Corporate Power

I taught Business Ethics for many years and during those years I came across a great many reports of the abuse of the power of corporations. It became increasingly clear as I read and thought about this misuse that it stems from the fact that the publicly owned companies ignore the stakeholder because they are primarily (if not exclusively) concerned about the return on the dollar, i.e., profits that can  be paid out to shareholders (and overpaid CEOs who typically make 400 times as much as their  average employee). What I now take to be an obvious fact has many ramifications.

I have posted before about the oversight on the part of the founders who were so sensitive to the abuse of power and who simply did not see the possible abuses of power that might result from the millions of dollars the corporations rake in every year. — and this despite the fact that Jefferson, for one, was fully aware of the dangers of immoderate wealth in the hands of a few. But the founders simply couldn’t see this coming, clearly. They did realize, however, that the Constitution was a document that required up-dating from time to time; it is not written in stone. Henry Adam thought that when Grant was elected there would be a drastic overhaul of a document he realized was already out of date. But that didn’t happen. But, surely, one of the issues that needs to be addressed in our day is the abuse of the power of corporations that can simply buy elections and determine who is allowed to hold public office and what those who have been elected will do when in office (if they want to be reelected).

In 2010 the Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5-4  in the “Citizens United” case that corporations are “persons” and have rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Under that umbrella, they were given the green light to contribute to political campaigns — which they have subsequently done, in spades. Elections were increasingly a battle of the rich against the also rich, but the contributions of the corporations — not to mention those who run the corporations — have upped the ante considerably. Now we find ourselves faced with continuous requests for money from candidates and political parties to “take on” the corporations — as though this can be effectively accomplished.

I don’t buy the notion that corporations are persons and I think the claim I have seen argued that, as persons, they might somehow be shamed into behaving ethically is a bit dubious. If the shame were to result in lower profits corporate CEOs would simply pass along the losses to the customers until the PR people could direct attention elsewhere and convince the public that no real harm was done. This was the case with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the waters off Alaska a few years ago when Exxon sent a team of people up to the region of the spill where they cleaned up several hundred yards of oil from the shoreline and then had it filmed and used the film in a public relations campaign to convince customers that they had eradicated the effects of the spill. Ignored altogether, we have since discovered, were hundreds of yards of shoreline out of sight that remained covered in oil. It seems to be in the corporate DNA to do whatever it has to do to “right the ship” in the case of an accident and make sure the image of the company is not seriously damaged. They have public relations people who do nothing else but address this issue. And they have lawyers, who they often call “ethics officers,” whose job it is to see that they take no steps that could possibly end them up in court — because they identify morality with legality and pride themselves in “doing nothing wrong.”

The recent attempts by the current administration to weaken, if not eradicate altogether, the E.P.A. and other regulatory agencies is extremely disturbing because history has shown that the corporations will not police themselves and if their feet are not held to the fire they will do whatever it takes to increase profits, full stop. In an economy like ours regulations are anathema to the corporations and their highly paid officers. But from the public’s perspective they are essential.

Furthermore, those corporations should not be regarded as persons and given the right under the First Amendment to contribute to political campaigns. The founders missed this one, but we are becoming increasingly aware of the abuses of power by the corporations and the need to rein them in by limiting their impact on the public domain. The first step, clearly, is the rejection of the Citizens United decision which at least two of the judges who voted for it now realize was a mistake. And, if we cannot revise the constitution, we can certainly modify it to see to it that controls are placed on otherwise unfettered power. That is, we can if we have the will.

Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.

Politics As Usual

The Greek philosopher Socrates who lived from 470 until 399 B.C.E. sought to withdraw from the hurly-burly of ordinary political life in what was one of the very first democracies. He insisted that it was impossible to participate in the political life of Athens and at the same time retain one’s integrity. And in his view integrity, living a virtuous life, was of paramount importance: it led him to eventually accept the decision of a corrupt court and drink Hemlock.



Politics has always been a bit of a dirty game, but it is a game that is played for high stakes and a great many have discovered how to become very wealthy playing the game, doing what they are told, and collecting their reward from the special interest groups. I have not counted recently in our political system (which is not a democracy, strictly speaking) how many can be readily identified as corrupt. But the number must be rather large. We are now caught up in a bind with “representatives” who only represent special interests and who are determined to bring government to a halt if their candidate does not win the presidency. Partisanship has replaced citizenship in this country and there are very few like Socrates around — or even those who are convinced that they can play the dirty game of politics and still keep their hands clean. I can count those few on the fingers on one hand. But there are a few.

Socrates, it has always seemed to me, was a bit too uncompromising. Surely it is possible for a person to be actively involved in politics and to remain a person of integrity? Or is it? Think of the temptations from the immensely wealthy who have millions of dollars to spread around buying the people who will make the decisions that will favor their particular business. There is no question whatever but that the corporations call the shots, especially since the Supreme Court decision Citizens United that gave the corporations the right to directly influence elections. Is it possible for a politician like Elizabeth Warren, for example, to continue to play the dirty game without getting soiled? That is an interesting question and one which will not be answered for a few years yet. But the siren song of wealth and power is always playing in her ear and she will have to be one tough cookie to remain far enough out of the mud to remain clean.

There are a great many people in this country that are sick and tired of “politics as usual.” They are convinced that it is a dirty game and that everyone who plays it is soiled. Of late, to be sure, it gives the impression of a large group of very well paid men and women who spend time talking and doing nothing. Thus these voters turn to an outsider, one who is outside of politics if not outside of reality itself, and they hope and pray that this man with the funny hair and tiny hands will deliver this country from the muddy world of politics as usual. In the process, they expect, they themselves will be recognized and their hopes and dreams will become a reality, because politics as usual has passed them by and they have been left in the lurch, clutching at straws.

Unfortunately, politics is a dirty game. That is a fact, and anyone who chooses to play must get their hands at least a bit dirty. The problem that faces this country at this juncture is whether we are realistic enough to accept the fact that politics is a dirty game and seek the one candidate who is the cleaner of the two and who promises to play the game in such a way that the country will remain relatively strong and survive as at least a shadow of the republic the founders envisioned. Or will the citizens of this country be so sick of politics as usual that they will blindly choose a man who is completely unqualified to head up this government and play a game whose rules he does to fully understand, a man who is used to making up his own rules on the go?

Socrates was right. But he was also wrong. It is possible for some to play the game and retain their integrity. But it is mighty difficult and there are few who can manage to play it successfully. In the meantime, we must accept reality as it is given to us and accept the candidate who will do the best job for the country and for each of its citizens — the best under the circumstances. It’s time for realism, not pie-in-the-sky-fantasy that ignores the fact that an unqualified president will flounder and fail miserably in the dirty world of politics, a world he is totally unfamiliar with and one that will eat him alive.

Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.

Then And Now

I live in the Southwest portion of Minnesota which is big farm country. The spaces are wide and the fields these days are full of young corn and soy beans, with a few fields of wheat or even beets for the sugar-beet plant nearby. For generations these have been family farms, but the corporations are taking over as we can see by the number of old homes and groves going the way of the bulldozers. But there are other signs of change as well that are equally disturbing.

Our two sons are now in their late forties and have children of their own. But when they were in high school they worked every summer “walking the beans” — pulling up weeds in the soybean fields. The town paid a young person to collect names of kids who wanted to make some money working for the farmers and that person took calls each day from the farmers and then arranged with the kids to work the next day. The farmer would pick them up and drop them off after lunch — which they usually called “dinner.” Occasionally they  joined a team of kids who rode a tractor and sprayed the weeds with poison. But we discouraged that and mostly they walked the beans for local farmers. Or they helped the farmer remove rocks from his field that had appeared over the winter. Those farmers always fed them a big “dinner” and the pay was pretty good. They usually worked in the mornings, ate “dinner,” and were then driven home. They kept what they earned and usually put most of their earnings into a savings account. One time they worked for a corporation de-tasseling corn. But they both hated that (my wife had to literally drag my younger son out of bed one morning to make him stick with a job he hated). The day started very early and the fields were still wet with dew that soaked them through their shirts. And their faces were scratched by the sharp edges of the corn plants. But they did stick with it until the job was done, working full days and hating every minute but making more money than the farmers could pay them.

But no more. The kids don’t walk the beans these days. Or pick up rocks either, except the rare farmer’s son or daughter helping out Dad. As for the rest of them, they stand around on street corners looking bored or drive their cars and pickups around making noise and waiting for something to happen. This is the age of entitlement, after all, and very few young people in this area seem to feel it necessary to earn money to pay for what they want. They simply charge what they want on their credit cards (so they won’t have to wait) or they ask their parents who (out of guilt??) pretty much give them what they want. As a result, farmers either douse their genetically modified crops with Roundup or hire migrant workers who dot the fields this time of the year while the kids are nowhere to be seen. With few exceptions.

People will say that when old codgers like myself complain about the younger generation they are forgetting what it was like when they were kids — things don’t really change that much, they say. Old folks have always complained about the young since the time of the ancient Egyptians, forgetting what it was like when they themselves were young. But that is a bunch of hooey, because things have changed considerably — not only since I was a kid, but since my sons were young. And I don’t see that the change is for the better. On the contrary, it is far worse because these young people are not learning “life-lessons” about responsibility and patience, doing jobs they don’t particularly want to do, waiting for the things they want, and saving money until they can afford them.

Things have not stayed the same at all. Just ask the folks around you who are trying to hire young people to work and can’t find any who are willing to do a full day’s work for decent pay. The young — including recent college graduates —  want shorter hours and larger paychecks. These things I hear from those who are in the know. Things do change, and change is not always for the better. And old codgers like me may have good grounds for complaint.

Constitutional Oversights

I have blogged in the past about the failures of the authors of the U.S. Constitution to anticipate the immense power of great wealth in this country which has resulted in the present shut-down in government — following directly from the obedience of our elected officials to those who have provided the bulk of the immense amounts of money required to place them in office. This, of course, results in allegiance to those to whom much is owed and to the Party they support, making cooperation with those across the aisle nearly impossible.  These things were not, indeed they could not have been, anticipated by the authors of our Constitution writing in the eighteenth century.

At a time when the U.S. Senate was not elected but appointed by state legislatures, often at the beck and call of vested interests, Henry Adams hoped that President Grant would initiate steps to remedy at least one shortcoming of the Constitution; namely, the extraordinary power vested in a Senate that was not responsive to the electorate. This resulted in a corrupt Senate with considerable power coupled with the inability of the executive to get much of anything done, a problem that persists to this day. Adams was disappointed, and the improvements he hoped for in the Constitution never came to fruition. Indeed, despite the addition of a few amendments from time to time, the possibility of opening serious discussion about the revisions necessary in what has become a sacred, albeit dated, document have never been seriously considered. In fact, the mention of even minor changes to that document strikes many as heresy.

Now, when one goes back and reads the statements of those closely connected with the writing of our Constitution one realizes that they themselves thought that the document would be updated and improved from time to time as a matter of course. It was never regarded as written in stone. One merely has to read the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay to persuade New York to ratify the document, to realize how open to suggestion and change were those who first conjured up the document which was, at the time, designed to keep the colonies together (by allowing such things as slavery, for example) and mitigate against the separatism that was beginning to tear them apart soon after the revolution. One especially concerned spectator who worried that Europe would get the last laugh, and who was determined to prove that the Republic would hold together despite this factionalism, was George Washington who presided over the Constitutional Convention for the four months during which the Constitution was written. He penned a most interesting document to his friend Lafayette, lauding the document and pointing out its merits.

“First, that the general government is not invested with more powers than are indispensably necessary to perform the functions of a good government, and consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of power delegated to it.

“Secondly, that these powers, as the appointment of all rulers will for ever arise from and, at short, stated intervals recur, to the free suffrages of the people, are so distributed among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches into which the general government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”

Fascinating! What jumps out, of course, is his preoccupation with the limits of governmental power coupled with the presumption, which Washington shared with most of those who helped put the document together, that citizens would act “virtuously” — which was an Enlightenment notion that focused on what was regarded as the natural desire of civilized people to live together, to put the common good above their own private good.  This strikes us today as incredibly naive. But, as Washington saw it, along with brief terms in political office, civic virtue was a necessary condition if the country was to avoid “despotism.”

And it is precisely despotism that has replaced the Republic that the founders had in mind. Whether it was because of the disappearance of civic virtue or the rise of incredible wealth in the hands of a few unscrupulous, greedy men and giant corporations is a moot point. I suspect it is a combination of the two. After all, what is the citizen supposed to do about choosing enlightened leadership when those with great wealth hand-pick politicians who will carry out their own private agendas?

Clearly, as I have noted in previous posts, what we now have in an oligarchy, and it is precisely the type of thing the founders were convinced they had guarded against. A radical alteration of the Constitution curtailing the influence on the wealthy on elections might restore this country to a Republic, but this will never happen as long as those who might engineer those changes see them as threatening their own power and prestige. Washington’s supposition, shared with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that politicians would serve short terms has also given way to career politicians who hold their offices interminably (literally) and, in order to assure themselves of a continuance in office, simply carry out the programs set out for them by those wealthy few who have had them elected and will keep them in office. Thus, while the time is long overdue for radically rethinking the Constitution, it will not happen. Even a necessary first step, such as the adoption of an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortive decision in the Citizen’s United case giving corporations unlimited access to the reins of government, is extremely unlikely. It’s a Catch 22.


Paranoid Fiction?

Imagine if you will that a group of, say, eight or ten of the wealthiest and most powerful corporate CEOs meets together once a year in Switzerland — or, if their inclination leans toward sunnier climes, perhaps Belize. They have drinks and a bevy of loose women at hand, though they break every now and then for gourmet meals while they discuss the coming year together: how can they maintain their positions of power and keep the money rolling in?

They might decide to gain control of the media, especially television. Then they would make sure that the airwaves are filled with news reports biased in their favor together with sporting events 24 hours a day with plenty of patriotic zeal blended into the mix — fly overs, bands blaring, and plenty of flags waving while men and women in camouflage are conspicuous and constantly touted as “heroes” fighting a war on terror that these powerful men have encouraged (because it’s good for business). This will keep the viewers occupied for much of their free time and convince them that they live in the greatest country on earth. As such, they will be much more willing to believe what they are told — more malleable, if you will.

But to augment this effort, this group decides to make sure that the vast majority of the citizenry is either unemployed  (and thus dependent on the State) or holds mindless jobs for meager wages that lead them toward drugs, drinks, and the entertainment that is always ready at hand. Indeed, they promote inventions that guarantee that these folks can take the entertainment with them wherever they go — even while they drive to work or to the wide variety of recreation made available to them.  Further, the schools will be teaching practical, “hands-on” courses like computer science and various technical skills that might lead the students to whatever jobs that are available and away from any course work that might get them to think – such as history, literature, and philosophy. The idea here is to guarantee that these folks are attending to things that simply don’t matter and, like those watching a shell game, are unaware under which shell the pea is hidden: keep them occupied on mindless drivel. And to put the icing on the cake, they encourage violent television shows that keep people engrossed and on the edge, a bit fearful and better able to control. To add to the mix, through the NRA, which they control, they decide to promote the purchase of hand guns and automatic weapons to guarantee that frequent acts of violence occur that are discussed in the media they own while the Congress, bought and paid for by these corporate giants, debates what course of action not to take. This heightens the sense of danger and the fear in the population that makes it so much easier to control what the citizens do and (more to the point) what they think. And while they’re at it, these men (who make more than 400 times what their average employee makes)  encourage social media that guarantees that these people ‘s attention, such as it is, is turned on themselves so they don’t have the faintest idea where the pea might be hidden.

This, of course, is pure fiction, smacking as it does of a conspiracy theory. It is the fruits of a disturbed mind that borders on paranoia. Wouldn’t you say?

Regressive Education

There’s a post going around on Facebook that shows a child sitting on a high chair in the corner with a dunce hat on his head. The caption reads “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in the High Schools to teaching remedial English in the Colleges.” So many items on the internet, and especially Facebook, are mindless drivel, but this one makes a good deal of sense, though it is a bit simplistic. Adopting the model of A.S. Neill’s abortive “Summerhill” project in England, the birth of “Progressive” education in the 1930s in this country — which took the nation by storm in the late 1950s — has resulted in a regression of a system designed to improve young minds to a system designed to cater to the young and leave them pretty much untouched.  From the notion that teachers know best what their charges should learn, we have come to the point where we let the kids pretty much learn what (if anything) they want. And we make sure they have enough toys to make the process as pleasant as possible. Welcome to the age of entitlement! The notion that education is about knowledgeable elders helping young minds grow and develop has been lost in the process; for some reason we are now afraid to even suggest that anyone is smarter than anyone else.

I have blogged repeatedly about this issue and while this may allow me to let off steam, it has certainly not altered the situation one whit. Nor is it likely to do so. I know that. But it is clear that when a small country like Finland can lead all of the developed nations on earth in education and a rich, advanced nation like the United States lags far behind, there is something radically wrong with the system in place in this country. Finland pays their teachers higher salaries than the OECD average — to the point where only 10% of those who apply actually find a teaching position. Teaching is not a chore; it is a privilege. Teachers are themselves educated to the level of a Master’s Degree, and they are not required to take “methods” courses. They are given their heads and allowed to teach as they determine the situation and the children in their classes require. In a word teachers do not have a huge bureaucracy looking over their shoulders, dictating course work and watching their every move to make sure that they do their job as those in the education establishment see fit. Because teachers are not dredged from the bottom of college classes and paid a pittance, as they are in many states in this country, they are bright and deserving of the trust the parents put in them. It works. While our “progressive” education system struggles, kids in Finland, and in most other developed countries, have learned the value of a solid education and they make their parents proud. We, on the other hand, spend most of our time making excuses and apologizing for a system we refuse to acknowledge is broken.

So while the middle class slowly disappears behind a growing mountain of giant corporate interest and a few very wealthy people like the Koch brothers, and our Democracy is being swallowed up by a greedy, self-serving capitalist economy, the young people who might some day figure out a way out of this morass are being cheated by a system that puts them in crowded classrooms with underpaid and exhausted teachers and eventually dumps them out on the streets with no sense whatever which way they should turn because they cannot read the street signs.

Truth To Tell

In an interesting half-page in the current ONEARTH magazine published by NRDC, there’s a lesson in telling it like it is. The author, John Walke, who is director of NRDC’s clean air project, corrects a number of mistaken statements in a letter written to the Washington Post by the president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Now we know by this time that “clean coal” is a misnomer: there is no such thing. There is just “cleaner coal” — which is to say, coal that is cleaner than it was a few years ago. This is thanks to the EPA which has forced the coal industry to a higher standard, though the coal industry would like us to think it was their idea.

The letter claims, for example, that the coal industry has cleaned up its act and would dearly love to take credit for pulling their hand out of the cookie jar, though we can see them hiding another cookie behind their backs!  Walke points out that the EPA has brought the cleanup about and while the coal industry claims that coal is “almost 90 percent cleaner than it was 40 years ago,” in fact it has been forced by the EPA to be 90 percent cleaner by 2015: it hasn’t reached that benchmark yet, and it is moving in that direction only because of federal legislation, not the desire to be good citizens. The coal industry also claims credit for “more than a dozen clean coal technologies” when, in fact, they have lobbied for 40 years against clean air safeguards and they are still fighting — along with Big Oil, of course. In the final paragraph of the letter, the coal industry correctly points out that energy demand will increase in coming years (duhhh) “and that demand cannot be met without coal.” Walke points out that in the U.S. “renewable energy, natural gas, and simple economics have steadily reduced demand for electricity generated by coal. California is on track to use no coal-based electricity by 2025. Clean energy technologies can produce both good jobs here and energy for export.”

The letter by the coal industry commits what logicians call the “neglected aspect” fallacy. They simply ignore alternatives to coal, especially clean energy alternatives like solar and wind, in order to scare people into thinking that they are the only alternative to an otherwise bleak future without adequate energy for teeming populations. And, of course, they ignore the alternative of population control which would go a long way toward solving not only this country’s energy problems, but the planet’s as well. But that’s another story for another day — though it is not much talked about, sad to say.

In a word, we know that corporations are not beneath making public statements that not only stretch the truth and wallow in half-truths, but actually state bald-faced lies — all in order to hoodwink the public and sell their products. We must always consider the source and never forget that the name of their game is “profits,” and when they start to spout data to prove their innocence they are not above saying what they think we want to hear rather than what we ought to hear — since the latter might interfere with the bottom line. A healthy skepticism is always in order.

Nattering Nabobs

It has become a cliché for older folks to look back to a previous age as “golden” and insist that things are going to the dogs. I referred in a recent blog to Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight In Paris” which focuses on this tendency to look back to an earlier age as in every way superior to the one in which we live — no matter what age it happens to be. I get all that. But we dismiss at our peril those who see the problems of the present, the nay-sayers and “nattering nabobs of negativity.”  As someone once said “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” It behooves us to pay attention to the Chicken Littles around us and hear what they have to say: it might just be important. The sky may indeed be falling, and Woody Allen to the contrary notwithstanding, things may have been better in times past.

In a word, while it may be true that the older generations look at the past through rose-colored glasses, it is nonetheless the case that our present problems have taken a quantum jump toward calamity in ways that can seriously threaten life on this planet I don’t want to list all of the problems we have brought upon ourselves, but we have, indeed, let the technical genie out of the bottle and it is not at all clear that the genie is well-intentioned.

In past generations leaving the world unlivable was merely a theoretical possibility, now it is a very real possibility. Indeed, the likelihood increases every day we continue to ignore these threats to life on earth. This is, indeed, a new situation — the quantum leap I mentioned a moment ago. The times they are a changing’ and the changes may not be for the better. And the more we go along as if nothing has changed, assuming that everything is as it should be, and snickering when critics have the gall to point out the problems, the greater the likelihood that the worst case scenario will be realized. Until or unless we take that possibility seriously we gamble with the future generations whose lives we hold in our hands.

In light of these considerations, a poll following the President’s recent State of the Union speech has interesting ramifications. The following excerpt from HuffPost tells the good news along with the bad news. First the good news:

Sixty-five percent of Americans support “the President taking significant steps to address climate change now,” including 89 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans.

The survey finds that most Americans see climate change as a tangible threat, as 61 percent said climate change is already affecting them or will affect them sometime in their life. An overwhelming 93 percent say there is a moral obligation to leave an Earth not polluted or damaged to future generations, with 67 percent strongly agreeing.

The bad news is that this Congress is not in the least bit inclined to lift a finger to stop the damage we are doing to this planet. They are out of step with the majority of people they presumably “represent” because their jobs are dependent on the very corporations that would continue to exploit the earth for profit. It does appear that we have found ourselves in a game of poker with marked cards and that the people we are playing with — who have smirks on their faces — are playing with house money.

But it’s not a game, it’s a democracy in which the people are supposed to be the ultimate source of legitimate power. One does wonder if the people will ever find their voice again and if they do whether it will be loud enough to be effective.