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?

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?