Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Strategy for Labor

Organized Labor is having an internal debate about strategy. Is it better to concentrate on recruiting new members and organizing new industries, or is it better to try to influence government to be more friendly to Labor? Those on one side argue that Labor will not amount to anything unless it reverses the long-term trend of declining union membership and declining numbers of union jobs. Those on the other side argue that organizing new industries and recruiting new members is almost impossible unless the attitude of government officials is changed and more union-friendly persons are elected.

I am not, nor have I ever been a member of a labor union. Why should I care about this debate? I care because I see a society dominated by large commercial organizations, large corporations, all operated for profit. Public good is of small importance to the managers of these organizations, except that a perception that a corporation is “public friendly” may have a beneficial influence on profit. Our society needs entities and organizations that can enforce limits on the greed and predations of large corporations. We’ve tried using government to regulate and limit the activities of these organizations. We’ve seen that the organizations are able to get candidates elected that will do their bidding. In other words, government alone is not sufficient to keep the large corporations in check.

We need a strong labor movement to supply the necessary restraint on the activities of large corporations. The free market and consumer choice are not sufficient. Consumers are not and never will be sufficiently informed to make choices based on a desire to maintain a clean and healthy environment, decent working conditions for all workers, adequate health insurance and retirement benefits for all workers, to name a few conditions. Labor unions (at least, the honest ones) are motivated to see to the benefits of their members. They have the incentive, the interest, and the ability to uncover the seamy, anti-environmental practices of the corporations, since these practices affect their own members.

Clearly, if I were involved in the debate going on within Organized Labor, I would side with those who advocate enlarging the fraction of jobs covered by union contracts. The most important thing Labor must do today is to add members and organize new industries. If Labor grows, even unfriendly governments will have to pay attention.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Waiting for Godot

As one who despises most of the proposed policies of the present administration, I feel as though all I can do is to hunker down and wait for a change. A change must come, or the consequences will be unbearable. The neoconservative + fundamentalist conservative Christian coalition that supports the people now in power comprises a bare majority of the people. Something must change, but what? We liberal-progressives need a candidate to persuade at least a portion of the public to give our ideas and our programs a chance. We will show, I hope, that our guys and gals in office will be less incompetent, less arrogant, less uncaring, and more realistic that the guys and gals in office now.

When will this knight on a white horse appear? When will we see a charismatic leader who is the reincarnation of FDR? When will Mr. Godot arrive?

Friday, July 08, 2005


A Meditation on a Quotation

More often than not I muse about the economic and social system in which I live. What started me this time was a quotation I remembered, ascribed to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the President of the New York Central Railroad. In response to a reporter’s question, he said, “The public be damned. We run our railroads to make money.” I remember wondering about his use of the plural “railroads” rather than the singular. Then I realized that he was speaking for all railroad managers. All railroads were operated to make money for the stockholders. Good service to the public was necessary only as a means of assuring the continuation of the profit.

That is the way all private business enterprises are operated in our system. An enterprise has to make money; it has to make a profit to stay in existence. It doesn’t necessarily have to provide a useful and beneficial public service. An example is the manufacture and marketing of illegal drugs. The business is highly profitable, even though most of us agree that its services are neither useful nor beneficial.

A bit before the quotation of Mr. Vanderbilt came to me, I was reading a short comment about the relationship between premiums for malpractice insurance and medical malpractice and other financial activities of insurance companies. In spite of assertions by medical associations and many Republican politicians, malpractice premiums are not related to the activity of trial lawyers. The writer stated that the average insurance payment for malpractice damages has practically no relation to the premiums charged for the insurance.

It seems to me that the insurance companies charge whatever the traffic will bear in determining the premiums for malpractice insurance. Doctors who undertake risky medical procedures (i.e., surgery) have high incomes and can afford to pay high premiums for their insurance. These doctors treat patients who have the money or insurance to pay their fees. When one reads an occasional news story about a poor man or woman who has received an expensive heart transplant, it is big news because it is such a rare event. In all cases, some generous person or persons have put up the money to pay for the procedure.

And so it is with other business enterprises. Everyone in business, every business enterprises establishes prices for the product or service furnished that will be high enough to make a profit, yet not so high that it will discourage customers from buying. The surprising thing is that there is a general belief that this system based on individual and institutional greed actually produces beneficial results to society. It is argued that scarce resources are allocated efficiently. The resulting efficiencies enable the system to provide a good standard of living. I have not read any convincing proof that any of these desirable results actually must occur. It is as though the philosophers and other learned men and women who write about the system have agreed among themselves to say and write that the system does produce the most beneficial effect of any conceivable way of organizing our society and economics.

It also seems to me that the main beneficiaries of our economic and social system are the persons who have the wealth to pay these scholars for their work. I am reminded of the German philosopher Wilhelm Leibnitz who assured his wealthy patrons that they needn’t feel guilty about their wealth. He used specious mathematical arguments to convince them that this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire satirized Leibnitz in his novel “Candide,” as Dr. Pangloss.

I think our system is a rather poor one. If I knew a better one, I would become a revolutionary.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


About being Old

Although I'm not now a religious person, I did at one time attend church regularly. Now and then a hymn comes to my mind and I imagine humming or singing it. I also recall that at one time I was an active and enthusiastic "anglo-catholic," or "high-church" Episcopalian. I was in my 20's. World War the Second was on. I was an acolyte in a church in Washington, DC. One of my duties was to train other boys to be acolytes. I was in charge of a group of them, all about eight to ten years younger than I.

On one occasion, one of my "pupils" was performing the acolyte's duties during a spoken rite of holy communion. He was supposed to move the missal or priest's prayer book from one side of the alter to the other. During the transfer he was to bow in the direction of the altar.

Well, he didn't do very well. I was kneeling at a corner near the altar and I motioned to him to do this and that. I was impatient. Later a member of the congregation spoke to me about my behavior. My motioning and impatient gesturing were worse and more distracting than the altar boy's mistakes. I felt chastened.

Soon after that I left Washington to continue with my life after the war. I attended graduate school, received my degree, married, had children, etc. Now, many years after the event, I think about how impatient I was then. It was the boy's first attempt at carrying out an acolyte's duties. It was an early service, and not many people were present. If at that time I'd had the patience, tolerance, and wisdom that comes with age, I would have remained quiet and later praised the boy. After that, I might have given him a few tips on how he could make his performance even better.

Two of the blessings of old age are the wisdom and patience that come with it.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


Sandra Day O’Connor Retires

It is said that her approach to arriving at a judicial decision is to consider how a law or a change in law will affect the lives of ordinary people. This is very different from the approach of Antonin Scalia, who looks at the words of the constitution and what they meant at the time they were adopted. Of course, both Scalia and O’Connor accept precedent, or judicial decisions made in the past. Our constitution requires that American judges consider judicial decisions in England as long ago as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

My father, a wise man but no legal student, once said to me that the federal constitution is a means to an end, not an end in itself. He also said that the United States is a continuing experiment. I believe he would have approved the judicial thinking of Sandra Day O’Connor and would have disapproved that of Antonin Scalia. I can’t say how he would have reacted to the decisions of the Supreme Court and, more particularly, the opinions of O’Connor and Scalia. He died in 1973, before the controversy over Roe v. Wade, before the controversy over the Ten Commandments, before the Republican Party was taken over by the religious fundamentalists.

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