One Man’s Opinion

Eddie assumed that it would be an ordinary day, and at first it seemed that it would be. Eddie got up on the right side of the bed—he usually avoided the left side, he wasn’t sure why, but he had noticed the pattern. Patterns and consistency were important, he knew, because they reduced unnecessary effort and eliminated confusion and indecision. Keeping his toothpaste and mouthwash in the same location on the bathroom counter, eating the same cereal for breakfast, the cereal that was always on the same shelf in the pantry, with the milk that was always on the lower shelf on the inside of the door of the refrigerator, all of that avoided wasting time making decisions and looking for things. He realized that he hadn’t noticed which leg he normally put into his pants first, only remembering that he once tried to put both legs in at the same time, a method that he knew would have been more efficient. He tried sitting on the bathroom counter as he simultaneously raised both legs and lifted his trousers. It proved too difficult to retain his balance as he performed the motions that had seemed so effortless and rapid in his mental image of the attempt. Maybe the idea wasn’t reasonable. That fact was disappointing.

Efficiency was important, he remarked to the person in his mirror. That person was of average height, relatively slim, with an oval face framed by dark brown hair with just a touch of gray streaks above the ears. His dark brown eyes and straight-line lips portrayed a stance of critical appraisal. The image appeared older than he had only a few years earlier, and that also disappointed Eddie. Aging is also inefficient, Eddie recognized, and was suddenly struck by the impression that this particular insight was important, perhaps even revolutionary. Like many other forms of inefficiency, aging was inefficient in two ways. It was, first, a waste of new and youthful resources, the people and objects that were deteriorating and becoming less—less effective, less attractive, less useful, less important. And second, aging forced everyone to expend other resources in an attempt to counter its effects. We exercise to avoid declining muscle strength, we apply creams to smooth aging and drying skin and add on ointments to reduce pain, we endure surgical procedures to get rid of wrinkles and flabby skin and failing knees and hips. All of this could be avoided if we could simply halt the aging process. Eddie resolved to do that, to start immediately. He took another good long look at the image in the mirror. From now on it should not change, althought he dicided he wouldn’t expend any extra effort to make that happen.

As he pulled his car out of the garage his GPS system indicated a slow-down caused by a waterline break on Fifth Avenue. He decided to use his predetermined alternate route going north on Third instead. The slight alteration would add about a tenth of a mile and almost a minute to his commute, assuming that there wouldn’t be a great deal of additional traffic caused by other people avoiding the Fifth Avenue delays. Such variations, too, were inefficient. Unfortunately Eddie had no influence in city government; otherwise he could require the Public Works Department to begin a more proactive strategy that would identify potential problem areas in advance so they could schedule repairs on the weekends and holidays to avoid inefficient inconveniences during the weekday commutes. As he approached the parking lot for Camdex Strategies, his place of work, his primary concern was that the morning’s slight delay would have allowed someone else to take his usual parking location. He was relieved to see that that hadn’t happened. He always tried to arrive and clock in half an hour earlier than most anyone else, both to avoid the heavier commute rush and to ensure access to this slot. Parking in the same position every day eliminated the inefficiency of trying to remember and locate his car at the end of the workday. He tried to do something similar in the large lots at the supermarket and the shopping center and the airport. He obviously couldn’t take the same parking space in those locations, but he did leave his car in the same row every time.

There was another aspect of going to the supermarket that Eddie also tried to control, but that could at times be particularly annoying. He always went to the same store every time because it helped him get in and out as efficiently as possible; he generally knew where all of the items on his list could be found. The trouble was that every month or so the store rearranged the shelves. Most often it was simply changing the position of specific items on their aisles, so, for example, after their efforts he had to scan virtually the entire cereal section to find his Sugar-coated Cornpuffs. At other times, though, they moved entire categories, transferring the peanut butter and jam from aisle 12 to aisle 2 opposite the produce section. Eddie knew that they did this to force customers to browse aisles that they normally would not have entered, in effect wasting a great deal of employee time shifting entire shelves around for the sole purpose of making shopping less efficient. At those times his initial impulse was always to boycott, to start shopping at another store, but the thought of switching to an entirely new marketing and organizational system, with a giant floor full of unfamiliar aisles and signs and brand names, always stopped him. Again, if only he worked as a district manager for his chosen store he could easily and quickly avoid this insanity.

No, the only places in which he could improve efficiency were in his home and at work. In the former case, of course, he was the sole occupant and had full control. He had his rooms and his closet and his filing cabinet organized and standardized in the most efficient manner. He minimized the colors of his suits and shirts and ties so that pretty much everything matched, reducing his options in favor of avoiding the necessity of deciding which specific tie to wear with which specific shirt, and which shirt to go with which suit. Everything was solid tones of gray and blue, inherently compatible. All his work shoes were black lace-up oxfords. He never altered his outfit for casual Friday—he had considered simply leaving off the tie for the day, but that also seemed like yet another unnecessary decision. On weekends he wore casual light gray chinos and a polo shirt, even when he planned to work in the yard.

Eddie knew that his standardization of clothing choices was a source of amusement among his co-workers. They kidded him about it and they probably joked about it behind his back. He didn’t care. He had tried explaining his theory to three of them, the ones he thought might be most receptive to it, but he’d noticed no effect. So he had decided to ignore questions of personal options to concentrate on improving the efficiency of company operations. This particular morning offered another opportunity in that his division was holding another of their regularly scheduled biweekly staff meetings, and he had two memos ready to hand out describing changes in daily procedures that would reduce redundant or superfluous actions. He was a bit disappointed that as meeting memos go, this was slightly below his average, which, he guessed, would probably be somewhere between three and four. He had kept copies of all of them, of course, and maintained a list of the memo topics and the dates on which he’d introduced them, but felt it was unnecessary to keep a running total or calculate an average. Sometimes he thought he should have included, on that list, some kind of notation about which proposals had been implemented, but he hadn’t managed to add that information. Part of the reason for that was that nobody had ever told him that his ideas had been used. He suspected that many of his suggestions had been adopted, but only after being modified and after a delay and without recognizing his contribution, subterfuges undoubtedly employed to allow others to take credit for his input. Any complaints or questions that Eddie had brought up about such diversions, or indeed any of his follow-up requests for information about his memos, had been given the same treatment as his suggestions about wardrobe options, so he had mostly given up asking.

When Eddie arrived at the room where the day’s meeting was being held he first reviewed the agenda. Normally there was an entry for “Staff Input”, which was understood to be time set aside for comments that had not been pre-scheduled—a category that always included Eddie’s memos. This time that entry had not been included. After the reading of the minutes of the past meeting, which he noted did not mention the four memos he had provided at that event, he held up his stack of new memos and asked, “Is there an input segment today? I have a couple of suggestions here.” Roger Carlson, the department manager, replied that because of time constraints there would not be any open-ended input period this time. After momentarily freezing in place, then glancing at the faces around the table, Eddie began passing out the copies of his memos while telling everyone how important they were. He then told everyone to look at the first memo as he began describing it. To his surprise, all of the people at the table left their copies on the table and directed their attention toward Roger. He stopped talking in mid-sentence.

“Thank you, Eddie. Have a seat, please,” Roger said in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. “I think we’ll begin with the first agenda item.” Eddie tossed the remaining memos into the middle of the table and walked out. That afternoon he offered his resignation, and it was accepted.

As he drove home from Camdex for the last time, Eddie reviewed the narrative he would use from then on to describe the reason he had left his job, if anyone asked. It was obvious, after all, that his manager, Mr. Carlson, had become increasingly threatened by Eddie’s managerial suggestions and had decided to force Eddie out before somebody noticed and promoted him into Carlson’s job; before somebody realized that Carlson’s best ideas were really Eddie’s. It was unfair, but it was, after all, Camdex’s loss, not his. Someday they would recognize how incompetent Roger Carlson was, but it would be too late.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Trickle-Up Time

The philosophy of Economics has developed in odd ways in the past five decades, especially in the popular mind. In the academic world it remains a complex system bound by esoteric mathematics and subdivided into a number of different denominations—I was going to call them sects, and sometimes it seems as if that’s what they are, but let’s go with the word that has fewer religious connotations.

Start with the modern popular cult surrounding Friedrich Hayek. As David Sloan Wilson noted in an article in Evonomics, Hayek has been turned into a simplistic monster. His books could fill a bookshelf and the commentary could fill a small library, but the monstrous version can only speak in two-word sentences: ‘Government bad! Market good!’ Likewise, the monstrous version of Adam Smith, the father of economics, can only say, ‘Invisible hand!’” Extreme simplification might enhance the broad acceptance of a doctrine, but it should not, in anything similar to that form, be used as a guide for government policy. Unfortunately, that’s often what has happened.

Likewise, the philosophy of Ayn Rand continues to raise its libertarian influence in the economic and political life of the United States. Among others, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and many members of the House “Freedom Caucus” (née the Tea Party) are known to be acolytes of both Hayek and Rand. In Rand’s case, however, we cannot complain that her philosophy has been greatly simplified. It always was an unsophisticated vision of economic systems, one that glorified the twin myths of the free market and the successful entrepreneur. In one novel, Atlas Shrugged, she even fantasizes about how economic “prime movers” or “creative minds” could cause a widespread collapse if they went “on strike”, thus fatally removing their unique and rare talents from the marketplace.

A modern example of Randian excess is our current idol-worship regarding business leaders. The media coverage of CEOs like Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is generally reverent, with stories of their fiduciary and managerial successes far exceeding any mention of their significant faults. And, as befits coverage of what might be termed secular saints, the power of these men to influence events, and the positive outcomes of their executive efforts, are both highly exaggerated.

Let’s look, for example, at Microsoft and the continuing cult of Bill Gates, a devotion now transferred to the Gates Foundation. Gates is given credit for innovative excellence and creativity because his company, Microsoft, became a software industry powerhouse. However, Microsoft only succeeded because in the early days of microcomputers the business mainframe (and typewriter) hegemon IBM needed an operating system for their new desktop products. They wanted their own version of a system called CP/M. Digital Research, which developed CP/M, wanted to charge a royalty for it. So IBM turned instead to Microsoft, which modified CP/M and renamed it “PC DOS” (later to become MS-DOS). The fact is that IBM microcomputers using PC DOS were far from being the best options available at the time, but the IBM name and sales network quickly made the IBM PC the standard in the business world, which made Microsoft the leader in early operating systems.

That gave Microsoft both near-monopoly power in the industry and ample funding to extend it. In the first two decades of personal computers other companies developed several excellent and popular software products, including the word processor Wordperfect, spreadsheets Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3, and the internet browser Netscape, among others. Following the strategy it used with CP/M, Microsoft copied these programs. They were not content with mere competition, however. They sabotaged Wordperfect and Lotus by making frequent changes in their operating system that interfered with the operation of those programs, encouraging users to switch to the Microsoft products Word and Excel. After they morphed from MS-DOS to Windows, which was a bad copy of the Macintosh interface, they undercut Netscape by offering their own browser, Explorer, for free with all new systems.

In short, the successes of Bill Gates and Microsoft did not occur because they were innovators or leading creative minds or because their product were superior. They simply parlayed an initial stroke of good fortune with IBM into a dominant position, one that they then used to steal market share from software produced by some of the best innovators. Yes, eventually their products did improve, but the status of Word and Excel and Explorer and Windows as industry leaders was always more a result of IBM’s market dominance than Microsoft/Gates supremacy.

The same pattern has been repeated throughout the history of capitalistic expansion. Anyone familiar with the biographies of our titans of industry—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Jay Cooke, Leland Stanford, among others—knows that their success was not a result of the uniqueness and creativity of their business plan, but because they benefited from a combination of factors like timing, political influence, luck, and, very often, a Microsoft-style model involving deliberate sabotage of both the infrastructure and the reputations of their competitors.

But as the Microsoft example shows us, we don’t have to look back to the nineteenth century to find examples of CEO “expertise” that was not beneficial. Look to the leadership of the dominant financial services in the first decade of this millennium and the rock-star CEOs who created the Great Worldwide Recession of 2008, including not only the ill-fated Lehman Brothers and AIG, but also Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and others. The leaders of these institutions initiated the disaster decades before the collapse by advising (lobbying) the federal government to deregulate their industry, that is, to apply the Ayn-Randian solution by removing most of the depression-era controls that had successfully stabilized economic and financial markets for more than fifty years. Their advice, involvement, and campaign donations influenced Congress and the administrations of presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton. And their efforts led us to disaster.

None of them were deterred by the warning signs provided by events such as the savings and loan collapse of the late 1980s and the Enron scandal of 2000, both of which were made possible (perhaps inevitable) by deregulation. After even more restrictions had been cleared away, they vastly expanded questionable (and often previously illegal) activities—promoting risky mortgage and loan packages, bundling such packages into often mislabelled securities, purchasing investments with uncertain short-term financing, and expanding financial leveraging to extreme multiples. In most cases they continued this behavior for months after they knew that the system was seriously unstable, often promoting securities that they knew would soon be worthless. Would we really have been worse off if these economic leaders had gone on strike instead? Perhaps we should have followed the example of Iceland and prosecuted our financial wizards for fraud. Instead we encouraged their destructive behavior by treating CEOs with reverence and providing them with bailouts and exorbitant rewards.

No, it’s even worse than that, and it continues. By venerating the supposed genius at the top and giving them undue credit for the successes of their enterprises, we are not only encouraging the risky behavior of irresponsible egomaniacs. We are also ignoring the many layers of employees, all of whom also were involved in, and responsible for, the success of their corporation. Instead the CEO gets the credit and the massive rewards. The underlings? Their contributions are both unrecognized and inadequately compensated. During Jack Welch’s tenure as CEO of General Electric, more than 100,000 of them, a quarter of the GE work force, were fired. Meanwhile the congressional believers in the monstrous simplicity of Hayek/Rand pseudo-economic philosophy exacerbate the problem by giving the “prime movers” massive tax breaks and arguing, against all precedent, that the benefits will “trickle down” to the rest of us.

In this way we justify taking our societal resources and directing almost all of them toward the top strata. As a result upward mobility has virtually disappeared and the income gap, the economic divide between the upper ten percent and the rest of us, has gone from excessive to extreme. By the way, Friedrich Hayek predicted that would happen and did not consider it a positive outcome. It is past time for us to recognize that the truly essential members in our economy are the ordinary workers—from mid-level management down to the janitors, both in their roles as workers and as consumers—and to increase their incomes so that such people can survive and support a family without working two jobs at a time, as is now common. In short, it is time to try a “trickle-up” strategy.

Posted in Economy, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Job Errors

I don’t often buy things online. Maybe a book I can’t get anywhere else, but most often coffee I can’t get locally. That, of course, makes me feel like an outsider in this world in which everything seems to be available from internet sources and a huge majority of people seem to be members of Amazon Prime and there are ads on TV that tell me “you already buy almost everything online”. Well, I don’t, and I refuse to. The way I see it, I have a choice between two options:

(a) Ordering from home “in my pajamas” and having the items delivered to my porch, in two or three days, and possibly stolen from there, and potentially having to send them back if they aren’t what I expected.

(b) Driving to a local store, actually seeing and feeling what I’m buying before I pay for it, and taking it home immediately.

Of these, I prefer the second option (b), even if it costs a little bit more (it doesn’t always). That choice also has the added benefit of keeping more of my money here in our community. Some things are more important than getting the lowest price.*

However, there are some things that cannot be purchased in a local store. In the past few years, that has made me aware of two more reasons to avoid ordering something that has to be individually shipped. I’ve heard people complain about both of these problems and I’ve experienced both myself, but I’ll describe each of them separately, then bring them back together because they both stem from the same cause, a modern and increasingly troublesome trend.

Have you ever ordered something online, carefully picking out the specific item you want, only to open the box when it arrives and find that they sent you the wrong color or size or flavor? I’m not talking about ordering a size 6 petite and discovering that it is both smaller and longer than you expected. What I’m referring to is when you order a size 6 and the invoice says size 6 but the warehouse has put a size 10 in the box. Either way, you have to send the item back, but in the first case it was because of a common problem with sizing (because, of course, you couldn’t try it on before you bought it) and in the second case it was an outright error. It could be characterized as, in essence, sloppy work. Oh, and it really does occur often in warehouses, even if the corporate image masters have decided to call the buildings “fulfillment centers”.

Another problem does not happen at the warehouse. It occurs when your package doesn’t end up at your house because it is delivered to someone else. The driver, of course, marks it as delivered because they placed it at the door and rang the doorbell. I have “completed” the delivery of boxes to neighbors when they were put on our porch by mistake, and once, when I didn’t get a package I expected, I walked down the street and found it stuffed behind the screen door of a house three doors away. In all these cases the correct address was clearly visible on both the package and the house. Once again, it was just sloppy work.

It’s not just me. I’ve heard complaints about warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers, about the frustrations that come from returning or reordering or dealing with that automated phone menu and the semi-clueless “customer support” person. Almost inevitably these people blame the worker, or the entire generation of workers, as in “people these days really have no work ethic.” It may be the current equivalent of the long-standing remonstrance “it’s so hard to find good help these days.”

Now, if you are at all familiar with dramas or stories in which the above “good help” complaint is used, you know that the person who says it is generally someone who doesn’t really deserve good help, and the reason they have trouble finding it is they’ve chased away all the good help they’ve hired. The “help” is usually relatively blameless.

Admittedly, the help is sometimes at fault, and in this era of very low unemployment it can be difficult to find good workers. But even that problem is very often overstated. You’ve probably heard some breathless news reports about how millennials are lacking a work ethic that emphasizes quality or loyalty, or how so many younger workers are taking time off from work for a year in Costa Rica, or how women are giving up lucrative careers to concentrate on motherhood. Such stories tend to be little more than “our reporter found a group of friends who decided to do this and went ahead with calling it a widespread movement despite a total lack of statistical evidence.” A few vignettes do not signal the existence of a major national trend affecting corporate productivity.

No, in the case of warehouse errors or delivery misdirection the problem does not stem from the expectations of the people who order the goods or the workers who handle them. It comes from a much more insidious source, one that also often affects the kind of service you get in some local corporate outlets. That source is a new collection of computerized efficiency tools promoting what is commonly called time management.

How does this work? The workers in the warehouse are constantly observed and timed and are expected to “fulfill” a certain number of orders each hour. The driver of the delivery truck is expected to meet a specific schedule based on the route and the number of deliveries. All of this goes into a database that tracks employee performance and produces reports showing which ones are keeping up with the expectations. Those that aren’t are encouraged to improve with the obvious threat that they might lose their job. The corporate goal is to reduce the amount of unproductive downtime and thus avoid paying for more employee hours, and more employees, than they deem necessary. The actual result, however, is that none of these workers have any extra time for such unnecessary tasks as double-checking for accuracy. The warehouse worker packs the box and moves on; the driver drops the box, rings the doorbell, and leaves. In the rush, errors are to be expected.

Similar strategies are used in stores operated as part of many large corporate retail systems. Predictable tasks such as receiving shipments and stocking shelves are timed and recorded. Unpredictable tasks such as answering customer questions and relocating items that customers have moved and mislaid on shelves are given low priority, if any time is allotted at all for them. Some stores monitor customer traffic and send workers home early or call them in on short notice if conditions change. The result of all this is that the minimal number of employees are available to actually provide services to customers (other than taking their money, of course, and with self-checkout lanes they’re doing their best to reduce that, too).

The point is this: You’ve likely experienced a delivery that didn’t arrive or that was not what you ordered and you called customer service and had to wait half an hour on hold, or you went to a store and could find neither what you wanted nor a worker to help you find it, or you found it but couldn’t figure out how much it cost because the price label on the shelf didn’t match the products. All of these problems could, perhaps, have happened because the employees are slackers, but not likely. Don’t blame them. The most likely culprit is the continuing effort by the companies we depend on to do everything they can to reduce their labor costs.

*On a related topic, now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe I should tell you what I think about the idiots who go to a local store, browse the items on sale, then pull out their phones and order the item they’ve selected from the internet instead of the local store because the online price is 86 cents less. Or maybe I should focus on the TV news reports that gush about such behavior as if it were an example of “smart shopping”? Clueless!

Posted in Economy, Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Macho Excess

In our culture we tend to idolize macho—probably too much. There have been some discussions recently about what some have called “toxic masculinity,” the specific attitudes and behaviors that are associated with the male image and that we now recognize as anti-social and potentially destructive. Certainly there are elements within the macho cluster, including protective, defensive, competitive, and possessive impulses, that have been misinterpreted and pushed to extremes such as domestic violence and rape. This essay is not about those factors. It is, rather, about hubris.

I have lived in Albuquerque, home of the University of New Mexico, for most of the past forty years. In that time there have been repeated financial scandals in which one subdivision within the University has significantly misused funds or overspent its budget. Has the Engineering Department cooked its books and run up huge unapproved expenses? Biological Sciences? Education or Philosophy? No, in virtually all cases, the profligate subdivision has been the UNM Athletics Department.

In eight of the past ten years UNM Athletics has posted deficits, exceeding a budget that now stands at about 33 million dollars a year. It currently owes the main campus more than 4.4 million dollars. The former Athletic Director resigned under a cloud in June of 2017, after 11 years in office. The State Attorney General has now charged him with various crimes, including using school funds to take six donors and employees on a golf junket to Scotland, massively overpaying the basketball coach, allowing others to misuse UNM purchasing accounts, failing to charge friends and supporters for the use of luxury suites in the basketball arena, and attempting to cover up most of the above actions against an expected audit. There does not seem to be any similar legal liability anticipated for the higher-level UNM administrators who have apparently looked the other way for a decade or more. UNM has a collection of historical internal audit reports that goes back to at least 2003, a history that does not include any comprehensive financial and operational audits of UNM Athletics. In the meantime, UNM is constructing a 50,000 square-foot, 35 million dollar upgrade to its main gym.

In case you’re thinking that I am making my point by focusing on the one university most familiar to me personally, let me expand the example by referring to a study by Stephanie Hughes and Matt Shank, published in the International Journal of Sport Marketing and Management in 2008. The article was titled “Assessing the Impact of NCAA Scandals: An Exploratory Analysis”, and the first sentence is damning: “It is difficult to open up the daily newspaper without finding mention of some type of scandalous behavior being exhibited by individuals associated with athletic departments on college campuses.” In case this wording only reminds you about the athletic scandals that most often reach the national media, the ones involving violent misbehavior by individual athletes, you should know that those events are less common than scandals involving misuse of university or donor funds. This study provides a good analysis of the types of financial and social pressures that might lead many athletic administrators to violate the law or NCAA rules, and that likewise might encourage general college administrators to ignore athletic infractions (not evem mentioning providing common excesses such as seven-figure salaries for coaches while they reduce academic professors to underpaid adjunct status).

Oddly, the report ends with the recommendation that “college administrators must reconsider the adoption of a ‘win at all cost’ mentality which encourages member NCAA schools to recycle athletically successful coaches and administrators who have previously been associated with inappropriate or unethical behavior at other institutions.” We might wonder why the study would bother to make such an obvious suggestion, but anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the history of athletic competition knows that such logic is all-too-often ignored. In the bigger picture, the situation at UNM Athletics is not an uncommon outlier in the university athletic world.

In the economic life of the United States there is another macho establishment that is even larger than our entire national involvement with athletics. That is what President Eisenhower referred to, in his famous farewell speech, as the “military-industrial complex”. It is understandable that what we call our defense budget would increase during any period of war, as it did, by a multiple of four, in 1942, the first year of our involvement in World War II. As that example demonstrates, a rise in the defense budget can even be a positive thing in some ways—the massive 1942 jump in federal spending is almost universally credited with pulling the United States out of the Great Depression. It also made it possible for us to prevail against the expansive axis powers.

With such caveats recognized, it is clear that we haven’t paid much attention to our four-star president’s admonition since 1961, when he publicly and clearly warned us to guard against the influence and growth of the defense complex. By that time the military budget had experienced two expected declines, the largest by far after the end of World War II and a much smaller one after the Korean War. Then the so-called Cold War began and the military industrial complex hit its stride, realizing the usefulness of an unending external and poorly-defined threat. In 1956 spending was back to Korean War levels.

Since then the war budget has continued an almost unbroken and often inexplicable growth, declining only during three brief periods. There was a minimal decline in the early 1970s as the War in Vietnam was winding down and some politicians tried talking about a “peace dividend”. All that proved illusory, of course. A peace dividend was even more anticipated when the USSR collapsed in 1989, removing our primary Cold War adversary, and over the next six years defense funding declined by the enormous amount of almost 14 percent. That’s down 14 percent total, not the annual rate. Then it started rising again, and then the Bush administration and the War on Terror began. After that growth averaged 9.6 percent per year for the next nine years. This was a new unending and poorly-defined threat, and it has served the defense establishment well.

There was one more period of decline after that, an overall period of government austerity enforced by the standoff between the Obama administration and a GOP-majority congress. That was the budget sequestration arranged in January of 2013 to satisfy the demands of the Budget Control Act of 2011—I’d rather not have to deal with the details of that! The end result was two-year reductions in both non-defense and defense spending, the latter dropping by almost 3 percent a year, a reduction so huge that defense lobbyists and their allies in Congress complained incessantly about being starved almost to death, despite defense industry profits remaining very high. Note: all of the above numbers are based on figures adjusted to current dollars by the federal Office of Management and Budget

What’s clear is that our Department of Defense is like a university athletic department, only to an extreme, constantly demanding more income, and famous for stories of financial mismanagement and, shall we say, excessive contractor reimbursements. Yet, there’s more. In 1990 the Congress of the United States, which theoretically controls all federal expenditures, passed the Chief Financial Officers Act. This law requires all federal department and agencies to develop auditable accounting systems and to submit to annual audits. Every federal department and agency has since complied with that law—except the Department of Defense. And yet, there’s even more. The January 7, 2019 issue of The Nation magazine published its detailed report about what it calls the Pentagon’s accounting scam, in which Defense has developed an elaborate system of shifting funds from one cost account to another in ways that defy recording systems and, therefore, audits. That way, when defense lobbyists repeatedly raise the threat level and request funding, Congress has no way to evaluate current spending or future need. Such funding shifts also happen to be illegal. And yet, or because of this, Congress continues to vote to raise Defense funding.

Remember, all other federal agencies now have the required auditable financial systems. The Pentagon scam is not used by HUD or Justice or Interior or Agriculture or Treasury or Education. The Department of Defense is the ultimate macho unit, the ultimate athletics department. The only question is why the authorities in charge of Defense let them get away with their financial scam, just like university administrators allow athletics to get away with their intentional mismanagement. We need to hold our macho institutions to the same standards as any others.

Posted in Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Impeach Now?

We are currently half-way through the first four-year term of President Trump. Almost from the beginning there have been calls for impeachment, and the polls show that some 40 percent of our citizens support this extreme measure. This is, of course, a partisan preference, with more than three-quarters of Democrats in support and most Republicans against, but such polls should not be surprising given that the more generalized polls consistently show that between 50 and 60 percent of us disapprove of the job the President is doing.

My own beliefs apparently put me in a relatively small minority. I am one of the roughly 20+ percent of Democrats who do not support impeachment of the president. I am also among that even smaller percentage of citizens who strongly disapprove of the job our President is doing but who do not want to see him impeached. Therefore, in the interest of clarification and perhaps of expanding the number of those who agree with me, I will try to explain how I come to this comparatively unpopular set of preferences.

Start by looking at some of the arguments that have been forwarded in favor of impeachment, in one extended sentence: (1) Donald Trump’s campaign conspired illegally (“colluded”) with a foreign government to win the presidency, (2) his campaign and administration has often sided with Russian goals even when they conflict with long-standing U.S. policies and treaties (“treason”), (3) he has filled most high posts in the government with ideologues who are strongly opposed to the primary legal missions of the agencies they lead, (4) he has repeatedly reversed his negotiated and clearly stated agreements with Congressional leaders and with his own cabinet members, sowing chaos and mistrust and, now, forcing a shutdown of the government, (5) his poorly-planned tariffs and other trade policies have caused economic distress across our country, (6) he has frequently taken actions and made statements clearly intended to obstruct justice and impede the progress of the Mueller investigation, (7) he has advanced many proposals that most legal experts have said are clearly unconstitutional, and (8) he personally has profited enormously from his position as presidnet, profits that include violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. This is probably not a complete list, but it is enough to see that we do not really have to wait for the conclusion of the Mueller investigation to demonstrate significant evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. Anyone vaguely familiar with the real news of the past two years (for example, not relying on Fox News) already knows much of this.

President Trump himself has weighed in on this, of course, several times claiming that “you cannot impeach someone who is doing a great job.” He is wrong there. Congress has demonstrated that it can impeach any president for virtually any reason. But even if you assume his statement is true, it is hard to see how it applies to Trump himself (cf. the paragraph above and his approval ratings). Trump also has said, ad nauseam, “There was no collusion.” That may be partially irrelevant (again, the paragraph above), but it is also not a proven statement of fact.

That brings us to the commentators, many of them members of the U.S. Congress, who have said we should not consider impeachment, at least until the Mueller investigation has been completed. These are generally people who likely would favor impeachment, but who want to have justification, perhaps even a legal basis “beyond a reasonable doubt”, for that decision. I understand this argument. It is similar to the argument that says impeachment is largely a political action, a step we should not undertake unless a significant percentage of the U.S. public (and, in response, their representatives in Congress) believe that it is necessary. This is a reasonable position, one that is strengthened if we compare the threatened impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. The action against Nixon had significant bipartisan public support, which meant that even the president knew it would succeed. He resigned. The vote to impeach Clinton, on the other hand, was a one-sided GOP effort without bipartisan public support. As a result, the Senate failed to follow through to remove Clinton (in effect, the process failed) and the Republican Party suffered a sharp decline in popularity.

Evidence of serious malfeasance may yet come from the Mueller probe or from the new investigations which will be conducted by the House of Representatives under Democratic control. When this happens, public approval for impeachment could rise to include almost all Democrats and a majority of Republicans. If that happens, should we go ahead with impeachment? The answer is still no. There are several reasons for avoiding the impeachment process even if we believe it has strong public support and would be successful in removing President Trump.

One major reason for not removing President Trump is that it is bad political strategy. If we were a parliamentary system and could call for a vote of no confidence in the entire administration, that could be a meaningful solution. In our system, however, getting rid of Trump means the installation of President Pence. So impeachment would replace Trump with a more consistent and dogmatic conservative. Pence would not only continue to do everything Trump has been doing in forwarding the modern conservative agenda, but he would likely do more, in a more consistent fashion, and also would have the power to pardon ex-president Trump. Remember President Ford and Nixon? If you believe that Donald Trump should face some penalties for his many crimes, you probably don’t want Pence to be promoted. Add to that the advantage that President Pence would likely have in the 2020 election, in which Republicans could expand the charges they already made in the 2018 mid-terms. In that election they excited their base by complaining that Democrats were planning a coup to reverse their 2016 loss to Trump. In 2020 they could repeat those accusations with added effect if Trump has actually been removed.

President Trump has only two years remaining. If we assume that an impeachment could be accomplished in the next six months, the questions we should be asking ourselves are:

1) How much more damage can Trump do if we leave him in office for the final year and a half of his term (and would Pence’s efforts be any different)? He has already put in place the administrative leadership, and altered the regulatory system, in ways that will reverse much of the progress our country has made in the past seven decades toward civil rights, environmental protection, consumer protection, and any number of other positive goals. His ability to further expand his efforts now will be countered by Democratic control of the House of Representatives, so impeachment may not significantly change future executive policies.

2) What will Trump do if he is seriously threatened with impeachment and removal? He has shown himself to be remarkably thin-skinned and willing to over-react in ways that ignore the law. Will impeachment proceedings cause him to attempt even more dangerous responses, perhaps even inspire a “wag the dog” military incursion? He has already talked about declaring a “national emergency” to bypass Congress. What will he try to do under such a declaration if he is threatened?

3) How much of a distraction will the impeachment process create? Democrats in the House will soon begin investigations of the Trump administration and pass legislation that, even if it is rejected by the GOP-controlled Senate, will demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Trump agenda and the Republican obeisance to him. Yes, Congressional Democrats can do all of these things simultaneously, but their legislative efforts will be more effective and be seen as more principled if they aren’t simultaneously “attacking the president”.

4) Would a Trump impeachment serve as an effective warning to keep future presidents from committing “high crimes and misdemeanors”? President Nixon was forced out by the threat of imminent impeachment, but that example did not stop President Reagan from involvement in the seriously illegal Iran/Contra conspiracy. Similarly, the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts did not keep the second President Bush from such unconstitutional actions as torture and suspension of habeas corpus. It is doubtful that even a successful Trump impeachment would be any more effective.

If we answer all four of these questions honestly, it will indicate, at this time, that Congress should not initiate impeachment proceedings against President Trump. The only possible exception might occur if the final report of the Mueller investigation and Trump’s response to it are so damning that nobody in Congress can ignore it (as with Nixon). That may force a rapid impeachment. Short of that, Democrats should simply let Trump finish his single term in office and be satisfied with the Democratic presidency that should follow, all the while supporting the current and continuing legal prosecutions of Trump and his family and associates. That should be a more satisfying and positive strategy than forcing his immediate removal from office.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fifty Years of Science

Among the many significant events that happened in 1968, fifty years ago, many have been all but forgotten, some perhaps deservedly so. There is one, however, that should be remembered both for its immediate message and for the continuing impact it has had on our lives in the United States. Like many of the other significant events, this one is a Supreme Court decision, but this is one that you probably have never heard about. It is Epperson v. Arkansas.

Epperson is often described in reference to another much more famous court case. It is often called the second Scopes trial, or possibly the anti-Scopes. The original was a 1925 trial officially designated The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. In that trial a teacher was charged with violating a law that made it illegal to teach human evolution in any public school. It was a national media sensation at the time. In fact, that was the original intent. The prosecution of Scopes, a biology teacher, was initiated and promoted primarily to bring fame and tourist traffic to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. In that goal it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its publicists. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” has since been memorialized in four different plays, three television portrayals, and the novel Monkey Town. The Broadway play Inherit the Wind was made into a 1960 movie under the same name.

At the end of the Scopes trial, John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution and fined 100 dollars. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the verdict and the constitutionality of the law. Even so, Tennessee repealed their state anti-evolution law a year later, but the voters of the state of Arkansas, inspired by the Scopes trial and a wave of fundamentalism, passed its own version in a ballot initiative in 1928. That Arkansas law was almost never enforced but remained in place for forty years. It was finally challenged by the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) using as lead plaintiff a young biology teacher named Susan Epperson. She was an Arkansas native, the daughter of a science professor at the College of the Ozarks, and holder of a master’s degree in zoology. Most important for the optics of the case, she and her family were all devout Christians who believed there was no conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the tenets of their faith.

The Arkansas law made it unlawful for any teacher in any school supported by public funds “to teach the doctrine or theory that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals”, and further prohibited teachers or schools or textbook commissions from adopting or using any textbook that included such information. This was, for anybody familiar with almost any discipline of science, an unacceptable prohibition. It was in essence telling teachers of biology, botany, geology, paleontology, and other scientific subjects that they had to pretend that evolution, one of the fundamental concepts underlying their disciplines, did not apply to human beings, and prohibiting them from using any of the best (i.e., most responsible and complete) available textbooks.

Susan Epperson was a 10th grade Biology teacher at Little Rock Central high School. For the 1965 school year the school’s Biology teachers recommended, and their administrators adopted, just such a textbook, Modern Biology. This is an excellent book, one I have used in classes in two different high schools. My wife and I still have a copy of it in our personal reference library. One of the arguments put forward by the AEA was that Epperson was put in a difficult position, one in which she could either follow the state law or she could use the book required by her administrators and colleagues, but she could not do both. And if she did not follow state law she could be fired. That, of course, was the argument that demonstrated that Epperson had standing; that she had sufficient connection to the law, and potential harm from the law, to be a plaintiff. A parent with children in the school, H. H. Blanchard, joined her in the suit. They were supported by the AEA, the ACLU, and the Little Rock Ministerial Association. The principal issue was the constitutionality of banning the teaching of evolution.

The trial began in the Pulaski County Chancery Court on April 1st, 1966. It quickly became a media circus attracting hundreds of in-person observers and reporters, including coverage in the New York Times. After a two-hour hearing, the judge held that the law was unconstitutional because it “tends to hinder the quest for knowledge, restrict the freedom to learn, and restrain the freedom to teach”, and that the textbook did not constitute such a hazard that “the constitutional freedoms may justifiably be suppressed by the state.” That was a win for Epperson and the AEA, a win largely based on the first amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The state of Arkansas appealed the decision to the state supreme court, which in June 1967 reversed the Chancery Court ruling. Their opinion stated that the anti-evolution law was “a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools.” That round went to the state of Arkansas, and the law remained in effect, this time based on what might be called a states-rights argument.

The AEA and ACLU appealed that decision to the final arbiter, the United States Supreme Court. That court heard oral arguments on October 16, 1968. They didn’t waste a lot of time with the case. Less than a month later, on November 12, they delivered a unanimous ruling that struck down the Arkansas law. Their primary argument referenced the First Amendment to the Constitution, but not the part about freedom of speech. It was about the ban on establishment of religion: “There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”

The case also originated the “directly and sharply” test limiting court intervention, but also pointed out the importance of legal action to guide educational processes: “Courts do not and cannot intervene in the resolution of conflicts which arise in the daily operation of school systems and which do not directly and sharply implicate basic constitutional values. On the other hand, the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

Epperson is perversely both much more important and much less well known than Scopes. It marked the end of the initial evangelical strategy to stop evolution, the direct attempts to declare the teaching of evolution illegal. Admittedly, the religious right has evolved since then, creating pseudo-scientific constructs such as creation science and the missing evidence arguments and intelligent design, and using those fabrications to call for “balance” through “teaching the controversy”. Epperson has been used as precedent in many court cases since then, cases in which judges have ruled repeatedly that such creationist alternatives are inherently religious, not scientific, and therefore do not belong in public school science classes.

The fact is that there are active fundamentalist and evangelical groups in our nation that want to impose their religious doctrines on the rest of us. To support that effort they want to usurp the activities and powers of government, including public meetings and school events, to proselytize everyone. Those of us who believe in freedom of religion, who don’t want to have sectarian religious propaganda paid for by our tax dollars, should celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling in Epperson and support the fifty years of legal opinions based on it. Epperson v. Arkansas was, and still is, vital.

Posted in Politics, Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fifty Years of Science

What about 1968?

The ghosts of the rebellion are now 50 years old. Most of them are, in fact, so long dead that even on the political left there have been virtually no commemorative events. There was a special issue of The Nation magazine devoted to “1968, Year of Global Insurrection” (Aug/Sep 2018), but otherwise it seems that this particular half-century mark will pass without notice. So the question is, “Why wasn’t there a lasting effect?” or “What happened to the rebellion?”

I hate to turn this document into an extended list—don’t you just love it when someone says they would hate to do something, and you know that that’s exactly what they’re going to do?—but I can’t see any better way to indicate how different the year 1968 was from others before or after. The fact is, there may be other years that contained events that were perhaps more significant, but the sheer number of rebellious and/or transformative events definitely peaked in 1968 and that year has been often referenced as the inspiration for significant activions in other years. So here’s the list, as complete as I can make it:

January 5: Alexander Dubček starts the year off when he’s elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) and announces significant reforms, expanding individual rights and beginning to decentralize the economy. This process became a ghost in August (see below).

January 30: The Viet Cong begins the Tet Offensive, invading 13 cities in South Vietnam and leading to a month of major setbacks for United States efforts. Arguably this was only a continuation of a war that had already been taking U.S. military lives for almost a decade, but it has been recognized as a turning point, the beginning of the decline of U.S. involvement, which ended seven years later. It might be said that this rebellion succeeded, although Ho Chi Minh might not appreciate the strong capitalist elements existing in the current version of the country he helped deliver from colonialism.

February 19: Mister Roger’s Neighborhood debuts in the United States, on NET (now PBS). Not all rebellions are negative or destructive, and this one lasts until 2001. Now a major motion picture.

February 29: The influential report of the Kerner Commission is released. Officially named the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the group of 11 officials had reviewed the causes of the “urban rebellions” that had caused mass destruction and more than 100 deaths in 160 cities during the “long hot summer of 1967”. The groundbreaking commission report lays blame on government for failed housing, education and social policies, on the mainstream media for ignoring problems and viewing the world with a “white perspective”, and more generally on ubiquitous white racism. And it warns that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The Kerner report, a written rebellion of sorts, sells more than two million copies, a major best seller, but, unfortunately, dies not much later, with both Congress and the LBJ administration ignoring its recommendations. And two months after its release, urban riots break out again in more than 120 cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

March 12: Anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy comes in second in the New Hampshire primary, with 42 percent versus 49 for incumbent Lyndon Johnson. One more small rebellion, which lasts about 4 days. The McCarthy campaign is essentially derailed on March 16th when Senator Robert Kennedy enters the race. President Johnson then drops out and is replaced by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a candidacy that anti-war activists essentially portray as the empire striking back (they don’t use those words, of course, because Star Wars episode V wouldn’t be released until 1980). As for the Kennedy electoral rebellion, that ends unexpectedly on June 6 with an assassin’s bullet at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

March 16: In a small Vietnamese village named My Lai, U.S. troops kill around 400 unarmed civilians. I mention this here, in the chronology, although the event would not be revealed to the public for another 20 months. After that, of course, news of the My Lai massacre will become yet another major factor used to fuel another (eventually) successful rebellion, the growing anti-war movement.

April 2: Two department stores in Frankfurt-an-Main are bombed by Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who two years later would escape from jail and help form the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhoff gang, a violent anti-capitalist group based in Germany.

April 4: Martin Luther King is killed by a sniper at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The civil rights movement continues to this day despite many setbacks from ubiquitous opposition and racism.

April 6: Armed members of the Black Panther Party are involved in a 90-minute gun battle with police in Oakland, California. Two police are injured and a Panther named Bobby Hutton is killed. In spite of opposition from police and the undercover FBI COINTELPRO program, the Panthers continue to grow and to spread to most U.S. cities, expanding into a multi-level community support organization.

April 23: Student anti-war protesters shut down Columbia University for a week.

May 13: Student riots in Paris begin a series of general strikes across France, including occupations of many universities and factories. The student actions begin as a protest of government cutbacks and expand when the police respond with violent suppression. Unions and opposition parties join in to support the protests. The 1968 French rebellion inspires later large-scale actions in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Mexico, and leads to a variety of improvements in wages, working conditions, and electoral reforms. Most of the positive effects of this widespread rebellion disappear around 1980 with the election of leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl.

June 6: Robert Kennedy is killed at the Ambassador Hotel, ending his run for the presidency and hobbling the popular anti-war and anti-poverty movement he had inspired.

July 18: Intel Corporation is founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. It becomes a leader in integrated circuit production and creates the first commercial microprocessor chips in 1971. Their technology-market rebellion would lead to the development of personal computers.

August 20: The Warsaw Pact invades Czechoslovakia, effectively ending the Dubček rebellion.

August 22: A week of protests begin at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Hubert Humphrey receives the nomination as the party candidate for president. Violent clashes occur between the protesters and the police in an over-reaction widely characterized as a “police riot”.

September 24: The newsmagazine 60 Minutes debuts on CBS. It continues today.

October 2: A mass protest rally brings almost 10,000 people to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. It is the largest of many actions begun in July, inspired by the Paris strikes and unequal distribution of recent economic growth in Mexico and the diversion of government resources to that year’s Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Mexican military and police forces attack the crowds with gunfire, killing at least 300. Many in the crowd are kidnapped and tortured by the military.

October 11: The first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, is launched into an 11-day earth orbit. This is the first three-man space mission and the first to include a live TV broadcast, and sets the stage for the 1969 moon landings.

October 16: Tommy Smith and John Carlos perform a silent protest on the medal podium after taking gold and bronze in the 200-meter race. Each man holds a raised fist in a black glove during the national anthem; a small silent rebellion heard around the world. In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) forces the USOC to expel the two athletes. Today, fifty years later, they have no regrets and now support Colin Kaepernick.

November 5: Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election, 43.4 percent to 42.7 percent, with help from third-party candidate George Wallace (13.5 percent).

December 9: At the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Douglas Englebert hosts “the mother of all demos”, demonstrating the use of several new technologies. These include a chorded keyboard and hypertext and the first computer mouse, a device he had developed with technical assistance from Bill English and which, in his 1967 patent application, he described as an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” The first mouse using a rolling ball, an inverted trackball called the rollkugel, had been introduced by the German firm Telefunken on October 2nd.

So was 1968 a big deal? Yes, even without the computer innovations and Mister Rogers. What happened to the rebellious impulses that inspired the year’s protests? Some were crushed quickly by violent or punitive responses, others squelched by government inaction or varied social concessions. The active anti-war movement in the United States understandably disbanded when U.S. forces were forced out of Vietnam in 1975. And much of the progress that had been achieved was reversed when the pendulum swung back and reactionary regimes were elected or imposed. Yes, just like after 2016, sort of. But if you pay attention you can still find remnants of the events and policies of the 1960s, and individuals who remember the year, and the era, fondly. Of course, it was fifty years ago and we are getting old, but we haven’t forgotten.

Posted in Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What about 1968?

Supreme Kavanaugh

The nomination and confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as the fifth radical conservative justice on the Supreme Court of the United States is now concluded. Our highest court is now firmly in the hands of the oligarchy. Yes, that’s what it is, because the new majority is even more dedicated to corporate supremacy and unregulated markets than they are to reversing minority rights or women’s rights or religious diversity. That was the goal of the Republican Party and their corporate donors, and they have achieved it.

In September (2018) I watched many hours of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s four days of hearings leading to this selection. My conclusion, which will not surprise any of my friends, was that Judge Kavanaugh is unqualified for the position he has now achieved. I felt that way after the first three days of hearings, even before he was accused of a variety of sexual offenses. The fact is, after his performances I would feel that way even if he reversed himself to support the rights of women and minorities and workers, which was my primary argument against him before the hearings. His personal temperament and sense of entitlement, as displayed repeatedly before the Senate committee, is clearly incompatible with the job.

I can’t pretend to be neutral in the Supreme Court wars. I also can’t pretend, like some pundits have been doing recently, that our nations’s highest court has only recently been politicized. But Brett Kavanaugh was a strongly partisan choice dedicated to cementing the conservative and pro-business majority on the Supreme Court. For that reason alone most Democrats, concerned about women’s rights and minority rights and health care and oligarchic control of our government, among other issues, would have opposed Kavanaugh. It is not true, as President Trump claimed last month, that if he had nominated George Washington the Democratic Party would have opposed it. In fact, if he had chosen a moderate candidate his own party would have been the ones to reject it. The balance of power on the Supreme Court is important to both sides of the aisle.

But the final delay of the Kavanaugh nomination process, and the fourth day of hearings at the end of September, should not have been a partisan event, as it involved multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct. It became partisan only because one party was determined to push through the President’s choice no matter what kinds of serious questions were raised, and to do it before the November 2018 Congressional elections. Even the last-minute FBI investigation was restricted to avoid testimony that would embarrass the partisan pro-Kavanaugh arguments. The choice of a seriously flawed candidate like Kavanaugh was unfortunate, but the GOP and President Trump did their best, in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s words, to “plow right through” with the confirmation.

Most of the serious problems surfaced in the initial three day confirmation hearings. Predictably, the GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee spent their time largely praising Kavanugh and Democratic senators almost universally searched for flaws. What resulted was the usual pattern. But it wasn’t just that Kavanaugh followed the usual strategy of refusing to answer any questions about issues that may come before the Court, or any general “hypotheticals”, which he did. That was expected. It was applied to questions about abortion, affirmative action, voting rights, and whether a president has to respond to a subpoena. In past hearings he has stated that some of those issues are settled precedent that a judge must follow, but that answer is meaningless to a Supreme Court justice, who can vote to overturn any such precedent. Kavanaugh refused to say whether he personally agreed with such precedents. He also avoided answering direct questions, and may even have lied, about his involvement in Bush-administration policies such as torture and the theft of Senate emails.

But Kavenaugh’s obfuscation and avoidance reached a high point during the second Senate hearing, the one following the testimony by Dr. Christine Ford. Try the following exchanges about entries that Kavenaugh wrote in his high school yearbook:

    Senator Patrick Leahy: “In your yearbook you talked about drinking and sexual exploits, did you not?”

    Kavanaugh: Senator, let me – let me take a step back and explain high school. I was number one in the class … I busted my butt in academics. I always tried to do the best I could. … I did my service project at the school, which involved going to the soup kitchen downtown – let me finish – and going to tutor intellectually disabled kids at the Rockville Library. With the church – and, yes, we got together with our friends.”

And with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, more of the same also referring to his yearbook:

    Senator Whitehouse: “So the vomiting that you reference in the ‘Ralph Club’ reference is related to consumption of alcohol?”

    Kavanaugh: I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got into Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. I’ve worked my tail off.”

When Whitehouse rephrased his question Kavanaugh interrupted him and claimed he had already answered it. Then:

    Whitehouse: “Did it relate to alcohol? You haven’t answered that.”

    Kavenaugh: “I like beer. Do you like beer, senator, or not? What do you like to drink?”

This is an astonishing demonstration of avoidance, a display that was blatant, defiant, arrogant, and yet clumsy. There were may such incidents throughout the four days of hearings. In other questioning several senators asked Kavanaugh if he would support an FBI investigation to resolve the dispute and, possibly, to clear his name. His repeated reply was that he would go along with whatever the committee wanted to do, knowing full well that the GOP majority on the committee had rejected any such investigation. The majority was still arrayed against it near the end when Senator Jeff Flake forced them to accept a brief FBI inquiry by withholding his vote.

All of this came after Kavanaugh’s rambling and emotional introductory statement, in which he alternated between yelling angrily and crying. The Guardian compared his rant unfavorably against the calm demeanor displayed by Dr. Ford in her earlier presentation to the same committee, and against the restrained behavior expected of a judge:

    “The contrast with the US Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, could not have been greater. He was hot and bothered from the outset, fiddling with his shirt cuffs, sniffing incessantly, anxiously unscrewing small bottles of water, spraying accusations across the political landscape. He lapsed into his old role as a political hack, accusing a side range of actors for his suffering: the media, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, a vast left-wing conspiracy, the Clintons. He predicted political Armageddon as sex was weaponized to destroy reputations, notably his own, as he was just on the verge of success.”

Kavanaugh’s comments also were in sharp contrast to his assertions, in his earlier confirmation hearing, that a judge must be “a neutral and impartial arbiter”, that he himself does not “decide cases based on personal or policy preferences”, and that “the Supreme Court must never, never be viewed as a partisan institution.” Prior to the confirmation vote more than 2,400 law professors noted that Kavanaugh had “displayed a lack of judicial temperament that would be disqualifying for any court.” And more than twelve ethics complaints arising from Kavanaugh’s testimony have been judged as substantive enough to warrant review by the federal justices of the tenth circuit court.

The Republican response to all of this was standardized into brief talking points, so that virtually all their leaders began repeating two contradictory interpretations. First, they said that Dr. Ford’s presentation was compelling and that she had obviously experienced a traumatic event. Then they argued that “Kavanaugh wasn’t there”, that the complaints about him were “a hit job” and a conspiracy by the Democrats, one that will destroy all similar processes in the future. In other words, they believed Dr. Ford, but then they didn’t. Or they simply didn’t care. As for the many other accusers who spoke of other incidents of harassment, they were completely ignored. What the Republican strategy really means is only this: They were dedicated to approving their president’s choice no matter what evidence was presented to them. And that, in the end, is what they did.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Supreme Kavanaugh

Religious Wrongs

Be careful what you wish for. This warning is a popular idiom and cliché, in this case one not attributed to Shakespeare or Aesop or any Greek philosopher, but one that is useful as a cautionary reminder. We should all be familiar with both the phrase and its intent, which is to inform people that when they promote any idea or plan they should look beyond the intended goals and promotional influences, which are almost always positive, and consider the potential negative consequences.

Virtually every human plan will have unintended and unanticipated consequences. Some of those will be positive. The formation of the demilitarized zone in Korea and the evacuation of the nuclear exclusion zone around Chernobyl have created large protected natural habitats, a boon to many regional species. And whenever some group opposed to a new book or movie advertises a boycott or attempts a ban on sales, it usually has the perverse effect of increasing interest and revenues for the offending product. However, when a person or interest group begins working to push a specific proposal they are motivated to find and advertise every possible positive effect, so unanticipated positive consequences are relatively rare.

Negative consequences are another thing altogether. There is an overabundance of examples of disasters resulting from human efforts to control our environment or to improve our lives. In this case, however, I would like to focus on the efforts of one political lobby that was instrumental in the 2016 election of President Trump and has, as a result, seen its policy proposals gain influence and implementation in many agencies and levels of the current federal administration. That movement is commonly labelled the religious right.

The overreach demonstrated by the religious right is in many ways analogous to that seen among other recent conservative social and political efforts, which have been buoyed by Republican dominance in all branches of the federal government. For example, the drive to expand the already high profit levels in U.S. business, pushed by shareholders and upper management, has led to several policies defined as business-friendly, including opposition to minimum-wage increases, reductions in employee benefits and safety regulations, increased reliance on temporary and part-time workers, and the imposition of high-tech employee scheduling and monitoring systems in the name of cost efficiency. These policies have in turn inspired a significant increase in support for unions and in the frequency and size of strikes, and strengthening of the progressive movement in politics. In a different example, the insurance industry and its allies in Congress have continued to fight the Affordable Care Act ever since it was enacted, repeatedly pushing to repeal the Act entirely or to reverse Medicaid expansion or to remove requirements to cover pre-existing conditions. The contrary effect of these efforts has been a strong increase in public support for policies such as Medicare-for-All, which would largely bypass the private health insurance industry.

The efforts of the religious right can be seen as similar. Over the same period as evangelicals and their allies have become more visible and demanding in the public sector we have seen a decrease in public involvement with organized religion. There may not be a direct causal relationship, although many “religious dropouts” have noted the uncompromising attitudes of evangelicals as significant factors in their decisions. Perversely, evangelicals have argued for decades that they must expand their efforts in order to halt the decline of morality, which is their interpretation of the growing social rejection of their own bible-centered version of righteous behavior.

The success of the religious right’s plan, if it reaches the full extent that the movement would like to achieve, would produce precisely the opposite result that they say they want. Their ultimate goal is a theocracy, a government that imposes religious doctrine through mandated prayers at public gatherings, that provides financial support for religious institutions, including schools, that encourages religion-based discrimination against specific groups, including LGBTQ or racial or religious minorities, and that supports preference in government employment and contracts and policies based on sectarian doctrines or membership. The goal is the implementation of a “Christian nation” or “dominionist” model, and more than that, a government devoted to a specific form of theocracy based on the fundamentalist sector’s biblical interpretations, the specific dogma favored by the movement. It is likely that one sectarian group strongly affiliated with the religious right would dominate, such as the large Southern Baptist denomination. State governments and legislators are already trying to impose majority sectarian doctrines on a piecemeal basis. Their intent would be to officially recognize and enforce a broad system of such dogma on a state-wide basis.

The formation of the United States was preceded by a colonial system similar to the one envisioned by the religious right. In many colonies there were official state churches, either Anglican or Congregational. Maryland in 1689 passed a law barring Catholics from practicing their religion, and in 1704 passed a law preventing Catholics from holding political office. Representatives of minority churches such as the Baptists and Presbyterians were frequently arrested in many of the colonies for preaching their religious views in public. The many disputes resulting from colonial repression, and the past experience with religious control in England, all led the founding fathers to include in Article VI of the Constitution the phrase “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. And when they immediately added the first ten amendments, the bill of rights, the first amendment included the anti-establishment clause to prevent governments from favoring any religious denomination.

The constitutional prohibition against state-mandated religion has produced an unintended consequence that is primarily positive. Religious thought has flourished in the United States. Despite continuing decreases in church attendance and membership overall over the past five decades, 79 percent say they believe in God and 48 percent attend church at least once a month. Nearly a quarter, 23 percent, say they attend every week. And the fact that there are no government-approved or -supported churches has allowed diversity to flourish as well. There are an estimated 350,000 congregations in the United States representing some 220 denominations. About a tenth of the congregations are nondenominational. These high levels of religious participation and diversity are largely a result of our first amendment protections from governmental control or favoritism.

If the religious right has its way we will not only end up with a restrictive theocratic government, with the associated reductions in human rights and increases in discrimination against minorities. We will also see significant reductions in voluntary participation in religious and governmental activities and in the varieties of religious expression across the United States. This may make the right’s leaders happy as it reduces the competition they face from other denominations, but it will be destructive to our democracy. Be careful what you wish for.

Posted in Politics, Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Religious Wrongs

Commons Problems

If you want to talk about the environment or natural resources or about publicly available information or even privately held resources that are widely shared, you should recognize a concept that describes a well-researched and widely recognized problem. One of the economic terms used for resources of this type is “the commons”. These are things—land, water, air, ideas—which are widely available for use by almost anyone. Knowledge about the problem with the commons is therefore itself one of the resources within the commons. Still, many familiar theories about economics and the environment and human activities tend to ignore the commons problem. The knowledge is available to people who promote these theories, but they refuse to take advantage of it.

The problem with the commons is simply the problem of an unallocated resource: Anything that is freely available to everyone often gets overused or misused. Ranchers who have access to common grazing land tend to increase their herds beyond the carrying capacity of that land, the ability of the land to regrow forage. Farmers who have access to well water provided by an underground aquifer tend to expand their crops, and thus their extractions of water, beyond the natural ability of the aquifer to recharge itself. Industries that require access to land or flowing water to store or remove wastes, whether chemicals or surplus heat, tend to release more pollutants than can be controlled or dissipated by natural processes. Information that is in the public domain or widely available is not finite like natural resources, so it cannot be depleted by overuse, but it can be either misapplied or polluted by misinformation. Inevitably, when a resource becomes available to everyone it will attract those who will misuse it.

There are two primary solutions to this problem. One is to subdivide the commons and assign ownership. Land is the most obvious example of this method, but copyright law provides a similar function in the area of intellectual property. The theory behind personal ownership assumes that if someone owns something outright they will take care of it; they will maintain it so that it retains its value. In most cases, this is true, and you can see echoes of this assumption in arguments against government regulation. Farmers and ranchers argue that they are good stewards; they know better than anyone what is good for their land. Bank CEOs complain that controls on debt and investments limit their flexibility in managing their businesses. Taxpayers argue that they can make better decisions about how to spend their money than the government can.

Unfortunately, there are many egregious exceptions to the theory of responsible ownership. There are mining companies and factory operators, for example, that trash their own properties and then move on, leaving behind useless buildings and uninhabitable land and a former labor force that is not only impoverished but often saddled with job-related illnesses. There are landlords who allow their residential properties to deteriorate, valuing short-term income more than long-term sustainability or tenant safety. There are also some commercial operations that maintain and even improve their own facilities but that produce external effects such as releases of waste pollution and underpaid workers, elements that create damage both to the owned properties of other individuals and to the resources in the commons. In yet other cases, the owners of properties may be well-meaning, but they do not have the knowledge or the resources to properly avoid deterioration of their own holdings or negative external effects. Ownership provides no guarantees that resources will be properly used or maintained.

The second strategy for avoiding the misuse of the commons is regulation by knowledgeable authorities. In a few cases such regulatory enforcement can be provided by private-sector agreements such as industry-wide consortia or residential subdivision compacts, but the vast majority of controls must be provided by government. In the case of resources held in common, government regulation is virtually the only effective option. For that reason we have spent many decades building up hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations in attempts to control misuse of resources in the commons, rules generally created in response to specific negative experiences and public outcry for remediation. We have also put aside land in government reserves, in national parks and monuments, national forests, national conservation lands, wilderness areas, state and local parks, and other public holdings. During those same decades many wealthy and influential groups have been pushing continually to roll back such protections.

One of the most significant recent movements against government control of the commons was the Sagebrush Rebellion. Prominent in the western U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, Sagebrush demanded that Federal lands be turned over to state and local authorities and that environmental protections, such as those for wetlands and endangered species, be rolled back. In 1988 the Sagebrush Rebellion was largely replaced by the “wise use” movement, which has the same goals. Not surprisingly, much of the funding for Sagebrush and “wise use” activism and lobbying groups has come from resource extraction corporations (i.e., oil and gas, mining) and from representatives of agribusiness (i.e., the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Association). Their primary goal is to remove federal controls that limit commercial exploitation of lands held in common. They want the Federal government out of the way because state and local governments are generally more malleable and more responsive to industry lobbying, and more likely to sell land to private developers.

Land, at least, generally stays in one location. Water and air are resources that flow from the commons to private control and back again. Whatever a private “owner” does in their own operations on their own land can affect the lives of many others. That is why wetlands and clean air regulations, for example, are so important. In recent years we have seen widespread water pollution by oil spills and releases of mining and agricultural wastes, including record destructive red tide incidents in Florida caused by runoff of farm chemicals. There have been fatal localized levels of atmospheric chlorine and other toxic gases released in accidents. On the plus side, the United States has in recent years avoided the levels of air and water pollution commonly reported in China (similar to incidents that had been seen in the U.S. fifty years ago), but there are powerful interest groups that are working to remove the rules that have protected the commons. They argue for deregulation in the name of the “free market” and talk about “freeing up” land and water for human activities, but what they really want is to be released from many of the true costs of doing business, for example the costs of cleaning up after themselves. Or they want to make use of the resources of the commons without paying for them or restoring them afterward.

And this is the reality behind the protection of the commons. The commons is ours, it belongs to all of us and is used by all of us. In so many cases, it is vital to our lives, even the part of it that is composed of land that few of us will ever visit. Even if it is land under the jurisdiction of the Federal government—the feds don’t really “own” land—it is really ours. If it is water or air or wildlife, under nobody’s jurisdiction, it is also ours, in common. It all must be regulated by the only governmental entity large enough to act across state lines and to be responsive to all of us, not to an owner or owners. If it is turned over to private ownership or to uncontrolled use it will be lost to us; it will become subject to the limited goals of a small group, individuals likely motivated by narrow economic concerns rather than by the much wider goal of maintaining resources for all of us and for the future.

Posted in Economy, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Commons Problems