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Opinion

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The morality brigade

We're still legislating and regulating private morality, while at the same time ignoring the much larger crisis of public morality in America.

In recent weeks, Republican state legislators have decided to thwart the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to have an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Legislators in North Dakota passed a bill banning abortions after six weeks or after a fetal heartbeat had been detected, and approved a fall referendum that could ban all abortions by defining human life as beginning with conception. Lawmakers in Arkansas have banned abortions within 12 weeks of conception.

These legislators worry about fetuses, but they've shown little concern for what happens to children after they're born. They and other conservatives have been cutting funding for child nutrition, health care for infants and their mothers, and schools.

The new House Republican budget gets a big chunk of its savings from programs designed to help poor kids. The budget sequester already in effect takes aim at programs like Head Start, designed to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Meanwhile, the morality brigade continues to battle same-sex marriage.

Despite the Supreme Court's willingness to consider the constitutionality of California's ban, no one should assume a majority of the justices will strike it down. The court could just as easily decide that the issue is up to the states, or strike down California's law while allowing other states to continue their bans.

Conservative moralists don't want women to have control over their bodies or same-sex couples to marry, but they don't give a hoot about billionaires taking over our democracy for personal gain or big bankers taking over our economy. Yet these violations of public morality are far more dangerous to our society because they undermine the public trust that's essential to both our democracy and economy.

Three years ago, at the behest of a right-wing group called Citizens United, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in politics by deciding corporations were "people" under the First Amendment.

A record $12 billion was spent on election campaigns in 2012, affecting all levels of government. Much came from billionaires like the Koch brothers and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson -- seeking fewer regulations, lower taxes and weaker trade unions.

They didn't entirely succeed, but the billionaires established a beachhead for the midterm elections of 2014 and beyond.

Yet where is the morality brigade when it comes to these moves to take over our democracy?

Among the worst violators of public morality in recent years have been executives and traders on Wall Street.

Recently, JPMorgan Chase, the nation's biggest bank, was found to have misled its shareholders and the public about its $6 billion "London Whale" losses in 2012. This is the same JPMorgan Chase that's led the charge against the Dodd-Frank Act, designed to protect the public from another Wall Street meltdown and taxpayer-funded bailout.

Lobbyists for the giant banks have been systematically taking the teeth out of Dodd-Frank, leaving nothing but the gums.

The so-called "Volcker Rule" intended to prevent the banks from making risky bets with federally insured commercial deposits -- itself a watered-down version of the old Glass-Steagall Act -- still hasn't seen the light of day.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee passed bills to weaken Dodd-Frank -- expanding exemptions and allowing banks that do their derivative trading in other countries (i.e., JPMorgan) to avoid the new rules altogether.

Meanwhile, House Republicans voted to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act in its entirety, as part of their budget plan.

And still, no major Wall Street executives have been held accountable for the wild betting that led to the near meltdown in 2008. Attorney General Eric Holder says the big banks are too big to prosecute.

Why doesn't the morality brigade complain about the rampant greed on the Street that's already brought the economy to its knees, wiping out the savings of millions of Americans and subjecting countless others to joblessness and insecurity -- and seems set on doing it again?

What people do in their bedrooms shouldn't be the public's business. Women should have rights over their own bodies. Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

But what powerful people do in their boardrooms is the public's business. Our democracy needs to be protected from the depredations of big money. Our economy needs to be guarded against the excesses of too-big-to-fail banks.

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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