Friday, July 29, 2011


Memory of Herbert Clark Hoover

I was five years old when Mr. Hoover was elected.  I was not paying attention to politics then and I have no memory of the 1928 election.  All I know about it comes from reading and watching television.  I once read that Mr. Hoover had some plans for easing the misery of the Great Depression.  The Democrats controlled the Senate - or at least they could use the 2/3 vote to end a filibuster rule then in effect - and refused to enact any of Mr. Hoover's plans.  It was left for the next President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to use some of Mr. Hoover's ideas and enjoy the credit for trying to ease the pain of the depression.

Poor Hoover!  For two generations the public blamed him for the depression and for not doing anything about it.  We now accept as fact that Hoover did not cause the depression.  The blame has to be assigned mostly to his immediate Republican predecessors, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding.  Of course they weren't totally at fault, either.  Mostly the depression just happened because of the bursting of a bubble of speculation about eleven months after Hoover was elected.  People didn't know then how to prevent such speculative bubbles.  We don't know how to today, although there are valuable lessons from the history of the 1929 crash and the following world-wide recession that we should study today.

Are the Republicans in Congress hoping to do to President Obama what the Democrats did to President Hoover eighty years ago?  There are some similarities.  Both men inherited situations that were largely the fault of their predecessors.  Both men had proposals for shortening ans easing the recession/depression that were stymied by one of the Houses of Congress.  The opposing party was more eager in winning the next Presidential election than in doing anything effective about the economy.

I think this is a good analogy.  What do you think?

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011


An Article of Religion

In my previous musing I compared the beliefs of "Tea Party Republicans" with those of a religious zealot.  Here's another belief - or superstition, if you prefer - about how to cure the recession.  Of course, the goal we all have is to put people back to work.  The Republican superstition is that people are unemployed because rich people don't have enough money to hire them!  I've heard several United States Senators express this idea.  A former Senator from Texas, himself a rich man, said that he didn't know any poor people who would hire him.  He implied that since only rich people could afford to give him work, we should all hope that rich people become even richer so that they can hire more of the rest of us.

Rich people are richer today than ever.  Yet, unemployment persists.  Why?  The Republican explanation is that (a) they're still not rich enough, or (b) they're uncertain about taxes (since the Democrats and President Obama talk about tax increases).  Any economist can tell you that the reason factory managers aren't hiring is that there isn't enough demand for their goods and services.  They can satisfy present demand with the present work force.  In other news we learn that banks and other lending institutions are awash with money.  In spite of the existence of this money, no sensible entrepreneur wants to take on the risk of starting a new business unless he is sure of customers.

This obvious explanation of a persistent depression was well-known in the 1930's.  Even before that, Henry Ford recognized that there would be a big market for his automobiles if working people earned enough money to afford them.  He raised the wages of the workers in his factory.  Other factory owners and managers had to follow.  The result was the automobile revolution of the 1920's and 1930's.  Henry Ford was barely literate and not highly educated.  Yet he grasped a fundamental fact about economy.  Factories get busy and hire workers when the public has the means and the desire to purchase the products.  Why to the TP Republicans cling to the myth of the rich man who hires all the workers he can afford, regardless of demand?

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Monday, July 11, 2011


Missionary Zeal in American Politics

As a college student I took a course in medieval history.  The Christian Church was an important institution then and the teacher spent a lot of time discussing the history and the nature of the Church.  His name was Professor Harry Hubert Kimber, and I may have mentioned him before in these opinionated musings.  He stated that Christianity was and is a missionary religion.  Its adherents are bound to convert all people to Christianity, and more particularly to their particular sect.  Catholics try to convert others to Catholicism; Baptists to the Baptist belief; and so on.

The same is true of Islam.  Muslims are similarly bound by their belief to convert the infidel to Islam, the one true faith.

The same is not true of Judaism or Buddhism.  It's next to impossible for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism.  Buddha taught that each person should make up his or her own mind about whether to accept his teachings.

All of these reminiscences introduce the idea of this post.  Many Americans have deep ideological beliefs about what kind of government and what kind of society we should have.  These beliefs are not based on public opinion or public judgment or democracy.  They transcend all that.  I refer to the beliefs of some members of the Republican Party.  These beliefs seem to be as follows, in part:
Just as the missionary religious used force and fear of death to convert the infidel and heathens to the true faiths, so these missionary Republicans are prepared to do whatever it takes to bring about the society they believe in.  It's too bad that they have to drag the rest of us along with them.


Saturday, July 09, 2011


A Selfish View of Taxes

How often have you heard the phrase: "California gets back only 70 cents from the federal government for every dollar in federal tax collected in the State?"  This is a generally held opinion.  People are willing to pay taxes for things that benefit them.  Here are some examples of tax expenditures that benefit me personally:
  1. Building and repairing roads and highways that I use.
  2. Maintaining and improving airports that I use: BUR (Burbank) and LAX (Los Angeles).
  3. Repairing the sidewalks in my neighborhood.
  4. Catching and incarcerating criminals that operate in my neighborhood.
  5. Keeping records of land ownership so that there will never be any question about my ownership of the house where I live.
  6. Maintaining a stable money supply so that my savings accounts will not vanish in inflation.
  7. Maintaining the public library that I use.
  8. Maintaining a good quality of public education in my neighborhood so that I will not be bothered by uneducated and unschooled teen-agers begging and stealing money.
There is one thing common to all of these tax-supported activities: they are supported by State or local taxes except item #6.  Maintaining a stable money supply is a responsibility of the federal government.

Here are some activities, mostly federal, that do not benefit me directly:
  1. Repairing homes destroyed by tornados in Missouri and Alabama.
  2. Fighting a war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
  3. Building high speed rail lines in New York, Florida, etc., or anywhere except a line between Los Angeles and Seattle (so I can ride a bullet train to visit my children who live near Berkeley and Seattle).
  4. Giving money to banks.  Banks have enough money already.
  5. Spending billions of dollars a year to put and keep people in prison for growing and using pot.  People who use booze are not touched.
  6. Providing social security pensions for lay-abouts other than myself, especially if it requires some of my tax money.
These and other ideas are extensions of the principle that the government does not have the right to tax me and give the money to someone else.  The government does not have the right to redistribute income or wealth.  This right is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution but it is advocated by certain writers, notably the late Ayn Rand.  Ayn Rand left the Soviet Union with a fundamental hatred of any form of socialism.  If altruism is a consequence of socialism, altruism is also unacceptable.

How many of you agree, at least in part, with Ayn Rand?


Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Three Pillars of American Society

The number three is important in Engineering, Religion, Music, and the social structure of our country. In Engineering, one has to anchor any physical object to three fixed points not in a straight line for stability. In Religion we see the holy trinity among Christians and the Three Pillars of Islam. Many musical compositions have three rhythmic beats in a unit, such as the waltz or the minuet. So too our social structure rests on three pillars. These pillars must be of approximately the same strength or influence. Otherwise, the society will not be stable and will be biased in favor of the strongest pillar.

The three pillars are government, organized labor, and organized business. They compete with each other. As long as each of them is strong enough to defend the interests of the group it represents, the society is stable. If one becomes too weak or another too strong, the society is skewed in such a way that the interests of the strong pillar dominate the others.

Today we see that the business pillar is very strong and has been strengthened recently by decisions of the Supreme Court. The labor pillar has been weak for many years and appears to be growing weaker. Government is not strong enough to limit the excesses of business. As an example, a recent news item revealed that the average salaries paid to executive officers of large companies have been increased again. Going back to the 1950’s or 1960’s, in those days the pay of the chief executive of a company was about twenty times that of the average worker in the company. Today it’s about four hundred times the salary of the average worker. During this same period, the labor pillar has weakened. In the 1950’s as many as fifty percent of workers belonged to labor unions. Today the ratio is around ten percent. During the same period the wealth of the nation increased greatly. However, that increase in wealth has accrued to a small segment of the population. The average worker has not benefited from the creation of the wealth. Our society is in a state of poor health.

When our society is healthy the three pillars operate to maintain a balance. Government sets the rules for the behavior of unions and of businesses in the interest of protecting the public. Labor and business compete in the dividing up of the newly created wealth. Labor and government act to limit many of the harmful practices of business. Business and government collaborate to limit many of the bad practices of labor unions. Business and labor both try to influence government and so produce government policies that are neutral between the interests of labor and of business. That’s the way it should work.

The pillar of labor is weak. Business has been able to influence many government decisions and, in particular, the selections of justices of the Supreme Court. These days the Court is putting out decision after decision that favor businesses, particularly large corporations. I think these decisions are abominable and will be overturned in the course of time, although I will not be around to celebrate when they are overturned.

Many of my liberal and progressive friends believe that the way back to fairness and sanity is through electoral politics. Elect liberals and progressives to Congress. Elect a liberal and progressive President. These are good ideas and worthy goals, but we also must work toward strengthening labor unions. Strengthening labor unions can not be done by having fund-raising parties for liberal and progressive candidates. We can help by boycotting hotels and restaurants that rely on underpaid, non-union workers. We can help by joining strikers on a picket line and being willing to be arrested by the police. We must advocate for strong labor unions.

At the same time, we must accept the fact that some unions, like some businesses, do unsavory and possibly illegal things. We must criticize these things but we must not stop supporting organized labor because of its imperfections.

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Gay Marriage

Recently pundits and others have noted that President Obama is reluctant to commit himself on this issue.  He says his opinion is evolving.  Of course, he's in a political tight spot.  The issue divides the public into three parts: those who strongly favor gay marriage, those who strongly oppose it, and those who don't care.

For a long time I was in the third category.  I married a wonderful woman in 1950 and we lived together until the end in 2007.  During that whole period the thought that the marriage of same-sex couples might be a threat to our marriage never crossed my mind.  In recent years, when the concept has become a hot item politically, I have moved toward the "favor" camp.  Actally, I care a lot more about what the Republicans would like to do about social security and medicare than I do about gay marriage.  My attitude is that since it has great importance to gay people and poses no threat to anyone else, I favor allowing it to exist.

I once asked an Episcopal priest whether he would "marry" a gay couple.  He said that the Book of Common Prayer has no ceremony for marrying two people of the same sex, and therefore he couldn't do it.  He would be pleased, however, to bless the union of a gay couple.  The Book of Common Prayer has blessings for everything.  There is a lesbian couple who attend the church that I do and they are raising two adopted children.  The children also attend the church.  When I first started attending the church, one of them approached me and introduced herself and made sure that I understood that she and her partner were lesbians.  Naturally I was pleased and flattered that she would make a point of introducing herself to me and welcoming me to the congregation.

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