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Henry Adam thought that when Grant was elected there would be a drastic overhaul of a document he realized was already out of date.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.

Advertisements

Academic Freedom

Back in the day when I was teaching at the collegiate level we worried about academic freedom. In those days, it amounted to insisting that administrators allow faculty of differing opinions and philosophical convictions to speak their minds without recrimination. It also insisted on equal pay for equal work. It degenerated into unionization which, while it did raise salaries and save the careers of a number of faculty members, it also set a tone that I always felt was inimical to the ideals of collegiality that ought to be found on college campuses. But then I have been spitting into the wind so long my saliva is about used up.

Of late, however, the university faculties themselves are interfering with academic freedom. Increasingly, they are refusing to allow speakers to speak on campuses across the country, “controversial” figures like George W. Bush, Madeleine Albright, George Will, Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bear in mind that the universities that denied these people a voice on their campuses, because of student and faculty protests, are so-called “prestige” academies — places like Brandeis University, Stanford University, Boston College, Rutgers University, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and others of equal standing.

Students, often led by militant faculty with hidden agendas, are becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to ideas they regard as a threat to what they regard as social justice. In a word, they have their minds made up and cannot allow alien information to intrude on their convictions and deeply held beliefs. Increasing numbers of universities, in a word, are becoming closed systems that refuse to allow outside information to penetrate if it is determined by the vocal element on campus that those ideas are somehow harmful. There are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare.

Coupled with this intolerance in places that ought to be open to all ideas no matter how radical or outrageous, is the growing ignorance of the students and a great  number of the faculty. A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni determined that:

• Nearly 10% of recent college graduates think Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court.

• Less than 20% of those college graduates know the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

• More than a quarter of the college graduates did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II.

• One-third did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president who spearheaded the New Deal.

And so it goes. To augment their ignorance, many of those students, while enrolled, were involved in a variety of campus protests, including a group from Brown University that complained of the emotional stress and poor grades that followed from the months they spent protesting! They blamed the university for insisting that they complete coursework and demanded “incompletes” on their course work.

On many campuses protest seems to have become an end in itself as self-indulgent students increasingly complain about their course requirements and about the poor grades they receive as a result of their unwillingness to complete those requirements. And in many cases, intimidated or sympathetic faculty take the side of the students rather than take the lead in showing them the way out of their ignorance by opening them up to new intellectual horizons. For many who teach, followers are what it’s all about — especially those who give them praise in on-line evaluations that often determine how full or empty their classroom might be. The pressure to be popular, to give students a “break,” is immense and helps us to understand grade inflation. Pressure was immense when I taught and it has only increased as students’ sense of entitlement has grown by leaps and bounds in our permissive society.

In the end, the trend toward closing doors (and minds) to new ideas, coupled with the increasing tendency to ask little of spoiled students who complain when asked to do what they really would rather not do, will reduce our academies of higher learning to country clubs and mental health clinics where students can feel safe and protected from the realities of the world “out there.” In a word, universities are rapidly becoming more concerned about the “well-being” of the students than about their intellectual growth. This does not absolve members of college faculties of their responsibility to prepare their students for the real world; it merely recounts what seems to be a growing trend in academia.

 

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.

 Socrates

Socrates

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.

Free Speech?

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the government may not establish any laws that “impede the free exercise of religion or abridging freedom of speech,” among other things. The F.B.I.’s recent attempts to force Apple to open private documents on the grounds that there might be information there that threatens the United States centers around the question of how much power the U.S. government actually has, given the wording of the First Amendment and our presumed right to privacy. Leaving aside for the moment the question of privacy, clearly the so-called “right” of free speech is guaranteed by the First  Amendment, despite the fact that it speaks against the government’s misuse of its power, and not about the ordinary citizen at all. But the question has been raised repeatedly as to just what that “right” guarantees. The famous clounter-example is the alleged right to shout out “fire” in a crowded theater, and that has been something of a paradigm: the right to free speech does not extend so far as to endanger others. That would appear to be common sense.

The Supreme Court has dealt with numerous cases of alleged violations of the First Amendment on the part of the government, going back as far as 1919 when Eugene V. Deb’s outspoken opposition to the war led him to face 10 years in prison. Furthermore, as the following case will illustrate, in 1969 the Court ruled against the right to free speech when it is designed to incite a riot — which would be a corollary to the so-called right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. I quote the always reliable Wikipedia at this point:

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court held that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is directed to inciting, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action. [Italics added].

Now, given the undeniable fact that the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the highest office in this land has said things that led inexorably (some would say) to violence — in the case of an alarming increase in the burning of Muslim Mosques in this country since the speeches began and the recent violence at his rallies where protesters have been struck and thrown to the ground by “security” personnel or by irate supporters of the candidate — one might ask whether this man’s outspoken bigotry and hate-and-fear-mongering ought to be allowed by law. It is apparently not speech protected by the First Amendment since it leads, apparently, to violence. Indeed, it would appear to be a clear case of speech “inciting, and likely to incite, imminent lawless action.”

It is interesting that this man’s crude and abominable behavior should raise such a question. If he were not running for the highest office in the country it would be a small item, hardly worth mentioning (though still interesting none the less). But given the circumstances, it strikes me that his behavior is not only lawless, but ought to disqualify him from the high office he seeks where he would be sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States — a document about which he seems to be entirely ignorant, and which he flagrantly abuses.

Small Victory

A recent Supreme Court decision seems to give those of us heart who want some sort of control on the sale of guns in this country, some restoration of sanity in what has become sheer madness. A Yahoo News story suggests that the Court realizes that the sale of such things as assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons was never any part of what the Founders had in mind:

Washington (AFP) – The US Supreme Court appeared on Monday to back lawmakers who want to restrict the type of guns such as semi-automatic assault weapons used in recent mass shootings.
In a 7-2 vote, the high court’s justices refused to take up a challenge to a Chicago suburb’s ban on the sale or possession of semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

The court’s move is a small victory for activists against the spread of such guns, which can potentially kill many people in a short period of time.

Predictably, the two Justices who voted in opposition to the majority were conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. What is interesting to me is that Thomas claims to be a “strict constructionist,” one who  thinks the country needs to stick close to the intentions of the Founders. But, as I have said on these blogs repeatedly, a close reading of the second amendment to our Constitution states clearly that the “right” to bear arms is designed to guarantee the ability of a militia to defend the country against possible insurrection. The amendment doesn’t guarantee all of us the right to bear arms, only the militia. And since we no longer have a militia it would follow that the so-called right is no longer applicable. Further, the Court in years past has ruled out such things as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns on the grounds that these are not protected by the Second Amendment. So there is precedent.

One would expect that the Supreme Court is not subject to the threats and pressures the N.R.A. can bring against elected officials — by guaranteeing that those who are “uncooperative” have brief political lives. The justices are appointed for life and the original idea was that as such they would be above political infighting and cajolery. And in the past, the Court has shown that it can rise above political infighting; even the present Court has done so on occasion. Such is the case here, one would think. It is a small step. But when most of the steps we have been taking recently seem to be backwards, it is a sign of hope that there is a way forward.

Joe The Plumber

If we are interested in such things, we can read in Wikipedia the following text about one of America’s “heroes.”

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known by the nickname “Joe the Plumber“, is an American conservative activist and commentator. He gained national attention during the 2008 U.S. presidential election when, during a videotaped campaign stop in Ohio by then Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, Wurzelbacher asked Obama about his small business tax policy. Obama’s response included the statement, “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Obama’s response was seized upon by conservative media, as well as by Obama’s rival, Republican nominee Senator John McCain, as an indication that Obama was interested in the redistribution of wealth and had a socialist view of the economy. Wurzelbacher is a member of the Republican Party.

Since he expressed to then Senator Obama that he was interested in purchasing a small plumbing business,Wurzelbacher was given the moniker “Joe the Plumber” by the McCain–Palin campaign. The campaign subsequently took him to make several appearances in campaign events in Ohio and McCain often referenced “Joe the Plumber” in campaign speeches and in the final presidential debate, as a metaphor for middle-class Americans.

Wurzelbacher became a conservative activist, commentator, author and motivational speaker. In 2012, he ran on the Republican ticket to represent Ohio’s 9th congressional district in the House of Representatives, losing to Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur.

And, so I have heard, he became the darling of Fox News. He’s supposed to represent your typical American as embraced by the Republican Party and represented by ordinary folks like Mitt Romney. The reason one might be interested in recalling this name is because it is again in the news; the man has opened his mouth again and showed us that there is really nothing between his ears. After the shooting deaths of three students and the injuring of thirteen others in a Santa Barbara Community College earlier this month, Joe declared that “As harsh as it sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” There are two things about this inane comment that are disturbing.

To begin with, of course, is the crass self-assertion that rubs salt in the wounds of the parents of those who have lost their children to another senseless shooting in a country where such things are becoming alarmingly commonplace. I couldn’t possibly write a better response than did Erica Lafferty, the daughter of one of the women slain in the Sandy Hook shootings in December of 2012. Her comments can be read in their entirety here. But the second point has to do with this man’s typical misreading of the U.S. Constitution. I have held forth a number of times on this topic and will not repeat here what I have said in previous blog posts, except to say that retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has expounded on a point I have made in those posts, to wit, that the second amendment to the Constitution does not guarantee people like Joe the Plumber’s so-called “rights” to keep and bear arms. It guarantees the rights of members of the militia to keep and bear arms.

This point cannot be made emphatically enough, since the widespread misunderstanding of the Constitution has led to the irrational attempts to justify the presumed rights of every American of every age and political persuasion to own automatic weapons that are designed to kill human beings on the grounds that they have a Constitutional right to own such weapons. The usual argument is that once such weapons are banned then “they” will take away our hunting rifles, though I have never heard anyone claim that hunting weapons should be taken away from people. Those who argue for some sort of calm and reasonable approach to gun control simply want to help remove those automatic weapons that are clearly designed for killing human beings and are readily available from the sporting goods department at Walmart, among other places.

In other words, folks like Joe the plumber who reveal their arrogant self-righteousness about their presumed “rights” and the determination of “liberals” to take away their shotguns and 22’s are guilty of what logicians call a “red herring.” There is no such movement. Second Amendment aside, no one wants to take hunting weapons away from Americans.  But the attempt  by folks on both the political left and right to bring light to an issue where there is at present so much heat  is thwarted at every turn by the immensely powerful gun lobby whose only goal is to keep producing and selling expensive weapons of all descriptions behind their appeal to a Constitutional amendment that was never written to guarantee them such a right in the first place. And the N.R.A. has shown repeatedly that they have enough politicians in their pocket to keep any sort of meaningful gun control issue from even being raised in Congress.

But, that’s the issue, isn’t it? How does one shine a light on such darkness where greed, irrationality, hatred, and fear dominate and reason can find no purchase?

 

Corporate Persons

In 1905 in his annual message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt declared:

“All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

As retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens points out in his discussion of an amendment he has proposed to the U.S. Constitution that would curb excessive spending on political campaigns, the courts consistently maintained for years that corporations are not persons and therefore not entitled to the same rights as citizens of this nation. For one thing, corporations cannot vote, whereas citizens can. Conservative Justice William Rehnquist in 1982 wrote for the unanimous court in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, “there is no reason why Congress’ interest in preventing both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption of elected representatives may not be accomplished by treating. . . corporations differently from individuals.”

The change in the Court’s position came about indirectly, beginning in 1990 in a dissenting opinion written by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in which they contended that corporate speech, like other expressive activities by groups of persons, was entitled to the same First Amendment protection as speech by an individual. This opened the can of worms that has become the ugly Citizens United Supreme Court case that recently maintained, drawing on Scalia and Kennedy’s opinion above, that since corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals, they have the right to support political candidates without restrictions. As Stevens notes in this regard, “[Scalia’s arguments in 1990] provided the basis for the court’s five to four decision in Citizens United overruling  the Michigan case and apparently affording the same constitutional protection to election-related expenditures by corporations as to speech by individuals.” Sheer magic: political donations are a form of free speech and corporations are people even though they cannot vote and (so far as we know) they cannot copulate.

Needless to say, the Citizens United case stands in glaring opposition to the concerns raised in 1905 by President Roosevelt and upheld by the courts for 105 years thereafter. Roosevelt was expressing the obvious concern about the undue influence of wealth on elections that would tilt the playing field and render ineffective the attempts by the less wealthy to have any voice in politics whatever. As Stevens says, one of the many consequences of this imbalance is the “public’s perception of the role of money in influencing the outcome of elections. Voters who would believe that the power of the purse will determine the outcome of elections are more likely to become bystanders rather than participants in the political process.” Indeed. One need look no further for an explanation as to why citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with the political process and why several analysts have determined that America has become a de facto oligarchy and can be regarded as a democracy in name only.

Stevens does not suggest an amendment to deal directly with the issue of whether corporations are or are not persons — as is currently under discussion nation-wide — but rather an amendment that simply allows states and the Congress to set “reasonable limits” to campaign contributions without insisting that these limitations are in any way in conflict with the First Amendment: limits on campaign spending should not be considered limits on free speech. But whether this Court or this Congress could manage to work with a nebulous concept such as “reasonable limits” is questionable, so the issue remains how to put restraints on those with great wealth who would make the government dance to the tunes they play on their diamond-studded harmonicas. — especially since those who might place those restraints on the wealthy are busy dancing to their tunes.  As things now stand, the recent Supreme Court decisions have given the corporations and the 1% of this country who control the vast majority of the wealth virtual control of the political process. Corporations and the very wealthy can determine who runs and who gets elected — and what those people will do once elected.

In a masterpiece of understatement, Stevens concludes that “The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.” Teddy Roosevelt would agree.

 

Go Get ‘Em, Harry!

A recent story tells about the attempts by at least one member of the political Establishment to restore this country to the democracy it once was. I am talking about Harry Reid who is nothing if not outspoken and certainly not everyone’s cup of political tea. But he is decidedly a man of courage in a political climate where the very wealthy are on the verge of taking total control of the strings of power. A recent Yahoo news story begins as follows:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid amped up his crusade against the Republican megadonor Koch brothers Thursday,  backing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undo recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance.

In a speech from the Senate floor, Reid said a vote on the amendment would be held sometime in the summer, after the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up the amendment in the coming weeks. Reid also said there would be hearings on the amendment, giving Democrats a chance to elevate the campaign-finance issue to a higher profile in the thick of campaign season.

“Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system,” Reid said Thursday. “One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees.  The Constitution does not give corporations a vote, and the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote.”

The Republicans and others who are in the pockets of the wealthy will fight the attempt to amend the Constitution in the name of “free speech,” and from where I sit an amendment is unlikely, especially if mid-term elections go the way the monied interests want them to go. But it is necessary if the political game is to be changed back to some semblance of what the Founders had in view when they struggled so hard to establish a Republic in the wilds of America. As things now stand, the country has become an oligarchy — as a recent study has attested — and the ability of wealthy folks like the Koch brothers to have things their political way simply proves the point. In a word, they, and others of their ilk, are in the process of spending billions of dollars buying a government that will dance to their tune.

They have received considerable support to this point by a Supreme Court that seems determined to read the constitution with glasses provided by the wealthy and recent decisions have extended the power of corporations and the few very wealthy who can now determine the direction the political winds blow, as the story goes on to point out:

. . . the amendment would reverse some major recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, including  2010’s Citizens United  case and the  recent McCutcheon v. FEC  ruling. Those decisions have eliminated limits on millions of dollars’ worth of donations to political campaigns from corporations, labor unions, and generally wealthy individuals.

A brief look at history will show that people like Madison and Jefferson worried about the effects of wealth on a free government. While they tended to focus attention on the Aristocracy they thoroughly distrusted, they were dimly aware of  rich men who could simply bribe their way to power. If anyone knew about power and its abuses, it was those men who gathered in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, though the document they eventually came up with is flawed in many ways — the most serious omission being any reference to the power of unlimited wealth. It is an oversight that can easily be forgiven in light of the fact that in spite of their awareness of possible abuses of wealth in the future, they couldn’t have been expected to foresee a country in which both wealth and income are super-concentrated in the top 0.1% of the population, which is just one in a thousand.  But it is a flaw that an amendment could eradicate if it is possible to get this Congress to act as it should and not as it almost certainly will.

It is interesting to note in passing that former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has written a book in which he argues for six amendments to the Constitution. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention an amendment to specifically limit the power of corporations, but he does mention the need to limit campaign spending, the need to prohibit gerrymandering, the need to articulate the principle of sovereign immunity which guarantees each state the right to sue without federal interference, the need to specifically include a prohibition against the death penalty, the need to modify the second amendment allowing for gun control, and what he calls “a supremacy clause,” which determines whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal laws. Whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that our sacred Constitution is dated and in need of revision.

It remains to be seen if there are enough politicians of conscience to join with Harry Reid to push this particular amendment through. In the meantime we can only hope, though I honestly can’t see this group biting the hand that feeds them.

Snippits From Adams

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

I discovered Henry Adams late in life and wish I had done so earlier. One can always tell when he is in the company of genius, and Adams is just such a one. Accordingly, I want to share some of my favorite thoughts from Adams’ autobiography, which he wrote in the third person and which is historically fascinating and philosophically provocative. Being the grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents would lead one to expect that Henry’s life would be eventful and in some ways it was. But he spent much of his life trying to determine what he was best suited to do and in many ways he felt out of step with the world around him. In spite of this, the man became a keen observer and one of the brightest minds of his day and his reflections still have the ring of truth today. For one thing, he was convinced that even after only 100 years the Constitution needed drastic revision, since, among other things, it gave the Senate too much power. With the large number of presidential appointments still awaiting Senate approval today, we can see the truth of what Adams had to say. And given the Supreme Court’s recent decision taking off all limits to political contributions, we can see that the Founders clearly ignored one aspect of power that has every sign of crippling their brain-child beyond recognition. The Constitution simply didn’t mention corporations, leaving the door open for all manner of bizarre judgments regarding their status in this polity. In future, we can expect the very rich to determine who runs for political office and what their agenda will be once they are elected — and no restraints on unbridled greed. Our democracy is in danger of being transformed into an oligarchy — though that ship has almost certainly already sailed. But let’s hear some of what Adams had to say in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Adams saw himself as one of many young men after the Civil War who awaited U.S. Grant’s arrival in Washington with great hope. Here was a man of action who would surely move quickly to revise and update the Constitution and make it more workable. But he was soon disappointed as Grant seemed unwilling to do much of anything, except to get himself involved in scandals. Adams described what he took to be the type:

“In time one came to recognize the type in other men, with differences and variations, as normal men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power, apt to be distrustful of themselves and others; shy, jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; and always needing stimulants, but for whom action was the highest stimulant — the instinct to fight.”

In general, Adams didn’t trust men in power and said several times that he worried that when one of his friends came into power “he was lost.” Power did, in fact, corrupt, as Adams saw it. With tongue firmly in his cheek, Adams tells us what political power did to U.S. Grant:

“That two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Like so many others, Adams placed his hope in the Supreme Court:

“Although step by step he had been driven, like the rest of the world, to admit that the American society had outgrown most of its institutions, he still clung to the Supreme Court, much as a churchman clings to his bishops, because they are his only symbol of unity; his last rag of Right. Between the Executive and the Legislative, citizens could have no rights; they were at the mercy of Power. They had created the Court to protect them from unlimited Power, and it was little enough protection at best. . . “

Unfortunately the founders simply didn’t foresee the power of corporations. Indeed, given the power of corporations today, the Supreme Court offers far too little protection as it happens! Adams was thoroughly disillusioned, as appears in the following observation:

“The political dilemma was as clear in 1870 as it was likely to be in 1970. The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth century fabric of moral principles. Politicians had tacitly given up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal. None-tenths of men’s political energies must henceforth be wasted on expedients to piece out — to patch — the political machine as often as it broke down. Such a system, or want of a system, might last for centuries if tempered by an occasional revolution or civil war; but as a machine it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world — the clumsiest — the most inefficient.. . . . The [fore]fathers had intended to neutralize the energy of government and had succeeded, but their machine was never meant to do the work of a 20-million h.p. society in the twentieth century, where much work was needed to be quickly and efficiently done. The only defense of the system was that, as government did nothing well, it had best do nothing. . .”

Adams’ despair soon extended so far as to include most of his fellow citizens:

“The American character showed singular limitations which sometimes drove the student of civilized man to despair. Crushed by his own ignorance — lost in the darkness of his own gropings — the scholar finds himself jostled of a sudden by a crowd of men who seem to him ignorant that there is a thing called ignorance; who have forgotten how to amuse themselves; who cannot even understand that they are bored.”

In the end, Adams placed his hope in education:

“The object of education should be the [mind’s] teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout history the waste of mind has been appalling and, as this story is meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the teacher is the criminal, but the world stands behind him and drags the student from his course. Only the most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have overcome the friction or the viscosity of inertia, and those were compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.”

We can only hope that those few will somehow manage to resist society’s determination to force them into a mold of its making by turning them all into mindless robots, trained to do a job; that they will demand the best education available and continue to make the effort required to attain it. Otherwise, the democratic experiment in America will be judged a failure.

 

 

The Second Amendment

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution in close association with his friend Thomas Jefferson, did not think a Bill of Rights was necessary. Alexander Hamilton agreed and said in a lengthy discussion of a possible Bill of Rights in Federalist Papers #84,  “The Constitution is its own Bill of Rights.” These men worried that if a list of such rights was drawn up something would be left out or, worse yet, folks would think those were the only rights that citizens have. Indeed, Hamilton went on to note that a Bill of Rights is both “dangerous” and “unnecessary,” since he thought such rights are clearly implied in the Constitution itself and need not be specified or if specified could be circumvented by devious minds. Hamilton assures his readers that “Here in strictness people surrender nothing [by not having their rights specified]; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. . . . [the Constitution] contains all which in relation to their objects, is reasonably desired.” Further, the men thought that citizens’ rights were self-evident, a favorite concept of Enlightenment thinkers.

But since several states were reluctant to ratify the Constitution without a specified Bill of Rights, Madison eventually drew up a list of twelve such rights that were soon pared down to ten. The one that is most talked about these days is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment. This right was specified because the Founders regarded militias, raised by the states and paid by the states as the need arose, as essential to the freedom of the American people. Their model, in all likelihood, was Cincinnatus, the citizen/farmer in the early days of Rome, who fought when the need arose and then went back to his farm when the danger had passed. The founders were known to have greatly admired the Roman Republic, using it as a model for their own government. And given their experience with the constant presence of the red-coated British, they were very concerned about the possibility of a standing army — even their own army — that would strengthen the government and weaken the people’s freedom.  Indeed, when they were considering ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton had to assure his New York readers, in Federalist #24, that they need not fear the presence during peace time of a standing army: it simply wouldn’t happen.  The states would retain the power to raise militias when necessary and disband them when the danger had passed: they would be “well regulated.” Thus, in order to avoid a standing army, state militias were essential. Not only had the conjoined militias won the Revolution after all, but, during Washington’s presidency, a collection of several state militias amounting to 17,000 men was quickly rounded up and, led by the President himself, headed West to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. The word got out that the militia was headed their way and the Rebellion broke up. At that time it was determined that the militias could safely protect the citizens of the new nation.

The point of this little history lesson is to show that the Second Amendment was less about the right to keep and bear arms than it was about the need for armed militia. Indeed, when, much later, in 1934, the Congress passed the National Firearms Act to keep such things as sawed-off shotguns out of the hands of gangsters, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court whose decision clearly centered around the Founders’ express need for a militia. In their decision, they reasoned that “The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.” Might not the very same thing be said of today’s automatic weapons?

In fact, if you read the Second Amendment carefully, you will see that it presents us with a compound statement in which two clauses are interdependent. It reads, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In other words it states that since a militia is necessary to defend freedom, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The statement is quite precise: one thing necessitates the other. If there were no need for a militia — as, say, if there were a standing army, navy, marine corps, air force, and national guard — then there would be no grounds for the so-called “right” to keep and bear arms. And, conversely, the right to keep and bear arms need not be recognized when the need for a militia disappears — because of the presence of a standing army, for example.

The relentless attempts by the arms manufacturers — for the most part — to bully this Congress and the Supreme Court into allowing any and all weapons in the hands of any and all citizens, regardless of age, flies in the face of the Second Amendment as it was written and understood for many years. The arguments by groups such as the NRA tend to focus exclusively on the “right” itself, and ignore the explicit concern for militias. But, assuredly, the fact that state militias are a thing of that past implies that the right to keep and bear arms can no longer be said to be protected by this Amendment. Perhaps in the end Hamilton was right — certainly with respect to the Second Amendment: it has proven to be “dangerous.”