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.”

More From the N.R.A.

The NRA is at it again. They want the Supreme Court to read the Constitution the way they do, to agree that the Second Amendment permits minors to carry guns outside the home. The story reads, in part:

The Second Amendment, at its core, spells out not one, but two, rights when it protects “the right of the people.”  There is a right to “keep” a gun, there is a right, to “bear” a gun.  There is an “and” between the two in the text, so that might well be taken as a significant indication that these are separate rights.

The Supreme Court in 2008 made it clear that the right to “keep” a gun is a personal right, and that it means one has a right to keep a functioning firearm for self-defense within the home.   But it has refused repeatedly since then to take on the question of whether that right exists also outside the home.  If there is a separate right to “bear” a gun (and the Court, in fact, did say in 2008 that the two rights were separate), it has not said what that means.

The National Rifle Association, and some of its members, are now pressing the Supreme Court to answer that question.  They are doing so in two cases testing whether the federal government and the states can restrict the rights of minors to possess a gun outside the home.   The Court is expected to take its first look at those cases later this month, to decide whether it will hear either or both of them.   The federal government, once again, is urging the Court to bypass those cases, as it has done with perhaps a half-dozen others seeking clarification of the Second Amendment’s scope.

In a case from Texas, the NRA’s lawyers have reduced to elementary constitutional logic the question of what a right to “bear” guns means: “The explicit guarantee of the right to ‘bear’ arms would mean nothing,” the NRA’s filing argued, “if it did not protect the right to ‘bear’ arms outside of the home, where the Amendment already guarantees that they may be ‘kept.’   The most fundamental canons of construction forbid any interpretation that would discard this language as meaningless surplus.”

Now there are two things about this that strike the attentive reader right away: the NRA wants kids of any age to be allowed to carry guns and they want them to be able to do it outside the house. Got it? In their argument they show a painfully careful reading of the Second Amendment that, they insist, allows not only the “keeping” but the “bearing” of arms. Thus, they say, the latter permits taking weapons anywhere and apparently at any age — though I honestly don’t see where the lack of age restriction comes in. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the small print.

However, in their close reading of that Amendment the NRA lawyers seem to have ignored altogether the antecedent of the hypothetical sentence. It says that “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.” I have blogged about this before, but apparently the NRA lawyers don’t read my blogs. And that’s a pity, because the entire case for the so-called “right to bear arms” rests on the supposition that there will be no standing army and because of that we require a militia. But we do have a standing army (and then some). It follows that the right to bear arms is not protected by this Amendment, since there is no need for a militia. The two are conjoined in the Amendment which the NRA lawyers claim to have read so carefully.

Of course this is the group that stood by silently when the Congress was debating the possibility of outlawing certain types of weapons to keep them out of the hands of the militant blacks during the turbulent 1960s, and said nothing when Congress actually passed The National Firearms Act in 1934 prohibiting such things as sawed-off shotguns during the days of Al Capone, a law that was later upheld by the Supreme Court as Constitutional. If you read the decision of the Court in 1939 regarding the National Firearms Act, titled United States vs. Miller, it is clear that the Court regarded the necessity for a militia as the key ingredient in the Second Amendment. Their reasoning was as follows: “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.” Not only can the NRA apparently engage in selective protest, but also selective reading. So much for matters of principle and a genuine concern for what the Founders actually said. And, seriously? Kids carrying guns?

The Right To Privacy

In all the brew-ha-ha about our “right to bear arms” under the second amendment to the Constitution we hear very little at all about our right to privacy. Strictly speaking, that right is not mentioned in the Constitution, but it is a basic human right and it has been regarded as implicit in the Constitution in a number of Supreme Court cases — specifically Pierce v  Society of Sisters, Roe v Wade, and Griswold v Connecticut. In defending the right to privacy Louis Brandeis, the great constitutional scholar, noted in an article in the Harvard Review that “the government [is] identified as a potential privacy invader.” This view has been echoed in the decisions mentioned above and reflects the attitude of the majority of the founders of this nation who all worried about the abuses of power. The right to privacy is universally regarded as a basic human right. Indeed, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights endorsed by the United Nations it couldn’t be more explicit:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Having said that, it is interesting to note the ways in which our right to privacy has been gradually invaded in a variety of ways. Moreover, it has been done so slowly and almost imperceptibly — usually in the name of “national security — or for purposes of commercial profit.  I have blogged in the past about the way we are quite willing to trade our freedom for greater security and the fear that is fostered by the media that makes it easier for the government, or indeed any public agency, to simply collect information about us that we may not be pleased to give up.  But it’s not just the government that is collecting information about us and thereby invading our privacy: it’s the data collecting companies that collect and sell information about virtually everyone in this country who has ever bought anything. As a recent article on the subject mentions:

Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, “There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.

What this means, of course, is that these data are collected, sold, and employed for marketing purposes; the data are collected from previous sales, credit card applications,  and also the social media we use, including the internet sources we connect to. It’s all “out there” and someone is taking it in and using it to find out as much as possible about the buying public in order to sell that information to anyone who wants to profit from it. So it is not just the government that is a “potential privacy invader” as Brandeis suggested. It is also commercial data collectors. The problem Brandeis explored is simply compounded in an economic system in which profit trumps privacy, though in many ways the invasion of privacy in the name of “national security”may be most disturbing.

We know, for example, that in the name of “homeland security” our computers and even our phone lines are subject to prying if there is any reason to suspect that we are up to no good. And we are told the day will soon come when drones fly about collecting information about us and storing it for future use, should we give the government any reason to suspect anything. This smacks of the presumption of guilt: a violation of the fundamental principle of law going back to Rome that declares a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It is a brave new world that we are experiencing, and it is one in which the notion of privacy and even individual liberty, are increasingly on hold.

Pandora’s Box

The Supreme Court recently indicated that it will address the question of campaign spending limits. We have already seen how the court leans on this issue in the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” case in which the court, in its wisdom, saw fit to insist that corporations are persons and in the name of “free speech” should be allowed to contribute to politicians as much as any wealthy individual would. The current case will determine whether there are any limits whatever on what a person (or a corporation) can give to a political candidate and, given that the court agreed to hear the case, the bets are that the court will remove those limits entirely, which are minimal as things now stand. As we are told in a recent HuffPost story;

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a case challenging the per-biennial cycle limit on campaign contributions from individuals.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, argues that the limit on what individuals are allowed to give candidates ($46,200 per two-year cycle) and parties and PACs ($70,800 per two-year cycle) is an unconstitutional violation of the individual donor’s free speech rights.

The present court has tended to lean to the right on issues such as this since Sandra Day O’Connor left the court. Thus, despite the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, which upheld limits set in 1971 on how much money an individual could give to any one candidate, the present Court is almost certain to lift those limits entirely in the name of free speech. Many believe it is a foregone conclusion. But then so was the decision regarding the Affordable Care Act which the Supreme Court upheld to the surprise of nearly every student of the history of the Court. So there is hope.

The problem stems from the fact that the Constitution was written at a time when the major concern was the abuse of power on the part of the Executive. The framers understood power and the need for balance, of course. They had read John Locke and Montesquieu and were very careful to see to it that no one branch of the government became so powerful that it overshadowed the other two, though they did tend to err a bit on the side of the Senate. But the framers never fully considered the effects of great wealth on the workings of an ostensibly democratic government — though several of them, like Thomas Jefferson, saw the possibilities: recall his concern that “a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

In any event, there is nothing in the Constitution about corporations and about PACs or about the limits of spending on political candidates. This allows the Court to refer to whatever portion of the document that seems to them to be appropriate to make a case for whatever decision they regard as politically expedient — not unlike those who read portions of the Bible to support their own take on Judeo-Christian teachings. And given that this Court leans to the right, it is most likely that we will see all limits removed from campaign spending, in which case we can conclude with assurance that the government will henceforth go to the highest bidder.

Pandora’s Box was opened with “Citizens United” and we saw how ugly that got in the last election. What we are about to see, in all probability, is all of the remaining contents of that box in the coming months and years. Barring a Constitutional amendment on spending limits, or a sudden and unexpected shift to the left by this court, we may be witnessing the end of America’s experiment with democratic government.

Legislating Morality

I’m sure you have heard it: “we can’t legislate morality.” It’s frequently used as an excuse for doing nothing in the face of a social ill of some sort. And, of course, it could not be farther from the truth. There are countless examples of legislation that dictates moral behavior and I will simply note a couple. But first I need to say what “morality” is.

Every moral system I am familiar with recognizes the respect due to persons. I would even go so far as to say that respect for persons is the backbone of morality. It underlies our condemnation of “discrimination” that has become commonplace: it is wrong to deny any persons regardless of how they differ from us the respect that is due them. To do so is to discriminate against them. And this is just wrong. Respect for persons also gives rise to fairness which is recognized by any child as central to morality. Just try giving one of your kids a smaller piece of cake at a birthday party and you will see what I mean!

In any event, I can think of several examples of morality that have been legislated, starting with the Supreme Court decision in 1954 known as “Brown vs. Board of Education” that legislated against segregation in 17 states, determining that all public schools should thenceforth be integrated. I was a high school student in Baltimore at that time and Maryland was one of the 17 states. But we had an advanced program in our high school that attracted a number of black students so when the protests started after the decision was announced (by adults standing outside the school), we had no idea what all the fuss was about. In any event, by 1957 there were no more legally segregated schools in this country. And that was a good thing as segregation is clearly a violation of the principle of respect for persons. It has not stopped racism, of course, but we need to take things one step at a time. Attitudes cannot be legislated out of existence.

And then there was the “landmark” civil rights legislation pushed through under Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 that ended segregation not only in the schools but also in voting and the use of public facilities. I worked with two black men while in high school who used to tell me how painful it was for them and their families when they were traveling to stop for relief only to see the signs “No Colored.” Those signs were clearly wrong, and they were removed by federal legislation. A number of Southern states, especially, are currently working assiduously to re-introduce “Jim Crow” laws which are designed to deter minorities from voting, but these can be readily seen to be a violation of respect for persons.

I would go out on a limb somewhat and argue that the Affordable Care Act, also called “Obamacare” is an example of legislated morality. Under this law we are already seeing thousands of people who would otherwise be denied health care who can now afford to see a doctor when necessary. Clearly, this is an example of a good thing. Denying a person the health care they require is obviously an example of disrespect for them as persons. It is also grievously unfair. The fact that so many people oppose the law simply shows that their priorities are skewed: money means more to them than morality.

So when we hear the cry “you can’t legislate morality” we can rest assured that this is false on its face. Morality cannot only be legislated; it should be legislated. James Madison was confidant that those we selected to govern us would have the wisdom to do so in accordance with the “common good.” That may have been a pipe dream, but there have been cases when legislators and courts did the right thing and we can hope that this will continue in the uncertain future.

Oh, Poor Baby!

Pity the poor corporate CEO. After all he needs to make his profits and this is the time of the year when he makes the most. Why shouldn’t he insist that his employees work on Thanksgiving? He is planning to take the kids out of private school early this year and fly them to Switzerland for a skiing vacation.  After all, they  went to Mexico last year and there’s no need to repeat the same old thing. And he wants to fly his family from Geneva down to Rome for Christmas day and have a nice meal. Those private jets don’t fly themselves and pilots don’t come cheap! Poor guy: all he wants to do is make sure this year his family has a REAL vacation! Those damned employees have signed another petition to put pressure on him to let them have Thanksgiving day off. What do they think this is, anyway?

Target is one of the larger chains to ignore the pleas and petitions of its employees, as this story in the Orlando Business Journal tells us:

A Target employee launched an online petition drive asking the company to push back opening hours and let workers spend Thanksgiving with their families, after the retailer announced it would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving for Black Friday shopping.

The petition has garnered more than 211,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, the South Florida Business Journal reports.

It happened last year as well. The story has been repeated again this year as the Consumerist also tells us:

For the second year in a row, a Target employee has managed to secure hundreds of thousands of names on a petition asking Target to rethink its pans to start its Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving night. And for the second year in a row, Target is politely declining the suggestion and moving ahead as planned.

Target thus will demand that their employees work on turkey day again. This is the American way. The period from Thanksgiving until Christmas is the portion of the year when the businesses make the majority of their annual profits so the idea is to extend that period as much as possible in order to increase profits. If this means keeping the stores open on Thanksgiving Day, so be it!  As we have seen, it doesn’t stop here: the pre-Christmas sales now start before Halloween. It’s never too early to make a buck! This is not brain surgery. It’s not ethical, either. But we have long since given up on letting ethics stand in the way of Big Business.

There are companies, and especially small businesses, that care about their employees and attempt to work out some sort of compromise between the employees’ reasonable desire to spend time with their families during the holidays and the need to make sure the bottom line is black instead of red at year’s end. But the large corporations must answer to their stockholders and they tend to be heartless and unfeeling in the manner of Scrooge at this time of the year. But unlike Dickens’ wonderful tale, there’s no one person the ghosts can visit in order to activate a dormant conscience and make them realize what this season is supposed to be about. The Supreme Court has determined that corporations are persons. That’s absurd on its face, but even if it were true, it is a certainty that they don’t have a conscience.

For Better, For Worse

Living as I do in Minnesota where a referendum item regarding “same-sex marriage” on this year’s ballot has drawn considerable discussion and a great deal of wasted money on TV ads pro and con, I was interested that a New York appeals court declared a similar law in that state unconstitutional. As a Yahoo News story tells us:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An appeals court in New York ruled on Thursday that a law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional. It was the second federal appeals court to reject the law, which could go before the Supreme Court soon.

New York is the third state to rule the law unconstitutional and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon, since these cases involve the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 and the federal government at present does not recognize same-sex marriages. That should be interesting, though the verdict is predictable. But as a philosopher the entire issue strikes me as puzzling in the extreme. Same-sex marriages are “victimless crimes,” though I would not call them crimes at all. Why do we need laws prohibiting acts that do not involve harm to others? It reeks of paternalism. No one is getting hurt: on the contrary. These marriages are merely found to be offensive by the homophobes among us and those people should simply be told to shut up and find something to keep them busy.

In any event, the people most intimately involved are together because they love one another and that is supposed to be the cornerstone of the religion that harbors the greatest number of critics of same-sex marriage. The inconsistency is glaring. But consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds, as Emerson said. So we can take comfort in the fact that the critics of same-sex marriage are simply much smarter than the rest of us who embrace the laws of contradiction and seek to make sure our thinking is consistent and coherent. Right. (I never did agree with Emerson.) Of course in cases such as this there is very little thought of any kind involved, mostly just feelings — strong, often incoherent, feelings.

Seriously, folks, where’s the moral issue here? There is none. And why are states and the federal government wasting precious time and money on a non-issue when there are serious problems to be solved — or at least addressed? People are walking around with semi-automatic weapons in their pockets; the planet is under siege; and the economy is in the toilet while these overpaid politicians waste time discussing whether men should marry men or women marry women. This waste of time and money is the problem, not the pseudo-issue of whether persons who love one another should marry. It’s time to turn to problems that demand solutions and away from trivial issues that don’t deserve serious attention.

Trouble In Wallyworld

A recent story on ABC news told about a possible nationwide strike of Wal-Mart employees on “Black Friday” if the company doesn’t change its policy about allowing unions. Wal-Mart has been adamant about not allowing unions on the grounds that they are not necessary since their workers are well paid and happy. In the case of the recent threat, for example, a spokesman for the giant retailer had the following comment:

Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman . . .claim[ed] that most employees have “repeatedly rejected unionization.

“They seem to recognize that Walmart has some of the best jobs in the retail industry — good pay, affordable benefits and the chance for advancement,” he said in a telephone interview with ABC News.

Apparently it’s not just politicians who lie with a straight face; corporate spokespeople can do so as well. We all know that things are not going well for the giant retailer. There are numerous strikes and walk-outs at Wal-Mart stores around the country where employees who make barely above subsistence wages demand what they regard as their rights. In Chicago recently, for example 17 peaceful protesters were arrested for supporting a strike that had been going on since September 15th. In addition there have been over 100 different types of lawsuits filed against Wal-Mart over the years, including one filed by female employees demanding equal pay and promotional opportunities which made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have blogged before about Wal-Mart which, as I have said, is a mixed bag. The company does many good things, including support of local charities and showing concern for the environment; they also employ 1.4 million people. But they refuse to allow unions, as noted, and their hourly wages are barely above poverty levels — $12.00 an hour on average which nets the worker $24,960.00 a year, barely $1900.00 above poverty levels for a family of four — guaranteeing that the employee’s spouse will almost certainly also have to work.

The employees are wrong to say that every other major company allows unions, of course, as the example of Whole Foods proves. But companies such as Whole Foods actually do put the employee’s needs first as they have better pay and even profit-sharing for their employees who do appear to like working for the company. So it’s not a question of unions, which are also a mixed bag, it’s about the giant company’s attitude toward its employees — all of them, and not only those at the managerial levels. Talk is cheap, especially when it is riddled with lies. It’s time for Wal-Mart to put its money where its mouth is and treat its employees ethically. The threat of a major strike on “Black Friday” may be the impetus the company needs to do the right thing.