that first day, but that’s how history played out. In the beginning, they too were ignored.

Some time passed, and those anarchists were still in the park. In fact, their numbers had grown. The police started to take notice, and the media tagged along. Soon, everyone was following the story, especially after the first two activists were subjected to unnecessary force in the form of pepper spray to the face.

Not too long after that, I was clicking around reddit and someone mentioned that they wanted to start up Occupy Baton Rouge. I might have literally laughed out loud. I definitely posted a comment saying it would never happen here, we are too deep in the south for anything like that to work.

Luckily, whoever came up with the idea–I think it was Chris–wasn’t daunted. He came right back asking why I thought not. After a few more comments back and forth, I realized that the only reason it wouldn’t happen is if we didn’t do it. So, from then on out I was dedicated to making Occupy Baton Rouge a success. I was officially a part of the Occupy movement.

As we fought our own personal ups and downs in Baton Rouge, the entire movement, nationally and internationally, faced similar–if not worse–adversity. There were attempts to thwart the movement, not just from police, politicians, and provocateurs, but from the media as well. It’s this very attack by the media that inspired this essay.

From day one there was a single talking point repeated by every mainstream, corporate news source no matter which capitalist political party they appeared to support. “The Occupy movement has no demands. They don’t know what they want.”

This is when the game began.

Before then, I, and many people like me, believed there were two sides to the mainstream media. The right and the left. Fox News and CNN. Glenn Beck and someone else, I don’t even care to remember their names anymore. What a lot of people learned from this experience was that they were only two wings of the same avaricious beast.

And so, with a new threat to the status quo afoot in these anarchists sleeping in a park, a threat that required a different tactic than the ignorance that had been working with the anti-war activists who had started fighting long before Occupy became a meme, the entire corporate media machine banned together to spin a tale of a movement with a thousand problems and no solutions.

Cornered as we were, and I do mean we because I include myself in this criticism, we went on the defensive. We rushed the process of filtering through the problems of hundreds of thousands of distressed working class citizens, who finally found some camaraderie in realizing they weren’t alone in their recognition of the flaws of our political-economic system, and in doing so, we managed to find one problem, one cause, that we thought everyone could rally around. We found the solution the media was begging us for and we shouted it from the rooftops: Money has too much influence on politics!

With our new banner flying overhead, we clung to easy-to-digest, tweet-sized buzzwords that supported the one singular cause we could agree on and get the media to follow.

End corporate personhood! Reinstate Glass-Steagall! Overturn Citizen’s United!

We started playing by their rules, the very thing we tried so hard to avoid. We dropped our other complaints, and some of our other activists with them, along the way. We weren’t coopted by MoveOn or the Democratic party, sure, but we were coopted by the media machine. We fell into their trap. They knew we were dangerous when we were allowing all the problems to froth out of the oppressed masses, when we understood that they are all interrelated, that the solution must be equally complicated. They couldn’t let that go on, so they focused our ire on one issue and one issue alone. To dissipate our initial energy.

That is where we are today. We’re playing their game and losing. We can only lose if we continue to play their game. It’s rigged that way.

Instead, we must return to the roots of the movement. Not just the anarchist space-making that gave it its media hype–which is nevertheless still important–but to all that activism that before and since has helped to build the Occupy movement, that has lent it experienced guidance, and that has revelled in its ability to finally inject some young, new life into the working class movement, into the antiwar movement, into the feminist movement, the lgbt movement, environmentalism, anti-capitalism of all sorts. We must return to all those long ignored philosophies that advocate for humans in general, not the privileged few.

Until then, we’re just playing their game. And that’s a game we can only lose.

by Bryan

Democracy NOW!

June 15, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge



“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equally, that they are endowed… with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So it says in our Declaration of Independence. Today, most readers of these lines would be convinced that by “men” it is meant “humans”, but even the novice student of history should know that when these words were written that was not their intention.

No, looking back through the lens of historical experience, it would be more accurate to the intended meaning if those words were changed to “all propertied, white males are created equally.” Throughout the history of class struggle, we the people have fought tooth and nail to clarify the meaning behind this declaration, and the same words used in our other founding documents, but we are still far from a reality in which all human beings are seen as equals.

Let us begin, then, with the major strides that have been made towards perfecting our democracy thus far. In the earliest years of this country, there were human beings that, because of the color of their skin, were not actually human beings under the law. Instead, they were property.

After far too much time under such oppressive property relations, a war was fought between those Americans who thought humans could be property and those Americans who thought humans were humans. Sure, there were other factors leading up to this war, and many people still today—especially in the south—try to diminish slavery’s role as the major cause, but for the sake of this essay let us at least agree that slavery was a cause and move on.

With many lives lost in the process, it finally came to be that no human, regardless of their skin color, could be owned like property. This was a giant leap forward in our collective social consciousness, but there were still many imperfections remaining in our democratic process.

Though our dark-skinned siblings were finally recognized as humans, they—along with women who we will come to shortly—were still denied an equal voice in the government that ruled over them. So came the massive class struggle wherein the disenfranchised black population, allied with the equally disenfranchised women, battled for their voice. Fifteen years after all slaves were freed, the black population won the vote. Not unconditionally in the beginning, then it was only for propertied, literate black males, but the struggle continued.

With their hard fought civil rights finally in place, many of those warriors for democracy abandoned the plight of women who still lacked a voice. Thus, the bourgeois state, by giving some small concession to one segment of the working class, divided the proletariat based on a new arbitrary category: sex. And so, mostly alone, those first brave feminists battled public scorn and ridicule—and in some cases torture—to finally extend a voice to all human adults despite the sex they were born into. This victory took 50 long years after blacks won the right to vote.

Some would like to think that then our democracy was perfected. Finally, there was no distinction based on race or sex in the eyes of the government. What this vision of perfection ignores is the hard fought concessions that have been won since women achieved suffrage, and those battles that still remain to be fought.

For almost another 50 years after women won their voice, states were allowed to impose taxes at the polls on anyone that wanted to vote, thus barring the poorest segment of the working class from having an influence on their own government. In 1964 this practice was ended with the ratification of the 24th amendment to the US constitution. But, for seven years after, the voting age was set as high as 21 in some states, barring young Americans from having any say in the government that would invariably send them off to fight and die for that government’s gain. And so, in 1971, the last major victory for democracy in America was won in lowering the voting age to 18—although this limit still gives the youth no time to affect the government before they can be sent off to die for it.

Which brings us to the democracy we have today: Today, the working class faces new challenges. We have finally come to the point where we can see that we are all equal in the eyes of the state and in the eyes of the capitalists, despite our race or sex. Now, we can band together as one class, united against our common enemy, in order to get beyond those prejudices that the same enemy fosters and exploits for their own gain. We can see that, while we as workers are equals, there are some people who are more equal than others.

Blasphemy! you say. America is a democracy. Well, a democratic republic, you know, a representative democracy.

And I reply, so it may appear, but we must look beyond the vulgar mask that is bourgeois political ideology to reveal the true nature of our “democracy”.

The first amendment of the US constitution ensures every citizen the right to free speech.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In a monstrosity of judicial activism, hidden behind the pop-guise of “corporate personhood”, it was somehow decided that this right to express yourself without fear of government persecution also means that you have the right to spend your vast hoards of money in amplifying your voice above the poorer voices around you.

This is a vulgar interpretation of the first amendment that serves no other purpose than to make the oppression of the working class that much easier for our rich overlords. It is an interpretation pushed by the capitalist class and their government lackeys from both sides of the aisle. It is an interpretation that we as the working class must strive to eliminate if we are to take one of many steps toward reclaiming our democracy.

Now is the time. We must all come together as one class—regardless of sex, sexuality, race, religion, party, wealth, etc.—conscious of our political repression by the moneyed elites and say: Enough is enough. We deserve to be heard just as much as you do, no matter the amount of our wealth. We deserve to be heard before you send us off to war. We demand a government of the people and for the people. We demand democracy now!


Note, the People’s [Censored] and Occupy Baton Rouge are in no way affiliated with or endorsed by the news organization Democracy Now! But, you should still go check out their news anyway. It’s much better than the mainstream media.

by Bryan

Reports of Occupy’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

June 9, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge

Occupy Reaper

People can’t seem to stop eulogizing the Occupy Movement.

Since the eviction of the protestors at Freedom Plaza last November, it’s become a media cliché to report on the “Death of Occupy.” Articles pop up all over the web, blithely reporting on the failed second wind of Occupy, this lackluster “American Spring,” and the May Day general strike that didn’t quite shut the system down.

It should be no surprise that the mainstream media is eager to report on Occupy’s supposed demise. Even ignoring the fact that the corporate-owned media has a strong desire to never see social movements such as Occupy succeed, the media, as a rule, generally needs to put a dramatic narrative to everything it reports. To them, every story ought to have a captivating story arch with a beginning, middle, and an end.

In the media’s eyes, the story that was Occupy began when the magazine Adbusters put out a call to Occupy Wall Street on September 17. Many people heeded the call, yet, according to the media’s story, the movement only received its dramatic momentum when cops were photographed attacking and pepper-spraying the nonviolent protestors. It reached its early demise when the police violently cleared out the various encampments. Now, except for a few curmudgeons who can’t seem to understand that Occupy is over, all that remains of Occupy is its populist rhetoric of the 99%—which has been dutifully hawked up by Democratic front-groups such as to help refuel the Obama election machine.

This popular narrative of Occupy, with its clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, has been so successful that even those who are still active within the Occupy movement can’t help but absorb parts of it. Lately, many General Assemblies sometimes border on something closely resembling a public support group. On the internet, vaguely self-congratulatory Paul Krugman-y articles, applauding Occupy for “at least shifting the public dialogue,” are posted and reposted to different Occupy-related Facebook groups to remind each other that Occupy at least had a little bit of an effect.

All that’s left for Occupy to do, then, is to sit around, waiting for the Next Big Protest–where peaceful protestors will, again, be filmed brutalized by all-too-eager to attack police officers. And then, after that, to hold their nose and vote in November, hoping that after Obama is reelected and, once again, dashes away all of his campaign promises about Hope and Change, people will remember that passively investing their hopes in politicians is a death sentence. Then they’ll take to the streets again, starting the process all over.

In the United States, we tend to view history as something other people (usually white, upper class men) did long ago, not something we all actively participate in on a day to day basis. In school textbooks, we were taught that the American Revolution was the accomplishment of a few incredibly enlightened, well-educated men. We forget that it took hundreds of thousands of people—especially

young people, women, and working class men–to support and spread the ideas of democracy throughout the colonies.

The problem with how we view Occupy, then, is very similar. We tend to see Occupy as a spectacle taking place at a distance by people very unlike ourselves. Brutal police officers and their photogenic victims, Occupy-friendly celebrities and artists, black block style anarchists, and our cities’ despotic mayors are the characters in this drama who elaborately battle it out for headlines on the stage of our trash-strewn cities. Like most stories we find captivating as Americans, Occupy has become a newspaper story of violence, celebrity and corruption.

By accepting this view of Occupy, we accept at face value much of what Occupy fought against. This popular narrative of Occupy teaches us that only through violence (whether by smashing a window of a Starbucks or by getting smashed in the face by a cop on a rampage) will we bring attention to our cause—preferably the attention of trend-setting celebrities or some not-entirely-out-of-touch politician.

The true magic of Occupy was that it rejected all of these things. No one had any more power than anyone else at the General Assemblies or in the encampments. At the beginning, nobody in Occupy really cared that we were ignored by the mainstream media. We don’t need a bunch of hacks at Time Magazine to commend us for our ability to protest. The only reason we received such a burst of tepidly-favorable attention from the mainstream media and their star politicians, anyways, was because they sensed a loss of legitimacy if they continued to ignore us. And, besides, the goal was never to get them to take a step back and view what their out-of-touch policies have done to the rest of us in the first place. The parasitic 1% couldn’t care less what happens to the rest of us, so long as we don’t openly revolt.

The goal of Occupy was to get together as a community of equals, to claim a future different than the ones they gave us, and to reignite a tradition of democratic progress that reaches back far into our history. The goals of the slowly evolving Occupy movement were something of an experiment. It was a way of exploring new ways of interacting with others. Of showing each other that we can do very fine without the 1%, thank you very much.

Shrugging off Occupy as a momentary fad or a leftist pipedream is to do a disservice to both Occupy and our collective yearning for a more legitimate community. When Occupy began, there was a feeling in the air that another world was not only possible, but that it was possibly inevitable. Our isolation and alienation no longer seemed like an unbridgeable gap:

“Separations are broken down. Personal problems are transformed into public issues; public issues that seemed distant and abstract become immediate practical matters. The old order is analyzed, criticized, satirized. People learn more about society in a week than in years of academic “social studies” or leftist “consciousness raising.” Long repressed experiences are revived. Everything seems possible — and much more is possible. People can hardly believe what they used to put up with in “the old days.” (Ken Knabb, The Joy of Revolution)

Since those days, over 7,200 Occupy protestors have been arrested in the United States. Many have been beaten and tortured. The media has been strong-armed into not reporting on Occupy except in an unfavorable light, and non-participants (but potential sympathizers) are encouraged to sarcastically roll their eyes at those silly protestors who just don’t seem to get it. In light of all this demoralization, Occupy protestors are left wondering what it was all about, grasping at easy explanations for their continued movement such as “shifting the national dialogue” or hoping that this next week’s protest might suddenly convince the powers that be to change their corrupt ways.

While I’m certainly happy that the “national dialogue” has “shifted” (I no longer feel like a crazy person babbling away about economic injustice), celebrating the fact that Obama now has to pretend to give a shit and Romney must now pretend to be human is an incredibly hopeless prospect. This “national dialogue” we speak about is not something that happens when we reach critical mass and the media and the politicians can no longer afford to ignore us. It’s a continued conversation that reverberates among the masses. It’s a process of teaching one another, of questioning the status quo and debating the proper course of action—it’s the sound of agreements and disagreements among individuals who view each other as human beings. It’s the sound of people sharing their visions of a better society and realizing their common goals.

It needs to be remembered that the word “occupy” is a verb. It’s a call to action, not the action itself. The word “occupy” was useful for getting individuals and organizations previously isolated or focused on one-issue grievances out into the streets. Whether the individuals involved wanted to merely overturn Citizens United or overthrow the entire capitalist system itself, Occupy was the first all-encompassing protest movement to occur within many of our lifetimes. Whether or not the word “Occupy” continues to be the word to describe this movement is not important. What is important is that there’s wide community of opposition being formed across many social barriers, and those who hold power are very afraid.

by Bryan

Iraq & Afghanistan War Veterans “Return” Their War Medals to Obama

June 9, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Veterans for Peace

On Sunday, May 20th, 2012, I was privileged to be a witness to, and to play a part in, one of the rarest anti-war actions that military veterans have ever done. U.S. soldiers of both the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, alongside of hundreds of U.S. military veterans of other eras, gathered at the NATO Summit in Chicago to make a strong statement in opposition to the continuing occupation of Afghanistan by “returning” their war medals to the Commander in Chief, and the NATO delegates and Generals.

Approximately 20,000 “Occupy” and other protesters, such as Veterans For Peace, stood in the hot Chicago sun, after marching 2 and 1/2 miles from Grant Park to McCormick Place, and listened as 44 veterans, members of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans Against the War, gave their personal reasons as to why they were returning their war medals, before throwing them toward the gate that separated us from President Obama.

Returning War Medals

{photo by Ward Reilly}: (Sgt) Jacob David George, who did 3 tours in Afghanistan throws his medals (visible in photo) back to President Obama at the NATO Summit in Chicago...Jacob is a part of "A Ride til the End"...he has vowed to ride his bicycle around the country, with other veterans and allies, non-stop, until all U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan. He has been riding for over 2 years.

In a country such as the USA, a nation which brainwashes it’s citizens into blindly “worshiping” and “supporting” the military and our troops, and labels anti war sentiment as “unpatriotic”, there can be little doubt that the act of these Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines returning their medals “earned” in wartime, is about as strong of a condemnation statement that can be made about the legitimacy of our military occupation in Afghanistan.

The first time this happened in U.S. history  was in April of 1971…(2 months after I had taken my physical in New Orleans to join the Army Infantry)…when hundreds of Viet Nam veterans gathered in Washington D.C., and thrown their medals back at Congress…an act which ignited and the civilian anti war movement, and the massive worldwide active duty GI Resistance to the Viet Nam War, and the entire Nixon Administration. Throwing your military medals back at the government is the epitome of resistance, and it’s the loudest statement that a veteran can make to our citizens, in condemning our aggressive and criminal occupations.

So to be here in Chicago, my hometown, as history repeated itself, was an emotional experience that I can hardly describe, and truly a cathartic moment for ALL the hundreds of veterans that were there, and the thousands of other veterans that wish they could have been there.

It’s beyond time to end our horrific criminal occupation of Afghanistan, and the veterans who returned their medals made that statement, beyond any doubt, on May 20, 2012 in Chicago.


A Ride Till the End aims to raise awareness about the disastrous effects of the war on veterans, Afghani civilians, and US citizens. They believe that the real costs of war for these groups have been purposefully rendered invisible. They see the war in Afghanistan as unwinnable and senseless, a death sentence for thousands of US soldiers and for tens of thousands of Afghani civilians who are caught in the crossfire. They believe that the Taliban poses no threat to the US, provided that the US leaves Afghanistan. They also believe that the war makes US citizens vulnerable to domestic terrorism against which there is no real defense.

by Bryan

David comes clean: Why I oppose the 1% of the 1%

April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge

Originally published in The People’s [Censored], Issue 2.

Recently I proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to clarify the meaning of “Freedom of Speech” as a way to attack the legitimacy of private funding of public elections.

“Whereas Freedom of Speech is the liberty to express one’s own opinions and ideas without hindrance, and does not include the right to amplify the speech of others, nor to dominate the discourse in political contests; and

“Whereas a number of Supreme Court rulings have interpreted Freedom of Speech to protect the right of private entities to fund election campaigns and otherwise to use private funds to influence public perception of candidates and issues in the context of political campaigns,

“Be it Resolved that neither Freedom of Speech, nor the Right to Petition Government, nor any other existing constitutional principle abridges the complete and exclusive right of We the People of these United States, through our legislatures, to control and regulate the financial resources through which messages with political intent are communicated to the electorate in connection with political campaigns at the national, state, and local levels.”

The right of private entities—individuals or corporations—to give money to amplify the voice of a political candidate (i.e., to fund electoral campaigns) is most often defended as the constitutionally protected Free Speech rights of those entities. But the right to express controversial and unpopular opinions without fear of sanction—the true meaning of Freedom of Speech—has nothing to do with amplifying the voices of others. Nor does it entail unlimited freedom to amplify one’s own voice during a political campaign, drowning out the voices of less well-funded candidates. We need to remove this fig leaf of legitimacy in order to expose private funding of electoral campaigns for what it is: a naked power grab, a way for the ultra-wealthy to ensure that politicians work for their special interests rather than in the public interest.

This raises the question of what role should the ultra-wealthy play in our society? It seems the American public is very much enamored of its billionaires, quite convinced that what they give to society by way of national competitive advantage through the businesses and industries they create entitles them to special privileges, perhaps even justifies their being able to run the show—what is in their interest surely must be in our interest. At the base of this sentiment is a sense of the rights of a “ruling class” that probably traces back beyond the origins of American democracy to the class system of English society. Although the rhetoric of revolutionary America rejected the idea of a class system, we need to recognize that class-consciousness floats just below the surface of our national conscience.

The idea of a national subconscious operating below the level of our espoused ideals may be unsettling. Many of my fellow travelers on this road to political reform take their ideals seriously; they don’t want them sullied by talk of subconscious forces reflecting our true, underlying, mindset. But I do not share this hubris of pure ideals. I recognize in myself anxieties related to class consciousness: In a true democracy, one not dominated by the ultra-wealthy, would we fall prey to high ideals like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” and wind up in a totalitarian nightmare? Would we redistribute wealth to the extent that incentives to industriousness erode, and we become a weak nation? Might we not ultimately be better off with a political system controlled by the wealthy, even if the extremes of financial inequality we are experiencing now seem excessive and unfair?

I wish I could say that I have overcome these fears, answered these questions, and now wholeheartedly embrace the ideals of true democracy. But I can’t. I share in class-consciousness. What impels me forward in the quest for fundamental political change is not certainty that true democracy will save us, but a growing recognition that the ways of the ultra-wealthy will surely damn us. For, what has evolved over the past couple of decades of increasing domination by the wealthy is pushing us away from the gains of the Enlightenment toward a new Dark Ages.

The Way of the Wealthy

When you think about it, the ultra-wealthy have an astonishingly difficult challenge posed to them by democracy. ‘How can we maintain an economy of amazing disparity between rich and poor within a political system wherein any schmo who happens to get elected by the rabble can propose a new tax structure that confiscates most of my hard-earned income and gradually reduces me to the norm of an increasingly mediocre society?’ This anxiety of the ultra-wealthy needs to be recognized as a relentless and ongoing dilemma; it is not a problem that ever can be fully solved. In a democracy, the rabble does truly have the power. Keeping them from using it in their own financial self-interest is a never-ending struggle.

The solution that the ultra-wealthy have pursued in recent decades—with amazing success!—has been to exploit the natural fault lines that exist in any society between forces of stasis and forces of change. Societies do not exist in a vacuum, but rather within a physical and social ecology wherein circumstances change, populations grow and shrink, food and energy supplies suffice or are insufficient, neighboring societies are aggressive or peaceful. Societies constantly have to modify themselves, their internal structure, to respond to the changing environment they are part of. Nor is the optimal response evident or even unique. Neither are the impacts of change identical for all sectors of a society. As a result the process of change is one that is fraught with tensions.

An excellent exemplar of such change dates back to the European Renaissance during the middle period of the last millennium. During that time, a scientific mentality was emerging that enabled new technologies that could enhance our utilization of the physical world. However, adapting to these new possibilities required huge changes in the structures of society. Construing the world objectively became a new locus of importance that engaged with individual consciousness. Thus the right to authorize knowledge had to shift from religious institutions governed by subjective matters of faith and observance to secular institutions governed by objective reasoning. This democratization of knowledge was hugely difficult and was met with huge resistance. But undergoing it reshaped European societies as far more viable and competitive, enabling them to grow and thrive in the physical, geopolitical, and economic world of the time. In a similar way, societies always are responding to shifting circumstances which therefore produce internal tensions.

The strategy of the ultra-wealthy for political control centers on forming alliances in relation to social tensions so as to coopt vulnerable sectors of society to support desired fiscal policies. This strategy involves magnifying and exacerbating existing social tensions to create the greatest base of support possible for regressive fiscal policy. That strategy has produced “culture wars” that have become so virulent in the U.S. as to hobble government, and periodically even shut it down.

Although the current crises of government are troubling, the long-term damage to society comes not from decisions made in the heat of the political moment, but from the rebalancing of social strata based on the perceived viability of ideas and policies. Broad shifts in the dominance of ideas and institutions are rarely marked by the elimination of social institutions or the ideas they represent, but by the rebalancing of power in relation to other institutions and ideas. Thus the Renaissance did not see the demise of religious institutions, but rather the shifting of some of their power and authority to secular institutions like universities and governments. These new arrangements of power are not fixed, but remain continually open to revision and refinement as physical, social, and geopolitical circumstances change.

Here is where we can see the destructive nature of the alignment of the ultra-wealthy with religion-based social conservatives. Political victories that support conservative social causes and associated religious perspectives create the illusion that those perspectives are viable and adaptive within the modern world. Thus when the ultra-wealthy move to protect their industrial interests by creating faux-science to raise public doubt about, say, the science of global warming, they not only endanger our planet, they also erode the cultural status that science has achieved over hundreds of years, a status earned owing to the adaptive effects of a scientific perspective; this perspective really does enhance our survival.

That’s where we are now. The stature of scientific knowledge and scientific institutions is in decline. Even though, historically, only a small percentage of the population has understood the culture of scientific objectivity, the institutions of science have enjoyed high status and broad support. But in the current era broad sectors of the public see scientists as serving partisan self-interest, and therefore as untrustworthy and unreliable. The faith that once accrued to science is being redistributed partly to religious institutions, but also to conspiracy theorists, Tarot card readers, and millennialists. The fabric of modernism is fraying as we flirt with resurgent pre-modern sensibilities.

The scale of irresponsibility of the ultra-wealthy in their alliance with pre-modern institutions is too vast to contemplate. If unchecked, what will happen to America is easy to anticipate: we will slip quickly into oblivion as a great world power. We already see tell-tale signs in a 10-year Middle-Eastern war entered into without any rational basis by a president who traded in characteristic American pragmatism and rationality for a delusional confidence in America’s Right and America’s Might. We can’t afford for this mentality to continue to dominate.

Will a true democracy necessarily lead us to a great future? I still don’t know the answer to that one. But I do know that without doing something to break the hold of the ultra-wealthy over our political and cultural life, we will drift into superstition, distrust, and dissension as our standing in the world and our way of life disintegrates.

by Bryan

Louisiana’s Hidden State Budget

April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Louisiana Budget Project

Louisiana Budget Project

This article was originally printed in the second issue of the People’s [Censored]. It contains portions of this blog post written by Jan Moller and a full reproduction of the Louisiana Budget Project’s article “Louisiana’s Hidden State Budget” [PDF].

It didn’t get much attention, but at the end of February Gov. Bobby Jindal made what appears to be a dramatic policy shift. Speaking to WWL-TV in New Orleans on the day that President Obama released a plan to cut corporate taxes, Jindal said:

“The reality is, I’m certainly in favor of taking away all of the different subsidies and loopholes in the tax code, but let’s treat everybody fairly. Let’s do that across the board. I think just picking and choosing industries is not the way to go… and that’s what’s gotten us into the trouble in the first place.”

To which the Louisiana Budget Project says: Welcome to the party, governor! What took you so long?

As governor, there isn’t much Jindal can do to Obama’s plan to lower corporate tax rates while eliminating loopholes. If that was his goal, he could have stayed in Congress and joined the debate.

But there is quite a lot Jindal can do right here in Louisiana to fix a tax code that is riddled with loopholes and special-interest exemptions that are worth a combined $4.8 billion. As luck would have it, there is a document put out each year by Jindal’s own Department of Revenue called the Tax Exemption Budget. The latest version was released just this week.

In Louisiana, this hidden state budget receives little scrutiny from the public or their elected representatives, though you can be sure the interest groups that benefit from these breaks are paying close attention.

And while the governor is now sending positive signals about the need to end loopholes and special-interest giveaways, the record shows the exact opposite has occurred on Jindal’s watch.

Perhaps the most illuminating section of the tax exemption report is the one devoted to corporate taxes. Here, we learn that in 2010-11, companies paid $198 million in state taxes and received exemptions worth $1.459 billion, for a “tax loss” percentage of 88.1 percent.

Compare this to the previous year, when companies paid $435 million in taxes and were exempted from $1.333 billion, for a loss percentage of 75.4 percent. The year before that, corporations paid $586 million, with a loss percentage of 67.8 percent.

The fact is, the percentage of corporate taxes that are actually paid, compared to the revenues lost to the state through exemptions and loopholes, has gone down each of the last four years. Not coincidentally, these years have also seen sharp cuts in what Louisiana invests in education, health care and other services that citizens depend on and help create a prosperous future for everyone.

The following is an article printed by the Louisiana Budget Project in May of 2010 concerning Louisiana’s Hidden State Budget. While some of the numbers have changed—thanks to changes in accounting methodology not any policy reversals on the part of Jindal’s administration—the general message behind the piece remains the same:

Louisiana will spend approximately $8 billion in state revenues next fiscal year through the state
budget. The state also will spend another $7 billion-plus through what might be called the hidden budget.

What is this hidden budget? It’s the total of more than 440 separate pieces of legislation, each of which exempts someone or something from some form of taxation. While the regular state budget is made up of money the state takes in and then sends back out, the hidden budget is money the state decides to forego in the first place. This form of spending is called “tax expenditures,” and in Louisiana it has grown dramatically in recent years, even as regular state revenue has declined.

To more efficiently manage its finances and build a stronger future, Louisiana needs to shed more light on its hidden, tax-side spending.

Why is tax-side spending hidden, and growing?

The regular state budget is proposed each year by the Governor and adopted by legislators who get the chance to scrutinize and debate how every penny is spent. The public, too, has the opportunity to comment on the state budget, and people can go online any time and look up any item in the budget at the Legislature’s website.

But the hidden budget works differently. After a specific tax break is approved, the money flows freely year after year–with little chance that this spending by the state will ever be evaluated. If the cost of a particular hidden budget item soars beyond original estimates, it’s likely no one will even notice. In the hidden budget, there’s no need to set priorities or weigh the value of state spending on one thing compared to another.

And once spending in the hidden budget starts, it’s almost impossible to stop. That’s because, unlike the regular state budget, the hidden budget can’t be reduced by even a penny unless a full two-thirds of legislators vote to save the money. That’s an unrealistically high bar.

Today, with the state in a fiscal crisis, shedding light on Louisiana’s hidden budget is particularly important. As the state is preparing to reduce important services that Louisianans rely on, planning to lay off employees, considering increases in college tuition, and proposing reductions in access to health care in order to make up for declining revenues the hidden budget remains largely untouched and immune to any reductions.

How much is the state spending through the tax code?

In fiscal year 2011, Louisiana projects spending $7 billion through tax expenditures, nearly as much as it will take in from revenue. Since tax expenditures are largely ignored in the regular budget process, this means the legislative policy debate encompasses only about half of the state’s total spending.

And, spending through the tax code is growing. It’s projected that revenue lost to tax expenditures from 2006 through 2011 will have increased 28 percent – to $7.1 billion from $5.6 billion. State revenue, by contrast, is expected to decrease 3 percent.

Are there examples of tax expenditures that deserve more attention?

Some spending from the hidden budget makes sense. For example, Louisiana exempts medicine and groceries from the sales tax. Most Louisianans probably would agree that’s the right thing to do, even if it means the state gives up potential revenue. Louisiana also exempts residential utilities, including electricity, natural gas, and water, from the sales tax. But with 441 tax breaks on the books, and no systematic review process in place, there’s little doubt that some of tax-side spending is overblown, outdated, or otherwise wasteful. If tax-side spending were prioritized alongside regular budget items, it is unlikely that all of the existing tax breaks could be justified.

Here are two examples of tax-side spending that deserve more attention:

• Spending to help energy companies make profits: Louisiana provides a two-year moratorium on severance taxes to encourage the drilling of horizontal oil and natural gas wells. This tax break was enacted in 1994, when the oil and gas industry was economically weaker due to lower product prices and horizontal drilling was in its infancy. Neither is true today. In the Haynesville Shale in north Louisiana, projected to contain one of the largest accumulations of natural gas ever discovered in the U.S., energy companies don’t have to pay severance taxes for two years on wells they drill. But companies don’t need additional incentive to explore and mine in the Haynesville Shale, given the enormous profit potential. In fiscal year 2011, tax exemptions on severance taxes are projected to cost Louisiana $189 million. Drilling in the Haynesville Shale could drive this cost considerably higher when fully developed. That’s money that’s not going to our depleted university or health care systems.

• Spending to increase the incomes of the wealthy: In 2007 and 2008, the state rolled back key portions of the 2002 Stelly Plan that resulted in the largest income tax cuts in the state’s history and left in effect the sales tax exemptions passed in the original bill. In 2007, the Legislature began a phased-in reinstatement of the state deduction for federal itemized deductions, which effectively lowered income taxes for those who itemize their deductions – primarily upper-income taxpayers. This became fully effective in 2009. In the 2008 legislative session, the incometax-bracket changes were repealed, so the top 6-percent income tax rate once again applied only to income over $100,000 for joint filers, not $50,000 as had been the case under Stelly. The total projected cost of these tax cuts by fiscal year 2012 is $2.2 billion, according to estimates by the nonpartisan state Legislative Fiscal Office.

What’s wrong with Louisiana’s annual report on tax-side spending?

Louisiana has taken an important initial step to track tax-side spending. Each year, by statute, the Louisiana Department of Revenue must produce a “tax exemption budget” that estimates the cost of each tax expenditure and assesses its effectiveness.

The tax exemption budget provides useful information, but not enough to get a handle on the revenue being spent through the tax code. For example, even though the law requires it, the Department of Revenue does not provide estimates of the cost of many tax expenditures. The Department says in its tax exemption budget that it lacks the data to estimate these costs accurately, but other states have found ways to make reasonable calculations of lost revenue. Because Louisiana fails to employ these other methods, its tax exemption budget leaves legislators and the public with no idea how much certain tax expenditures are costing the state.

In addition, the Department’s assessments of the effectiveness of tax expenditures lack the depth to inform meaningful legislative decisions or public debate. The law requires the Department to assess who benefits from each tax expenditure and whether each tax expenditure:

(1) Has been successful in meeting the purpose for which it was enacted.

(2) Is the most fiscally effective means of achieving its purpose.

(3) Has unintended or inadvertent effects, including whether it conflicts with other state laws or regulations.

(4) Simplifies or complicates the state tax statutes.

The tax exemption budget provides very minimal, if any, information in answer to these statutory concerns. The budget provides no assessment of the success of each expenditure, no details about the beneficiaries of expenditures (such as a break-out of beneficiaries by income category), no assessment of unintended effects, and no description of whether an expenditure simplifies or complicates state statutes. The budget’s assessment of whether a particular expenditure is the most fiscally effective means of achieving its purpose is so minimal as to be useless. In every case, the budget simply repeats the line, “The purpose of this [tax expenditure] is achieved in a fiscally effective manner.”

What should Louisiana do?

At a time of severe budget crisis, Louisiana can no longer afford to put nearly half of its spending off limits from public scrutiny. To let the public into the debate, the state needs to do three things.

• Improve the tax exemption budget report. The report should follow the requirements of the law. It must estimate the cost of all (or nearly all) tax expenditures and assess each expenditure based on a variety of criteria.

• Incorporate an evaluation of tax-side spending into the regular budget process. Determining precisely how to do this will require legislative and public debate. One step would be to consider increasing the number of tax expenditures that include “sunsets” — end-dates that force the legislature to choose whether or not to extend a particular expenditure in its current form. Only 20 percent of the tax expenditures Louisiana has created in the past 10 years include a sunset.

• Reduce the unrealistically high bar for repealing or reducing tax expenditures. Legislators may cut spending on items in the regular budget by majority vote, but it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses to repeal or reduce a spending item on the tax-side. This disparity makes it difficult for legislators to prioritize state spending. It allows a minority of legislators to continue allocating scarce state resources to a low-priority or even obsolete tax expenditure, at the expense of more important state services.

Every penny Louisiana spends should have a purpose; and every purpose should be scrutinized by the public and elected officials. The needs of the state are too great to allow billions of dollars a year to be spent without any evaluation of whether it is doing the job intended or taking away from a higher priority need.

Jan Moller is Director of LANO’s Louisiana Budget Project, which monitors and reports on state government spending and how it affects Louisiana’s low- to moderate-income families. He is an award-winning journalist formerly with the New Orleans Times-Picayune Capitol Bureau.

by Bryan

Don’t let lil’ Bobby scare you: State classified employees’ rights

April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Originally printed in Issue 2 of the People’s [Censored].

Early in February of 2012—in response to a flood of state employee inquiries concerning Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pension legislation—the Louisiana Department of State Civil Service published a document outlining the rights of state classified employees in regards to talking with lawmakers, testifying at legislative hearings, attending public rallies, and otherwise expressing their political views. The following is a reproduction of that document.

Seal of Louisiana

DATE: February 9, 2012
TO: Heads of State Agencies and Human Resources Directors
SUBJECT: State Classified Employees’ Rights to Address Members of the Legislature

As the 2012 Legislative Session approaches, there are many bills that are being filed that may have an impact on state employees, both classified and unclassified. Questions have arisen such as does a state classified employee have the right to address members of the legislature.

Classified employees are prohibited from engaging in efforts to support or oppose a candidate, party or faction in an election. These constitutional restrictions do not prohibit a classified employee from expressing themselves either privately or publicly on issues that may be pending before the legislature or other public body.

However, the Lobbying Act, R.S. 24:56 does prohibit any state employee classified or unclassified “in his official capacity or on behalf of his employer” from communicating with a legislator in an attempt to influence the passage or defeat of legislation. This prohibition does not apply to an elected official or his designee, nor does it prohibit the giving of factual information to the legislature, whether the employee is acting in his official capacity or not.

The act of expressing matters of personal concern in a personal capacity are not prohibited, but if an employee wishes to express these matters during duty hours, it must be done while on annual leave.

Below are a few questions we have recently received from employees and answers that I believe will be helpful.

Do I have to tell my supervisor (appointing authority) why I am requesting annual leave?

No, you do not. However, a supervisor (appointing authority) is not required to approve a request or requests for annual leave. If you do not have approved annual leave in advance of your absence, your appointing authority may place you in a leave without pay status.

Can I go to the legislature or other public body or public official to express my view on matters?

Yes, you can. You must be on approved annual leave status if you want to go and express your views during normal duty hours.

Can I get in trouble for expressing myself publicly?

Maybe. The United States Supreme Court has held that although government employees have a right to free speech like any other citizen, when the government is the employer it (the government) has an interest in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from the interest it has in regulating the speech of the citizenry in general. The standard that the Supreme Court has set to determine if the government can regulate the speech is “If an employee’s speech does not relate to a matter of public concern then the government’s interest in efficiency, work place harmony and satisfactory performance will usually trump the employee’s interest in free speech.” Therefore, when speaking publicly, make sure you are addressing matters that are of public concern and not personal to your particular work environment.

Can I write a letter to the editor of a newspaper to express my views on an issue?

Yes, you can. However, as stated above, make sure your letter concerns a matter of public interest and not your personal work environment.

Can I go to public rallies on issues and carry a sign, cheer and boo?

Yes, you can. But the same standard applies to expressions at rallies as it does before a public body.

Can I contact my legislator, personally, by letter or email?

Yes, you can. As a private citizen you have the right to contact your legislator concerning any issue that is of personal concern to you or concerning any issue before the legislature. Do not use your state issued work equipment to communicate matters of public concern to a member of a public body. Please use your private equipment.

Can I be a member of an organization that lobbies before the legislature?

Yes, you can. You as a state employee cannot lobby before the legislature in your official capacity as a state employee, but that does not prevent you from being a member of an organization that lobbies the legislature on matters of public concern, such as the American Federation of State, County or Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Retired State Employees Association (RSEA), State Employees Association of Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Public Employees’ Retirement Systems.

If the Retired State Employees Association were holding a rally on the steps of the State Capitol, could active state employees who are RSEA members participate?

Yes, you can. However, if the rally is scheduled during normal duty hours, you must be on approved annual leave. Additionally, the standard stated above concerning expressions will apply at rallies.

Would attending a rally be considered lobbying?

No, it would not. A rally is a gathering of people to inspire enthusiasm for a cause.

Can I place a sign in my yard supporting or opposing proposed legislation?

Yes, you can. Proposed legislation that you may support or oppose is an issue and not the support or opposition of a party, candidate, or faction seeking an elected office.

Can I sign a recall petition?

Yes, you can. However, due to the prohibition of supporting or opposing a candidate, party or faction, you cannot start a recall petition, solicit signatures for a recall petition or actively participate in a recall of an elected official.

Can I use my work computer to express my personal opinion on an issue of public concern?

No, you cannot. Your work computer is for work purposes. If you wish to communicate a matter of public concern to a member of a public body via electronic mail, please use your private computer.

If you have any questions about what you can or cannot do, please contact your Human Resource office.

s/Shannon S. Templet

by Bryan

What we’re watching: Freakonomics: The Movie (2010)

April 22, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge

“In 2005, journalist Stephen Dubner partnered with rogue economist Steven Levitt to write a book that promised to explore the ‘hidden side of everything’. A surprise literary sensation, Freakonomics became a global phenomenon, selling more than 4 million copies and introducing readers to a new way to view the world.”

Freakonomics: The MovieIn 2010, enter Freakonomics: The Movie. Starting off with an explanation of a real estate agent’s interest in your home’s sale price and finishing it up with “Can You Bribe a 9th Grader to Succeed?”, Freakonomics covers a myriad of topics in between.

Ok, so maybe not a myriad, but more than a couple. Some, admittedly, more surprising (like links between legalized abortion and a reduction in crime rates) and some a bit more covert than others (such as corruption throughout the Sumo culture). But all the topics, ranging through cheating, real estate, parenting, incentives, and cause and effect, are sure to keep you interested.

The film mostly ends up being a series of documentary shorts used to further explain the two Ste(ph/v)en’s statistical worldviews. One of my favorite shorts was A Roshanda By Any Other Name, written by Morgan Spurlock—of Supersize Me fame—and Jeremy Chilnick. (Just a note for transparency’s sake, I happen to love Morgan Spurlock!) It covers all the connotations of a child’s name and the effects those names have on children’s life outcomes.

One of the most interesting comparisons is between historically white names as compared to the Afrocentric names that entered the scene starting with the black power movement of the late 1960s. One study involved the creation of 5000 resumes sent out in Boston and Chicago with half having names considered white and the other half having historically black names. The likelihood to receive an interview was about 33% less for those with African-American names, despite the resumes being identical. As the conductor of the study, Dr. Mullainathan puts it “It means that if a white person is searching for a job for 10 weeks, an equally skilled African-American will be searching for a job for 15 weeks. And those are 5 long weeks if you are unemployed.”

So if you want to know why there was a suspicion of polio being caused by ice cream, or have always wondered what percentage of crime reduction can be attributed to innovative policing tactics, put this one on your instant queue and learn a thing or two about Freakonomics!


Originally published in the People’s [Censored], Issue 2.