Saturday, February 17, 2018

#48 / Of, By, And For

Surely what Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863, stands, even today, as the best statement of what all Americans want:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln - The Gettysburg Address 

While Lincoln's words (and all of them) still define our aspirations, I think we focus, today, mostly on the idea that our government should be "for" the people. Our main desire is for a government that is not just for the white people, not just for the wealthy, not just for men, not just for the privileged and the propertied, but for "the people," for everyone; for all of us.

Our preeminent desire for such a government, a government that is truly "for" the people, is understandable, since our current government is so obviously not for "the people." Our government is of, by, and for the privileged. That description of our government is so plain to so many that our collective faith in our government has been strained to the breaking point.

But wanting a government to be "for" the people, is to ask that we "be governed" in a way that is fair to all, and that favors us all.

We are missing the other parts of the equation. What Lincoln said is that we must not let a government "of" the people, and "by" the people perish from this earth.

It is my profound belief that we will never have a government "for" the people, until the government is both "of" and "by" the people first.

That means that we, ordinary men and women, must seize back the role of governing ourselves. Some people call it a "Brand New Congress." At every level of our government, we must take charge of the governmental powers that derive, in fact, from "the people," from each one of us. Those governmental powers will be deployed "for" us only when they are deployed "by" us.

Taking over our government. Put it on your "to do" list!

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Friday, February 16, 2018

#47 / "NO" Is Not Enough

Naomi Klein (pictured) is absolutely correct that "No" is not enough, as we deal with all things political, particularly including "Trump's Shock Politics." Click here to see what Klein's latest book looks like. Better yet, if you live in Santa Cruz, head down to Bookshop and get yourself a copy.

While "No" is not enough, it can often be a pretty good start towards a positive program. A lot of benefits come from making policy by saying what we have decided that we will not do.

Measure J, for instance, the Santa Cruz County Growth Management referendum measure adopted by the voters of Santa Cruz County in 1978, provides protection to prime farmland in Santa Cruz County by prohibiting the use of such farmland for anything other than farming. By saying "No" to something that shouldn't be done, we can often achieve the positive results we seek.

Since "anything is possible" in the human world that we create, a decision not to spend our efforts and resources in particular ways can end up focusing our energies in the positive directions we'd like to pursue.

Don't give up on "No." It's one of the most powerful tools we have to shape the world we want!

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

#46 / Smith, Jones, And Carpenter

What kind of "privacy" do we have, in a time in which new technologies increasingly send detailed information about everything we are doing to private companies, which then provide that information about us to the government?

In the case of Smith v. Maryland, decided on June 20, 1979, the United States Supreme Court held that the police did not need to obtain a search warrant to install a "pen register" on a telephone owned by Michael Lee Smith. Using the pen register, the police were able to collect information about calls made from Smith's phone, including the telephone numbers called, and the date and time of all calls made. Evidence about the calls made from Smith's telephone was provided to the police by the telephone company, and was used to convict Smith of robbery. Smith argued that the police should have gotten a search warrant, based on probable cause, before using the pen register. He wanted the evidence collected by the pen register suppressed. The Supreme Court reasoned that Smith had no "expectation of privacy," since Smith well knew that the phone company was recording all the information associated with the calls he made from the phone. There was nothing "private" about that!

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the United States government was obtaining exactly the same kind of information the police had collected in the Smith case, but was collecting this information about EVERYONE'S phone calls, and was retaining all these records in a giant database, essentially forever. A federal trial court judge, William Pauley, said that the Smith case controlled, and that there was nothing wrong with the practices that Snowden revealed. According to Pauley's decision in American Civil Liberties Union v. James R. Clapper, no one in the country has any "expectation of privacy" about the kind of "metadata" that the government has been collecting, since anyone using a telephone understands that the information collected by the government is being recorded and retained by their telephone service provider. It's not really, "private" if the telephone company has it!

Judge Richard Leon, another federal trial court judge, came to an exactly opposite conclusion in a case called Klayman v. Obama, decided at virtually the same time as the Clapper case. Judge Leon reasoned that United States v. Jones, a case decided in January 2012, pretty much overruled Smith. The decision in the Jones case was unanimous, and was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, pictured above. Scalia, who died in 2016, was one of the Court's more conservative members. The Jones case was not a case about telephones; it was about the use of a GPS tracking device, which the police had placed on Jones' automobile. Expectations about privacy, however, was at the heart of the Jones case. Using the GPS information they gathered from the device, the police were able to track Jones' whereabouts over an extended period of time, and they used the information to convict him. Scalia's opinion pointed out that new technologies dramatically increase the ability of the government to surveil the citizenry, so that the old rules have to be reevaluated. 

You might think that since diametrically opposite conclusions were reached in the Klayman and Clapper cases, on an issue of such fundamental importance to everyone using a telephone, the Supreme Court would want to provide some definitive guidance, and to decide whether Smith or Jones was right. Absent such guidance, it is totally unclear whether it is constitutional for the United States government to undertake a mass collection of telephone metadata, mobilizing modern spy technologies against every person in the United States who makes telephone calls. Whatever we might think about what would make sense in terms of the public interest, the Supreme Court gets to pick its cases, and has dodged making a decision about whether Judge Pauley, or Judge Leon, got it right.

Maybe, however, there is going to be a resolution soon. 

Consider the case of Carpenter v. United States. The Supreme Court of the United States Blog (SCOTUS Blog) describes the Carpenter case as follows: "Issue: Whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cellphone records revealing the location and movements of a cellphone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment." The Carpenter case was argued on November 29, 2017, so a decision can be expected by June of this year. 

Check out the arguments. I'm hoping that the Supreme Court is going to decide that our government is simply not allowed to spy on me unless the government can convince a judge that there is some reasonable, probable cause to think I've done something wrong. 

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you, dear reader, feel just the same!

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

#45 / Credit Where Due?

Our president may be a shameless bully with bad morals, but let's give some credit where credit is due. That is the pitch that Stephen Moore makes in his January 29, 2018, column in The New York Times. Moore, a senior fellow at the (right-wing, pro-business) Heritage Foundation, asks whether "the economy could be any rosier?" His answer is, "No," and he thinks it would be fair to give credit to President Trump.

I have a slightly different take on this question. Assuming, for argument's sake, that the economy could not, in fact, be "any rosier" (and "rosier" for whom would be a basic quibble), I don't think the president deserves the credit. 

In fact, there is a political phenomenon that I have always thought of as a "capital strike," which occurs when corporations and individuals with massive amounts of money (the "billionaire class") decide that they are not going to spend the money, no matter what, because they don't like the people who won the last election. As is evident from the way the Republicans in Congress treated President Obama, on virtually every policy issue, the plutocracy knows how to play this game. 

What happened after the Trump victory in the 2016 election? Those with money decided that they now had "confidence," confidence that environmental regulations would be eliminated, tax rates would be lowered, and our military-based businesses would flourish. Thus, these wealthy interests put their capital in play, and voila! 

I think it would be wise to recognize that this phenomenon has been going on for a long time. I cite you to President Theodore Roosevelt's 1907 indictment of the "malefactors of great wealth" whose good works concealed their greed and rapacious disregard for the public: 

Too much cannot be said against the men of wealth who sacrifice everything to getting wealth. There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest uses —whether these uses be to speculate in stocks and wreck railroads himself, or to allow his son to lead a life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high social position, foreign or native, for his daughter. Such a man is only the more dangerous if he occasionally does some deed like founding a college or endowing a church, which makes those good people who are also foolish forget his real iniquity. These men are equally careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil. There are not very many of them, but there is a very great number of men who approach more or less closely to the type, and, just in so far as they do so approach, they are curses to the country.
That other President Roosevelt, Franklin, also spotlighted the problem in 1936, in a speech in which he noted, accurately, that : 

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. 
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

It is possible to have a prosperous economy, and one that pays attention to the people and the public interest, and not just to the billionaires, but let's not make any mistake. Enduring prosperity depends on the people mastering the malefactors. Let's not give them credit for loosening their grip a bit, as they celebrate a regime that will sell out the ordinary people to make them even richer than they already are.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

#44 / Local Links

Aeon, a kind of online magazine, describes itself this way: "Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking."

Recently, I read an article on the Aeon website titled "Local links run the world." The author, Deborah M. Gordon, is a professor of biology at Stanford University. As you might guess from the illustration above, Gordon specializes in the study of ants. Ants, however, are not the only things she writes about. She adds in an analysis of the social lives of seventh and eighth grade girls, and talks about Facebook, too. 

The bottom line for Gordon is expressed as follows:

Almost everything that happens in life is the result of a network. Making, or breaking, local links is the way to change.

For any who might be despairing about changing the world, consider Gordon's prescription. Making local links is the way to begin

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Monday, February 12, 2018

#43 / Travel As A Political Act

Pictured is Rick Steves, the travel writer. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal made me aware that Steves has written a book called, Travel As A Political Act

Steves also gives "travel classes," including a class with the same title as his book. You can take in an hour-long presentation on the topic by activating the video that is linked below. 

As anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows, I am not at all abashed at the thought of commenting on a book I haven't read. And I haven't read Steves' book. I do think I understand the gist of his argument, though, since I have now browsed the book using the "preview" function available on the Internet, and I have also read the article about Steves in The Wall Street Journal.

Steves says that Americans will understand the world better if they have traveled. He says that travelers will get new ideas, and appreciate different cultures and political arrangements. Travel, Steves asserts, will help cure the disease of ethnocentrism. Travel is a force for peace.

I think all of this is right.

There is a problem, however. Travel costs money, and not everyone can gain the "political" and other benefits that travel provides. I have been able to travel quite a bit, during my life, and count myself very fortunate to have been able to do that. My parents took me to Mexico when I was twelve years old. We went to Canada when I was, probably, fourteen years old. Once I went to college, I spent six months in the Stanford-in-France program, and traveled in North Africa during our holiday break in 1962-1963. I did more travel around Germany and France when the Quarter ended. 

I have spent a month learning Spanish in Salamanca. I went back to Mexico for a month for the same purpose. I spent a month in Buenos Aires, too, learning more Spanish. I went to Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Macau as part of the superlative Volunteers in Asia (VIA) program. I won a free trip to Fiji, and so my wife and I added on a visit to New Zealand and Australia, since we were in the neighborhood. Because of an article my wife picked up at the dentist's office, we embarked on an around the world tour, and visited Egypt, and many destinations in Asia and South America; plus, we have been to Spain, Italy, Greece, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark. We have been to Ireland, Scotland, and to England on repeated occasions. We also get to visit my sister Nancy, and her husband Rick, every year or so, at their wonderful bed and breakfast (called Maison Conti) in Montmirail, France. Click the link to check it out. Naturally, we take in Paris on the way. 

I am not listing every place to which I have traveled, and I now realize I didn't even mention my one trip as a merchant mariner. That trip took me through the Great Lakes, then down the Atlantic Coast and through the Panama Canal to stops in Asia, including a stop in Vietnam during the war. But you get the idea. I have been extremely fortunate to have seen a lot of the world, and maybe there's an Africa visit out there, too, sometime in the future. Not to mention Iceland, or maybe even India; or mainland China. 

Let me return to the observation that we have "a problem," when we talk about the political and other benefits of foreign travel. Very few people will be as lucky as I have been to travel so extensively, or at all. Most Americans are not going to be able to undertake the kind of travel that Steves advises, so most Americans will not get the "political" benefits that he discusses. This really IS a problem! 

We are, as most of us realize (whether we have traveled extensively or not), living in ONE world. We are "all in this together," globally. We need to make sure that we all understand what living in one world actually means. This means that every American should be able to benefit from the kind of experiences that Rick Steves talks about. It is also true, I think, that Americans would be a lot better off if people from all over the world were able to travel here, and spend some time in our country. 

I don't, actually, think it is too far-fetched to think that the future of the human race may well depend on our ability to understand the kind of lessons that travel teaches. 

So, here is my proposed solution. 

I believe the United States government should initiate a program that would provide an opportunity to travel to some other place in the world, for any American who wished to avail him or herself of this opportunity. I would say that the program should focus, at least initially, on young people of high school age. The travel opportunity should be "free," and the program should be "balanced." Arrangements would be made so that for every American who went to India, for example, an Indian would come here. I envision a program that would be based on a six-month placement in a specific foreign location, with perhaps a stipend for another month for free travel for participants at the end. The scale of the program should, ultimately, be massive, with at least one million Americans abroad at any one time, and with at least one million foreign visitors here.

We might want to reinvest in the State Department, and have it play a key role in making arrangements. The more potentially "hostile" countries involved in this kind of trade the better. No United States president would likely want to launch a bombing attack on North Korea, or Syria, or Iran, say, if there were ten or twenty-thousand Americans in the places where the bombs would fall. And vice versa, of course. 

Considering that this program would do a lot more for world peace than military invasions, and would cost less, I think the budget could finance it. 

We need to get those "political" benefits of travel that Rick Steves promotes, so let's make sure that every American (and many people from other countries) will actually have that experience. We do "live in a political world," and that means that a decision to inaugurate such a new program is a "political" choice.

As I say, I don't think it's a stretch to think that the ultimate fate of humanity may be tied to just how quickly we can truly understand that we live, together, in one world, and then go from that insight to the establishment of practical arrangements to make sure that we take care of each other, instead of killing each other. 

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

#42 / Lyft Every Voice?

I think that Uber probably qualifies as the "bad and evil" ride-hailing service. At least, Uber has received a lot of justifiably bad press

Lyft, in contrast, would like to claim to be the "good guy" company. 

Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan aren't having any of that. In a column that ran in my local newspaper yesterday, on February 10th, the Democracy Now commentators outline how both Uber and Lyft are "driving drivers into poverty and despair." 

Their column is well worth reading. Their column also tells a story that turns on a couple of points that I try to make, quite often, in these daily blog postings.

Prior to the advent of Uber and Lyft, with their high-tech ride-hailing applications, taxis were the way people got around. That was particularly true in our larger cities. The taxi business was essentially a regulated utility, meaning that the government (which is supposed to represent the community as  whole, and actually does so in a lot of cases) set up rules that governed how the taxi business was run, protecting both consumers and providers alike. 

The "disruptive" technology spawned in our own Silicon Valley/Bay Area incubator blew that regulated utility model into smithereens. Lyft and Uber are based on an "individualistic" model of how society works. 

Read that Goodman-Moynihan column! What that column shows is that disruption doesn't, automatically, bring benefits to all - or even increase net benefits, understanding that there are always "winners" and "losers" as economic realities change. Furthermore, without a collective ability to establish how corporations conduct their business, the corporations will victimize whomever gets in the way of maximum corporate profits. As we each, individually, try to better our individual positions, social losses mount. 

The Lyft (and Uber) story is quite different from that inspiring hymn by James Weldon Johnson (1871 - 1938), "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which has come to be known as the "Black National Anthem." The reality of the Uber/Lyft story is not so inspiring!

Our current economic system, and specifically including the "disruptive," high-tech exemplars of that system, are not, in fact, "lifting every boat," either, to cite to a stock political phrase often misused to bad purpose, and to justify the kind of individualistic profit-taking characterized by rapacious corporate behavior. 

Uber and Lyft, poster children examples of our high-tech disruptors, demonstrate this truth. We continue to need collective systems of strong governmental regulation to guarantee that avaricious corporations, and those who create them, will not be able to prey on our community, while proclaiming what a great thing they are doing.

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

#41 / The Way Things "Is"

It is always problematic to use the word "is" to describe some aspect of the reality we encounter in the world that we ourselves create, the "human" or "political" world that is the product of our past and present human actions.

Using "is" to describe or characterize this human world, or any aspect of it, can be misleading, because "is" means "equals," and a sentence using the word "is" thus presents itself in the guise of a quasi-mathematical truth.

Math does state the inevitable truths that prevail in the World of Nature, which is a world that is not created by past, present, or future human activity. In the World of Nature, governed by natural laws, whatever exists is, by definition, inevitable. Our science is to "understand" that world, and literally to "stand under" and look up to contemplate a reality that preexists us, and that we may be able to utilize for our benefit, but the essential nature of which it is not ours to modify.

E=MC2, states a powerful truth. This is a truth that was discovered, not created by any human action. A statement like, "Energy is equivalent to mass times the speed of light, squared," is fundamentally different from a statement like, "America is the land of the free and the home of the brave."

All too often, as we discuss the realities of our political life, and as we utilize the word "is" in doing so, we unconsciously impart to the realities we describe a kind of "inevitability" to which they are not entitled.

In human affairs, whatever "is" can be changed. Not always easily, granted, but the realities of our world are not like the realities of math, physics, and the World of Nature.

We make the realities, in our world, so what "is" is only of interest as a current report. "Is" never means, in the human, political world that we most immediately inhabit, that things have to be the way they "is!"

Thank goodness for that, considering the state of the world we have created! Because we have the gift of freedom, there is nothing in the human world that we cannot transform.

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