Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What is the Debt?

At a Town Hall meeting in New Hampshire on Monday, December 21st, an audience member asked Republican Presidential candidate Governor Chris Christie about the National Debt, claiming that Barack Obama had tripled the Debt in his seven years in office.  Governor Christie, without attempting to correct the man’s exaggerated figure, claimed that Obama had added to the debt more than every other President combined; in other words, he had doubled – not tripled – the Debt, still a potent charge.   But here is the truth: Presidents Reagan and Bush I more than quadrupled the Debt, from $998 billion to $4,411 billion, President Bush II more than doubled the Debt, from $5,807 billion to $11,910 billion.  President Obama took over a Debt at $11,910 billion and the Debt stood at $18,151 billion at the end of the last fiscal year, September 30th, 2015, an explosion of 52%, not 200%, not 100% (but he has only been responsible for 6 years of budgets so far).  And while President Bush II only had surpluses as far as the eye could see to overcome, President Obama had a deep recession to fight (and additional government spending is every serious economist’s response to a recession).
Politicians lie, even with numbers that are easily verified.  But politicians don’t expect you to care enough to hunt down the truth.  So, I am happy to do that for you. 
And, by the way, here is the SOURCE of my numbers.  I wonder what the governor’s source was.
And Governor Christie knows he told a whopper.  The alternative is: he is ignorant and he doesn’t care.  Which is worse?
For what it's worth, this is not an anti-Christie post, it is a post aimed at setting the record straight re: taxes and the National Debt.  All Republicans have put these untrue facts out there.  Democrats lie too, but Republicans – the party of fiscal responsibility – like to emphasize the fiscal irresponsibility of President Obama, and they don’t seem to care that it is just not true.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Big Deal Dates in "Recent" US History

This blog post is just an exercise in historical silliness.  There is no way you could come up with this personal list of big deal dates if you asked Google or Bing.  It is just MY list, 13 events.


November 4th & 5th, 2008
Barack Obama wins the American PresidencyThe world went crazy, the worldcelebrated, America had elected a black man President, America had grown up!  Even in the USA, Obama had a 76% approval rating following his inauguration, so even conservative Republicans were glad for America (for a short while).  It was quite an event, you could feel it!



September 11th, 2001
September 11,” “9/11,” Muslim terrorists destroy the World Trade Center.  Need I say more?  This was the first time our nation (Hawaii was not a state when Pearl Harbor was attacked) had been attacked since the British made war on us twice between 1775 and 1815.  We are vulnerable and we have never recovered our sense of security.








July 20th & 21st, 1969
Neil Armstrong walks on the Moon“The Eagle has landed” happened on July 20th and Armstrong took his walk (“That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”) on the 21st.  I remember watching it on a huge TV screen somewhere in Central Park in New York City, but that may be a mythological memory.  Once again, a world changing event, the dawn of space exploration, Star Trek, here we come!



November 22nd, 1963
JFK is Shot.  We had radios on in the US Army motor pool and we knew within seconds that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.  Many of us suspected then (and many still do) that Cuba had something to do with the assassination.  The free-spirited sixties came to an abrupt close on this day in 1963.  Life has never been the same since, they lost their innocence that day.  And the “culture wars” that began back then are still being played out, and the children of JFK are not doing too well at all.


October 4th, 1957
Sputnik.  The real beginning of the Space Age.  The Soviet Union had beat us into space and we did NOT feel very “exceptional” that day.  President Eisenhower then authorized the National Defense Education Act, a program that subsidized young Americans who wanted to go into math and science and technology, a program that jump-started a generation into space (and personal computers and the Internet and smart-phones for everybody).


May 8th / August 15th, 1945
V-E (Victory in Europe) and V-J (Victory in Japan) Day.  World War II is over and the good guys won!  Yeah for the Free World and its new leader, the USA!  Americans younger than 50 have no idea of the scale of World War II.  The fatalities were some 70 to 85 million souls, and our own casualty list numbered over 400,000.  The number of American men in uniform (16,000,000!), the number of men in theaters of combat, was 20% of the male population of the whole country; whereas since then (Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq-Afghanistan) we have not budged past 2% of the male population (less than 1% today).  With the exception of the Revolutionary era, the Civil War, and the Great Depression, World War II was the biggest test our nation has ever had to endure.  It was a big deal and few are alive today who know this in their bones.  Most of you – most of US – are lucky to never have experienced such a world.


December 7th, 1941
Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese!  FDR proclaimed it “a date which will live in infamy.”  While we had remained officially neutral from the war’s start (September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland), we were not totally caught by surprise as the administration was waiting for a pretext to take an isolationist USA into a world war.  And Japan provided it.  We were all in by the next day, when we declared war on Japan.  “The Greatest Generation” is a clear reference to the men and women who fought in this war; and it was an expression of profound gratitude that their grown-up sons felt they owed their fathers before they passed.  This awful war – six years of world-wide carnage – was one of the most formative events in our nation’s recent history, in many contradictory ways.


November 1st, 1938
The Match Race.  The thoroughbred Match of the Century, between the upstart Seabiscuit and the blue-blood Triple Crown winner, War Admiral.  The underdog, an “old” 5 year old thoroughbred from the West, upset the greatest thoroughbred of his time that day, conclusively.  Why am I including such a trivial event in this list?  It was the middle of the Depression, and the race was a matchup, not just of two great horses, but of two kinds of Americans: the little guys who were suffering and their capitalist overlords.  Nonetheless, many bosses gave their employees the day off.  And, in 1938, a horse, Seabiscuit, garnered more column inches of newstype than any man, FDR and Hitler included.  A phenomenon.


October 30th, 1938
Halloween in America.  Europe is at war.  But the United States is still playing a waiting game.  Orson Welles, a brilliant 23 year old radio actor, and his Mercury Theatre, put on a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds that caused a minor panic among its many American listeners, some of whom actually fled the comfort of their own homes and ran for the hills.  Read about it.  What does it prove?  That Americans are gullible, that we believe everything we hear, no matter how unlikely.  Or maybe this is true of human beings in general.  We Americans, we humans, have dark souls.


October 29th, 1929
Black Tuesday.  The stock market collapses.  The Great Depression begins.  September 1929 through August 1945, the extent of the Great Depression and World War II, was a time that most if not all of my readers can barely imagine.  People worldwide live today like we lived then, just it is so far from the modern American experience that it remains a fantasy for most of us.  But it was real.  25% unemployment.  Sounds like 75% were untouched.  Most Americans were touched directly, went jobless, at one time or another.  It took until 1954 – 25 years with a war to thank – for the market to return to its giddy Roaring Twenties heights.


May 20th – 21st, 1927
Charles Lindbergh flies solo across the Atlantic Ocean, New York to Paris, in The Spirit of St. Louis (which can still be seen in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum (you walk beneath it as you enter the museum from the National Mall)).  An amazing feat of derring-do, a fitting and heroic symbol of the Roaring Twenties.  As an aside, Lindbergh was criticized in the late 1930’s for being a friend of fascists as he worked to keep us out of the European war.  Until Pearl Harbor – when he went all in, and flew 50 combat missions.


July 21st, 1925
The Scopes Trial.  The Monkey Trial.  The Trial of the Century (one of many trials to be thus honored).  Charles Darwin.  Creationism.  The ACLU.  William Jennings Bryan.  Clarence Darrow.  H.L. Mencken.  What a cast!  What a show.  Tennessee won, in actual fact, as John Scopes was found guilty of teaching Evolution in his high school biology class, which had recently been made illegal by the midget minds of the Tennessee legislature.  But, of course, Scopes and Darrow and Darwin and science really won.  Mencken had a field day.  Read his commentary.  The United States is home to more Evolution deniers than any other Christian nation in the world.   God bless our freedom of belief!  God bless Clarence Darrow for his non-belief!  And H.L. Mencken for his Satanic tongue!


September 14th, 1901
Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt sworn in as President.  The Rough Rider takes the reins of the Presidency and the Progressive Era begins.  I confess I do not know how to collapse this into a few sentences.  Read about the first Roosevelt, he is as fascinating as FDR, as Lincoln and as Jefferson.  What a bundle of contradictions, but none of them half-lived.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

A brief history of the evolving character of the American people can be seen in 3 or 4 broad, but deep, brush strokes on a large canvas.  Those strokes are: the Revolutionary period (1763 – 1804), the Civil War (1861 – 1865), and the Great Depression and the Great War (1929 – 1945).

A Jewish friend of mine …

A Jewish friend of mine wrote this and I thought it deserved being seen.
Someone in the <deleted for the sake of anonymity> group argued that we are a Christian Nation. As a Jew, I would say that makes me just a bit uncomfortable. Not to mention that historically, it made Irish and Italian Catholics uncomfortable, too. If we are a Christian Nation, we are a Nation of Salem Witch trials, of Pilgrims who fled religious intolerance only to practice it themselves, of Christians who justified killing the red (native-born) savages for not converting to Christianity, and of Christians who dressed in white robes to go on lynching rampages. Neither “Jesus,” nor “Christ,” nor “Christian,” nor “Christianity,” nor “Bible” are mentioned so much as one time in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, or even the Federalist papers; not once (you don’t believe me, check it out). Our Constitution is the only constitution in the Christian world not to mention God even one time. The word God only appears in the Declaration and only when it is surrounded by deistic modifiers like Nature’s God. All of our Founding Fathers (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Paine) were deists, men who believed in a creator God who after he set the world in motion left it alone. To many modern-day American Christians, a deist might as well be an atheist. John Adams called Jefferson an atheist during their campaign for the Presidency, and Jefferson, whose Jefferson Bible strips the story of Jesus of all its miracles leaving only his speeches, did not bother denying it. Not only were they not recognizably Christian (by today’s standards), most of them were Free-Masons.
Christian Nation? No, America is NOT a Christian Nation, and thank God for that!

My Jewish friend likes to remind me that we used to call America a Judaeo-Christian nation when we were growing up. Now we are looking at a Syrian Muslim refugee invasion! And Donald Trump has gone bonkers!! But the President calls for us to be generous Christians and to let 10,000 (that is 1 per 30,000 Americans) Syrian refugees into the country. And it is not like we will just let them all in to scatter to the highways and by-ways of our land without extensive vetting. There are reasons to be concerned, dozens of reasons to be concerned, and we will debate these reasons for the next 200 years, just as we are still debating whether we are a Christian nation 200-plus years after all our Founding Fathers resoundingly said NO. We need to be careful what messages we send to the world, we need to be especially careful that we don’t prove what radical Islamic jihadists (call them what you will) will say about us to their moderate Muslim co-religionists: “Americans hate you, America is Christians and Jews and they all hate you, they hate every Muslim, and you have no place there among Islam’s sworn enemies; join us in our jihad against the infidel West.”  And for those of you who really believe we are or ought to be a Christian Nation, what is the difference between you and those who want to establish an Islamic caliphate across the entire Middle-East?

Not only is it the right thing to do – to welcome these unfortunate men, women and children who are fleeing the terrors of their own homeland, and not without vetting them properly – it is the wise thing to do, too. 

So, buckle up.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Allah Revisited

In a piece that I called Katy Perry & Allah, I probably sounded like an enemy of Muslims.  I suggested that American Muslims needed to get used to being discriminated against, at least individually and personally (rather than officially by the government).  But my whole drift was that they could not expect to have their prophet Mohammad respected, not as they wanted him to be, not by the American people.  Because individual freedom of expression is America’s creed (not just YOUR freedom, but everyone’s); what makes us American more than anything else, is our RIGHT to offend, to blaspheme, to insult, to disparage.  And I was suggesting that this lack of “respect” was part of a period of indoctrination that might last a hundred years or more; ask a black man how long it will last that they won’t respect you, and he will say with some justice: “it never ends, white Americans are all alike, bigoted as hell.”  Seen the movie The Gangs of New York yet?  I recommend it, it will give a real face to American intolerance.  But it will allow you to breathe easier about it.  Really!

So what am I here for this time?  To associate myself with President Obama’s sentiments, and not with Donald Trump’s.  And to honor the New York tabloid Daily News (NOT a liberal rag) for its graphic eloquence!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The ACLU & Citizens United

I have spent a lifetime walking in near lock-step with the ACLU and its unwavering support of our fragile Bill of Rights, particularly the 1st amendment, and its laser-beam concentration on that amendment’s “freedom of speech, or of the press” clause.  God knows I could write a short book glorifying dozens of unpopular cases that the ACLU took on, and won.  But here I would like to register my dismay at their narrow reading of the issues in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case of 2008 – 2011.  In this case, the ACLU submitted an Amicus brief for the film maker, and it was right to do so: Citizens United had every right to have its movie broadcast.  But the ACLU erred in siding with the Court in its expanded consideration of the place of money in politics.  Here is what they wrote for public consumption in defense of their position.

To sum up, they say: "For that reason, the ACLU does not support campaign finance regulation premised on the notion that the answer to money in politics is to ban political speech."  God forbid!  I would be the last person to attack the 1st amendment’s protection of speech, especially political speech.  But I don’t believe that is what is at issue here.  The issue as we see it is: how big a megaphone a speaker can use to be heard.  If I could take over the air waves, as John Galt did for his wonderful (and long) speech in Atlas Shrugged – to make myself heard, by everyone – I am pretty sure that the Supreme Court would not sanctify my actions under the rubric of protecting my right to speech.  But what is the difference here?  John Galt did two (separate) things: he took over the private property of the broadcast media, and he forced everyone to hear him, to listen to him.  The first action is clearly illegal: no private person (and no government) has the right to dictate to a private owner of media what he may broadcast.  The second action, the right to speak through a megaphone that effectively silences all other speakers, is less obviously illegal.  But a little reflection makes the case that no one is entitled to force anyone to listen to what he says.  But that is what happens if money is protected speech; it forces us to hear what is said, and that is not a legitimate part of freedom of speech.

But that is not the only issue that was not addressed by the Court.  If money is protected speech, and if corporations have the right to speak, no one else, no private person, will ever be able to speak and be heard.  Exxon-Mobil can throw a few billion dollars into the broadcast media without feeling its wallet get any lighter, and who else will ever be heard?  Of course, other corporations, but not me and not you.  There is NO PLACE for corporate speech in politics or in government; it speaks too loud by its nature.  We know we can lobby Congress for a redress of our grievances, but do you suppose that our Founding Fathers had the East India Company in mind airing its grievances in front of Congress?  I think not.  Corporations are artificial entities with vast power; the idea that they can have any equivalent representation in politics is an offense to anyone who has thought about democracy for a moment.  Does We the People include persons with names like Apple, Exxon-Mobil, Pfizer, General Motors?  I think NOT!

I would remind the ACLU that at the time of our Founding Fathers, “speech” was limited to soapboxes, beer halls, town halls, pamphlets and broadsides.  No one living then would have imagined radio, TV, 500 or more channels of 24/7 TV “news coverage” and, maybe not least of all, the internet and the Twitterverse.  The kind of speech that we (those who are upset with the Citizens United decision) are talking about “limiting” limits no “speech”; it only seeks to limit its volume or loudness, its coercion to listen, and its infinite repetition.  This kind of “speech” is not intended to explain, to clarify or to convince; its sole intent is to overwhelm the senses with the inevitability of whatever cause or candidate is being trumpeted over the airwaves to listeners who did not even choose to listen to this “speech.”

I exempt books, magazines and the internet from this argument; I exempt Citizens United's own video (their readership or listenership was voluntary).  Part of freedom of speech is freedom to listen or not, a freedom that is not available to a person when the “speech” is certain kinds of internet ads, all short radio ads, and especially short TV commercials.  Where speech is meant to bludgeon the listener and where speech inhibits other speech, it should not be protected.

Not to mention that every Constitutional advance that has extended Constitutional rights to more people has always extended those rights to individuals, never to groups or legal fictions; even the 14th amendment, the source of this terrible misunderstanding, meant to extend rights to individuals, in particular to slaves and former slaves; extending rights to corporations was a mistake, an error, even if it was deliberate.  And we seek not to take away rights from a formerly impotent class of individuals, we just seek to reaffirm the Constitution’s core principle, that it is We the People, who have rights and who are in charge, not our legal creations.

If I am missing any of the ACLU's argument, please straighten me out.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Paris

I can recall from long, long ago an older relative calling World War II "the recent unpleasantness."  It had a clever ironic ring to it that made you wake up to how really awful it was.  Indeed, if you don't know how really awful it was, you have no sense of history.  If you are not old enough to remember the war, an over-exposure to images and facts and figures may do the trick; so put a day aside and immerse yourself in a bit of "recent" history.

The "recent unpleasantness" in Paris is a European capital's 9/11.  A wake-up call, not that any European capital needed one.  And it is having all sorts of unintended consequences here, too.  The governors of many (23 as of this morning) American states have decided to close their borders to Syrian refugees who are trying to escape the self-same bastards that are now targeting Europe.  They don't want to be next, "not on my watch."  And who can blame them?  Because of a few evil bastards, hundreds of thousands of innocents will see their cries for help turned aside.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Four Freedoms

       

The following is stolen verbatim from the Norman Rockwell Museum's website.
The History Behind Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms
On January 6th, 1941, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed his State of the Union Address to Congress, he described his vision for a better way of life through what he considered the four essential human freedoms: Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want and Freedom of Speech.
In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.  
The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.  
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.  
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.  
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called "new order" of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.  
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, excerpted from the Annual Message to the Congress, January 6, 1941  
Almost two years later, with the United States in the throes of World War II, Norman Rockwell painted a series of paintings called the Four Freedoms in an effort to reinforce their importance, while at the same time, simplifying their complexity.  After four months, when he was finished, the United States government used them quite successfully to enhance family values, unity, and patriotism, at a time when it was most needed. 

      

Friday, October 23, 2015

Democratic Socialism


As independent senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders has a real chance to become the Democratic candidate for President in 2016, it is time for the American people to understand what he stands for.  Sanders’ party is the Democratic Socialist party.  So, what is a Democratic Socialist?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Snowden and the NSA

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis
After the homilies he immortalized in Poor Richard’s Almanac (“A penny saved is a penny earned,” “Early to bed and early to rise …,” “Old too soon and wise too late”), Benjamin Franklin is best known for two more mature aphorisms: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it” and “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In other words, alongside of the wise Mr. Franklin, I am squarely on Edward Snowden’s side in this contest between the forces of civil liberties vs national security.  If we can’t protect ourselves without resorting to undermining the very freedoms that make us proud to be Americans in the first place, well then, God help us.
Having said that, this is a tough one.
I don’t think we want to live in a society where every government worker takes it upon himself to decide what government secrets ought to remain secret.  There ARE legitimate government secrets and we need not air all our dirty laundry all the time.  I don’t think I need to have access to the conversations of the President with everyone he speaks 24/7, as long as I know they will all be made public, for the sake of history, after 20 years’ time.  Same for all his cabinet secretaries.  And Senators, and Congressmen.  The lives of the public (I mean “us”) are quite busy enough, as long as we get to know the results of all their conversations, as long as the press gives us what we need to be informed citizens.  I think it is appropriate that we criminalize behavior that is anti-social, and revealing classified information to the public is surely at least anti-social; in a few cases, indeed, it may reach to treason.
On the other hand, it is quite clear that government can be over-zealous in protecting itself by classifying way too many conversations and documents as top secret, often to spare the official actors from embarrassment, often to spare them from revealing to the public what the public really needs to know.
So, to come to the point: should Edward Snowden be charged with treason, or some lesser crime, and spend a long time in prison for confronting the American public with the dirty laundry of how we protect ourselves, behind closed doors?
click photo for story
When I began this piece, I was going to end with a humble “I see no solution.  While I applaud what Snowden did, I do not want to encapsulate his actions into law, I don’t want all our secrets to be fair game for public scrutiny, I don’t want every public employee taking upon himself the mantle of whistle-blower.  So, what do I do with Snowden?  I don’t know.  Read Melville’s Billy Budd for a thoughtful treatise on the right vs. the law.  Sorry, no easy answer.  You’re an American hero, Ed, but don’t come home, because you will be headed for federal prison.”
But I think I begin to see the glimmer of a solution.  The jury at any criminal trial in America consists of twelve men tried and true.  They represent us, all of us.  Let them, before the man who thinks himself a patriot stands trial, decide the question of damage, damage to the republic for having its dirty linen aired in public.  Let them decide if damage has been done to us.  If they decide that he has done us harm, let him stand trial for the harm he did us.  If they decide that he has done us no harm, let Snowden walk – no damage, no crime, no trial.  If they decide that damage was done us by those who classified the documents as secret, let us look into that.
I would be happy to sit on such a jury.  But of course, my mind is already made up, so I would never be seated.  <sigh>
Would Edward Snowden take the chance and come home to stand trial?  Weigh in, if you like.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Employment

The Obama administration likes to boast that it is responsible for 59 straight months of employment expansion, of employment growth, the longest positive economic growth in American history.  I cannot comment on the streak as I don’t have that level of data, or for that matter that level of interest, to affirm or deny that factoid.  On the other hand, the level of employment growth leaves a lot to be desired.   “Why,” you may ask, “this is an impressive accomplishment, isn’t it?”  I guess it is.  But not as impressive as you may think.  Here is why.
The population of the United States grew from 281,421,906 to 308,745,538 (Census Bureau data) in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 (a growth rate a bit slower than the previous ten years).  We will assume that that rate of population growth has remained roughly constant ever since.  That rate of growth is 9.7% over ten years which is 0.93% for each year and 0.0927% for each month.  That rate of population growth will generate a monthly population increase of 260,878 at the beginning to 286,206 at the end of the period.  How many months (of those 59) saw employment growth that exceeded population growth for the same period?  Nine.  So, out of the last 59 months, 9 (15%) have seen an increase in employment that exceeded the increase in population.  For 50 of those 59 months (85%), the increase in population was stronger than the increase in the employment figure.
So, while we are adding to the work force, we are not keeping up with our natural increase in population.  Even though the news sounds good, it is only good compared with … worse.
http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet    You will have to play with the Years
This is great news for the Republicans, isn’t it?  Sure, as long as they don’t subject their own record to the same scrutiny.  The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) says that we have been losing ground steadily since about 2000 (Dot Com bubble burst).  And that we peaked (labor force as % of the population) in 1990 (Dot com bubble begins) and again in 2000.  Straight downhill ever since.  And 9/11 seems not to have anything to do with it.

What made me think of this subject?  I just read Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots.  Chapter Three is called: A Tough Year for the Human Race.  You want a real political issue to chew on?  This is it!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Comics

Some of you may think, from reading my stuff, that I have no sense of humor.  Well, you’re RIGHT!

To amuse myself, I treat my weary brain to comics realized by the BEST comics writers who ever lived.
In alphabetical order, they are:




Lil Abner, by Al Capp

Friday, September 25, 2015

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In my book, To My Countrymen, I wrote two essays that talk about how computers threaten jobs: Productivity Rocks and The Future.  I would have written more about this hugely important disruptive technology, but it was not my intention in this book to scare you half to death.  I wrote my book to move you to join our revolution.
In any event, I picked up a book just a few days ago, called Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, by John Markoff, New York: 2015.  It’s an examination of the progress of the twin strains of computer intelligence: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Intelligence Augmentation (IA), AI vs IA.  Over-simply stated, AI aims at machines replacing humans while IA aims at super-charging human skills.  Mars Rovers and totally automated factories are results of AI thinking, while Microsoft Office and the Internet are results of IA thinking (lest you think that IA is benign, products that empower a human to be more “productive” empower his employer to cut his labor force).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Who is John Rawls?

My apologies to fans of Ayn Rand for stealing a favorite line of theirs ("Who is John Galt?").  I couldn't help myself.

Most of us, I think, choose our political party because of how we perceive our identity.  For example, if you’re black, you vote Democratic and you don’t have to think hard about it.  Similarly, if you are gay, Jewish, secular, poor, Latino/Latina, a Union member, a government employee or a teacher, you vote Democratic without having to think hard about it, because that is what your group does.  On the other hand, if you are wealthy, a small businessman or woman, evangelical Christian, country, a farmer, a cop or military, you vote Republican without having to give it much thought because that is what your group does.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Externalities

Externalities are economic costs not borne by the producer or the consumer.  They are external to the entire costing process, from creation through sale.  Most often, not paying for externalities benefits private corporations (and their direct customers), whereas costs of the externalities are typically borne by the public.  There are externalities that are “positive externalities” where there are external benefits rather than costs (the classical example of a positive externality is a community with an excellent public education system in place that provides a high-quality labor force for any employer who might want to headquarter there; the community pays for the education, the new employer gets a high-quality labor force free of charge).  But we are going to focus on negative externalities here.

The Fisherman and the Businessman

This is a golden oldie.  You probably know the story, the tall tale, the parable.  If not, follow along.

Mexican Fisherman Meets Harvard MBA
A vacationing American businessman standing on the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico watched as a small boat with just one young Mexican fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. Enjoying the warmth of the early afternoon sun, the American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.
"How long did it take you to catch them?" the American casually asked.
"Oh, a few hours," the Mexican fisherman replied.
"Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" the American businessman then asked.
The Mexican warmly replied, "With this I have more than enough to meet my family's needs."
click me to view video
The businessman then became serious, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"
Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, "I sleep late, play with my children, watch ball games, and take siesta with my wife. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs..."
The American businessman impatiently interrupted, "Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, before long you can buy a second boat, then a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats."
Proud of his own sharp thinking, he excitedly elaborated a grand scheme which could bring even bigger profits, "Then, instead of selling your catch to a middleman you'll be able to sell your fish directly to the processor, or even open your own cannery. Eventually, you could control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this tiny coastal village and move to Mexico City, or possibly even Los Angeles or New York City, where you could even further expand your enterprise."
Having never thought of such things, the Mexican fisherman asked, "But how long will all this take?"
After a rapid mental calculation, the Harvard MBA pronounced, "Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard."
"And then what, seƱor?" asked the fisherman.
"Why, that's the best part!" answered the businessman with a laugh. "When the time is right, you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."
"Millions? Really? What would I do with it all?" asked the young fisherman in disbelief.
The businessman boasted, "Then you could happily retire with all the money you've made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, watch ball games, and take siesta with your wife. You could stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want."
This version was lifted verbatim from here.  But it is all over the web, just Google "the fishermen and the businessman."

OK, so the tale is a bit cheesy.  Happiness is at your feet, you don’t have to go chasing it.  Or, what this culture believes (“get an education, work hard, and you can live the American Dream”) is all wrong.  Or, the hunter-gatherers had it right all along.

But I won’t tell you what to think; all I am saying is: it is a good story and it is worth some contemplation.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Gay Marriage, Updated

U.S. District Judge David Bunning’s decision to jail Rowan County, Kentucky’s Court Clerk Kim Davis was an overreaction.  Thank God it is done with, and in only six days’ time.  Too long by six days; better he had put her on leave without pay until a resolution could be reached.  And a perfect resolution was indeed reached, in less than a week.  As long as one clerk or assistant clerk is able to fulfill the letter of the law, there is no need for Ms. Davis to be forced to betray her conscience.

Washington Post 2015/09/04, etc.
You should be clear that I am on the side of the LGBTQ community in the gay marriage argument.  For several reasons.  One, it is no skin off my back if a gay couple gets married, it costs me nothing.  Two, the argument against gay marriage is a religious one, and the first amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion (or group of religions) in the nation and in the states, and a legal ruling in favor of a religion is an “establishment” of that religion.  Third, no religious organization will be compelled to marry – or even recognize as married – any gay couples, as the Supreme Court decision only relates to civil law.  Fourth, before the Court decision, civil law sometimes distinguished between married people and single people, oftentimes advantaging married people; now gay people will be able to take advantage of those same advantages of being married.  And last, does your happiness really depend on the unhappiness of human beings who are not like you?

And the definition of marriage has not changed.  Every religion has its own sense of the institution; under civil law, however, the word “marriage” is merely a way to distinguish one group of people from another where that is legally and civilly a meaningful distinction.  You will still be entitled to say that a gay couple is not a married couple and in many ways you will be right; maybe they are not “married” in the eyes of God, but only in the eyes of the state.  But maybe YOUR church will change its mind; stranger things have happened.

FWIW (For what it is worth), a better all-around situation would be that no federal or state law concerned itself with marriage at all.  Then there is no marriage discrimination and no need for a minority community to fight for equal protection under the law.  While it is surely the case that some in the movement would like to compel churches and synagogues to marry gay couples, there is nothing in the Constitution or in the law to support such an outcome.  Many churches will liberalize, many will not.  So it goes.

For the original blog post on this issue, see Obergefell v.Hodges.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tax Reform

Republicans talk about “Tax Reform” a lot.  Democrats talk about “Tax Reform” too, but not so often.  Not a single member of either party has ever disclosed what he means by “tax reform.”  Soak the rich, soak the poor, subsidize the poor, subsidize the rich?  Doesn’t matter, they’re not talking.  But you know what they mean, don’t you?  Well, "tax reform" doesn’t mean anything, it is just a slogan that politicians think will earn them some electoral gravitas.  But when they do begin to get a little specific, you can count on all of them talking about tax cuts, as though they are not aware of our National Debt, $18 trillion and counting.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Gun Violence

I propose a response to “gun violence” that is better than anything I have seen out there, but there are hurdles to going along with my “solution.”
First, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  Take away the guns, the firearms, and the perp cannot kill from a distance and cannot kill in large quantities per minute.  Nothing else kills quite so efficiently as firearms.
Second, there is no excuse to cover military style weapons under the second amendment.  Why not?  Because it asks for trouble.  What about nukes and chemical WMDs?  If you are even asking for second amendment coverage of these technologies, YOU are the problem.
Third, any sale or transfer of a firearm (not only to the end-customer, any sale or transfer) that is not accompanied with a transfer of title is a felony on the seller.
Fourth, you understand that if an under-age child harms a person or damages the property of another, that his parents are responsible.  When a child accidentally kills his friend with a firearm owned by his parent, his parent should be charged with murder.
Fifth, if a bartender sells liquor to an inebriated patron, he may become party to subsequent legal actions based on the behavior of a customer who was served when he ought not to have been served.
Sixth, there is no even partially reliable way to keep firearms out of the WRONG hands.  Forget background checks!  Think instead of a bartender selling to a drunken customer.
And last, the NRA will be held innocent of all gun carnage as they only sell an idea, a pernicious one to be sure, but only an idea.  They are accountable to their members.
Allow me now to introduce accountability to the debate.  Parties to a gun slaughter ought to include 1) the perpetrator, 2) the gun owner, 3) the gun seller, 4) the gun manufacturer, 5) the ammunition seller and 6) the ammunition manufacturer.  These parties are all partially responsible for all killings based on firearm usage.
Figure out the rest using the principle of shared responsibility.  We live in an imperfect world, claiming that one person alone is responsible ought to be seen as nonsense.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Runaway Convention

 http://www.article-v-convention.com/files/site_map.html
There are those – like Ben Paine, like myself – who are working to craft and ratify a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will end corporate personhood and build a Wall of Separation between big money and government.  There are those – like Ben Paine, like myself – who want to have an Article V Convention write the amendment rather than Congress, in order to get what we want and not a watered-down version with no teeth and no real hope for a better more democratic future.  But there are those who fear that an Article V Convention might degenerate into a “runaway convention” whose consequence would be to undermine all the benefits we have thus far enjoyed under the original U.S. Constitution.
 http://www.billtrack50.com/blog/controversy/do-you-know-about-article-5/
In order to allay everyone’s fears, let me start by granting them their fear, let the Article V Convention “runaway” and utterly rewrite the U.S. Constitution, killing Federalism, killing our Checks and Balances, and killing all the rights granted us under the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.  Let us assume the impossible: the Article V Convention rewrites the U.S. Constitution and puts in its place a constitution that only Satan would love.  The consequence of such an unhappy event is that many people will have wasted a lot of their time at this convention, but there is no fear that this new document, this new constitution, would ever be ratified by the states, as that needs the approval of ¾ of all the states' legislatures and if it is that god-awful it will not get any state to ratify it.  Let us assume, otherwise, that the Convention rewrites the U.S. Constitution and makes it a little worse than what we have.  How many states will ratify that new constitution?  Not many, surely not ¾. Let us assume, finally, that the Convention writes a constitution that is BETTER than what we have!  (Hey, if that is impossible, it is impossible and don’t worry about it)  Well, if enough legislatures are smart enough to see an improved constitution, we will have a new and improved constitution, won’t we?  “Well,” you say, “who is going to say that this new constitution is better than the one we have?”  Why ¾ of the states is who.  If we don’t trust that hurdle, what can we trust?
A runaway convention is not a problem even if it happens.
And as the convention is not paid for by the public treasury, the worst that can happen is it wastes some of your time and mine as we follow its progress, and provides some exciting news for a few months, at least it costs no tax payer money.  Worst of all, it breaks the hearts of a few hundred or a few thousand American idealists.
No one is asking for an Article V Convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution.  But if it were to be sabotaged and turn into a runaway rewrite, what I have said above applies: it wastes some people’s time.  And those who attend such a Convention will assuredly work to craft something that is likely to pass muster in ¾ of the states, no matter how grand or how limited.
So, if you hear anyone argue the possibility that an Article V Convention to craft a 28th amendment might be taken over and go runaway, your logical response is, “won’t happen and if it did, big deal, it’s fodder for late night comedy shows.”
An Article V Convention is the people’s convention, and what could be more exciting than to watch patriotic Americans sitting down to make things better, for themselves, for you and for me.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ben's Picks

I was gonna call it Ben's Books because that alliterates and sounds punchy.  But it is wrong because they are not MY books, they are merely my book recommendations.

And I just thought of it today as I finished reading a very good book.

So what do I mean by "a very good book"?  The subject is interesting and you will feel nourished by learning stuff that is not a waste of your time, stuff that is good for you (protein and not sugar or other worthless carbs).  And the author is so engaging that his book is hard to put down.  VERY important!

So, the book that I just finished reading today is David McCullough's The Wright Brothers.  I have read other books by McCullough, and he can be very good; but he can also be not so good.  It was an effort to read his 1776 even though I am primed for books of our Revolutionary period, especially "popular" books.  Nevertheless, ...  Also, his immediately previous book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, young American artists in Paris in the middle of the 19th century, a subject in which I have little or no interest, was an absolute delight to read and revel in.

Of all the authors who write mostly about the American Revolutionary period, I am an especially big fan of John Ferling, who is always engaging and always hard to put down, despite (because of?) all the facts he puts before your eyes.  Let me particularly recommend Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Trump


Sometimes politics as a spectator sport is FUN!  Please note that I write very little about "politics"; I prefer issues to personalities, and politics is all personalities.  So few discuss issues independent of the passions associated with a personality; that is my niche.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Democracy


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
The two most ringing phrases in all of American history are indisputably “We the People of the United States …” from the Preamble to the U S Constitution and “… all men are created equal …” from the Declaration of Independence.  And they both seem to argue for democracy – rule of, by, and for the people.  But every once in a while, a stray Republican, one not running for President, reminds us that democracy is not called for or even mentioned by the U S Constitution, or any other founding document for that matter.  He is right.  By all rights, we are a republic, a nation ruled by laws; but not by Constitutional mandate a democracy.  In addition, none of our Founding Fathers (excepting Thomas Paine himself) desired universal suffrage (suffrage is the form of a democracy, it is the right or privilege of a citizen to vote or otherwise participate in the processes of governing).  Indeed, to a man, they all feared democracy.  They feared the voice of the demos, the herd, the common people.  Consider that all of our Founding Fathers were highly educated and highly successful men.  Their version of “We the People” meant “we and our social peers,” a natural aristocracy even if not an inherited one (as in the old country).  A “real democracy” (in today’s usage) implies universal suffrage, suffrage of the common man.  But no democracy for these demigods.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The War of Northern Aggression

That is what a speaker in the South Carolina House of Representatives called the Civil War: “the War of Northern Aggression.”  I don’t know how ironic he was being, but there it was, one more name for the Civil War, a name that still resonates for some.

Some names for the great conflict include The War Between the States and The Brothers’ War.  There are a dozen or more names that combatants and others have used, some in an attempt to remain “objective,” others in an attempt to assign blame.  And to re-ignite still burning embers.

http://www.examiner.com/article/rick-perry-s-gop-and-the-new-war-of-northern-aggression
The optimal causes, the immediate causes of the war, were two-fold: firing on Fort Sumter was a clear act of war and the Union did not blink.  Secession was the other immediate cause.  Was secession a possible act under the doctrine of states’ rights?  As long as this was being debated, it was an exercise in free speech.  But the Confederate states’ official acts of secession were immediate causes of the war.

Slavery and states’ rights were enduring arguments from the first moments the terms of the Constitution were being argued, nearly 75 years before the outbreak of the Civil War.  So in themselves neither slavery nor states’ rights were operative causes of the War.  But firing on a government fort and the political acts of secession were optimal causes of the war.  Still, slavery was the underlying reason for the argument in the first place, the underlying cause of the war.  The South fired the first shot, the South split apart the Union, the South precipitated the Brothers' War.

But what does “The War of Northern Aggression” tell us?  It tells us what we have long suspected, that the Civil War, and its underlying arguments (slavery, and even states’ rights), are not settled issues among all Americans.  Gridlock in Washington, DC and the partisan passions across America are proof that as a nation we are not one people, one more argument that democracy cannot work in today’s fractured political environment.  <sigh>


The Iran Nuclear Deal

No doubt you are expecting some words of wisdom from me about a critical issue of war and peace, the Iran Nuclear Deal.  Sorry.  No can do.

I am ill-equipped to offer an informed opinion on the question “to sign or not to sign,” as my emphasis in political thought and deed is always domestic, not foreign, policy.

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-12-01/iran-deal-one-cartoon
I will say this though: a major failing of the Obama administration has been its tendency to give away the farm before even sitting down at the negotiating table.  I would never trust them to win a good deal for me and I would never trust them with any of my money at a poker table.  So, NO, I say NO DEAL as the recent past makes altogether too probable that they gave away too much, even if I don’t know this and cannot prove it.

On the other hand, the Republicans were universally up in arms from the moment the deal was announced.  But they would be all over Obama if he dared to suggest that a mile is 5280 feet.  I trust them less than I do him.

I guess I am between signing and not.  But the only way to thread that needle is with not signing it.

I could be wrong and I am always open to hearing more.  But in the meantime, NO DEAL.  But I am prepared to change my mind at a moment's notice.

Michael Ramirez cartoon
Let me add now that I am not "anti-war."  Nor am I "pro-war."  I am neither hawk nor dove.  I judge each conflict on its own merits.   I'd have fought in World War II had I the chance.  I would have avoided Vietnam as it was not our war, and for reasons that you all know.  The same for Iraq-Afghanistan.  Not so sure about Iran but they have not provoked any such reaction - yet.  But I just wanted you to know that my foreign policy choices, such as they are, do not have a pro-war or anti-war bias.


Addendum: Friday, 07/24/2015 
I posted the above too soon.  Now I will make up for it.

I listened to three State Department spokespersons explain the Iran Deal on C-SPAN several days ago.  Needless to say, they explained with logic and detail why The Deal was a Good Deal.  Let me say that I was convinced!  However, I have done politics long enough to know that if one side of any argument has the stage, anyone with an open mind will be convinced of their argument.  Indeed, if on another occasion you hear the other side take the stage alone, you will change your mind to support them.  Whoever you hear last will win your support.  Politicians are not fools, they can make a good case for anything.  The only way to really be able to make a good judgment between two sides of one issue is to hear a debate by both sides sharing the stage on the common theme.  Even though, if you have been following politics for any length of time, your mind is already made up, and it will be impossible for you to hear the other side at all.  I, on the other hand, pride myself on being able to listen with an open mind, putting my prejudices aside for a time.  Nevertheless, I was convinced by the State Department spokespersons.

The other side, the Bad Deal side, argues that Iran cannot be trusted, that they have entered into any number of deals before and they have never kept their word.  That is their entire argument, as far as I can tell.  The Good Deal side might counter that if Iran breaks any agreement, the Deal is off.  So that OUGHT to pacify the Bad Deal side, but apparently it does not.

The Bad Deal side is led by the Israelis, by their Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  Once again, Iran cannot be trusted.  “And we, Israel, have the most to lose by a Bad Deal that is not enforceable” (a paraphrase).  I have some Jewish blood in me and I can identify; the Holocaust is recent history for every Israeli, it is NOT ancient history.  I can identify.

Last, it is easier to go from a NO Deal to a YES Deal.  That simple.  Once The Deal kicks in, we are all trapped by the terms of The Deal.  We can be more flexible and able to respond creatively to new stimuli with no deal in place.  Maybe that is the real reason I lean toward the NO Deal position. 

All really hard decisions are hard because the positives and the negatives of both sides are very close to each other.  They "score" the same.  In some ways, when it is legitimately difficult to come to a decision, one may as well flip a coin and get on with it.

A lot of words and no real guidance for my readers!  Actually, I admire myself for not having solid opinions on every verdammte (German for "damn") subject.  <wink>

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Charleston

What, really, has to be said about the cold-blooded murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a screwed-up white kid (I say “kid” because 21 years is not always enough to be called a ”man”).

http://www.charismanews.com/us/50183-this-pastor-pulling-no-punches-about-demonic-south-carolina-massacre
Why does it still happen here?  Were not 250 years of slavery enough?  Were not 150 years of Jim Crow enough?  Were not 100 years of lynching enough?  Were not 100 years of segregation enough?  If the history of race relations in this country prove nothing else, it is that whites are surely NOT the superiors of blacks.  By any measure.  Especially morally.

Beautiful -- but Provocative and Shameful
Three governors (and counting) have decided to outlaw the Confederate flag from license plates.  The governor of South Carolina has ordered the removal of Confederate flags from state grounds.  This is proper and long overdue.  Indeed, the flag of the Confederacy should be removed from any and all official Southern displays.  Imagine the Nazi flag being displayed in modern Germany, it would provoke a riot (and if it did not, that would be worse).  The Confederate flag is not merely the flag of the Confederate South, it is the flag of the slave-holding South.  We fought that war, the Union won that war, and while mercy and forgiveness were routinely granted to officers and soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, neither mercy nor forgiveness were offered to the institution of slavery or to white supremacy.

On the other hand, YOU may love the Confederate flag, you may own the Confederate flag, it is probably legal for YOU to display that flag on your own property as surely as it is legal for you display the Nazi flag (this being America and not Germany).  The 1st amendment protects your right to free thought and free speech and free expression.  But it does NOT allow a governing body the same "freedoms."  This is not splitting hairs, as it is legal for you to pray in a public school, but it is not legal for the school authorities to conduct a prayer.  You may discriminate, no governmental body may do the same.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Irony of Democracy

One of the great ironies of contemporary American life is that the greatest democracy the world has ever known (that would be us, the United States of America) and the land that spends half of its annual tax receipts exporting democracy around the world, is not a democracy itself.  A democracy is a nation-state where the people rule.  All we are is a nation-state where the people VOTE, but the people do not rule.  You don’t need me telling you this, you know it.

This sorry state of affairs is the single reason why I wrote my book and why I write my blog, that we are not a democratic land where the people rule and what we must do to become a true democracy once again (well, that and I like to write and I like seeing my ideas and words in print).

What ARE we then, if not a democracy?  Lawrence Lessig thinks we are Lesterland, a nation-state where the Lesters rule.  Greg Palast thinks we are "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy."  Maybe we are an oligarchy, where a few rule the nation-state.  Or a corporatocracy, where corporations rule.  Or a plutocracy, where the rich rule.  Or a kleptocracy, where the thieves rule.  Or fascism where big businesses have taken the reins of democratic power for their own purposes.  All these apply, all except democracy, because the people clearly do NOT rule.