It’s natural, it’s the way we are.

Yesterday I took my car in for repair as part of a recall.

A number of folks were sitting around waiting for service work to be finished. Naturally, we were talking about various things, and I mentioned that some of the problems they were talking about were a result of, or worsened by, high population.

As you might imagine, there was a period of silence, followed by a number of protestations. One man said that, while he and his wife had chosen to have 2 children, he had “a right” to have as many children as he wanted. I asked where does that right come from. His reply was, “It’s natural, it’s the way we are.”

Further conversation ensued, and he said he thought that, as long as he could support them, he should be able to have as many children as he wanted. I asked what happens if he has them, then can’t support them. He sort of stumbled around the idea that “family will do it.” “But what if your family can’t or won’t” He said they would.

Well, I was reassured. You bet.

Thus was avoided any recognition that we live in a finite world, and there is a link between individual action and global problems. This, of course, means that we have no responsibility for the effects of our personal choices on ourselves or others.

Rights without responsibilities – the American Dream.

But what was interesting to me was his reasoning and support for his position: “It’s natural. It’s the way we are.”

Once again, here was an example of supporting a position with a reason that would be laughed at in support of any number of other human activities.

If someone makes us mad, or has something we want but won’t give it to us, we can simply kill them and take it. It’s our right, because it’s natural. It’s the way we are. We are told that humans have been doing just that for most of our history, and prehistory, for that matter.

Of course, the other person may kill us instead, but that’s how it goes. It’d natural. It’s the way we are.

If I want to live in your house, I can simply throw you out and take it. If you can stop me, you stay. If not, I get your house. Until you decide to take it back, or someone else decides they want it. It’s natural. It’s the way we are. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

Puts mugging in a different perspective, doesn’t it?

When I was a child people who acted like that were called “savages” or “uncivilized.”

When I was in college I was told that people like that were “mentally ill” and had “poor impulse control.”

I suppose that is still true, but now we call it “Standing up for our rights.”

What do you think?

Gun Control

As Pat Paulson said so well, “A lot of people have been shooting off their mouths about gun control.”

Gun rights advocates claim unalienable right granted by the second amendment to the constitution:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

It is clear that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.

What is not clear is what arms are, or what constitutes infringement.

My Merriam-Webster dictionary lists “arm” coming from the

“Middle English armes (plural) meaning weapons, from the Anglo-French, from the Latin arma.” It defines the word to mean “a means (as a weapon) of offense or defense; especially: FIREARM.”

The same dictionary lists “infringe” coming from

“Medieval Latin infringere, from Latin, to break, crush, from in + frangere to break.”

These definitions follow

transitive verb

1: to encroach upon in a way that violates law or the right of another (infringe a patent)

2 obsolete: DEFEAT, FRUSTRATE

intransitive verb: ENCROACH used with on or upon (infringe on our rights)”

So, while the meaning of arms is pretty clear, the meaning of infringe is a little muddier.

“Arms” means weapons. No restrictions: from knives, hatchets and swords to unmanned drones and atomic bombs. All are arms. (Hence common terms like “the arms race” in referring to the quest for atomic bomb “superiority.”)

“Infringe” might have meant “defeat” or “frustrate” at the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, or it may have been obsolete by that time. I can’t say, although the fashion of writing “s”s as if they were “f”s is certainly one I don’t miss.

It might also have meant exactly what the dictionary shows it means now:

“to encroach upon in a way that violates law or the right of another”

If so, we have serious interpretive problems:

If infringe means to somehow frustrate/prevent an action (owning or using arms) “in a way that violates law”, how can laws regulating gun ownership and/or use be infringement?

On the other hand, if we cannot regulate the ownership and use of weapons, what is to keep someone from owning and operating an unmanned drone, or an atomic bomb?

It seems that everyone should be able to agree that the second amendment does not prevent reasonable regulation of the right to “keep and bear arms.” The question becomes what is reasonable regulation, given the following?

  • The Founders recognized that those in power will seek to keep and consolidate power, and the ability of the people to protect themselves from unwarranted acts by the powerful is essential to maintaining their freedoms.
  • Each of us desires to be safe and secure in our homes and our daily lives. Unrestricted ownership and use of firearms is often a threat to that safety and security.

What is reasonable regulation? What is effective enough, without being excessive?

What do you think?

Double Standards #2 – Welfare

Here is another example of a common double standard widely supported by economic conservatives.

Keep in mind that we all have double standards. It’s part of the friction of living in groups. And we’re all pretty righteous about our own double standards. Things get petty and can be bothersome, but we usually, eventually, work things out, because we need to get through the day.

In the United States, at both the state and national levels, over the last few decades a particular double standard has become more and more apparent: Business welfare is good. Working class welfare is bad

Here is the conservative line about “Welfare”, as stated by any number of nationally prominent Republicans:

The government needs to cut expenditures, particularly “entitlement programs” such as Medicare* and Social Security**, but pretty much all social welfare programs. If the government fails to do so the economy will collapse, as the government does not have the revenue to pay for these programs. In addition, giving people something for doing nothing simply encourages a feeling of entitlement and leads to increased crime.

OK. Let’s accept these arguments, shall we?

But then, I don’t see any reason why they should be limited to “entitlement programs”. If the arguments are true, shouldn’t they apply to businesses too?

How about if these business executives follow their own advice?

Businesses should not receive special support from government. Any benefit a business receives from government should be paid for***: businesses should pay a tax or a fee for those services the government provides, in direct proportion that the business benefits from that service. Any other cost/use relationship would be unfair, as it would either put an unfair burden on the business (when the fees/taxes paid exceed the benefit) or give preferential unearned benefits (“welfare”) to the business.

Examples of services the government provides businesses: a legal system that is essential to the creation of contracts. A court system that is essential to enforcement of contracts. A free press which maintains a vibrant communications system for transacting business, particularly advertising and on-line services. A public road system that makes it possible for people to get to work, to shop for products and services, and for the delivery of products. A public school system that prepares potential employees for work. A police force that protects business property and people from harm

Shouldn’t business pay their fair share for these services the government provides us all?

And why should the rest of us pay for bailouts for businesses “too large to fail”? A group of investors selects a management team that runs the business into the ground, and then expects a government bailout to cover their bad debts. Can you think of a better example of “welfare” or of a group with a sense of “entitlement”?

Perhaps the conservatives are right: if businesses paid for the benefits of government, instead of letting the working class foot the vast majority of the bill, the economy would be more balanced.

After all, giving businesses something for doing nothing simply encourages a feeling of entitlement and leads to increased crime.

What do you think?

Notes:

*Medicare is paid for primarily by a tax on income. As with any insurance, benefits are based on coverage and need. Medicare is not health care–it is health insurance, which is not the same thing.

**Social Security is completely paid for by a tax on income. As with any pension plan, the “benefit” bears a direct relationship to the amount paid in (Social Security taxes) by the recipient, and how long ago the tax was paid.

***It is well documented that many businesses, particularly very large corporations, pay little or no income taxes, even in years where they make record profits.

Double Standards #1 – Debt

My parents stated the principle. “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’

George Carlin clarified the practice, “If it’s mine, it’s stuff. If it’s your, it’s shit.” As in, “Get your shit out of here! I need room for my stuff.”

We all have double standards. It’s part of the friction of living in groups. And we’re all pretty righteous about our own double standards. Things get petty and can be bothersome, but we usually, eventually, work things out, because we need to get through the day.

But when the government is paralyzed by double standards it goes beyond petty and bothersome.

In the United States, at both the state and national levels, over the last few decades a particular double standard has become more and more apparent: Business debt is good. Government debt is bad.

Here is the conservative line about the government, the budget and the national debt, as stated by any number of nationally prominent Republicans:

Government should not spend more than it takes in. Going into debt is bad. The government needs to eliminate the deficit and to pay off the national debt.

To do so, according to these same prominent Republicans and any number of conservative pundits, The government needs to cut expenditures, particularly “entitlement programs” such as Medicare and Social Security, but pretty much all social welfare programs.

And, of course, the government should not raise taxes, as raising taxes during times of financial slowdown will stifle the recovery.

OK. Let’s accept those arguments, shall we?

But then, I don’t see any reason why they should be limited to our government. If they are true, shouldn’t they apply to individuals and businesses too?

How about if these prominent Republican business executives follow their own advice?

Businesses should not spend more than they take in. Going into debt is bad. They need to eliminate their deficits. Therefore, businesses can buy only what they can afford to pay for with cash: no new buildings, no new machinery, no stock for sale, no purchases without the cash to pay for them.

And the other aspects of responsible economics: they should cut expenditures, particularly “entitlement programs” such as executive bonuses and golden parachutes, but pretty much all expenses beyond basic salaries and materials and processing expenses.

And, of course, they should not raise prices, as raising prices during times of financial slowdown will stifle the recovery.

How’s that for returning to sound economics and strengthening the economy?

Of course it eliminates lenders, and terminates most of the financial industry.

Well, as my parents said, “You can’t make an omelet…”

What do you think?

On Corruption In Governments

On the news today a comment was made about the difficulty of establishing a democratic way of life when the government is corrupt. The subject of the comment was one of the Middle Eastern countries that has recently had its first open election and is struggling with the transition.

It occurred to me that we in the United States are having the same difficulty.

We commonly think of corrupt (always foreign) governments as being riddled with officials who take money from criminals to sway the courts, make laws favoring the powerful, give special treatment to the wealthy, or otherwise give preferential treatment to those who have money and power.

Once again, the double standard: If it happens there, it is corruption. If it happens here, it is “the free market”.

In either case, the wealthy give money to the politicians and in return get preferential treatment in laws, taxes, and liability for their actions. In so doing, they increase their wealth and power, and become more entrenched in their positions and their corruption.

If you doubt this, think for a minute: if any business administration did as poorly as the Congress of the United States in addressing its responsibilities, how long would they be tolerated?

I submit to you: the government of the United States is as corrupt as any government in history, if somewhat subtler in some of its workings.

What do you think?

What Are We To Do?

Political strategists agree that there are essentially three groups of people that determine who wins office. These groups are the right, the center and the left. (This “right, center, left” fragmentation is all relative. You can make a very good argument that there is no left, and hardly any center in politics in the United States, just degrees of the right.)

The following are some thoughts on moving the country toward the (relative) left, and recovering democratic values.

From the above view comes the political strategy that for a candidate to win election they need either the right and a majority of the center, or the left and a majority of the center, but you cannot win with only the support of the right or the left, as they are not in themselves big enough blocs to carry the vote.

Assuming support from the extreme and courting the middle has been the predominant strategy of both major political parties for some decades (Thanks, Ronnie!) As the Republicans moved farther and farther to the right, the Democratic party did the same, based on the ideas that the left had nowhere else to go, so would continue to vote Democratic, and more of the middle would vote Democratic as the party’s platform moved right.

It has worked, more or less, off and on, for the Democratic Party. It has been a disaster for the citizenry, for the economy, and for democracy.

What is rarely talked about is the following: Of the people eligible to vote, fewer than half register to vote. Of the people registered to vote, fewer than half vote regularly, and a large number of those who do vote, only vote for some offices. Since the majority of political offices are won by a small majority, this means that about an eigth of those eligible to vote regularly determine who will make policy and law.

It is said that there are many reasons that people who do not register, or who register to vote but do not, fail to cast ballots: apathy, too busy, confused, etc. I contend that the majority of those who do not vote fail to do so because they feel it will make no difference. They feel that the candidates are too similar to each other, and too dissimilar to “regular people”. Or they feel that the choice is “between two evils” and when you chose the lesser of the evils you still have an evil. Or they feel that “the government” is too entrenched in the way things are, and will not change. Or they feel that corporations buy off whoever is elected, and so it does not matter. Or some combination of these reasons and more. The net result is the feeling, “Why bother to vote? It won’t make any difference.”

And experience shows them they are right. I believe that the legacy of Obama’s election, and his subsequent failure to make substantive change, will be deeper apathy toward democracy. And it is justified. However, I find this apathy unacceptable.

Obama’s astounding success was, I believe, because he gave people hope for real change – that he was a person who knew what daily life was like for most people and wanted to make the changes in government and the country most people believed needed to be changed. That is exactly what he said during the campaigns, and what he promised when he took office. He has failed on almost every promise.

He has accomplished a number of generally minor things, it is true. But look at his successes and failures: the best thing you can say about him is that he is not as bad as the Republicans, and if they had won, things would be worse. I agree, but this is the thinking that has taken us farther and farther down the path of less democracy, less prosperity, less security, less independence, less of virtually everything that makes democracy democracy and life worth living.

So, what do we do in this bleak situation? That is the point, after all: what do we do?

The two major parties were once challenged by third parties, but they have enacted laws and regulations that make it nearly impossible for a third party to win any significant number of elections. The solution, I believe, is to rebuild democracy from the ground up, from within the Democratic Party.

I believe that the way to win elections, which is what political parties are all about, and to move the country left, back to democracy, is to energize those who have not been interested in registering and voting. It worked for Obama, although he did it primarily by lying. Let’s do it for real, and let’s start locally. In every city, in every county, at the state level, and nationally, let’s get real progressives elected – by setting a real platform of real change, and holding our candidates to it – no excuses. If they vote against the platform, they lose the support of the party. If they do not actively advocate the platform, they lose the support of the party. Then we find another candidate who will advocate and support the platform

Our platform would be along these lines:

Let’s demand single-payer health care, not insurance; let’s return to the Constitution – no wars without specific congressional approval and a specific, formal declaration of war by the Congress; let’s end military spending for prosecution of war without specific congressional approval; let’s require full accountability by the military – no more “missing” money in the defense department; let’s demand withdrawal of all combat troops in foreign countries and limit military spending to the average percent of the GNP (or similar measure) that other countries spend; let’s retrain returning troops for the jobs needed to build and install renewable energy systems throughout the entire country in order to end our dependence on oil and coal (foreign or domestic), and then employ them to do it; let’s re-institute import tariffs to support domestic production; let’s index the cost of living for Social Security and similarly indexed programs to the real costs faced by seniors and indices appropriate to the other programs; let’s reform the tax code to simplify it and create equity between individuals and companies; let’s eliminate for-profit corporations by converting them to partnerships, and let’s eliminate the liability shield; let’s make it clear that only human beings have constitutional rights, not created legal entities like corporations; let’s prohibit all but registered voters from making political contributions, and make those contribution records public; let’s make sure that all who wish to register to vote, and who are eligible, can easily register; let’s make sure that all registered voters can easily vote and have their votes accurately counted.

Enough wishy-washy crap. Let’s make real change.

Peace Officers or Killers?

I want to clearly state that I understand the police have a very tough job. Let me also clearly state that most police, most of the time, do that job without significant problems, and without too much hassle on anybody’s part. In the process, they help keep order and provide actual security for most of us, most of the time.

But, at an increasingly frightening frequency, some Portland police officers have gone beyond simply carrying guns to killing people with them.

It is these officers who are destroying the police department and civil life in Portland.

Too strong a statement?

Think about this: each individual officer competed for the job. Each officer went through a battery of physical and psychological tests to get hired. After being hired, each officer received the training the Police Department determined is necessary to do the job. One might reasonably conclude that each officer is a professional, with training and experience sufficient to do the job.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that any action by a police officer that is unacceptable would be cause for discipline or termination, depending on the severity of the seriousness of the action.

And yet, people are being killed by police officers. Unarmed people. Citizens who are already in custody. Folks who have simply been stopped by officers without being suspected of breaking the law. And the officers involved face no serious discipline. The “justification” is often that the officer was “in fear for his life”. The problem with that is of course that it is an extremely subjective evaluation, and absent any meaningful review, is tacit permission to kill people who have done no wrong.

The citizens of Portland have tried, for at least 30 years that I know of, to get some kind of effective citizen review of police activity. It has not happened.

And citizens continue to die at the hands of Portland police.

Increasingly, the police are seen as the enemy. Unfortunately, if this trend is not addressed effectively, at some point the relationship between police and citizenry will go beyond a feeling of fear to one of occupation.

Perhaps it is time that the Portland Police were really held responsible for their actions.

And corporations too, while we’re at it.

What do you think?

Government Regulation

Let’s look at government regulation as it relates to people’s actions.

The Reasoning Presented: individual people have a tendency to act in their own interests, often to the detriment of others. If left unchecked, at least some people will prey on others – the young, the small, the weak, the elderly, the ill, the poor. This is a bad thing, and should be prevented, or if it cannot be prevented, at least punished.

Therefore, we must, as a society, through our elected and appointed representatives – our government – regulate the actions of people, in order to allow the majority of people to live their lives with some amount of peace and security.

Regulation of people, through laws and regulation, enforced by police and courts, is necessary to civil life.

Let’s look at government regulation as it relates to business’ actions.

The Reasoning Presented: individual businesses have a tendency to act in their own interests, often to the detriment of others. If left unchecked, at least some businesses will prey on others – people and businesses. This is a bad thing, and should be prevented, or if it cannot be prevented, at least punished.

Therefore, we must, as a society, through our elected and appointed representatives – our government – regulate the actions of businesses, in order to allow the majority of people to live their lives with some amount of peace and security.

Regulation of businesses, through laws and regulation, enforced by police and courts, is necessary to civil life.

Let’s look at the conservatives’ story of government regulation as it relates to business’ actions.

The Reasoning Presented: Businesses are different than people. Businesses thrive only when they serve their customers. It would be self-defeating for a business to act in a way that did not serve its customers. Regulation of business raises costs unnecessarily, increasing prices and hurting people. Regulating business only hurts the interests of the public.

Therefore, we must, as a society, through our elected and appointed representatives – our government – allow businesses to operate freely and without restrictions. This free market will regulate business actions, providing the best of products and services to the public, and the most responsible business “citizens” which will help the majority of people to live their lives in peace and security.

Regulation of businesses, through laws and regulation, enforced by police and the courts, is detrimental to civil life

Given the actions of business, as experienced in the United States’ reduced regulatory status during the last decade, this argument is a little silly, isn’t it?

What do you think?

“Corporations are Selfish, Greedy Bastards”

A month or two ago I had a conversation with Susan W, Clark concerning the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political speech. We were watching PBS Newshour at the time.

The two commentators (Mark Shields and David Brooks) were in disagreement about whether corporations would use their now legally clear ability to spend all the money they wanted to influence elections and legislative issues.

David Brooks said that corporations are interested in the welfare of people generally because, after all, they wanted to sell to them. Mark Shields mentioned that he did not see corporations pushing for the Equal Rights Act, or supporting the Voting Rights Act.

Sue’s response was, “Of course not. Corporations are selfish, greedy bastards!”

While her remarks can be taken as somewhat cynical, and may well be offensive to those who disagree, there is unquestionably some truth in her statement.

After all, law and precedent have repeatedly clarified that the primary responsibility of corporations in the United States is to maximize return on investment for their stockholders. This imperative is so overwhelming that it actually overrides the corporations’ responsibility to obey the law.

History holds many examples of corporations selling defective products that injure or kill people, even when the corporations had full knowledge that their products would do so. A review of the records shows that they often continued to manufacture and sell those products because it was more profitable than redesign, repair, or discontinuing them.

It is hard to disagree with the “selfish, greedy” part. The “bastard” part should probably be considered artistic license.

What do you think?

Let’s Run Government Like a Business

For years, those running for political office, particularly conservatives, used the phrase “Government should be run like a business.”

Let’s take a look at that.

On the surface, it sounds good: business has to be very realistic about costs, minimizing the cost of producing and distributing the product or service it provides, while reaching the broadest possible customer base.

So what could be bad about that?

Virtually all businesses in the United States are corporations. The main benefit of forming a corporation is to reduce liability. That is, to avoid being responsible for things when they go wrong. The primary legal responsibility of a corporation is to maximize the return on investment of the stockholders. This outweighs any other objective, in law as well as in action.

This is so deeply ingrained in our legal and social system, that so long as the corporation (by the decisions of the board, directors, managers, etc.) acts to maximize return on investment it is effectively immune from criminal prosecution. They may be subject to civil penalties, but not criminal.

Case law is replete with instances of corporate decisions that were known to cause multiple deaths, and yet no person or corporation has been called to criminal court to answer. Perhaps the first well-known case is the Chevrolet Corvair, as described in the 1965 book “Unsafe at any speed” by Ralph Nader. So, one characteristic of “business” in the United States is that they can make products that injure or even kill people, knowing they will injure or kill people, but the businesses are not held criminally liable.

It will be interesting to see if anyone (corporation of person) is held criminally responsible for the deaths of those who were lost in the gulf “oil spill”.

Instances where service or product quality or safety has decreased over the last few years are so common that we have all had our own experiences with them. It is clear that service and quality are not important, so long as sales are adequate to keep up profits. In fact, lowering costs (the usual result of which is lower quality) is a sure way to increase profits. Of course, lower quality and poor service tend to drive customers away, so what can a business do to maintain and increase the customer base?

Perhaps the most astounding example of efforts by corporations to insure customers is the recent Federal “health care reform” resulting in a legal requirement that virtually everyone buy heath insurance from a commercial insurance company regardless of quality of product or service.

Again, case law is replete with instances of corporate decisions in the health insurance industry that resulted directly in the death of individuals, commonly by denying coverage that was in fact included in the contract of insurance, or delaying it so long that the insured person died, and yet no health insurance corporation, or individual, has been tried in criminal court for murder, or even manslaughter.

So, to review: Businesses in the United States are geared to maximize benefit for those who have invested the most money in them, ignoring laws, product quality, and even product safety, manipulating the Federal Government into forcing “free citizens” to become customers.

If we expect the government to be run like a business, does that mean that government bureaus will become geared to maximize benefit for those who have invested the most money in them (by buying politicians and bribing officials), ignoring laws, product quality (i.e. public service), and even product safety (e.g. safety regulations), manipulating the laws to force “free citizens” to become customers?

Oh, wait, we already do that.

Maybe that’s why we so rarely hear the phrase “Government should be run like a business” anymore. It already is.

What do you think?