Tuesday, April 30, 2013

To My "Staunch Republican" Friend: a Letter

[This is a letter I wrote to a friend, after she sent me a (gentle) reprimand for challenging a friend of hers on Facebook.  She informed me that she was a "Staunch Republican", and said that she didn't like politics, but that she didn't want me to insult her friends.  I care about her, and I put considerable effort into composing this response.]

Firstly, let me say what I would have said before, if your friend's comments had not intervened: I am very happy for you and your daughter, that she was able to witness such a historic event (I don't believe we've ever even had five presidents ALIVE at the same time before, let alone all collected in one place), and I also congratulate you on her brilliant blossoming! You must be so very proud... as I am of my son.

Regarding the rest, I am not sure you DO entirely appreciate my heart and sentiments. I am sure that you can understand what it is to be passionately committed-- and I am certainly aware that you have a heart and brain! I too, was raised Republican-- though I didn't learn what that meant, till I was an adult. It was quite a shock for me to discover that the party of my parents (or rather, my father's party; my mom became quite liberal after she got away from him) was diametrically opposed to practically everything I believed in! Since then, I have voted with my heart and mind-- and increasingly, as the years have passed, I have found it necessary to investigate the sources of statements that are presented to me as truth.

Increasingly, the wealthy and powerful in this country, particularly the corporations, have been able to manipulate the media, to purchase our lawmakers, deceive the people, and to literally mold the country to suit themselves. Their intentions have nothing to do with honor, and everything to do with profit, and control-- whatever they may say. Surely you must be aware that Fox News, for example, does not have a sterling reputation for truthfulness? That's money and power talking!

I understand that you have worked for many years in a highly conservative, largely male environment-- and since you were also raised Republican, there has probably never been much incentive for you to question your core beliefs. Such things do deeply influence us.

I am also sure that there is much to admire in your law-enforcement friends. There used to be much to admire in the Republican party, as well. It is NOT what it was. The Republican party that your father, and my father, were raised with, was much more aligned with the beliefs of mainstream Americans; at one time, to be Conservative really did mean, to be conservative. Cautious. Thrifty. Traditional.

But it doesn't mean that anymore. When you tell me that you are a "Staunch Republican", you are telling me that you ally yourself with the party of Big Oil, of global warming denial, the party that is STILL fighting tooth and nail to deny women the right to control their health, and their bodies, and their right to not be raped. You have allied yourself with the party that thinks gay and lesbian couples aren't as human and worthy as the rest of us... the party that STILL hopes to deny me my first chance ever to have health-care... the party that just deep-sixed the President's gun regulation agenda. The party that wants to teach creationism, take away the last safety-nets for the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, and the disabled, to persecute undocumented immigrants... and make sure my vote doesn't count. (oh, and if you question the accuracy of any of the above, let me know-- I'll be happy to look up the sources and send them to you).

Can you see why I might find your allegiance difficult to accept? I don't know what your personal beliefs are... but when you support the Republican party, you support all these things. From my point of view, you might as well have said, "I'm rooting for Darth Vader and the Evil Empire-- but it's just politics. Let's get beyond that, shall we?

I don't want to fight with you, or with anyone. The other night, when I sent that message to you, a surge of adrenaline went through me that kept me awake all night. It's SCARY for me, to tell people where I stand, and what I believe... possibly because it wasn't safe for me to do that, growing up. But more and more, I am finding that I MUST speak. I CANNOT stand by, and watch what is happening, and say nothing. I also hate talking about politics. But if I keep my mouth shut, when someone makes a racist or sexist or hate-filled remark, how will anything ever change?  

Your friend's remark was so incredibly unfair, too. He reminded me of the bully in elementary school (I don't know if you experienced this, but I certainly did) who repeatedly punches you with your own arm, all the while chanting, "Stop hitting yourself! Why are you hitting yourself?". Obama isn't ineffectual. He's been very effectively blocked in almost every action he's attempted-- by the most consistent, concerted Republican effort this country has ever seen. Surely you and your friend are aware of that?

So where are we now? I'm not sure. Certainly I will always love and care about you, always wish you well. But your politics are so repellent to me that I must admit, it makes me very uncomfortable. I know you to be a kind and honorable and loving person, a devoted parent... so how can you support such appalling causes? I have a couple other friends and relatives who fall into this category... and I find, frankly, that it makes me want to avoid them.

I don't want to avoid you. But I do have one request: when you hear things on the news, or from your friends, could you PLEASE question the source?! Since you've been an investigator, you already know how to do that. It's not hard to find out the truth about things... if you look for information from sources that are actually reputable. Fox News is not; neither is CNN, nor the Heritage Foundation, or a slew of other propaganda machines... most of them right-wing, and funded by right-wing oil money. (I'm not saying there aren't foul, lying, mercenary Democrats; there most certainly are... and I LOATHE them. But they're working for the same people as the Republican ones.) For myself, when I really question something, I frequently look it up on Snopes.com. They have no axe to grind... I highly recommend them.

I know you didn't want to hear all this from me... and frankly, I didn't want to have to say it. But if the alternative is for me to be silent, or to lie... well, I just can't do that. Not anymore.


The Stand Down: Tales from an Electrical Apprenticeship

The intense 10-hour days are wearing me down. I'm constantly exhausted: by the time I slog through the afternoon traffic (about 60 to 90 minutes to cover 21 miles), I have only a couple hours to myself before collapsing into bed. Time is the scarce commodity right now and I am greedy for more me time!

Today, we were sent home from the job site at 1:30pm. Since we start our days at 6:00am, it was only an eight hour day. Whooo-hoooo! An afternoon all to myself! I could barely contain my glee. Yet there was a dismal group vibe in the air. Over 300 of us were being walked off the site due to an accumulation of incidents. We were in "stand down" mode: a punishment from the general contractor who was basically saying to us, "No more work (or money) for you!" Politics and intensified stress have wormed into the scene: schedules and completion dates are tight. The drive to get it done is coming directly into conflict with safe practices.

The attitude of work-as-reward makes me angry. We're experiencing a modified nuance of the "You're lucky to have a job" attitude. To be fair, if safety is suffering, a collective reset and refocus is definitely in order. We've been told that our first priority tomorrow is to skip stretch and flex and report to an auditorium. Ah - here it comes! A group experience of being talked to like a child when, in fact, the bickering is happening amongst the upper management. What I suspect is happening is a nonsensical loop that goes something like this:

1. You need to get this task done.
2. But wait! You can't do it like that!
3. No, it's fine because that has been approved and signed off. We're going to go ahead and get it done now.
4. Stop what you're doing! Who approved this?
5. Why haven't you gotten the task done?

Being in a skilled trade, especially on such a large project, does not mean we are exempt from the basic management bullshit that tends to crop up in any organization. And that's too bad. As further punishment (or reset/refocus, if you want to call it that), our scheduled Saturday shift was canceled at the last minute. Saturdays are automatic time-and-a-half shifts and I know many of my co-workers have arranged their financial lives to where they depend on the 10 hour days and the 60/60/50 weekly hour rotations. Even though it didn't affect me personally, yanking this day away did not seem like it was in the spirit of getting some rest and realigning safety priorities. It's an ice-cold reminder of the importance of budgeting in such an ebb-and-flow career. Also, knowing that no project lasts forever is a comfort to me right now. I want to remind myself to not cling to security and predictability so hard that I fear change. Being in this craft requires a lot of trust in the universe and go-with-the-flow mentality: the next project will come!

This threat of, "If you don't behave exactly correctly, you'll be removed" is enhanced in our basic electrician training and it seems to flow as a continuation from our mainstream education system. It is an intimidation method: a variation on the theme of, "You're lucky just to have a job." It feels like mild brainwashing and it awakens my inner rebel. It makes me grit my teeth and fuel my desires to be a kick-ass electrician. Because when it comes down to the bare bones: being a skilled craftswoman and being united with other skilled craftswomen/men will trump management bluster. I am grateful to my foreman and general foreman who have demonstrated cool heads and suave interpersonal skills in this heated situation. They have shown an excellent example. And I'm grateful to my crew, who works really safely. I think once the project is completed, the customer will see that despite their own efforts to thwart and confuse, the end product was done well.

The Stand Down was originally posted on My Electric Avenue by Jeanne Slate.

Friday, April 26, 2013

JBG And The Alexandria City Council: Dealing With The Devil, And The Beauregard Small Area Plan

This past year, I have attended several meetings arranged by the City of Alexandria on the Beauregard small area plan. Supposedly, the meetings were meant to foster a dialogue between city planners and residents, to learn about residents’ needs and concerns and then improve the plan.

Unfortunately, the city and JBG already had decided exactly what they intended to do. City employees rattled off incomprehensible statistics in a bored monotone; residents were allowed to speak, but no one was listening.
The plan, after all, already exists. It’s all up there, in bureaucratic doublespeak, on the city’s website.

What it comes down to is the city is giving JBG the go-ahead to destroy an entire neighborhood, driving out as many as 10,000 people in the process.

Oh, and they all claim this is a Good Thing.  I heard a city employee say that the 2,500 apartments scheduled for demolition have outlived their usefulness, that they are too old and not worth fixing up. But is that really true?

The buildings in Old Town are much older than those in the West End.  And right on the Beauregard Small Area Plan website, it says that it would cost considerably less to fix up one of these old buildings, than it would to tear it down and build a new one.  But JBG would rather pretend these buildings have outlived their usefulness because it can charge a lot more for new apartments.

To JBG and city council, I have this to say: You seem to have decided this neighborhood is somehow undesirable and not worth keeping. Apparently, you believe throwing as many as 10,000 people out of their homes, tearing children out of their schools and forcing them to leave the area is a good thing. You don’t really want affordable housing because you can make more money if this neighborhood goes away.

And so you are using trickery — and deceit — to get rid of it. You pretend you are going to improve the transit system, when in fact you are only going to increase the residential population, create more traffic and make everything worse.

You pretend you are providing new affordable housing when you are destroying 2,500 units and might — there is no legal guarantee — replace 800 of them. You pretend you care about the residents even as you are driving them out with rapidly increasing rents and utility fees. You pretend you are providing green space when the plan is to bulldoze almost all of the property and put in tidy little lawns and tidy little private courtyards, where the wind can’t blow and there will be no children to play.

What a terrible, stupid, greedy and inhuman mistake you are making. These people are not undesirable; they are not dangerous or troublesome. I moved into Brookdale in June, and before I came here, I wondered if it would be safe because I’d never lived in a city before. And because there are terrible things that have been said about these places on the Mark Center apartments website. You’d think it was the worst ghetto in the world, with shootings and stabbings every night.

But you know what? This place is nothing like that.

When I walk around this neighborhood, I am never afraid. I see lots of people, and many of them come from countries and speak other languages. But when I smile at them, they smile back. They are kinder than the people I see in Old Town, who are afraid to meet my eyes.

The people I see here are hard working. They are admirable. But more than that, they are the beating heart of this city, and Alexandria will wither without them.

If you and JBG really want to improve this neighborhood, I suggest you actually improve THIS neighbor- hood. Why not make changes that will actually help the people who live here now, so that they will become more successful? Why not help them to become wealthier people, rather than throwing them all out?

There are many places where wealthy people can live. Wealthy people have lots of choices. But there are very few places in this area where poor people can live — and where their children can go to a good school. Let it not be said of this mayor, and this city council, that they consistently chose profit over people, and destroyed an entire community.

Warren Buffett, Spin-master Extraordinaire

There has been a lot said recently about Warren Buffett's pro-environmental investments and pronouncements; he's being hailed as an altogether admirable figure, a green-friendly philanthropist.  In this article on Bloomberg in 2012, (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-02/buffett-says-shortcuts-on-environment-can-risk-profits.html)  he said, “A company must invest in the key ingredients of profitability: its people, communities and the environment."

Sounds great, doesn't it?  But I've just been reading in Sierra magazine about Buffett's ANTI-environmental choices, the ones he doesn't say much about:  http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201305/warren-buffett-coal.aspx.  He is heavily invested in coal:  his MidAmerican Energy Holdings "relies on coal for roughly half of its 18,000-megawatt generating capacity".  In addition, Buffett's Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) Railway Company earns $5 billion in annual revenues from transporting coal, and it lobbies aggressively on the industry's behalf.

Buffett's BNSF Railway Company is also a 1/3 owner in the proposed Tongue River Railroad, which is currently slated to be built in Southeastern Montana.  Needless to say, the ranchers and Native Americans and Amish farmers who currently live in the area are not happy about it.  But there aren't many of them, and they are easy to miss.  What is also easy to miss, is that the 42-mile railroad will ultimately enable Buffett's company to ship coal to China via the West Coast.  This is significant, because US demand for coal is dropping, and Buffett sees China as his new market. 

The new railroad will also make it possible for  Arch Coal, one of America's largest coal companies, to stripmine the nearby Otter Creek coal tracts, thereby creating one of the largest coal stripmines in the country.

Railroads may be a great form of "green" transportation, as Buffett also pointed out in the article... but NOT when they're shipping coal. That's about as environmentally-UNconscious, and as cynical, as anything I've ever heard of.

Buffett is NOT, ultimately, a green-investment hero. He's a personable ultra-capitalist, who has a way with words.  And ultimately, he is just one more amoral self-promoter, a large and extremely successful corporate shark, out to make all the money he can, and never mind the lives and homes and lands that are devastated in his wake  He may be better than some... but only because that bar is set so very, very low.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Kiobel v. Shell: Supreme Court Gives Corporations A Break

In an important case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, the U.S. Supreme Court has once again ruled in favor of corporations and against individual human rights. Court observers should have had no doubt about the resolution of this case. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobbyist for corporate interests, has made its opinion known. Businesses around the globe, said a spokesman, are being punished in U.S. courts with costly, reputation-damaging litigation.

Neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the Court seem interested in the crimes committed by corporations in these cases. These crimes are the worst sort of human rights abuses.

Filartega v. Pena-Arala (1980) was brought by the sister and father of Joelito Filartiga who was tortured and killed by the Paraguayan government. In Kadic v. Karadzic (1995), muslims and Serbians charged Radovan Karadzic, president of Srpska, for acts of rape, torture, extrajudicial killing, and genocide committed by soldiers under his command.

In re South African Apartheid Litigation (2004) was brought by South African citizens against multi-national corporations for aiding and abetting apartheid, extrajudicial killing, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and denationalization. The corporations involved in these lawsuits were Daimler, Ford, General Motors, and IBM. This case has not yet been brought up on appeal. Its fate is doubtful, given the Court's decision in Kiobel. All these cases have been brought under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 ("ATS"), which gives U.S. District courts the right to try cases that originate in foreign countries.
ATS has been invoked in law suits 154 times since 1995.

The Supreme Court tolerated ATS until victims began targeting corporations. One law journal article estimated that continued prosecution under the law might cost corportions $6 billion over the next few years and cause multi-national corporations to stop doing business in countries that are notorious violators of human rights, like China. The article called this a nightmare scenario, while admitting that it hasn't happened yet.

An alternate scenario could be that multi-national corporations begin to protest human rights violations in countries like China to protect their bottom line. Then human rights violators will stop denying rights to their citizens because they need foreign capital to survive. One advantage of ATS is that it allows victims to sue for damages, while other international human rights laws hand out criminal penalties. The cash awards permit human rights law firms to take the cases on contingency and continue to represent victims in other cases.

The chances of either scenario happening were diminished by the Supreme Court, which rejected the arguments of human rights victims in Kiobel. Cases filed under ATS had two characteristics that bother the conservative justices on the Court. First, the statute can be used against corporations, which the Court has shown an eagerness to protect. Second, the statute can be used for any violation of the law of nations, now known as international law, which the conservatives on the court hold in contempt.

Justice Scalia proudly boasts he does not cite the opinions of foreign judges in his analyses of Constitutional law. He cites a number of areas where European law differs from American law as the reason for this practice. European courts, he says, have declared homosexual sodomy legal; abolished the death penalty; banned political donations for periods of time before elections. ATS specifically mentions offenses under international law. Using ATS forces American District Courts to become interpreters of international law.

The differences Scalia cites between U.S. and European law do not represent instances where Europe is wrong and the U.S. is right. They are instances where Scalia personally disagrees with European law, but where millions of Americans would accept the European position.

In his opinion in Kiobel, Chief Justice Roberts used a concept, presumption against extraterritoriality, that has not been well-defined. Roberts rejects the petition of Kiobel for redress against Shell Oil Company because accepting the petition might result in discord between nations. This decision is a transparent effort to resolve the claim in favor of a multinational corporation, regardless of the merits of the case. Recall that Filartiga was brought by a Paraguayan citizen against another Paraguayan citizen for crimes committed in Paraguay. Kiobel was brought by a Nigerian citizen against a multinational corporation for crimes committed in Nigeria. If anything, there is a closer relationship to the U.S. in Kiobel than in Filartiga. It is hard to view the Court's decision in the current case as anything but a complete reversal of the earlier case.

Roberts decides that the U.S. Supreme Court cannot intercede because the acts of Shell are also illegal under international law and therefore should be tried in an international court. Roberts knows Kiobel won't be tried in an international court, however, because the attorney for the plaintiff informed him in oral argument that no other judicial body showed an interest in taking the case. Furthermore, international courts are familiar with conflicts between countries and have procedures in place to handle such conflicts. Therefore, U.S. entry into the case would offend no one.

The Court's minority also concurred with the majority, making this a unanimous decision. The minority refused to accept Roberts's opinion on extraterritoriality. Rather, they ruled against appellant because they viewed the case as too trivial for action. This is probably the reason why international courts would not take the case, because they are busy with cases involving thousands of victims. The Supreme Court's refusal to uphold Kiobel’s appeal probably means that individuals will have a hard time getting a hearing for human rights violations in the foreseeable future. The international courts are too busy and the U.S. courts don't care.

The legislative agenda of the conservative Court majority proceeds. The Court has chosen groups to favor and others to disappoint. In this case, they have taken an inconvenient law and emasculated it. The judicial tools they use differ, but the result is always the same. Conservatives prosper, progressive languish.

Somewhere in its world of parsed word derivations and historical usages, the Court should find room for justice and equality. They should care whether Kiobel's wife gets compensation for her husband's murder. They should care whether prisoners on death row are innocent or only guilty of being poor and black or brown. They should put on their robes and walk to the courtroom with the humble acknowledgment that they are empowered by the people to administer justice and they should do their duty.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: The People Hardly Matter

On April 17, the U.S. Senate voted to block any vote on a gun control regulation supported by 90% of the people. The Senate would have passed the bill had a vote been taken, since they had 54 votes to allow debate to continue. Opponents of the bill included lobbyists for gun manufacturers and the radical fringe that opposes any attempt to limit the quantity or quality of armaments that any American can buy.

The Constitution is to blame for this. The Framers planned for the Senate to be the last bastion for minorities against the majority of public opinion. Once again, the Senate has fulfilled its role. The Senate also proved that this country is not democratic, since the vast majority of the people support gun control but can't even get the Congress to vote on a bill that grants their wishes.

Gun control is not the only issue that can't be discussed in the Senate. Global warming, affirmed by over 90% of the world's climate scientists, also fails to get a hearing due to spending by its wealthy opponents. Too many rich people depend on oil for the majority to have their way. Yet global warming threatens to destroy the wealth of the whole world. The slogan of the oil companies seems to be, “I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone.” By which they mean to say that when the economy collapses under the weight of natural disasters, they will have made their fortunes and gone away to a haven for the wealthy.

There are only two solutions to this problem. One relies on less democracy, the other on more.

The first option was chosen by the Romans in the First Century A.U.C. The Roman world was racked by revolutions. The ruling class, holders of political power, were unable to stem the violence. But the violence continued until finally a leader, Julius Caesar, emerged who destroyed the power of the elite and declared himself sole ruler of Rome. The people acquiesced to his rule because they were exhausted by warfare and uncertainty. Democracy came to an end and with it the possibility of long-term survival, since an absolute ruler is only concerned about his own power, not the welfare of the people.

There is a possibility that such a person may emerge in the United States. There is nothing in our Constitution to prevent such an action if the situation is desperate enough. In the past, American presidents have increased their power with the consent of the Congress. John Kennedy brought the nation to the brink of nuclear war because he believed missile sites in Cuba threatened the U.S. mainland, but never explained how the Cubans could be a threat when the Russian military possessed missiles that could reach the mainland from Russia. Lyndon Johnson persuaded the Senate that the navy of North Vietnam represented a danger to the United States that justified years of war and thousands of American deaths. Ronald Reagan convinced the Congress that Marines should invade the island of Grenada because a few American medical students might possibly be in danger. George Bush convinced the whole country that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the U.S. that justified 10 years of war and a trillion dollars of military spending. Americans have a history of letting presidents do anything they want.

There is another way, though, one that results in more democracy, not less. The country could pass the National Initiative Amendment, which would create a way for the majority to exert its will. The initiative process has already been tried in 28 states. Recently California has ended the deadlock in its legislature, very similar to the deadlock in the U.S. Congress, with an initiative.

A national initiative has the advantage over the current Congress that individual Representatives would not need to vote on an issue. They could pass an initiative and let the people decide. If such a process were available today, the gun manufacturers could not spend enough money on propaganda to sway 90 per cent of the electorate to their position. Reasonable gun laws could be passed nationally.

The deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, and children through gun violence is an important stimulus to legislative action. The wealth of our country's wealth and power by global warming is even more critical, since it affects every American, and every person in the world. A national initiative would permit the people to vote on whether to permit oil companies to pollute the world. A national initiative could overrule a Supreme Court stuffed with oil company backers, because the Court cannot rule that an amendment is unconstitutional. The amendment passed by the Constitution would become part of the constitution.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: Defanging the Senate

The Framers designed the Senate as a stronghold for prominent men. John Adams wrote that all members of the government should be gentlemen, which he defined as friends and connections of the well-born and educated. In those days, prominent men took pride in their erudition. We know what books Thomas Jefferson had in his library because he donated the entire collection to the Library of Congress after the War of 1812. Jefferson was an American patriot, but no isolationist. His library included an extensive collection of Greek and Latin classics, books in modern European Languages like French and Italian, and a broad selection of subjects from astronomy to poetry. He likely would have laughed at the idea, commonly espoused by today's Supreme Court, that only American laws should be consulted.

Adams himself wrote 10 volumes of scholarly books, primarily on government and law. He was both a scholar and an author, as well as a statesman. He believed in the superiority of the natural aristocracy. Adams believed the aristocracy were the only men who should be allowed to govern the new country. He and other framers believed that democracy was dangerous. He favored not a democracy but a republic which he defined as a government run by representatives of the people, not the people themselves.

The Senate was one of the measures taken by the framers to keep government firmly in the hands of the gentlemen. The framers assumed that fewer members in the Senate would make the positions more highly sought after. Originally, the Senators were to be appointed by state legislatures, rather than elected by the people directly. This method of appointment was thought to add even more assurance that only the best men would be elected to the senate. Senators were to serve for six years. This qualification insulated senators from pressure by the people they were supposed to represent. The framers believed senators should represent the votes of the people, not their opinions.

From the beginning, the Senate was a place where a few men could block progress, the inevitable change brought about by the passage of time. Progress happens primarily because people are changeable. New ideas arise for the popular mind to accept or reject as it sees fit. The framers assured that the public would learn new ideas when they guaranteed freedom of speech and religion. They tried to slow progress by omitting the liberal ideals expounded in the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution. The Constitution did not consider all men equal, at birth or at any other time. It consigns Africans to slavery and the original inhabitants to annihilation by making no reference to the rights of indiginous peoples.

During the first 60 years of its existence, the primary function of the Senate was to prevent any anti-slavery laws from passing. It did this by creating gridlock in the government. Each state had two senators, regardless of its population. The pro-slavery states assured that one slave-holding state would be admitted to the union for each new free state. This tactic meant that the number of pro-slavery senators always matched the number of anti-slavery senators. The admission of California as a free state in 1850 doomed the senate deadlock system and led to the Civil War.

The Senate remained a place where a minority faction could block the will of the majority. The Senate was still the bastion of elitism it had always been. During the twentieth century, the Senate opposed internationalism, preferring a protectionist system that they felt favored the wealthy banking and merchant classes in the U.S. The Senate used its veto power over treaties to wreck the League of Nations. President Wilson intended for the League to prevent major wars by creating a forum where the great powers could talk to each other instead of shooting at each other. Without the cooperation of the U.S., the League failed to prevent the next catastrophic war. The Senate still had more damage to inflict on the world, however, by committing the U.S. to a policy of isolationism. In that isolationism, Nazi Germany arose and grew until it was almost capable of taking over Europe. During the 1950s, the Senate used its filibuster power to block civil rights laws, once again delaying inevitable progress.

After the election of Barack Obama, the Senate used its filibuster power to halt most of the president's fiscal programs. This led to a prolonged recession and suffering for millions of Americans. The Senate, representing the wealthy elite, was not affected by the suffering it inflicted on others. By this time, the U.S. government had delayed facing numerous problems, including drug violence, massive incarceration of its minority populations, two disastrous wars, an enormous and expensive military, the collapse of the middle class, violence in its cities, and a country divided against itself to as great an extent as it had been in the 1850s.

The Framers modeled the Senate after the English House of Lords. The House of Lords performed the same function as the U.S. Senate, that is, rejecting legislation aimed at taxing the wealthy and aiding the poor. The British system was not crippled by a Constitution like ours, however, and in 1911 the Parliament passed a law removing most of the power of the House of Lords to reject or delay laws.

The U.S. Senate was certainly as much a hindrance to progress as the House of Lords. In the 20th century, the Senate kept the executive branch from forming critical alliances, enacting treaties that meant the difference between war and peace, and enacting legislation that provided equal rights to African Americans. In the 21st centure, the Senate became even more obstructive, blocking or delaying numerous judicial nominations and refusing to fund agencies that favored the middle class over Wall Street millionaires and corporate executives.

The addition of another layer of checks allotted to the wealthy class in the form of a powerful Senate is a drag on the government at a critical time in our history. After passage of the National Initiative Amendment, the people should pass initiatives that severely limit the power of the Senate as it is currently defined in the Constitution. The number of Senators should be increased by 100 at-large seats, elected by popular vote nationwide. This will increase the influence of larger states like New York and California, while making each Senator less powerful.

An amendment should pass that limits the ability of the Senate to delay a bill by more than 3 months. If the Senate refuses to accept a treaty negotiated by the executive within 6 months, the treaty will automatically be ratified. These reforms should defang the Senators and turn the Senate into a debating club for the wealthy. Its fangs will be removed.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: Its Secret Meaning

Our Decrepit Constitution: Its Secret Meaning

The Framers of the Constitution came from the English tradition of common law. Under common law, laws are not written but deduced from similar court cases. An important concept in common law is stare decisis, which requires the court to follow tradition, so that if a court decides a case a certain way, it will be bound by its own prior decision.

A problem arises when a court, especially the Supreme Court, is not bound by its prior decisions. The Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore (2000), rejected previously settled law by overturning the ruling of the Florida Supreme Court. The majority of the Court decided that the Florida Supreme Court did not have the right to interpret Florida election law. This contravened the judgment in Marbury v. Madison (1803), which ruled, “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” The Republican majority of the court thus overruled a decision that had stood for nearly 200 years to elect the presidential candidate of their party.

The Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. FEC, overturned 100 years of precedent upholding the Tillman Act (1907) which limited corporate contributions to political campaigns. In doing so, the Court found that the campaign finance law violated the First Amendment, something which was not mentioned in the original claim. The Court thus gave itself authority to rule a law unconstitutional without having a representative case brought to its attention. The Court's failure to abide by its own earlier decisions struck a blow against the means by which the law does not change erratically but in a principled and intelligible fashion.

The result of these rulings was a critical wound to public confidence in the Supreme Court in particular and the law itself in general. State legislatures have begun passing bills that obviously contradict Supreme Court decisions and Constitutional Amendments. The Kansas legislature yesterday passed a bill that defines life as beginning at fertilization and bans abortion based on fetal gender altogether. These provisions of the new bill patently violate the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973). Several other states have passed similar laws limiting the availability of abortion. All of these laws presume that the Supreme Court will overturn a ruling it made 40 years ago. The Court will do this not because of any change in technology or public sentiment, but simply because it does not agree with the earlier decision.

Another provision of the Kansas bill prohibits Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education in the public schools. Supporters of such laws do not claim that Planned Parenthood gives false information in their classes. State Rep. Bette Grande (R-Fargo) introduced a similar bill in North Dakota. Rep. Grande said that Planned Parenthood was not part of the way business was conducted in her state.

This state of affairs has been brought about by the Supreme Court's attempt to set itself up as the supreme branch of government, which may at any time decide to strike down reasonable laws made by legislatures or decisions made by other courts for the simple reason that this court, for obvious political reasons, disagrees with them. The Courts decisions may be described as obviously political because observers can predict which way individual justices will rule based on their political affiliation alone.

The situation resembled the state of affairs in Japan before the issuance of its constitution in 1868. The Japanese lords made legal decisions without consulting precedent or legal codes because there were none. Japanese subjects had to obey the lords because there was no appeal from an arbitrary or unjust decision. The Supreme Court seeks to institute just such a government, where laws are not made by the people, but by Supreme Court Justices, who, like the prophets of the Old Testament, reveal the secret meaning of the Constitution.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: Welcome to the Future

Our Decrepit Constitution: Welcome to the Future

The Framers were intelligent, perhaps even brilliant men. But they were not clairvoyant. They could not see into the future. They designed a government for the times they lived in, assuming that all future times would be similar.

The pace of change quickened abruptly after 1860. The Civil War accelerated the building of railroads, which in turn led to increased production from steam power. The industrial revolution brought great wealth but also brought poverty, dangerous working conditions, and child labor. The Framers could not imagine either the problems themselves, or their scale. European governments, where industry was well-established by 1860, created a safety net for victims of disclocation and unemployment. Germany passed the first unemployment and social security laws in 1889, 36 years before the U.S. passed theirs.

American thinkers have played important roles in the establishment of human rights and international institutions. Woodrow Wilson helped establish the League of Nations in 1919. The United Nations based its human rights proclamations on a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wherein he defined the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The Framers recognized the importance of the first two freedoms. They did not mention the others in their Constitution.

The United Nations wrote treaties guaranteeing the four freedoms after World War II. These treaties are known to many Americans as the Geneva Accords. The United States Congress refused to ratify many of these treaties. The current Senate refuses to ratify the Law of the Sea, a treaty that formalizes traditional laws concerning the use of the oceans and their protection. The Supreme Court does not accept many international treaties as binding on the U.S. court system. U.S. Presidents have ignored the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war and torture.

The U.S. Bill of Rights needs to be extended to protect foreign nationals from ill-conceived and dangerous military adventurism, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and interventions in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Chile. The Constitution should incorporate the International Bill of Rights, so there is no question whether U.S. Courts should recognize the rights of women, children, and the poor.

Justice Scalia claims that the Supreme Court cannot ask whether a person is guilty of a crime, only whether his trial met the bare minimum standards of due process. Likewise, Scalia claims that the Court cannot look at the reality of discrimination and voter suppression, it can only consider whether Constitutional standards are being met. Scalia challenges his critics to find a right to privacy in the Bill of Rights, although the Tenth Amendment reserves any rights not mentioned in the Constitution to the States or the People. Scalia accepts the concept of implied powers because it suits him but refuses to accept the concept of implied rights because it does not.

This ability to pick and choose which concepts to accept and which to reject is exactly what the Framers had in mind when writing the Constitution. They wanted the privileged minority to make choices for the people as a whole. The Framers assumed that these gentlemen would make better decisions than the majority of the people. After two hundred years of experiments, we now know that this opinion is false. Democracy works.

Our Decrepit Constitution: Fighting the Corporations

Our Decrepit Constitution: Fighting the Corporations

Recent incidents of gun violence are still fresh is the minds of residents of the states of Colorado and Connecticut. Those states have passed strict gun control regulations. Ninety per cent of the population agree that more gun control regulations are necessary, yet the congress is incapable of action. It seems incredible, but it happens because our laws are not democratic.

Senators and Representatives are elected by constituents. Their constituents exercise only indirect influence over their elected representatives. Constituents only vote every 2 years for Congressmen, or 6 years for Senators. The Constitution permits lobbyists to give money to our lawmakers every day. These sums of money are sometimes very large, but politicians need large sums of money to run for office. Just as important, they must avoid ever offending those groups who might give them large sums of money. If politicians offend those groups, their opponents in the next election may receive support from those same groups.

The only politician directly elected by the people (discounting for a moment the anachronous electoral college) is the President. The Constitution surrounds the president with restraints, however. He cannot make laws. He cannot raise taxes. He cannot dissolve Congress and rule by himself, as monarchs used to do. He cannot schedule new elections when Congress refuses to pass his proposals.

All the president can do is talk, and try to persuade the congress to support his proposals. Since political decisions are influenced by money, not ethics, he cannot exercise moral suasion. The presidency, in some respects, is the worst job in the world. Although the president has very little power to influence anything, he is blamed for everything that goes wrong. The president typically begins his term as a popular advocate for change, and ends it as a despised failure. The fault is not his. The fault is inherent in the Constitutional system.

The Framers created a federal system out of necessity. They did not trust a strong government that could become a tyranny, so they created a system that had three checks on the federal government: the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Courts. This system worked so long as there were no entities strong enough to defy the president.

Stronger entities soon emerged. The first was the faction of slave-holding states. These states eventually attacked the United States directly by forming the Confederacy. The Civil War nearly destroyed the Union and made it impossible for successive entities seeking power to use violence to succeed. The costs of civil war were recognized as unsupportable.

Other entities seeking power did evolve. These entities used money to buy influence in the Congress and the Courts. Giant corporations formed whose influence dwarfed the influence of the president. The government struck back, first by passing anti-trust laws to keep the corporations small enough to control.

Progressives at the state level passed laws to control corporate power within their borders. Progressives passed initiative and referendum laws because the only power strong enough to combat the corporations resides in the people themselves. These new laws controlled the corporations to some degree. California was able to control the Southern Pacific Corporation (SP), which had flourished through government subsidies. SP was a local entity that could be controlled through local (state) laws. Other states set up Utility Commissions under various names to control corporations and protect the people from monopolistic utitlity rates.
These efforts proved successful for awhile. Corporations continued to grow larger, however. The common people were severely weakened by the Great Depression, while the corporations and the people who ran them prospered. World War II brought the beginnings of great prosperity to the corporate elite. The Korean War ushered in an era of massive spending on military weapons. The development of atomic weapons caused unprecedented amounts of money to be spent on technology. This level of spending continued until the end of the Cold War, in 1989. Corporations receiving government subsidies for research and contracts for technology could not ship jobs oversease because weapons series were considered too dangerous to trust to foreigners.

This situation changed abruptly with the advent of consumer electronics products like radios, televisions, and audio equipment. These products used the same technological advances that were funded by the U.S. Government for rockets, guidance systems, and the space program. Corporations began saving money by shipping jobs overseas. Silicon chip manufacturing, a thriving business in Silicon Valley in 1969, was moved to Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and eventually China. Instead of creating employment opportunities in the U.S., corporations fed money into the economies of other countries.

President Reagan led the assault on American unions when he fired striking air traffic control workers. Workers at Atari in San Jose threatened to unionize. In response, the corporate management closed down the San Jose plant and moved their jobs overseas.

Gradually, job opportunities for U.S. workers dwindled. The gap between the common people and the well-off widened. The Supreme Court thwarted attempts to damp the influence of money in electoral politics. The Republicans began suppressing the votes of African-Americans, Latinos, students, and the elderly. Republican governors rolled back hard-won abortion rights.

The U.S. looks more like a third-world country all the time. In those countries, the wealthy few rule the numerous poor. The common people have no chance to redress grievances because they have no power. In other words, there is no democracy.

The U.S. Constitution is badly in need of repair. It needs amendments to establish a right of privacy between a woman and her doctor; to curb the ability of wealthy corporations to buy elections; to prevent politicians from cashing in with legal bribery, otherwise called campaign contributions; to stop publishers from exploiting the work of authors and musicians; to stop corporations from buying up disused patents and using them to blackmail legitimate innovators; to stop gun dealers from supplying criminals with death-dealing weapons; to stop energy companies from destroying the environment.

The list goes on and on. There are far too many potential amendments ever to reach the end, especially when every one of them will be fought with skill backed by money. There is only one solution to this problem. The people must adopt a national initiative which would give them what they never had, a true democracy.

The National Initiative amendment would do just that. All groups advocating a constitutional amendment should join together and support this one. Once this amendment passes, all further amendments will have a much lower bar to pass: They will be passed by a majority of the American people.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: The Courts

Our Decrepit Constitution: The Courts

The executive branch quickly found ways to circumvent the rigid language of the new Constitution. Alexander Hamilton revealed that the federal government had implied powers not enumerated by the Constitution itself. Hamilton determined that among these implied powers was the ability to form a corporation, if the government found that it needed a corporation to fulfill its Constitutional duties. These implied powers exist in the interstices between the clauses explicitly granting powers to the government. According to Hamilton and his followers, the government did not need to follow the precise dictates of the Constitution, but could take actions that it felt were merely implied by the document.

The Framers themselves did not agree on such and important right as the right to free speech granted in the First Amendment. John Adams's administration passed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) which gave the administration the power to imprison and deport opponents to the policies of the president. Adams proposed these laws to attack the French during the Quasi War. Adams did not consider the law unconstitutional because the U.S. was fighting an enemy. Just ten years after the constitution was adopted, the president demanded extra-legal powers during wartime.

The Framers failed to recognize the importance of corporations in commerce and manufacture, since corporations were small and few. The Framers did not make any rules governing corporations or protecting citizens from injuries that corporations might cause. Injuries inflicted by corporations have had extensive repercussions in the country and these injuries have seldom been corrected by law. Fortunes made by manipulation of stock or monopolization have remained the property of the men who committed the crimes. Corporations that cause massive dislocation in unemployment and property devaluation seldom pay any penalty for their actions. The Constitution does not enumerate the powers and rights that might be granted to corporations that are different from those granted to individuals. The bill of rights for corporations is lacking.

The framers did not make allowances for a standing army. They instead decided to rely on militias, guaranteeing that people could keep and bear arms in the second amendment. Militias proved incapable of defending the country, however. The weakness of militias was proven in the revolutionary war, when militias broke ranks and ran from British regular soldiers at the Battle of Camden. Camden resulted in 1000 casualties and 1000 prisoners taken by British.

More evidence of the unreliability of militias followed. In response to the need for security, the federal government has built a huge arms industry around its military forces. Neither the forces, nor the industry were foreseen by the Framers. The Constitution should contain guidelines for government oversight of the military and rules for the regulation of the arms industry, which has become a potent force for military aggression and congressional corruption. The Second Amendment should have been repealed after militias ceased to be relevant to the defense of the nation, but instead has continued in force to the detriment of law enforcement and the security of the population.

Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution. That definition was not clear in the decades after ratification. Chief Justice John Marshall acquitted Burr of treason on the grounds that Burr had committed no overt act, as required by the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson disagreed.

Other clauses deserve amplification. The Intellectual Property clause has been captured by the publishing industry as if it had been written to provide them a perpetual monopoly. The clause was too vague even at the time it was written, since there was already a specific idea of what a law governing patents and copyrights should look like. The Framers wanted to assure there could be laws written governing copyright and patent. They did not assure that those laws could not be abused in the future. On the contrary, the lack of specificity in this clause made its exploitation by corporations inevitatble. Corporations exist to make a profit. Monopolies are the surest source of profit, so every corporation seeks to become a monopoly. The Intellectual Property clause in the constitution apotheosizes an issue where debate is sorely needed. Corporations hav taken advantage of Intellectual Property being blessed by the constitution to act against the best interests of the country.

Here again, the Framers were more concerned with the rights of property owners (publishers and industrialists) than with those who toil with their hands (writers and inventors). They therefore left the terms of the law open for the property-owners to fill in as they see fit. The current intellectual property complex, like the military industrial complex, is a side effect of the Constitution. While the Constitution has created these profitable entities, it gives no guidance on regulating them.

The checks and balances imposed by the Constitution are all intended to thwart the will of the majority, which Madison called the majority faction. The bicameral legislature sets up a smaller, more prestigious Senate which is intended to represent minority interests of property owners and the elite. The U.S. Senate has evolved into the kind of body the Framers intended. It is filled with rich, famous, and powerful people. The Senate provides a strong check to the lower house, which tends to be more representative of the common people, although its members are also well-off.

The presidency has veto power over the legislature, providing another check on the power of the majority. The judiciary provides yet another check.

The judiciary has always been a politicized body, since John Marshall imposed his federalist views on Republican administrations. Bush v. Gore, Dredd Scott, and Citizens United were all highly polarized decisions decided along party lines. The Supreme Court was acting in these cases as the last line of defense against a majority faction. The Court is thus a legislative body in itself, the third legislative body set up by the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the least democratic of the legislative bodies. Its nine unelected members serve life terms. Even the College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church is more democratic because it has more members so more viewpoints may be represented.

John Marshall has been praised for establishing the Supreme Court as a respected body. In the last 30 years, the court has lost a great deal of its prestige. The Court has handed down politically charged decisions like Citizens United, Bush v. Gore and Jones v. Clinton. Important decisions are made along strict party lines. The Framers envisioned the Supreme Court as a neutral body where decisions would be made by respected jurists after careful deliberation. Instead we see a court where decisions are made with no deliberation at all. Opinions have become mere formalities tacked tacked onto decisions made by political hacks. Jurists are chosen for the court, not in recognition of their legal stature, but by their ability to hew the party line and by their youth. Politicians who wish to control the court far into the future pick young judges to help them perpetuate a political philosophy. These judges are too young to have distinguished for their wisdom or scholarship, but the political parties are looking for people who will follow their leaders. This practice is reminiscent of the Soviet aparatchiks, functionaries who never made a move without checking first with their political leaders.

Large corporations grow stale. They become unable to adopt new methods of business, even when adopting new methods is the only thing that can save the company. The constitution is an example of an outmoded way of doing business. The U.S. needs to change its way of doing business if it wants to survive.