Sunday, March 27, 2011


Two bad decisions: Dred Scott and Citizens United

Writing a blog that’s worth your time to read is not easy for me. I’m not a reporter and I don’t have access to any interesting news. At least news that I think might be interesting for you. I’m left with writing about my opinions about the news and the opinions of others. This is a blog of opinion. I try not to echo or repeat the opinions of others. They have to be my opinions and they have to be original enough to make it worth your time to read them. That’s the difficulty.

Anyway, that’s just an introduction to the subject of this blog. I try to compare the situation in the United States today with the situation following the famous Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court in 1857. The corresponding decision today is the one made about a year ago in which the Court decided that Corporations had equal rights with citizens regarding monetary contributions to political campaigns.

What was involved in each situation was (is) a conflict between two very different visions pf how our society and economy ought to be organized. In 1857 there were two visions. One was the ideal expressed in our Declaration of Independence in which we declared that all men are created equal and have an unalienable right to be free. The other was that society should be organized around the need to grow cheap food and cheap raw materials for manufacture, such as cotton, and the implied need for large farms or plantations operated with cheap and relatively unskilled labor. Cheap labor was supplied by African slaves. Those of us holding this view were convinced that Africans and their descendants were intellectually inferior to descendants of European immigrants. Hence, they were not capable of absorbing much education and should be used to perform low-skilled unpaid labor. This conflict could not be resolved peacefully. Three years after the decision the nation was split in a civil war.

Today one of the two visions is still the idealism expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the federal constitution. The other vision is that corporations should be treated as though they are persons and should have influence on public policy in proportion to their wealth. A justification for this belief is that public policy has a lot to do with the profit of many corporations and even with the very existence of some of them. Another justification is that a corporation is made up of many investors or “owners” and should be able effectively to advocate (with money) for their interests.

In thinking about how to organize this essay I considered the question of whether the present conflict of visions will lead to civil war. I decided against predicting a second civil war and I confess that the analogy between 2011 and 1857 is imperfect.


Monday, March 21, 2011


What will Jerry do?

Jerry Brown, recently elected governor of California, has some bit problems.  He has to present a balanced budget to the legislature for the next year.  At present the revenue collected in the form of taxes is less than the annual expenses of the state by about twenty or more billion dollars.  Governor Brown would like to distribute the pain somewhat fairly between rich taxpayers and relatively poor people who depend on state services.  A minority in the legislature does not share Mr. Brown's belief in spreading the woe and oppose that part of his budget that calls for some increases in taxes.  Not only does this minority reject having the legislature enact the increases in taxes, but even refuses to agree to submit the proposed increases to the voters in the form of a legislative initiative.

If the minority has its way (in case you've forgotten, the California legislature can enact a tax increase or propose a ballot proposition only if 2/3 of the members agree) certain services will have to be drastically reduced.  State universities, public schools, and community colleges all depend on the state for most of their revenue.  They will have to accept big cuts.  Medical, assistance for handicapped persons, and other medical services will be cut.  I won't try to describe the hardship and misery that these cuts will make.

What can Jerry do?  At least, if the additional revenue is not forthcoming he must make sure that the minority in the legislature are shown to be largely to blame.  Even though the Democrats have majorities in the Senate and Assembly, and even though Jerry is a Democrat, independent voters (i.e., voters who don't pay enough attention to politics to belong to a political party) will naturally blame the party in power for the misery and the protection of the rich from experiencing any of the misery.  Some will conclude that the Democrats are incompetent and will try to put the Republicans in charge of running the state.

If I thought the Republican intransigence were merely a political trick to discredit the Democrats and that, if Republicans were given power to propose and pass budgets, they would act responsibly and let everyone share the misery, I wouldn't bother writing this post.  Evidence indicates that the Republicans are not interested in acting responsibly.  The previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, had just as much trouble with the Republicans as Jerry Brown is having. Instead, Republicans are hewing to the line laid down by such leaders as Grover Norquist and the late Howard Jarvis.  The line is that people depend too much on government and that government should stop trying to relieve the misery of being both poor and disabled, of being poor and poorly educated, of being unable to pay for needed medical care, and the like.  The way to make government stop doing such things is to cut off the supply of money.

Jerry Brown, as governor, must make sure that every California voter understands what the Republicans in the legislature are up to and that they, making use of the 2/3 vote requirement, are bent on putting California at the bottom of the list which ranks states on how much they spend per pupil on education, how much they spend per person on health care, etc.                     

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Right of Privacy, Democracy, and Idealism

These are lofty and noble concepts.  At least they are to me.  There are people in this world whose ideals rule out a right of privacy or an acceptance of democracy.  The Taliban are an example.  Their ideal is expressed in a holy book, the Koran.  The Taliban will accept you if you are an observant muslim.  Rather than allowing you a vote or voice in establishing the laws of the country and the policies of the government, the Taliban argue that these matters have been settled already for all time.  Laws and policies are set forth in the Koran and it is blasphemy to propose any other means of enacting laws.

Another example is the Republican members of the California Legislature.  They oppose any increase in any tax, and they have the power to block any tax increase by the Legislature.  The State constitution requires a 2/3 vote in each house to enact any tax increase.  These same Republicans also oppose any democratic means of increasing taxes and refuse to vote to submit any such proposal to the voters of the State.  The State constitution also requires a 2/3 vote in each house to submit such legislation to the voters.  I don't know the name of the holy book of the California Republican legislators, but they believe and follow it just as fervently as the Taliban believe and follow the Koran.

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Monday, March 07, 2011


Irreconcilable Differences

A symptom of the decline which I wrote about in my previous post is the irreconcilable differences between our two main political parties.  The parties have completely different visions of what our country should be li0ke in the future.  This is a situation quite different from the differences between Republicans and Democrats when I was a high school student.  There were differences in those days also, but it was possible to find workable compromises that neither party liked very much but which both would accept.

Social Security was one such compromise.  Southern Democrats didn't want Negro farm laborers to be included.  Since the constitution is color-blind, the law excluded all farm workers and farmers.  Government workers who already had pension plans were also excluded.  The important thing is that both parties accepted the system with compromises although neither was completely satisfied with the result.

Today there are two very different competing views about what the United States should be like.  In one view there should be "free" (i.e., tax-supported) services to provide education and good health care for everyone.  In the other view individual citizens would be self-sufficient and self-reliant and would not depend on such "free" services as health care and education.  In the first view our country should try to become more and more like the countries of western Europe in which high taxes provide free college education, free health care, free retirement benefits, and the like.  In the second view our country should look to its own past in which hard-working pioneers tamed the land, built farms and grew their own food, made their own clothing, and used effective folk medicine to cure diseases.  Education was provided by reading books next to the fire in the fireplace (like Lincoln).

There seems to be no acceptable middle ground between these views.  We seem doomed to experience a century of decline, followed by a change of dynasty (i.e., governance).

Saturday, March 05, 2011


Are we now in the declining century?

Chinese historians have observed that a typical dynasty lasts three centuries.  In the first century the people are hard at work building up the country and, presumably, repairing the damage from the collapse of the previous dynasty.  During the second century the country is prosperous and the people flourish.  At the beginning of the third century the country begins a long decline.  At the end of the century the dynasty is overthrown.  A new dynasty takes over and the process repeats.

It appears to me that we may repeat Chinese history.  We are now near the beginning of our third century.  I figure that the first century started at the conclusion of the revolution, in 1783.  By the 1880's we had legally abolished slavery and we had become prosperous.  During the next century we became a world power.  We struggled to achieve equal rights for all Americans: black, female, children, and finally gay and lesbian.  Workers acquired the legal right to form and join unions and to bargain collectively for pay and working conditions.

The third century began chronologically in 1983.  An important event was the mass firing of members of the union of air traffic controllers.  President Reagan chose to fire them rather than bargain collectively with them.  I am not going to argue whether he was right or wrong.  However, according to the historical model, something like that was due to happen.  That particular union did not have much popular support; its members were exceedingly well paid.

Popularity of labor unions reached a peak in the 1940's after the passage of the Wagner Labor Relations Act in the 1930's.  By 1983 (or whenever the air traffic controller union was destroyed) union popularity was low enough that elected officials could attack them in public statements and pressure them to give up some hard-earned benefits.  This decreasing public support for organized labor has emboldened such opportunists as the newly elected governor of Wisconsin to propose legislation to end the effectiveness of public employee unions in the State.  A new majority in the State legislature is prepared to enact the governor's proposals as soon as a quorum can be achieved.

This lack of public support for labor unions, coupled with the increasing influence of large corporations with money to spend to help elect candidates who share the interests of the corporate managers seems likely to undo most of the progressive legislation of the past century.  We seem to be headed for a period of low, starvation wages, undoing regulations relating to workplace safety and environmental cleanliness, and deliberate policies to achieve a level of unemployment desired by the managers.  Our declining century is at hand.

Can we prevent this predictable decline and prove that Chinese history doesn't prevail here in America?  I hope so.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Praise for Emergency Rooms

I had occasion to depend on both the Los Angeles Fire Department Paramedics and the Emergency Room of the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills last Friday (February 25).  About 9:30 in the morning I got out of my car and carelessly closed the door on a piece of the tip of my right ring finger.  The piece of flesh remained on the car door and the rest of my finger bled dark blood.  I was able to go into my house and wrap some Kleenex tissue on the wound.  I dialed 911 and asked for help.  In a few minutes the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took me to the emergency room of my choice, the one at the Kaiser facility about three miles away.  By 10:30 an ER doctor had seen the wound, had anesthetized my finger and cleaned the wound, and was installing a gauze bandage.  I won't bother you with the precise structure of the bandage.

Monday (yesterday) I had an appointment with a plastic surgeon at Kaiser.  He looked at the wound and pointed out that it was already starting to heal.  His recommendation, which I accepted gladly, was to continue to let the healing proceed by itself.  He predicted that it would take about four weeks to heal.

My finger will continue to have a gauze bandage for a while.  That's fine with me.  I know it's healing.

This episode in my life illustrates how valuable to me a good hospital emergency room can be.  If I had been unable to obtain medical help for several hours, the wound might have become badly infected and I would have lost most, if not all of the finger.  This ties in with my own belief about government.  I follow the advice of our greatest President, Abe Lincoln, who said that government should do for the people those things that the people can not do for themselves.  Prompt medical attention is one of those things.

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