Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

Get my RSS |

Corporate Political Speech

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 8:15 AM EST

On Monday, I explained why the Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing unlimited corporate spending (or "speech") in elections based on the premise that corporations are legal "persons" deserving free-speech rights doesn't make sense:

Corporations can never take political action premised on genuine support for a politician's ideas or values. Corporate spending on elections must be predicated on corporate self-interest, because corporations are legally required to maximize profit for their shareholders. They will never be able to participate in elections in a "politically motivated" way. They can only participate in service of their own bottom lines. If a corporation acted against its own interests because their management thought it would serve the greater good (for example, by bankrolling an ad campaign supporting a clean-air law that would cripple the company), that would be literally illegal. 

Justin Fox, the new editor of the Harvard Business Review, agrees:

The "one and only social responsibility of business," economist Milton Friedman wrote back in 1970 in a New York Times Magazine essay that launched a thousand arguments, is "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game ..." Friedman contrasted this with the multiple responsibilities that an individual — such as a corporate executive — might have "to his family, his conscience, his feelings of charity, his church, his clubs, his city, his country."

[...]

The individuals who make up the electorate in the United States are, as Friedman described, beings of many facets — their actions and their views shaped by pecuniary self interest but also by values, beliefs, and loyalties that might conflict with that self interest. The ideal for-profit corporation, on the other hand, is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can "within the rules of the game." It is supposed to behave in a fashion that for an individual would probably be described as psychopathic. And if corporations are allowed to play a decisive role in shaping the "rules of the game," we have effectively put the inmates in control of the asylum.

[...]

If corporations are persons, they are — if they behave as Milton Friedman wanted them to — persons with mental and emotional impairments so severe that any decent judge would feel entirely justified in declaring them incompetent.

Great stuff. Fox and Reuters' Felix Salmon have more.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Economic Illiteracy

| Tue Jan. 26, 2010 8:14 AM EST

On Sunday, Harold Ford, the former Tennessee congressman who's considering a run for the New York Senate seat held by Kirsten Gillibrand, published a column on the New York Times' op-ed page. He didn't explain what his job was at Merrill Lynch the past three years, but he did find space to argue that Democrats should cut taxes and reduce deficits. Unfortunately, Ford didn't identify how, exactly, one might cut the federal deficit while cutting taxes without reducing spending. And although he says that a "bipartisan commission to recommend spending cuts to rein in deficit growth" is a good idea, he doesn't identify any actual cuts he would support. Clearly, Ford has access to a magic deficit wand that will allow us to slash deficits and taxes without cutting spending. Either that or he wants the political benefit of being a "deficit hawk" without the political costs of acknowledging that cutting the deficit without raising taxes means slashing Social Security and/or Medicare spending. 

In related news, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, seems to be ignorant of the fact that cutting government spending in the midst of a recession hurts the economy. Economist Dean Baker vents:

If Senator McConnell really is unaware of such basic economics then it would be appropriate to have a news story highlighting his ignorance. This would be equivalent to not knowing that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the September 11th attack. Mr. McConnell's gaffe on this issue is certainly far more newsworthy than items like President Obama's comment on how white working class people were "bitter" during the primaries. That comment was the topic of many news stories.

It's a good bet that we will not see a mainstream media story about Ford or McConnell's trouble with economics.

Ross Douthat and Jonathan Rauch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 6:21 PM EST

In his New York Times column from Monday, Ross Douthat argues that President Barack Obama overreached by pushing for comprehensive health care reform. (Mark Oppenheimer profiles the conservative wunderkind in the latest issue of Mother Jones.) Douthat says that liberals should blame their heroes—FDR, for example—for creating a state so large that it's impossible to reform:

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

That’s a quote from Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working,” a book that should be required reading for Democrats as they contemplate their predicament this week. First published amid the collapse of Clintoncare, and then reissued after the failure of the Gingrich Revolution, Rauch’s analysis makes mincemeat of the popular theory that sinister “special interests” are to blame for derailing reforms the common man wholeheartedly supports.

Instead, he suggests that sweeping reforms are difficult because we’re all special interests, in one sense or another. We all benefit from something (or many things) the government does, and so we all have an incentive to resist dramatic changes to the way Washington spends money.

What's missing from Douthat's analysis of Rauch is the fact that on Saturday (two days before Douthat's column appeared), Rauch offered a guarded endorsement of the Senate's health care reform bill. "It could be much better," he says (true), and "there is plenty to worry about," (also true), but "Taken together, [the bill's] measures could set in motion a virtuous cycle." (You can read Rauch's column and judge for yourself whether that's true.) On Monday, Douthat took to his blog to note Rauch's endorsement of the Senate bill. "[I]t’s only fair to note that Rauch himself thinks the legislation is worth saving," Douthat wrote. But he didn't explain why he didn't mention it in his print column. If the endorsement wasn't mentioned because Douthat didn't see it until after his column went to press, then Douthat should say that. If Douthat knew about Rauch's position but decided not to mention it in print, he should explain why he came around to the idea that "it's only fair" to mention it.

Why Make Campaign Contributions?

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 3:08 PM EST

In the video below, Linda McMahon, the WWE CEO who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Connecticut, offers a remarkably candid explanation for her history of political contributions to Democrats:

In the video, McMahon explains that she donated to Democrats not because she supported their political agenda, but because she wanted to promote the interests of her business. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of candidates accepting donations made out of pure self-interest, because we tend to want campaign contributions to be premised on genuine support for a politician and/or his or her political positions. This also gets at the heart of the problem with the recent Supreme Court decision opening up elections to unlimited amounts of corporate money.

Unopinionated Media

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:33 PM EST

One of my pet peeves is the idea that the news reporting of the New York Times, the Washington Post, et. al. is utterly free of bias or opinion. That attitude—which you saw in Times reporter Peter Baker's complaints about the addition of Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post to the White House print pool—is just infuriating. Even a casual perusal of the Times or the Post (or, for that matter, the more right-leaning Wall Street Journal) will turn up examples of reporters and/or editors injecting their own thoughts or opinions into stories. And even the cleanest of stories is still affected by the reporter's decisions: who to talk to, how to describe events, and what kind of credibility to give to different sources. Anyway, today's example is a story in the Times about Obama's plans for his State of the Union address, which is scheduled for Wednesday. Describing the administration's new economic recovery proposals, the reporter writes:

Such programs are, notably, much less far-reaching than Mr. Obama’s expansive first-year agenda of passing an economic recovery package, bailing out the auto industry, overhauling the health care system, passing energy legislation and imposing tough new restrictions on banks. That agenda has left him vulnerable to criticism that he is using the government to remake every aspect of American society.

I added the emphasis there, but that sentence sticks out anyway. It's hilariously broad—"every" aspect of American society? It's totally unattached to any sourcing or evidence. Who are these critics? Do they have names? If "Republicans" or "Tea Party activists" are claiming that Obama is using government to remake American society, readers should know that. Just saying that Obama is "vulnerable to criticism" without saying where that criticism is coming from gives the claim a credibility it doesn't deserve. Does America society seem "remade" to you?

The entire article is problematic as "straight news" because the reporter is arguing that Obama is moderating his policy positions to appeal to the political center. Never mind that White House officials explicitly deny this premise. (White House officials have been known to lie, of course.) The bottom line is that the reporter is making a call about what the truth of the matter is. Breaking news: that's an opinion. Just because I happen to think it's a correct opinion doesn't make it a fact. The article should have had an "analysis" tag. Or maybe the Times should drop the act and just admit that it's doing the same thing that TPM is—just with a centrist bias instead of a liberal one.

Mon Jul. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 4, 2013 11:23 AM EST
Tue Nov. 6, 2012 9:47 PM EST
Fri Sep. 21, 2012 5:40 PM EDT
Sun Aug. 19, 2012 6:21 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:16 AM EDT
Mon Jul. 9, 2012 10:04 AM EDT
Thu Jun. 28, 2012 12:40 PM EDT
Wed Jun. 20, 2012 7:30 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 11, 2012 10:32 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 4, 2012 9:43 AM EDT
Wed May. 9, 2012 3:01 AM EDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 11:15 AM EDT
Fri Feb. 10, 2012 1:56 PM EST