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?

One in a Million

I can make something happen that has less than a one-in-a-million chance of happening. I can make it happen every time. So can you.

  • Take 20 pieces of paper.
  • Hand them to 20 different people.
  • Have each person secretly write either the number 1 or the number 2 on each piece of paper.
  • Gather all of the pieces of paper together.
  • In any order, record the 1s and 2s from the pieces of paper.
  • Note the order of the numbers.

The “one-in-a-million chance” is the odds of a particular order of occurrence happening in the future. With 20 items, the chance of any particular order of 1s and 2s occurring is 1 in 1,048,576, a less than a one-in-a-million chance.

Looking at our list of numbers we can see that one of those 1,048,576 possibilities will have happened, so we have now made something happen that had less than one-in-a-million chance of happening. Once it has happened, the “chance” is 100%.

From this we can understand that to ascribe cause for any state because the odds are so overwhelmingly against that state being achieved merely by chance is not supportable. But it is commonly done.

We often accept the conclusion that something happened, then something else happened, so the second happened because of the first, sometimes saying, “Because what are the odds of that happening by chance?” or “That can’t be a coincidence!”

This is called the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, usually shortened to simply post hoc. Latin for “After(ward) this, therefore because of this.” My copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it like this: “Relating to or being the fallacy of arguing from temporal sequence to causal relation.”

In other words, “Because this happened after that, that caused this.”

The classic example of this fallacy is stating that the chance of the universe being the way it is is so miniscule that there must be a divine hand guiding creation. Faulty logic.

It should also be noted that simply because the reasoning is faulty, the conclusion is not necessarily wrong.

What do you think?

We Are the 1%

I recently passed by 3 people holding signs about the Occupy Wall Street protests.

They held signs informing all to see that “we are the 99%”

My wife reminded me that we are part of the 1%. She is right. We are. But probably not the 1% you are thinking of.

We are farmers.

We work in a business that is so demanding physically, and so poorly paid, that a major proportion of our co-workers are in this country illegally, in large part because only the most dedicated legal residents will do the work we do, under our working conditions, for the pay it provides, and they are not enough to get all the work done.

We do work that is so dangerous that we are exempted from the protections of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), created to protect workers from hazardous working conditions and dangerous materials.

In most states we are exempted from minimum wage laws. In most states we are effectively prohibited from forming unions, and in many cases have no real guarantees we will even be paid for our work, nor any recourse when we are cheated.

We work in a business that traditionally buys everything at retail and sells everything at wholesale. We are generally unable to set our own sales prices, and generally cannot negotiate purchase prices. To a large extent, prices are set by corporate conglomerates and investment speculators.

And yet we are absolutely essential to the welfare of everyone in the country.

It is possible to live without an iPhone, a cell phone or athletic shoes, it is even possible to live without a second dress or pair of pants, but it is not possible to live without food.

Yet the economics of growing food are so bad that in my lifetime, in the United States, we have gone from over half the population growing food to less than 1% doing so.

We–my wife and I and people like us–are the 1%. Like the majority of farmers in this country, we are 65 years old or older, and we are dying off.

And with the pay so low, and the cost of land so high, the next generations of farmers are blocked from taking our places because they cannot afford access to land.

Who will feed the people when we are gone, and where will they grow the food?

I’ve been working on that question for over 20 years, and I don’t know the answer. The corporate conglomerates and investment speculators don’t know (and apparently don’t care.)

My guess is, you probably don’t know either, but, as you probably plan to continue eating, you may want to pay more attention to the problem.

Then again, maybe not.

What do you think?

On Being Wrong – The Essence of Democracy

I ran across this statement a few months ago in a Jesse Stone novel by Robert Parker:
“Often wrong, but never uncertain.”

I talk a lot in public – as a speaker, as a teacher, as an advocate. I often ask these questions:

  • Have you ever been wrong?
  • Will you be wrong again?
  • Is this one of those times?

I ask myself these same questions. We all know the answers.

As a population, and as a nation, we have become so certain that we know what is “right” that we have forgotten a basic principle: the essence of democracy is the right to be wrong.

It is this key understanding that allows us all to benefit from each others’ ideas, each others’ creativity, each others’ willingness to think (and to try) the unknown.

It is the basis of modern western science. It is the foundation of free market capitalism. It underlies art and fosters creativity.

And, coupled with the principle that you are responsible for the results of your actions, it is the core of freedom.

And yet, in the name of freedom and democracy we have become ever more intolerant of those who are “wrong.” Without a boring reiteration of the statistics (you can find them easily with a search of the Internet), the United States has become one of the principle suppressors of those who are “wrong” both domestically and abroad.

We have a larger percentage of our population incarcerated than almost any other country in the world. We have betrayed our basic Constitutional rights and principles by giving corporations the rights of persons without the responsibilities of persons, thereby ending any question of equal treatment under the law. We have removed the right to trial by a jury of our peers, the right to a speedy trial, the right to face our accusers, or even the right to a trial at all.

We have invaded foreign countries, and overthrown or assassinated their leaders, simply because we decided that we did not like their governments. We have killed uncounted numbers of innocent civilians, both at home and abroad, in the name of freedom and democracy.

Are we so certain, so secure in our righteousness, that we can ignore the voices asking, “Are we wrong in this?”

Often wrong, but never uncertain?

What do you think?