Water Rights

An interesting Yahoo News article recounts the attempts by California to learn from Australia how to handle the drought that has brought that state to near crisis status. It is interesting in light of the fact that fracking is still legal in California despite the fact that it takes millions of gallons of the precious liquid from the earth and ruins it for human or animal use forever. In any event, the article focuses on one major difference between California and Australia which may make the lesson very hard to learn from California’s perspective: Californians, like most Americans; have no practice in sacrificing for the “common good. The Australians are quite good at it apparently. As the article points out, in part:

But Californians may find Australia’s medicine tough to swallow. Australians are accustomed to living in a dry land, expect government intervention in a crisis and largely support making sacrifices for the common good. For much of their history, many Californians have enjoyed abundant water, or were able to divert enough of it to turn deserts green, and highly paid lawyers ensure that property rights remain paramount.

The original Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, defended “life, liberty and property,” borrowing from the English tradition and, specifically, Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government. The term “property” was later replaced by “pursuit of happiness.” but the focus on property is apparent in so much of our common law. And as the article suggests, property rights are fiercely defended by highly paid lawyers who must be confronted by the state in the event of an emergency. The notion that folks should be willing to make sacrifices for “the common good” is alien to the American way of doing things — and has been so almost from the beginning. The trend has grown worse, as we can see if we stop to consider the sitting Congress that has no concern whatever with the common good and focuses its attention exclusively on the demands of their political party. But, truth be told, we all seem to be focused in our own “rights” and tend to ignore the rights of others.

This is sad and especially disturbing when we consider, for example, that a few small sacrifices might go a long way toward dealing with, if not solving, our huge waste of precious natural resources. If we were willing to ride bicycles or walk or take mass transit, or, perhaps, purchase economical cars, or if we  reached for a sweater during cold weather rather than turn up our heating systems, we might reduce the waste of gasoline, natural gas, electricity,  and heating oil. But the sweater is inconvenient and it is so much easier to nudge up the thermostat a bit, so that’s the path we tend to choose. And the car dealers have us convinced that power is what it’s all about. These are habits. And habits are what the article mentions when it refers to California’s enjoyment “of abundant water” for years. Habits are hard to break.

As it happens, however, these habits may be changed by cruel necessity as Californians may find out when they run out of water and are forced to do “the right thing” by conserving and reducing consumption “for the common good.” It will be a new experience and it will be one that will come only after considerable noise has been made and litigation has been undertaken in the name of “property rights.” Indeed, rights have always been our concern — even though they imply responsibilities which we tend to ignore altogether. To the extent that I can claim to have a right, say, to drinking water, I also have a responsibility to recognize another’s right to that same water. There’s the rub. Rights and responsibilities are reciprocal: if we demand one we must acknowledge the other. This will indeed be a hard lesson for the folks in California to learn — as it will soon be for the rest of us.

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Lincoln’s Hope

Perhaps the most famous speech Abraham Lincoln ever penned was the Gettysburg Address which only took a few minutes to deliver but which encapsulated the whole of what Lincoln believed the Civil War was all about. We have all heard it numerous times and as school children many of us had to memorize it. But I wonder how many people have read it slowly and pondered what Lincoln is really saying? Let’s consider the ending of the brief address where Lincoln notes that

“. . .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.”

Beautiful words. Pure poetry, like so many of Lincoln’s speeches. But, more to the point, it embraced the core of what Lincoln was convinced the war was being fought to protect — to wit, popular government, government of, by, and for the people. Not only is this conviction repeated twice in this brief Address, it permeated Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence throughout his presidency from the time he was elected until his terrible end. He was very much aware that he was himself  “of the people.”  During his presidency he awoke one morning and laughed (as he was often inclined to do) at a thought he had during the night. He had been called “common” in one of the many newspapers he read and he awoke with the perfect rejoinder: “Well I guess I am common, but God must love the common people because he made so many of us.” That was Lincoln. Each week, on Tuesdays, he opened the White House doors and stood for hours shaking hands with the “common people” to remind himself who he was and where he came from. A poor man with little education who worked by the sweat of his brow until he could raise himself by his own bootstraps to join a law firm and begin to practice law before entering politics.

When the war broke out, even before Lincoln had a chance to make the White House his home, he knew the war had to be fought to preserve the Union. As the months went by it became clear that it was really about slavery and the freedom of four million people who were being bought and sold in this country and denied their fundamental humanity. He became increasingly sympathetic with the slaves’ plight and stressed that their rights had also been guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence which loudly declared, in Jefferson’s words, that “all men are created equal.”  And all must share the burden of self-government. He knew full well that America was the world’s first and most fragile experiment in popular government, built from the ground up, an experiment that would determine whether or not humans could govern themselves. This was what the war was all about in Lincoln’s mind. This was what his presidency was all about. This is what 630,000 men died to guarantee, as Lincoln saw it.

In light of these reflections on the thoughts of perhaps the greatest president this country has ever had — and assuredly one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time, the man Ulysses S. Grant called “the greatest man I ever knew”– it is deeply disturbing to acknowledge that today this grand experiment in popular government appears to be on the brink of failure. The “people” are now far removed from the seat of power and seem unconcerned; they care not that they have little or nothing to say about the machinations of an inept group of men and women in the Congress who are, for the most part, placed in office by wealthy special interests determined to see that their own private agendas are realized. Lincoln’s hope of a government of, by, and for the people — people like those who tramped all over Mary’s beautiful carpets in their muddy shoes at the Lincolns’ open houses — has become a government run by the corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals who give no thought whatever to the common people who are central to what this country is all about and worry only about their profits.

To be sure, something has gone terribly wrong. Dare we hope that at some point the people will realize what has been taken away from them and will rise up and take it back? Or have they been successfully benumbed by the entertainment industry to the point where they know all about, say, “deflate-gate” but nothing whatever about Watergate? To be sure, there are scattered pockets of concerned citizens and  a few voices in the Congress that speak for what truly matters. Let us hope they are heard by increasing numbers of people and that what they have to say somehow brings this country back to what our forefathers intended this country to be — a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.

The Spirit of Compromise

The son of my blog buddy BTG recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina. The commencement address was delivered by Colin Powell. (This beats the recent commencement speaker at my alma mater who was Michael Wilbon — one of the talking heads on ESPN.)  In any event, Powell had some wise words to share with the graduates and he stressed, among other things, the need for the young people sitting before him to get involved and learn the art of compromise. He reminded the students that the founding of this country was made possible only because of the willingness of those remarkable men to compromise. Somehow, that spirit of compromise has died.

Reflection leads us to a number of possibilities as to why this has happened. To begin with the obvious, the country is considerably larger and the political process much more complex than it was in the eighteenth century. When the founders were trying to figure how to escape from the stifling embrace of England, they had a common purpose. To be sure, there were divided loyalties, since many feared the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth — and wanted its continued protection. Bear in mind that the Spanish and French had been on the continent for years before the Pilgrims landed and the New England colonies got organized. Together with the native people, they were viewed as a constant threat. So a number of the founders simply were willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences, such as taxation without representation, in order to have the assurance that the English army and navy was there to protect them. But thanks to the foolishness of the British in Boston, the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, and the persuasive powers of people like John Adams, the representatives gathered in Philadelphia were willing to compromise and declare independence from England. Without a willingness to compromise, there could have been no Declaration of Independence.

But the notion of compromise today is equated in the minds of a great many people with “capitulation,” the willingness to sell out, a form of cowardice. Loyalty in the political arena is not to an idea, as it was in 1776, it is to the political party (which did not exist in 1776) and to the corporate interests that support the party and determines reelection or failure in political office. Things have changed considerably, and it it’s not only about the increased size of the country, it’s more about what really matters. To the colonial founders, what mattered was their independence and ability to determine their own future without the outside influence of a power across the sea that really took little interest in their future, other than to be sure of a steady supply of tobacco and cotton and continued income from taxes paid. Today, there is no idea, except the idea of continuing in a cushy office (hey, it beats real work!) with the assurance of great wealth after retirement, either as a lobbyist for one of the corporations, or simply from the wise investment of funds made available during the term in office.

Clearly, Colin Powell was addressing the current inability of the sitting congress to compromise and see the larger canvas — the national interest that was once referred to as “The Common Good.” He knows whereof he speaks. If the reasons for this inability are not clear, then it is because the person who fails to see them simply doesn’t want to look. It is self-interest, pure and simple, the very thing the Greeks knew would eventually destroy any political body no matter how strong and well conceived it might happen to be. I suspect Colin Powell knows that. He has something that so many others in the public eye seem to lack: clear vision and the ability to make sacrifices that are necessary in order to guarantee that the nation he loves and has dedicated his life to does not take the wrong turn. His were words of wisdom, and one can only hope that they are heard not only by those graduates sitting in North Carolina, but by all who have ears, and especially those in power who determine the future of this country.

Do Corporations Have Rights?

There is no mention of corporations in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. But as early as 1819 in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward the Supreme Court suggested that corporations were entitled to make and enforce contracts, thus implying early on that they should be treated as persons with rights protected by the Constitution. By 1886 it was simply assumed “without argument” that corporations are persons. The absurdity of this interpretation became glaring clear not long ago when the Supreme Court decided in the “Citizen’s United” case that spending limits should not be placed on corporations under protection of the First Amendment. That is, corporations should be allowed to spend as much on political campaigns as they see fit on the grounds that, as persons, they had a right to freedom of speech. Yes, that’s right, corporations are not only persons, they are entitled to give politicians as much money as they want under the aegis of freedom of speech.

None of these court decisions considered the rather basic fact that if corporations have rights they must also have responsibilities. While fines are levied against corporations in some cases for the atrocities they commit they can be “held responsible” for those acts, but this can hardly be called “having responsibilities.” The only responsibilities corporations acknowledge are to their stockholders and these, too, can hardly be called “responsibilities,” since it is simply what corporations are supposed to do — namely, maximize profits. There is very little, if any, talk about responsibilities to “stakeholders” in corporate inner circles — or about moral or ethical responsibilities, either. Further, it’s never clear just who the corporations are. Are they the CEOs or the boards that govern them? Or are they the stockholders? Or are they the engineer who turns the handle that releases poisonous gas and kills 2500 people? The question threatens to become positively metaphysical. But assigning corporations rights without acknowledging their responsibilities makes no sense whatever. Rights without responsibilities can apply only to children and the mentally challenged, otherwise the notion is absurd on its face. (I hesitate to discuss the question whether corporations can be said to be mentally challenged.)

I have always thought that the concept of balance of powers under the Constitution is one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It arose, of course, in a French mind in the person of Montesquieu in the seventeenth century who saw this balance as necessary for the protection of individuals in a political group. Kings are not to be trusted. Presidents are not to be trusted. Those in power in general are not to be trusted. But if we balance the power among the executive, legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person. That’s the idea.

The United States Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it worked its way down through John Locke, Thomas Jefferson,  and James Madison. And it is an inspired notion: a court that would be above political influence since members are not elected but appointed for life. And, indeed, some of the decisions of the court over the years have been brilliant. But the decision in January of 2010 to grant corporations the status of persons with rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid, if not absurd — as noted above. And it certainly does not appear to have been apolitical. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.

In any event, the concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and previously used by the Founders to apply to citizens with both rights and responsibilities. As Kant examined the notion, it was held that persons were “ends in themselves,” and never a means to an end. In other words it is morally wrong to use others for one’s own purposes: Kant stressed responsibilities, or duties, over rights. It is precisely because we can recognize our duties to other persons (who are also ends in themselves) that we have rights. Responsibilities are primary; rights are derivative. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves”; they are simply a means to an end, namely, profit. Further, as mentioned, they have no responsibilities. The appropriation of a moral concept for legal purposes by the Court in 1819 and applied to an entity that was not even human was inappropriate; extending the notion further as the court did recently borders on the bizarre.

The absurdity of this decision can be seen by considering what other rights are guaranteed to persons under the First Amendment, namely, the right to practice religion as one sees fit, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to vote and to run for national office. Is the Court now saying that a corporation can run for President if it is thirty-five years old? Nonsense! But just as it would be absurd to think about corporations assembling, practicing religion, running for public office, or voting, it is also absurd to think that “they” have the right to free speech — assuming that this is what giving stacks of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court and it deserves to be overthrown by a Constitutional amendment, and a movement to do so is afoot. That movement, however, seems sluggish at best — a reflection, perhaps, of the population’s general indifference to political issues and the unwillingness of those in power to bite the hand that feeds them.

Better Off?

The theme of this year’s Republican National Convention centered around the question “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” While I did find Mark Cuban’s response to the question most interesting, I realize (as he must) that the question is rhetorical: the Republicans are convinced that we are not “better off” than we would have been if the Democrats hadn’t won the White House. This theme is built around the commonplace counter-factual “what if?” and involves us in endless speculation with no assured answer in the end. It may have opened a can of worms for the GOP as pundits (including Cuban) are jumping on the theme to remind us how bad things were four years ago and to note that Mitt Romney, for one, is much better off than he was in 2008! But it made me think about a much more interesting question: are we better off than Thomas Jefferson and the boys in Philadelphia expected us to be as a result of the revolutionary war?

I have referred a couple of times in my blogs to John C. Miller’s remarkable study of the Origins of the American Revolution and came across the following paragraph in his discussion of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Miller says:

While demolishing the reputation of George III and the monarchy itself, Jefferson gave his countrymen a new goal toward which to strive: a republican system of government in which human rights would take precedence over property and privilege. No one who has read the Declaration could fail to see that an experiment in human relations was being made and that the new order which it established was to be chiefly for the benefit of the common man. Equality and liberty — government by the consent of the governed — were the ideals now held up to men.

Miller is right, of course, as a careful reading of the Declaration will bear out. But one must ask the pressing question: did it all pan out? Is the system we live in a “republican system of government in which human rights . . take precedence over property and privilege”? Does it, in fact, “benefit the common man”? The answer is a rather resounding “No!” Though they don’t wear crowns, property and privilege in the year 2012 are in the ascendency and the rights of humans, in particular ordinary American citizens, are largely ignored — certainly by those who would have us remember how things were four years ago. The Republicans are all about money and if they gain control of this country it would suggest that as a nation we are as well. Heaven forbid!

The wealthy in this country would deny that their wealth and position are a “privilege,” of course. They would insist it is a right — it is theirs by dint of such things as hard work, sweat of the brow, intelligence, and initiative. But this is a half-truth. None of us is where we are without luck and the help of a great many other people — right down to the woman who served us our meals in grammar school and the janitor who cleaned up our messes — not to mention the man who drives the successful business man to his important meetings. No man is an island, as they say.

But we are told in a most interesting blog that Americans don’t believe in luck: the majority of Americans tend to side with the wealthy in believing that the poor, for example, are poor because they are lazy. This is nonsense: few of us are poor simply because we lack effort any more than the wealthy have a “right” to money and prestige: it is in large part luck, good or bad. We may have worked hard to be where we are, but we have been lucky and have had a good deal of help from a great many other people — or failed to have it when we needed it most.

Much has been said about the infamous 1% who control nearly half of the wealth in this country and who are in the process of buying the government outright. And in this discussion it is also noted that the middle class is shrinking while the poor are becoming more numerous. The plan on the political right is to make it even more the case that “property and privilege” control the way things are done in this country and “human rights” are largely ignored — such basic things as food, shelter, and an education sufficient to allow ordinary citizens to gain a foothold in the political process and a job that pays more than minimum wage.

We may or may not be better off than we were four years ago. But we are decidedly further away from Jefferson’s ideal now than we were when he wrote that remarkable document. Surely we need to remind ourselves again and again why we fought for independence from Great Britain and restore the notion of “unalienable” human rights to the center of politics where they belong.

Corporate Rights?

There is no mention of corporations in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. But as early as 1819 in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward the Supreme Court suggested that corporations were entitled to make and enforce contracts, thus implying early on that they should be treated as persons with rights protected by the Constitution. By 1886 it was simply assumed “without argument” that corporations are persons. The absurdity of this interpretation became glaring clear recently when the Supreme Court decided in its wisdom that spending limits should not be placed on corporations under protection of the First Amendment. That is, corporations should be allowed to spend as much on political campaigns as they see fit on the grounds of freedom of speech. Yes, that’s right, corporations are not only persons, they are entitled to give politicians as much money as they want under the aegis of freedom of speech.

I have always thought that the balance of powers under the Constitution is one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It arose, of course, in a French mind in the person of Montesquieu in the seventeenth century who saw this balance as necessary for the protection of individuals in a political group. Kings are not to be trusted. Presidents are not to be trusted. But if we balance their power with that of legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person.

The Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it trickled down through John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. And it is an inspired notion: a court that would be above political influence since members are not elected but appointed for life. And, indeed, some of the decisions of the court over the years have been brilliant. But the decision in January of 2010 to grant corporations rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.

The concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and used by the Founders to apply to citizens with rights and responsibilities. As Kant examined the notion, it was held that persons were “ends in themselves,” and never a means to an end. In other words it is morally wrong to use others for one’s own purposes. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves,” and are putatively a means to an end, namely, profit. The appropriation of a moral concept for legal purposes by the Court in 1819 and applied to an entity that was not even human was inappropriate, but its use in 2010 is nonsensical.

The absurdity of this decision can be seen by considering what other rights are guaranteed to persons under the First Amendment, namely, the right to practice religion as one sees fit, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to vote and to run for national office. Is the Court now saying that a corporation can run for President if it is thirty-five years old? Nonsense! But just as it would be absurd to think about corporations assembling, practicing religion, running for public office, or voting, it is also absurd to think that “they” have the right to free speech — assuming that this is what giving tons of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court.