Monday, October 24, 2011

An Objective For Occupy Wall Street

Since medieval times, corporations have been legal formats created by the government, such as the Crown, Governor, Legislature, etc., to enable citizens to do business as a group. As the American colonies developed and won their independence, corporations for the most part remained in the background. (The Boston Tea Party, wherein the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 crates of British East India Company tea into the ocean, was a notable exception.) The vast majority of Americans at the time lived and worked on small family farms.
The real threat was the unilateral, unaccountable power of King George III, and the founders of a new nation, skeptical of that kind of power, formed a government of checks and balances to prevent any one branch from getting too powerful. Although corporations were not mentioned in the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson famously noted that representative government’s purpose was “to curb the excesses of the monied interests.”
After the American Revolution, corporations remained small institutions, chartered at the state level for specific public purposes, such as banking, education, religion, helping the poor, constructing roads or canals, etc. Corporations could only exist for a limited time, could not make any political contributions, and could not own stock in other companies. Their owners were responsible for criminal acts committed by the corporation, and the doctrine of limited liability for shareholders did not yet exist.
Governments kept a close watch on how these corporations were being run, regularly revoking charters if corporations were not serving the public interest. For example, in 1832, President Andrew Jackson refused to extend the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, and the State of Pennsylvania revoked 10 banks’ charters.
Slowly though, corporations were gaining power. Arising out of the Industrial Revolution, a new wealthy class began influencing policy making, changing the rules governing the corporations they owned. Charters grew longer and less restrictive. The doctrine of limited liability – allowing corporate owners and managers to avoid responsibility for harm and losses caused by the corporation – began to appear in state corporate laws. Charter revocation became less frequent, and government functions shifted from keeping a close watch on corporations to encouraging their growth.
In January 2010, using a logic that defied common sense, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission five Supreme Court Justices suddenly transformed corporations into human beings, with a power that flesh and blood humans do not have: they can spend unlimited amounts of money in order to buy elections.
It now appears that the only way the Citizens United decision can be overturned is by a constitutional amendment. In January a Hart Research survey found that 87% of Democrats, 82% of Independents and 68% of Republicans favored the passage of such an amendment.
I believe that if the Occupy Wall Street movement were to channel all its energy into calling for a constitutional convention to overturn this ridiculous decision, its goal of breaking the tie between big money and Washington could be accomplished. Passage of such an amendment might even bring a little sanity to the current political climate.
Get more information at www.freespeechforpeople.org
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My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street Movement

     It was no surprise that all the articles on the National News page of Monday's newspaper were concerned with the “officially” ended recession and various reactions to it. The major story discussed whether the ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement is here to stay or will just fade away as so many social movements have done in the past. I will get to the other articles shortly.
     The OWS movement is based on the premise that the one percent of households who control the “vast majority” of the nation's wealth do so while the remaining 99% are suffering as they struggle to make ends meet. Just as the Missouri mule skinner had to get his student's attention by hitting him with a baseball bat, I believe the term “vast majority” was picked out of the blue in order to get the attention of potential sympathizers; I do not believe that using fictitious figures will help the movement.
     Don't misunderstand me – the true figures are daunting enough. According to a study conducted by the Sociology Dept. of the University of California at Santa Cruz, as of 2007 the top one percent of households owned almost 35% of all privately held wealth – a substantial amount, but nowhere near a vast majority. However, if one includes the 50% wealth ownership by the next 19% of households, it indeed becomes a vast majority; the bottom 80% of households holds just 15% of the wealth.
     And the situation is deteriorating – another of the articles reports that during the “official” recession – December 2007 to June 2009 – the median household income fell 3.2%; during the period from the end(?) of the recession and June 2011 the median income fell 6.7%. The article speculates that the drop has been a result of (1) an increased number of unemployed people who have given up looking for work, and (2) the pay of the employed has not risen as fast as the inflation rate.
     A third article illustrates what Congress is doing to remedy the situation. Actually, when our representatives could not agree on whether to raise taxes or cut spending, they shuffled the whole problem onto a “Super committee,” which apparently cannot agree on what to do any more than Congress as a whole could. The committee has until November 23 to come up with $1.2T in additional deficit reduction steps to be undertaken over a ten year period. Any such recommendations by the committee are subject to an “up or down” vote by the Congress. If they don't pass, a “trigger mechanism” would automatically make across the board cuts of $1.2T in both military and domestic spending.
     Personally, I don't see how this translates to more stability for the nation's economic situation, but perhaps I don't need to; there is an emergency exit – none of the cuts would take effect until 2013, which means that next year Congress could pass new legislation which would void the whole thing.
     The last article quotes House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi as to the hypocrisy of certain Republican Congressmen. In particular, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is concerned about the “growing mobs,” and criticized “Occupy Wall Street” rooters as supporting “class warfare” by the “pitting of Americans against Americans.” This is the same Eric Cantor who, on September 12, 2009, told Tea Party partisans that they were “fighting on the fighting lines of what we know is a battle for our democracy." Pelosi is correct – when it comes to being two-faced, Cantor puts the god Janus to shame.
     Back to the movement; the mule skinner has an agenda to follow once he gets the mule's attention. According to Adbusters, a primary protest organizer, the central demand of the OWS protest is that President Obama "ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington." Good luck with that – neither the President nor any other politician is going to bite the hand that feeds his campaign.
     Among the rank and file OWS participants there seem to be two lines of thought about creating a formal agenda: (1) Draft specific demands about the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, or (2) Keeping the agenda non-specific and allow the protest to grow. Hopefully the average voter will be persuaded to elect representatives sympathetic to the movement's central demand.
     All of this is going to require a huge amount of money, and getting money from the very people OWL is opposing, the well-to-do, is tantamount to a gnat bringing down an elephant.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

High-speed Neutrinos

     On September 23rd researchers at CERN, Europe’s main physics laboratory, announced that subatomic particles called neutrinos had apparently sped from the lab’s headquarters near Geneva, through the Earth’s crust, to an underground detector 730km (450 miles) away, around 60 billionths of a second faster than light would take to cover the same distance. If this observation turns out to be true, it will mean that Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, which sets the speed of light as the limit of velocity in the Universe, is in need of tweaking.
     According to the Special Theory, traveling faster than light would open the possibility of travel through time, which would lead to several paradoxes. For example:
There was a young lady named Bright,
Who could travel faster than light.
She took off one day,
In a relative way,
And came back the previous night.
Could a person travel back in time and kill his grandfather before the time-traveler's father was conceived?
And a joke brought on by the neutrino finding:
The bartender says, “Sorry, but we don't allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here.”
A neutrino walks into a bar.
(You can't kick a neutrino out of a bar he has not yet entered.)
     But I digress. Although it could be that the neutrinos took a short cut through another dimension, interacted in an as yet unknown manner with the matter through which they passed, or any of several other exotic possibilities, the smart money is that a more mundane error will be found, e.g., in the synchronization of the clocks used in measuring the velocity.
     Whether or not this discovery turns out to be correct, the whole episode is a beautiful example of the way science works.
     Whenever a new scientific theory is suggested, scientists around the world immediately attempt to confirm or disprove it. Since 1905 Einstein's Special Theory has been confirmed in millions of observations, but as the neutrino finding suggests, scientists are still subjecting it to scrutiny. If even one confirmed result were to contradict the theory, the theory would be expanded to accommodate the finding, or in the extreme case, abandoned and replaced by a new one.
     In this case, it is highly unlikely that the Special Theory will need to be abandoned. Just as it expanded Isaac Newton's theories to accommodate new findings, the Special Theory will probably be adjusted to include the new discovery.
     Although science is built upon a foundation of prior discoveries, it is primarily a method of inquiry – not a structure. It will always be tentative – always subject to correction. Contrary to the other system, religion, for understanding the Universe, that is its strength. Science asks questions that may never be answered – religion gives answers that may never be questioned.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Opinion vs. Knowledge

     Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. - Isaac Asimov.
     Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University. A prolific author and editor of more than 500 books and 90,000 letters and postcards, his interests ranged from science fiction to popular science to humor, and are listed in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, has stated that it was Asimov's concept of psychohistory that inspired him to become an economist.
     In my opinion, the above quote is one of the most incisive statements Asimov made during his lengthy career. Following are some well-known examples of popular opinions that are contrary to the facts of the situation.

     Climate Change – Millions of Americans believe the opinions of talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as good as the knowledge of tens of thousands of climatologists worldwide who have devoted their lives to a study of climate change. It's happening – check it out with people who know.

    Evolution – Some 60% of Americans believe that opinions coming from Rick Perry and the Texas and Kansas boards of education are just as good as the knowledge of over 93% of biologists concerning evolution. In addition, proof of its existence has come from the fields of genetics, biology, bacteriology, physics and almost all other branches of science. This opinion should not have been relevant since 1925, but it is.

     Vaccinations Cause Autism – In 1998 British Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper in which he attributed an increase in autism to measles, mumps and rubella vaccines. In spite of the fact that four independent studies have shown that there is no such link, and Dr. Wakefield's admission that he manipulated the data, the opinion persists. As a result, there has been a recurrence of these sometimes fatal diseases. Kids have died as a result.

     Congressional Health Insurance – In the opinion of a large segment of the population, members of Congress have wonderful free health insurance. The fact is that they choose their insurance from the same list of about 300 private plans, such as Blue Cross, Kaiser, etc., which is available to over 8 million federal employees, retirees and their families. The government pays up to 75% of the premiums. Congress persons, but not their families, are eligible for care at military hospitals, and are billed at rates set by the Department of Defense.

     Psychic Phenomena – Psychics, clairvoyants, astrologers, ghost hunters, etc., supposedly are able to converse with the dead, predict the future, control everyday events, cure illness or detect spirits of the dead lurking in all kinds of places. Of all the practitioners who have ever undergone investigation, not one has ever demonstrated an ability beyond normal probability to perform any of these marvelous feats. Yet many people swear by the existence of some or all of these charlatans. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Demand it!

     This is a short list of popular opinions which, to the extent they supersede knowledge, tend to disrupt the fine-tuned functioning of democracy. Information concerning these and other wide-spread opinions can be found at www.snopes.com and www.factcheck.org.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pivotal Points In Military History (Part 2)

     Session two of the four part series was presented by Mahlon Fuller, the watch supervisor of the Pittsburgh International Airport's control tower and radar room on the morning of 9/11/01. He participated in the shutdown of the nation's air space; with some 4,000 planes in the air, the mission was accomplished in less than three hours.
     Shortly after the Pentagon was hit, Fuller evacuated the radar room and control tower after a hijacked plane, later determined to be United 93, was spotted heading directly for the facility. When he returned to the radar room the plane was off the scope. Although he was indoors and did not see the it, Fuller believes the plane passed directly over the tower before crashing near Shanksville. eight miles beyond Pittsburgh's radar coverage.
     His narrative was accompanied by an NTSB animation of the last three minutes of United 93, showing not only the flight path, but also the air speed, altitude, horizontal situation indicator, compass heading and control position. As the passengers rushed the cabin, the pilot attempted to throw them off balance by rapidly banking the plane left and right.
     During the last thirty seconds the plane turned upside down, then dived into the earth at over 500 miles per hour. The NTSB has calculated that the tail of the plane reached the nose in less than 1/10 second.
     The resulting hole was approximately 40 feet x 20 feet x 25 feet deep. The largest piece found was about four feet long. Bits of wreckage and body parts were even found up in the nearby trees.
     Fuller has gone to the scene at least once every year since the crash, and is active in promoting the memorial. His slide show included pictures of the progress of the construction to date, as well as renderings of the project as it will be.
     He told of meeting many of the survivors' friends and families, and he has had dinner with a pilot who was the best friend of Flight 93's captain. The man told him that he never expected to be a bigot, but that he hopes that every Muslim will die a prolonged, painful death.
     Then Fuller compared that sentiment to that of the Amish after the massacre of five little girls at the Nickel Mine School in 2006. On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, "We must not think evil of this man."
     Another Amish father noted, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God." One Amish man held the shooter's sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter.
     After 10 years Fuller, a Quaker, is still visibly shaken when speaking of the events of that day. He said that his personal journey has been one of Tragedy, Grief and a Hope that somewhere between those two extremes of attitude we will someday find a way to reconcile our differences and get along together.
     So do I.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pivotal Points In Military History (Part 1)

     The retirement community which I call home is presenting four seminars on the title subject of this blog entry. I attended the first, Flight 93, last Monday. The movie on A & E was nominated for eight Primetime Emmys, and won two of them. If you have not seen it, you should.
     It is the story of one of the four ill-fated airliners that were hijacked by Muslim terrorists on September 11, 2001. Three of them hit their intended targets, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but thanks to heroic efforts by the passengers, Flight 93 missed its intended target, believed to be either the National Capitol or the White House.
     Through cellphone calls to their families, the passengers learn about the fates of the other three planes, and it gradually dawns on them that they are also on a flight destined to end in death. The scenes go back and forth between the passengers, their families, and the authorities, and the pressure to do something builds along with the tension.
     The passengers finally decide to use one of the plane's service carts to ram the pilots' cabin and try to take over the controls. When they finally put their plan into action, the amateur terrorist pilot loses control as they crash through the door, and the plane slams into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
     The last words to the ground are to the wife of the passenger who is leading the charge: “Let's roll.”
     The movie is available on DVD, and I should warn you to have two handkerchiefs ready when you watch it.
     Our next session is a talk by the watch supervisor of the Pittsburgh International Airport control tower and radar room on 9/11/01. I will keep you posted.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Shades of Gray

     It would be nice if there were just two sides to every question, but it's just not true. For example, if I were to ask what needs to be done to end the current recession, the answers would run the gamut from more government spending to cutting spending to the bone, from increasing taxes on the wealthy to cutting taxes for everyone, and countless other real and imaginary solutions.
     Even in court the question ostensibly is guilt or innocence of the defendant, but we all know that the verdict goes to the attorney who successfully convinces the jury that his analysis of the “shades of gray” is the correct one. If it were not so, no “guilty” party would ever later be set free on the basis of better evidence.
     One of the problems with growing older is that one can discern the gray shades; as a result one's judgment swings back and forth between the “sides” of the question. It can get very confusing.
     Such a case is in the headlines today: Was the killing of the terrorist, al-Awlaki, a native-born American citizen, legal? Amendment V of the Constitution states that “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law . . .” That seems clear enough.
     The government is taking the stand that the killing was justified as “due process in war.” Officials say Awlaki's emails inspired accused Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Hasan. Awlaki also helped plan the failed Underwear bomb attack, and was part of the plot to bring down cargo planes with explosives inside computer printers.
     According to CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate, ". . . based on the rules of self-defense, based on the principles that we're at war with al-Qaeda and the fact that he was a part of the group, self-professed, all of that suggests that it's lawful and appropriate to go after him and to kill him."
     This begs the question, “Are we really at war.” Referring again to the Constitution, Article I, Section 8 says that, “The Congress shall have the power . . .to declare war. . .” Although the Congress has authorized extended military combat against al-Qaeda, it has not officially declared war.
     But the Constitution does not say “due process of war;” it says “due process of law.” While Awlaki may very well have done all the nefarious things of which he is accused, “due process of law” means “. . . a presentment or indictment of a grand jury . . .” (Amendment V)
     In my heart I feel no remorse over Awlaki's death, but here is another question of black and white: Are we or are we not a nation of law? I hope so, in which case I think this act, although I approve of it in my heart, is constitutionally questionable in my head. As I said, seeing both sides does not clarify the issue – it confuses it.
     What do you think?
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.