Thursday, July 23, 2015

Embarrassment? or Resentment?

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The chief marketing man at our firm was always looking for good things about us to push out in front to impress potential customers.  No surprise there, I guess.  And he was very good at his job, rarely missing an opportunity to find a good feature relevant to the flow of the moment or of the conversation to mention at just the right time.

Yes, he was good with people and just fun to talk with too, by the way.

So it must have been at some down moment - relaxing between meetings or at the end of a long day, I suppose - when we were talking about our college experiences and, when he asked, I told him what my lowest grade in an academic course had been.  At the end of the first semester of my freshman year, I received a B+ in College Physics.  The second semester, I don't see how, but I got an A-.  I worked harder on those Physics courses than on any of my other courses that year, and I still remember clearly walking straight out of the second semester final exam across the street to the College bookstore and selling my textbook.  Whew! 


It might have been a year later, or even two, when Bob had the opportunity to introduce me to a big luncheon of strangers we'd invited to visit us for half a day - many of whom were with school groups or represented other schools from all over the region.  He'd let me know that this was an important opportunity for us to make a good impression on a group who could be influential in helping a particular initiative of ours to succeed, so I'd whipped up one of my better presentations - I thought - and I was looking forward to the occasion.

"Byron Derrick is one of our best speakers.  I know you're going to enjoy his talk," Bob said to the crowd after lunch, a good start, I thought.  "And one thing you may be interested to learn about him," he added, "is that the lowest grade he ever made as a student in college... is a B Plus ...that he got in his first term a freshman."  The audience wriggled pleasantly just a bit, following Bob's jovial tone: "...Still a source of some embarrassment"  His voice rising as many were chuckling, "...even though that was many years ago!"

And as they laughed pleasantly, I took the podium.


My university did not actually give Plus or Minus on a grade; it was just A or B or C.  But it was a convention among the faculty that the student was told by the prof when it was a Plus or (I suppose) a Minus.  So I know it actually was a B+ that first semester.

And it was the only academic grade I got in college less than an A.  By the way, you may not be surprised that I don't actually remember getting some grades of A Minus.  Probably did?  Yes, probably.

You may wonder what a non-academic course might have been.  Well, there were several: Physical Education, and so-called "Military Science," which is what they called the ROTC courses that were required of all freshmen men at my university back then.


I got an A in the main ROTC class, where we learned some military history and maybe some other stuff.  I got my A in that part.  I think the Captain who was our teacher may even have wondered if I was going to enroll in ROTC.  Ha! fooled him!

The most interesting thing in that course was the final exam, taken at the same time by all freshmen men in a 500-seat auditorium. Except on the court, I never saw a nationally known basketball star who was in that freshman class, until he showed up in the front row at that final.  Then he moved to a desk on the stage, where he got some attention from several of the junior officers who were proctoring the exam. 

It was pretty blatant, but no one was concerned.  Freshman were not allowed to play on varsity teams way back then, and by the next fall Connie had joined the NBA.


The other part of ROTC, for a separate grade and for one semester hour's credit by itself, was called "laboratory."  We learned how to fire rifles in lab, even once the famed M-1; but mostly we showed up in our best uniforms, brass all polished and shoes shiny, and we marched back and forth to recordings of John Philip Sousa music.  Boy, I loved that part!  There was no one any better than I was at the marching part of ROTC.

On the other hand, however, I could never really get the hang of polishing my brass or making my shoes shine bright enough.  I may even have gotten a C in ROTC Lab.


The freshman Phys Ed classes lasted a half a semester, and most of us had to take two in each of the freshman semesters.  There were choices, but some classes filled up pretty fast.

Anyway, my first semester I took Tennis from a nice young fellow.  I enjoyed it, learned some good things, and did all right.  I got an A, not even an A-.  They meant it that you didn't have to beat other classmates, but just work hard and apply yourself.  Great.

The second half of the semester I chose Volleyball, in part because the same young guy was teaching it.  I thought I did apply myself about the same amount, but I wasn't very good - clumsy, even - and I didn't enjoy myself quite as much.  Maybe I should have taken badminton?

Anyway, the report on the teacher's door at the end of the semester said in Volleyball, I had made a B+.  Fair enough, I thought.


When I got my semester's transcript at the beginning of the second semester, though, my grade in Phys Ed was a B.  Does that seem right?  Average a straight A and a B+, and you get a flat B?

I looked up the young guy in the white shorts who had been my teacher.  Here's what he said:  "The University doesn't recognize Pluses or Minuses."

"So, I know," I replied: "but averaging an A and a B doesn't give you one or the other.  In my case, you actually have evidence to break the tie.  My average fell in the A range."

He said many students, maybe even most of them, had two different grades like this.  So what they did as a department is they got together and flipped a coin.  That semester all of us got the lower grade of the two we had received.


Bob didn't mention my PE grade as a first-semester freshman.  He couldn't have since I hadn't told him.

But, as he might have said, it's "still a source of resentment today" ... "even though it was many, many, many years ago.!"

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

My Day in Court

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It all began when S----- was summoned to jury duty, six or seven months after we had moved to our new home in the Midwest.  We'd gotten new driver's licenses by then, and registered to vote, and we'd registered the car in our new home state; but it still seemed surprising for one of us to be called so soon after arriving.  The instructions mentioned that any trial S----- might serve on could be either civil or criminal, and might run from one day to ten or so.

We checked out the County Courthouse area on our maps, and a couple of days before S----- was to report for duty, we drove over to the neighboring community where the courthouse was located.  The parking directions S----- had been sent were complicated, so we wanted to explore the environs carefully when timing wasn't critical as it would be on Jury Duty morning.

It was a good thing we did go to check out the route, because the whole courthouse complex turned out to be under construction.  Some streets on our map were blocked off entirely.  Traffic was redirected here and there.  So we drove around the place a couple of times before parking in a ramp S----- could easily find on the critical morning, and we walked around the construction barriers enough to map out the most direct route from the designated parking ramp to the front door of the courthouse.

The night before her scheduled court day, as directed, S----- telephoned and the automated message told her she didn't have to report after all: no new cases had been scheduled!  We didn't have time to feel we had wasted our time getting ready.  It was just a relief for her to be excused.


Six months later, I was summoned myself.  The materials sent to me seemed much the same as what S----- had received, although I didn't see the directive for me to telephone the night before my Jury Day.  In fact, I was scheduled for a Monday, so maybe calling Sunday was more complicated...?  Still, the map was the same, and well, we'd checked it all out already...  I answered the questionnaire and sent it back.

Then, as it happened, a couple of days before my report date, we happened to be near the courthouse with enough time to swing by just to confirm that I was remembering the layout correctly.  Yes, we drove up this way, turned toward the courthouse there, and turned left just where S----- could drop me off and from where I could fairly easily walk to the front steps.  I would call her to pick me up right at that spot when I was free.



I called the Juror Information Office to see why I wasn't required to call the evening before my day.  "No, your summons day is a Monday," I was told: "We always have trials requiring jurors on Mondays.  Report at 8:30 a.m."

So, that was that.

The early morning traffic wasn't so bad.  We'd given ourselves plenty of time.  The trip went just like clockwork.  S----- let me out at the determined site about 7:30 a.m.  I started walking along the sidewalk next to the plywood wall surrounding the construction work.  But after a few steps I began to realize that the opening in the wall didn't seem to be where it had been when S---- and I had visited before, but there was no signage... so....  I kept on trudging, looking this way and that.

A young man wearing a hard-hat emerged from behind the plywood and piped right up: "Oh sir, are you looking for the entrance to the Courthouse?"

I acknowledged that indeed was my purpose.

"Well, we decided to move the entrance.  We haven't put up any signs."

I pondered the situation, without impolite comment.

Fortunately, the young man added: "You should go on the rest of this block and..."  Then, after looking back over his shoulder at how long the block was, he said: "I can show you."

He led me to the next street.  Have I mentioned I'd taken the precaution of bringing my walking stick - my cane - with me?  It did seem to help stimulate an appropriate level of sympathy.  Anyway, when we got to the corner of the construction wall, he said I should cross the street and walk to the right down the hill two blocks to the next streetlight and cross back to the right, turn right again into a narrow passageway between plywood walls, which would bring me back up to a side door to the courthouse.

I grittily tapped away as he had directed.


I hadn't thought about the security measures that would greet us inside the door.  There were four conveyor belts, metal-detector archways, and guards.  I had to take off my belt but was allowed to leave my shoes on, and of course had to empty my pockets.  I forgot to mention my pacemaker to the guards, but that didn't seem to be a problem, as it turned out.  I had to hold up my trousers with one hand and carry everything else, including my cane, which cut a wide swath through the little crowd of prospective jurors, to a quiet corner where I could reassemble everything.

I knew I had to go to the sixth floor, but there was no sign of an elevator.  I followed a sharply dressed man with a fat briefcase walking briskly ahead as though he knew where he was going, and sure enough, after two turns we reached a bank of elevators.  As we stood there waiting our turn, he glanced in my direction and asked if I was a juror.  "You'll want the sixth floor," he said; "There are signs."

I checked in at 8:15.  All was going according to plan...?  Well, perhaps not exactly, but there I was.


It was a large auditorium.  There must have been more than a hundred of us prospective jurors on hand.  Demographics were highly diverse.  I noted that in the earlier wave of arrivals, the average age was approximately 20 years older than in the later wave.  In all groups, the women were dressed better than the men.

At 8:45 or so a Bailiff named Ray started reading names, preceded by "Juror Number --."  At somewhere around Number 45, he called my name.  After a few more were called, we all followed Ray into the hallway outside our auditorium, where he said he would lead us to the third floor to Courtroom 15 (I think it was), where he would show us where to go.

Most everyone followed Ray down the stairs, but a woman with an oxygen tank and I with my cane took the elevator to the third floor.  Ray and the others were waiting for us.  He went back over the names, taking care to seat us in particular spots.  There were two staff people inside the courtroom noting names, numbers, and seat locations.


The Assistant County Attorney who was prosecuting the case told us it would be a criminal trial on the charge of "Statutory Sodomy" in which the accused was said to have wooed into a private spot a 14-year-old girl and fingers penetrated the vagina.  I think that was it in just about the exact words.

Someone named Jackie, who turned out to be a woman, was the accused, and the victim's name would not be told, as is normally true in the case of minors.


"So," the ACA - a youngish woman - asked: "Do you generally understand the charge?  Is there anyone who feels you couldn't participate in a trial on this kind of thing?"  Her tone was flat.  She seemed to be used to be asking this question.  Routine.  And she went on, saying that the trial would get underway that Monday afternoon and was expected to last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  Would that be a problem for anyone?

Someone raised a hand and said, she had tickets for a vacation to Hawaii... The point was noted, it seemed, but there was no sense this would let her off the hook.  Four or five people asked questions or made comments.  One woman said something about "I myself - " when the prosecutor interrupted and said, "Do you want to some forward and discuss your situation with us privately?"  That meant in quiet voices at the front of the room with the judge (a 50-ish man) and the two attorneys, one man and one woman, for the defendant and the prosecuting team...  Private in public with about six people.  I couldn't hear what they were saying myself, though.

From the word or two they said standing at their seats, one by one, before being invited to the confidential "sidebar," as they called it, I had the impression that seven or eight of the twenty or twenty-five women in the jury pool had been exposed to sexual abuse personally.  Each had a few minutes up front and then returned to her seat.

The Assistant County Attorney resumed after a while, "The language describing this alleged sodomy will have to be pretty detailed and explicit; you can imagine why.  Does anyone think just hearing this kind of thing will make it impossible for you to think clearly and reason calmly about the guilt or innocence of the accused according to the evidence presented?"

Only one woman, sitting next to me as it turned out, raised her hand on that one.  When she spoke, I had the impression she herself had been wondering about that very question .  She said her religion was her whole life and that this whole kind of thing was unthinkable to her.  The ACA and this woman discussed the situation for several minutes, across the crowded room of all of us.  "Well, do you think you might not be able to hear the accusations, then?"

The woman said Hearing and understanding would not be the problem; considering the motives and the people's characters were the problem.  The woman spoke very calmly during all this give-and-take, and finally was just asked to be seated again.

After about an hour of this kind of general conversation with the whole jury pool, the ACA took up some papers and looked over the 12 or 15 people seated actually in the jury box already.  She entered into a little conversation with each of them, starting with the answers we had all provided to the courts by mail a week earlier.  "As a plasterer, Jim, do you work for a company or for yourself?" "Marie Sue, have you ever served on a jury before?  Criminal?  Were you foreman?" "Do you know any police officers, Susan?  Would that be in St. Louis County, or City?"  "Do you work long hours in the operating room sometimes?" "You're currently in college? What are you studying?"  That sort of thing.

Then the ACA turned to the larger group of us and called on individuals with questions of a similar nature.  She asked far fewer follow-up questions with us and almost always got to a summarizing question right away: "Would that prevent you from listening impartially to the evidence on both sides of this case?"

There was one man about midway back in the crowd who acknowledged he had already served on six juries, all criminal.  The conversation lasted a little longer with him, with his answers being mostly of the "Yep" or "Nope" variety.  Nope, he ad never been foreman.  Yep, the jury  had always reached a verdict.

I was not asked any questions.  We had an hour off for lunch.  Oops, oh: And because of the construction, the cafeteria in the basement isn't open today.  Buh-Bye.


I didn't even try to find a restaurant nearby.  I spent a little time trying to figure out a place to tell S----- to pick me up, when it was time for me to call her.  I figured that the corner across the street downhill would be easy for her to get to, and easy for me to describe on the phone.  There actually was a bench there in a little - or rather, tiny - park area outside a bank.  It promised to be about 95 degrees.


After lunch, it was the turn of the defense attorney to have discussions with all the prospective jurors.  He said over and over again that he had very little to say because Ms. ---- had done such a thorough job.  Altogether, on the other hand, he took about two hours... almost exactly the same amount of time as the ACA had taken.

Like Ms.----, the defense attorney spent more time with several of the 12-15 people near the front, asking particular follow-up questions.  Then he turned to the rest of us, with the apparent goal of making sure that no individual was left without having been asked at least one or two questions.  Maybe he thought our feelings would have been hurt.  When he addressed someone, like me, who had not as yet spoken, he always asked something related to one's work.  "When you say you are retired, what work did you used to do?" for example.  That was the question to me, as it was to five or six others.  Or "So you are an accountant?  Do you do people's tax work?" "How long have you worked for Walgreen's?"  He didn't always seem to listen to our replies.

There was something annoying about this man, maybe the impression he gave me that he hadn't looked at our papers until that very morning or the sense he conveyed that this proceeding was about him and about he would have to say and do, rather than about Jackie and her alleged victim.

Anyway, about 3 p.m. we were invited to go to the wide hallway outside and wait until we were called back in and the jury would be seated.


None of the other prospective jurors had spoken to me up to this point, but two or three did make a comment during this long break,  One of them asked me if my cane was a blackthorn from Ireland, which it is.  No one openly expressed any anxieties or opinions, but I was convinced we were all unified in exactly the same position: Choose somebody else!

We didn't even know enough to suspect that the most likely choices were those seated near the front who had been questioned the most.  But that was my own supposition.

So, when Ray came back a little before 4, it was no surprise when most of those he called back in - with different seat numbers this time - were from the original group.  But only a little over half.  About 5 of the 15 re-seated came from just anywhere around the room.  The woman next to me was not one of them.  Neither was I (or the man who recognized my cane).  But the fellow who had already served on seven juries was selected to serve again.  Yep, he was.


Another Bailiff escorted the remaining 25 or 30 of us back to the auditorium on the 5th floor, where we learned they would be putting together one more jury.

We'd barely had time to sit down again when the second Bailiff came back and started reading names: "Juror Number 1, T-- Br----" and so on.  Many of us who had been together all day were called back out into the hall.  ...But not me.  Five minutes after this second crowd was escorted away, those 20 or so of us remaining were released.  We'd be paid for one day's jury service.


S---- had been studying Google map while I had been in court, and we had no trouble finding each other for the trip home.   After two or three weeks, I got my check: $11.92.  I believe it's tax-free.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Medic Alert


I was examining my Medic Alert bracelet this morning, as I waited for the coffee to make.  It says "Ataxia.  On anticoagulants.  Call Medic Alert..." (giving the toll-free number).

It must have been 15 years ago that I started wearing this little notice.  A lot has happened since then...  Let's see: What should this little tag say, ideally, now?


The reason I'm wearing this i-d bracelet is that I was advised to do so by a certain Dr. Bhaat, a neurosurgeon in my local hospital who was asked to give me a brain scan as part of a thorough exam as my doctor tried to diagnose why I had passed out one day after S----- and I had carried a little tv upstairs.

There was a recliner not far from the tv stand at the top of the stairs, and after we had positioned the little RCA on the stand. I said, "I think I should sit down for a minute.  I eased back into the recliner, and blacked out.

I first came to as S-----, who had been banging on my chest, was talking on our cordless telephone and peering up at me.  I smiled affectionately and asked. "Are you talking to 911?"

She nodded Yes, and I said, "Tell them I'm fine."  And then I passed out again.


There were days of tests, although everyone shared the hypothesis that my heart condition had caused the syncope (blackout).  It was known that I had HCM, hypertrophic cardiac myopathy; my heart had a tendency to beat too strongly, mooshing out all the blood in the chamber and then beating again before the chamber could properly fill up.  So, I would get light-headed and maybe faint.  The outcome of all the tests I had after this episode was my getting a defibrillator installed in my chest, which will shock my heart back to work if it should ever stop beating after I've passed out.

But other possible causes had to be investigated before the surgery, which is why Dr. Bhaat was called in.

The brain scan ruled out any obvious neurological cause of the syncope, but in examining me, Dr. Bhaat discovered my characteristic unsteadiness on my feet, which was well known by many who knew me.  He said that someday I might want to have that quality investigated, but it wasn't urgent or really important in itself.

"However," he added, "you should get yourself a Medic Alert bracelet that says 'Ataxia' (poor balance) because if you are ever stopped by a policeman who wants you to walk a straight line, you could never do it.  Get a bracelet."


Maybe the bracelet should mention the defibrillator.  What would happen if a team of EMTs were to use their paddles (i.e. their external defibrillator) to shock me if I was found unconscious?  Doesn't sound good, does it?

On the other hand, if my defibrillator had not shocked me itself by then, it wouldn't matter if  it got damaged since it hadn't been working right before.  Right?

Also, I've been taking an old-fashioned heart drug for a little over a year now, a prolonged overdose of which could be toxic.  Should I say "On digoxin" on the MedicAlert bracelet?  I don't see how it could affect what an EMT could or should not do if I were receiving emergency treatnebt for some reason...

No, I don't we would gain anything by adding that to the bracelet.


"On diuretics"?  That's certainly true, since I would retain fluids otherwise, starting with swollen ankles and feet.  I'm also quite conscious of the effect of the water pills, as the nurses call them.  But why should an EMT care?

No.  No change needed there either...


Looks like the old Medic Alert bracelet says just what it should.  And thanks again, Dr. Bhaat!


Friday, May 8, 2015

Addressing the Super-Rich Problem, II (essay)

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On March 26, I reminded everyone that the key problem facing the United States today is the massive disparity between the wealth controlled by a tiny fraction of the population - the Super-Rich, the top 0.5% - and the wealth controlled by all the Rest of us. This enormous gulf threatens all our most fundamental goals as a nation: Peace, Prosperity, Equal Opportunity, Freedom, and Justice for all.

We should consider supporting candidates for office only those who explicitly recognize that our first priority must be to put in place policies and practices that will begin to reduce the vastly unequal distribution of wealth that most surely will lead our country to moral, political, and economic ruin if we do not get it under control soon.

The key policies to put in practice first, I said, might be -
     1. Add a strong, steeply graduated inheritance tax,
     2. Tax capital gains the same as earned income, and
     3. Fund all public schools equally and adequately.

But what about adequate access to quality health care for all? Adequate security in all neighborhoods?  Comparably respectful, fair, and just treatment for all Americans in the judicial system: by the police, by the legal system, by correctional officials?  Without a far better balance in all these areas, the U. S. will forfeit its claim to hold as self-evident that all people are born equal with the same innate human rights. 


Without equal education and health care, we have no chance of providing approximately equal opportunities to succeed.  But what can be done to equalize access to high quality health care for all?

This is a complex issue, involving at least three different things:

     (1) the cost and effectiveness of health insurance,
     (2) the cost and availability of drugs and medical supplies, and 
     (3) the accessibility, quality, and cost of health-care facilities.


Everyone of us must be insured, even if the cost of insuring the Poor must be covered entirely by public funding.   Decades of experience have proven conclusively that uninsured people are less healthy than insured people.  Unequal health means, if nothing else, unequal opportunity for advancement.

The uninsured do not have regular check-ups.  They do not seek medical care until long after their symptoms have become acute, if they ever seek help at all.  The uninsured Poor can't afford to be as careful about their health as anyone should be.  If we mean it that each of us has an inherent right to equal opportunity, we need to secure at least basic health insurance for everybody.

Also, policies must be clear and firmly enforced that prevent a few giant insurance corporations from keeping health insurance costs high by making it difficult for new companies to enter the health insurance market to compete at lower prices.  In any case, in order to seek equal opportunity for all, we must not elect any legislator or executive who does not fully embrace the principle that good health insurance is necessary for all of us.


Generic and other relatively low-cost drugs available in other safety-conscious countries, like Canada, the European nations, Japan, and others, must be available in the U. S. as well.  When a widely used drug's patent protection runs out, it must become available as a generic in America, rather than being replaced by a new, slightly improved version of the original drug.  Both the proven and the new should be available.

For example, insulin derived from animals was used safely in the U. S. for generations and is still used in other countries at relatively low costs.  This type of diabetes treatment should continue to be available here at a drastically lower cost than the newer and more expensive human-derived insulin.  Generally, if any safe, low-cost drugs are not manufactured and sold in this country, their importation must be legalized now. 

If additional funding to prove the safety of the lower-cost alternatives is required, it must be made available in order to provide equal access to good care for all: Rich, Poor, and In-Between.  We need to ask, Why do many drugs cost more in the U. S. than they do in other countries?

Finally, strict enforcement of commerce laws against monopolies and cartels in pharmaceuticals, as elsewhere, must be demanded by our elected representatives.

Health Care itself:

Quality health care is expensive.  It just is.  It requires expensive supplies and equipment.  It demands highly educated and skilled personnel, and it is labor-intensive at all levels.  Even the poorest among us, however, have a right to receive at least the quality (and quantity) of health care available on the average to the others of us.  So, the public funding providing health care must be adequate, without being wasteful.

This is a difficult balance to reach.  But we need to be sure our policies and practices are based on the principle that it is better for the health care available to all to be adequate, accepting the risk of once in a while over-paying slightly, rather than undermining equal access to good health for everyone.

In the health-care field as in all others, we need for all those we elect to represent our interests to show us they are committed to the principle of equality of opportunity for all.


Big money makes a big difference in the judicial system.  In a free and democratic society, until proven guilty of any legal wrongdoing, an individual is presumed too be not guilty.  Wealthy people in fancy neighborhoods or posh offices are indeed presumed innocent, and they have excellent lawyers at their beck and call to protect them and all their legal rights and prerogatives if their actions should ever be called into question.  The rest of us are more likely to be exposed to personal and regional bias, and many have to depend on meager legal resources for support.

And besides, many - especially, it appears, especially young African-American men - are presumed to be guilty unless they can prove they are not.  Treatment is not equal.  As good Americans, we can't feel good about this, but what can we do about it?

A beginning would be to eliminate the "bail or jail" system.  In many, perhaps most courts, if an accused person can't afford bail, she or he goes to jail before trial.  If you can pay, you go home until trial; if you're too poor to pay, you go to jail.  This seems to contradict so obviously the motto above the door of the U. S. Supreme Court "Equal Treatment Under the Law" that it is astonishing that this practice has been so widespread so long.  But the right solution to the problem might be to keep in custody anyone - no matter how rich - who has been credibly accused of a truly serious crime.

A second step would be to prevent judges from being elected.  Having judges elected is an obvious way to promote corruption: since big money controls elections, judgeships go to the highest bidder...  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's got a germ of simple truth.

How can we improve the quality of public defenders?  We need more of them, and we need to improve the quality of the public defense system overall.

We should not support any candidate who doesn't agree with us that basic reforms are urgently required in the justice system in order to improve equality in America.


And speaking of Big Money in elections:  we've got to find a better way to fund elections.

A basic first step would be to clarify the law:  Corporations - large or small - are not "persons."  They do not have the civil rights guaranteed to persons.  It is not unconstitutional to limit (or eliminate) the amount of corporate money that can be contributed to election campaigns or to political action groups during campaign seasons.  

Second, campaign donors who give more than $5,000 to any candidate must be publicly disclosed.  There is no good reason for not requiring disclosure and many good ones for requiring disclosure.


 Big corporations, if properly managed for the public good, can provide bountiful benefits; but - particularly in their huge, multi-national forms - they threaten every individual.  Their reason for existing is to make money for the relatively few who own them, and they must and will keep their eyes, minds, and vast resources focused on profits.  Easy profits often come from powerless individuals, whether clients, employees, customers, or competitors.

"Too big to fail"? is simply "TOO BIG."  We need laws and law-enforcement institutions devoted to protecting individuals, communities, and society in general from the rapacious corporations that have come to be and will continue to proliferate unless we are ready steer them down the road to progress and not across our property, our rights, and our well-being.

Big corporations making big profits? Fine.  Big corporations limiting the possibility of employees to make decent wages in safe and humane working conditions?  or eliminating the opportunity for new firms to enter the industry? Unacceptable.


The vastly unequal distribution of wealth in the U. S. today will lead our country to moral, political, and economic ruin if we do not get it under control soon. We should all consider supporting candidates for office only those who explicitly recognize that our first priority must be to put in place policies and practice, like those I have mentioned, that will begin to restore a more just and rational and more efficient balance of economic power and control.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Allegiance Owed? Pledged? Cross My Heart!

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One has fewer opportunities these days than when I was a boy to pledge allegiance to the U. S. flag.  But it still does happen, and it would be embarrassing - justly, I would say - if one were not able to behave appropriately, remembering the words correctly, on such occasions.  But that doesn't mean anyone has thought very much about just what the pledge says or means.


"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Let's look at it, piece by piece:

"I" : well, yes.  This is a personal statement.  We never actually say the Pledge (Do we?) except in a group, but we don't say it as a group.  We don't say "We."  No, it is a personal commitment each of us makes individually.  Good.  As it should be.

By the way, we don't make this pledge alone, by ourselves either.  We make the pledge individually in front of a group, a group of "witnesses," we might say.  Our allegiance is pledged to the flag, but the pledge is to those witnessing our making the commitment to it.

"pledge": It isn't common to pledge something, is it?  But it's not uncommon enough to think of using the word as unusual.

In one context I'm familiar with - fundraising - the word is in fact quite common.  "A pledge" is an amount of money a person promises to pay (with a mailed-in check, for instance) by June 30 or December 31 to a particular charity.  Maybe a current student at your alma mater calls as part of the annual fund drive, and you don't want to charge your credit card over the phone, but you "pledge" you will send in $25.00, as you did last year, if they'll just hang up and leave you be.

Come to think of it, another common use - also collegiate - is that "a pledge" is a new recruit to a fraternity or sorority.

So, to pledge something might not be common, but it is doing something we all would understand.  We are making a promise, a commitment.

"allegiance":  Now, this is different.  This word allegiance is not a part of one's daily vocabulary.  What other use does it have?  You "owe allegiance" to something: most often your country, but maybe your state or hometown, your school or team...  But that's it; there are no other variants of the word - "I'm feeling a little allegiant today" - "Let's go alleege ourselves to something worthwhile" - "Go over and pay off that allegiance you owe from last week"...

No.  You "owe" or "pledge" allegiance to something, and that's it.

So, it does not come as a surprise to realize that the root word of allegiance is an obsolete term from the Middle Ages: a person's leige is the person's superior in a feudal social order.  A peasant owes allegiance to the nobleman who owns the land he works.  He would properly address the nobleman as "my lord" or "my liege."  This kind of contractual arrangement goes right on up the social hierarchy too.  A relatively small landowner may be a Baron, who swears allegiance to his leige lord, a Count or an Earl, both of whom would be superior to a Baron.  The leige of a Count or Earl might be a Duke, whose leige lord would be a king.  This kind of loyalty and commitment was sworn or pledged, as in an oath - might we say a pledge - of allegiance.

In other words, the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag is like the medieval oath of fealty (loyalty) that a subordinate swore to his ruling lord.


"to the flag":  Well, yes, the flag is just a symbol, of course.  We are not pledging our loyalty to a piece of cloth...

"of the United States of America":  That's the important part, naturally...

"and to the republic":  That is, the nation.  The USA of course happens to be a republic, where rulers are elected representatives of the people of the nation they rule for a fixed period.  We are glad and proud to be democratic, to have a republican form of government, so we don't just say "the nation" for which the flag stands but remind everyone that our particular nation is a republic.  Fine.

The original 1892 version of the Pledge, by the way, was written for use in any country, so it did not say "the flag of the USA," but "my flag."  That form was changed to the version specifically for the USA by the time it was adopted by the US Congress in 1942.

"for which it stands":  Yes.  Allegiance is pledged to the nation called The United States of America.


"one nation":  Despite having 50 states inside it, the USA is only one single nation. 

Skip, for now, to... "indivisible":  You can see it was necessary to emphasize this point while the illegal secession of southern states from the union was a lively memory.  It still seems worth recalling these days too, when the authority of the national government is sometimes questioned by those who also seem to feel considerable "allegiance" to their particular state.

"with":   The USA, for which this flag stands, has three key features: one - the unity of all states in the one nation - has already been discussed.  The remaining two are spoken of now...

"with liberty and justice":  In common conversation, "liberty" has more or less been replaced by "freedom" - the ability to do as one wishes.  Of course, one's individual freedom is limited by the rights of others.  "Justice" means what it means in ordinary discourse, fairness or fair treatment.  That, ideally, should not been limited.

"for all":  Citizens of the USA regularly agree that it is not one group of people, not a few people, not a portion of the whole population to whom freedom and justice is guaranteed.  It is to everyone.  How great is that?!


We skipped the phrase added 60 years after the originally published version, "under God."  These two words were not included by the Baptist minister who wrote the original Pledge.  His intention was apparently to emphasize patriotism, the commitment to one's home country, and the unity of our nation despite the fairly recent Civil War.  The Godliness of the Republic was not the point at that early time.

In 1954, however, being loyal to the U. S. A. seemed to many to mean, in essence, being opposed to Godless Communism.  One way to emphasize our national anti-Communism was to add "...nation, under God" to the Pledge to the flag.


Some Americans have begun to argue that it's time to eliminate that phrase "under God" again.

I'd say eliminating it is worth discussing - although maybe it's worth reminding the Jihadi extremists of the world that our country has been built by people of a variety of religious backgrounds, with 75% of Americans saying still today that religion plays an important role in their daily lives.  But since it does not play a significant role in my own, this does not seem a big deal to me.

What is a big deal, though - for sure -  is to make certain that our one, indivisible Republic provides freedom and justice for all, not just for some, and not - especially not - only for the Super-Rich Few.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Addressing the Problems of the Super-Rich (essay)

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The most serious problem facing the United States today is the giant - and growing - disparity between the prosperity of the Super-Rich and the middling or even stagnating fortunes of the Rest of us.

The key long-term American goals are peace and prosperity, equality of opportunity, freedom and justice for all.  The imbalance of the riches flowing - or flooding - to the richest Americans clearly impedes progress toward the last four of these five national goals, and may even contribute to threats to American peace, both abroad and at home.

Also, the wealth disparity is so big that it puts the whole U. S. economy out of balance.  In a capitalist market system, it's bad for one small group of individuals to control a severely unequal proportion of the wealth and commerce of the entire country, as President Theodore Roosevelt well knew.

It is most urgent, then, for voters in U. S. elections to select only those candidates whose top priority is addressing our most serious problem, reducing the size of the yawning abyss between the Super-Rich and all the Rest of us.


But what systemic factors, what policies and practices can be changed in order to begin slowly restoring more of a balance in our stuttering economy?

The exaggerated gap between the Rich and the Rest is directly perpetuated by the fact that the next generation of the Super-Rich do not start their own careers at a level anywhere remotely similar to the place where the next generation of the Rest of us start.  The children of the Super-Rich build their whole life-plan on the certainty that at some point they will inherit billions of the wealth controlled by the previous generation.  This is the opposite of providing equality of opportunity.

One measure any political leader ought to be talking about, therefore, is a very significant increase in the graduated inheritance tax.  We should identify a generous base that will not be taxed, in order to reward the older generation for accumulating more than enough to take them comfortably through their old age, no matter what happens (to their health, for instance).   Maybe that amount might be as high as $3 million per estate.  Maybe even more.

The problem to be addressed by improving the inheritance tax, by the way, is not the size of the estate but the amount each next-generation individual inherits. Let others work out the precise numbers, but - for instance - the new system might start at 5% of the inheritance at $3 million, go to 10% at $10 million, 25% at $25 million... up to 95% at $5 billion or more.


A key way the economy gets out of whack when too few control too large a proportion of the nation's wealth and commerce, is that too high a percentage of the country's revenue is made by manipulating finances rather than by producing goods and services.  Income from this kind of financial dealing, therefore, should not be encouraged by attractive tax breaks - as it is currently.

Candidates for election, therefore, should also be making the case that capital gains must be taxed the same as earned income.  Earned income is better for the system as a whole, so why does our tax code impose more tax on income from work than on income from financial deals?


Those we elect must be sure that the added tax revenue from these two systemic changes is spent on projects clearly related to reducing the inequalities of opportunity in our current system.  One of the most glaring areas of inequality, in need of considerably more funding, is public education.

Part of the problem is the traditional method of funding public schools through property taxes.  For one thing, flat rather than graduated property taxes favor the Rich over the Rest of us.  Even more basic is the fact that neighborhood schools in low-wealth neighborhoods cannot be equally funded to those in high-wealth neighborhoods.  Obviously!

Perhaps the funding of all districts in the whole of a metropolitan area should come from all property taxes in the Metropolis pooled together, rich districts and poor districts alike... with, by the way, super mansions of the Super-Rich taxed at a higher rate than the modest housing of the Rest of us.  Then, school districts would be funded on a per-student basis: if there were 100,000 students in all districts combined, for example, 1 student enrolled in a particular district would bring in 0.001% of the pooled property tax revenue, which is 1 divided by 100,000.

In any case, candidates in future elections must tell us how they are going to change the traditional method of funding public schools in order to equalize the quality of schools for everyone, regardless of the socio-economic power of those who live near to or far from the schools getting the funding.  The amount spent per-student should be approximately equivalent everywhere.

That would go a long way toward insuring equality of opportunity in America.


That's a beginning:  
     Add a strong, steeply graduated inheritance tax.
     Tax capital gains the same as earned income.
     Fund all public schools equally and adequately.

We will need to select candidates too on the reforms they propose in order to make high-quality health care accessible for all, in order to reduce the power of big money to control public elections, and in order to improve the judicial system.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Our Revolutionaries' Rallying Cries (essay)


It's useful sometimes to ponder the inspirational writings of other times which most of us today apparently still revere, in order to think about how well our policies and actions today fit the ideals our forefathers set out before us more than two centuries ago.

Among these are, of course, the inalienable rights articulated in the American Declaration of Independence: (1) the fact that all of us are equal to each other at the time we are born, and (2) that we all equally have - and cannot lose -  certain rights including, but not limited to (a) the right to live, (b) the right to be independent and free, and (c) the right to pursue our own well-being, self-interests, ambitions, and prosperity.

Also worthy of re-examination are the three aspirations in the rallying cry of the French Revolution from about a dozen years after the distribution of the classic American document:  "Liberté," "Egalité," and "Fraternité."


It cannot be entirely overlooked that these two iconic slogans come from quite different kinds of expression - the American document being a sober, closely reasoned explanation for the several colonies along the American east coast to separate themselves and their political institutions from the British state in order to establish an independent nation; and the three-fold exclamation of the French being a rallying cry of the revolutionaries in the streets as they set out to destroy the government and the social order that had been oppressing them.

This difference does not invalidate all comparisons between the two statements, however, although as we try to apply their significance to our own situation today, we should keep in mind the differences in the social and political situations in which each proved vital.


Of course it is tempting to consider, from the Americans, the inalienable right to "liberty" as the same ideal as that espoused on the streets of Paris in 1789: la liberté.  But we should at least pause to note that the Americans were thinking perhaps even more of the one meaning of "liberty" than the other, of the independence of their political state from the mother state across the Atlantic perhaps even more than the individual's personal freedom to act according to her or his own will, without coercion by others.  The latter was the sole preoccupation of the French revolutionaries, whose personal freedom had been much more severely limited in Europe than had the personal freedom of most Americans for several generations.

The American right to "liberty," then, was more complex semantically than the French "la liberté," and - we might add - more coolly and rationally experienced too than the passionate French cry in the streets.

But it is fair to say that the personal freedom to live as one chose was a core value for both the American and the French revolutionaries.


The concept of equality at birth in our Declaration of Independence seems exactly the same as the French call for "égalité" generally throughout the population.  Both in France and America, sentiment was strongly opposed to rigid social hierarchy, to a ruling aristocracy of the noble and rich in a social order in which it was virtually impossible for a person to move from a lower social position into which she or he happened to be born into a higher class of wealth, respect, and power.

Yes, the American colonies themselves had already provided "new beginnings" for many to move upward in social wealth and class while France had not provided such opportunities.  But for both the French and the Americans, it was considered an essential good that no one born into poverty or financial insecurity and absence of social distinction should be entrapped at the bottom for one's whole life.


So in regard to personal Freedom and Equality of opportunity, the French and American revolutionaries were espousing and pursuing the same elevated goals.

Incidentally, it was also a shared value to claim these as natural rights, rights with which a person is endowed merely by virtue of being a living human being, rights which do not need to be earned and which may not be lost.  To the Americans, as we can all recall, it was "self-evident" that life, equality, freedom, and the pursuit of one's own good are "inalienable" rights, rights that may not be "alienated" or separated from the individual.  The three-fold French rallying cry was soberly articulated in "La Declaration universelle des droits de l'homme [The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man] in which one's sacred rights are called "impréscriptible" - a legalistic term meaning "indefeasible," that which cannot legally be annulled, cannot be given away by or taken away from the individual.

Indefeasible and inalienable are very nearly the same.


So Freedom and Equality are for both American and French leaders innate, sacred rights.  That leaves undiscussed, from the American document, Life and "the Pursuit of Happiness" and, from the impassioned French motto, that perhaps puzzling ideal of "Fraternité."

The natural right to Life seems easy enough to understand.  It is not listed by the French presumably just because it was presumed.

"Fraternity" (sometimes translated as "brotherhood") is a state of mind in which the individual considers every other individual as an equal member of her or his own family, as an equal sister or brother.  It is not a right to feel this way toward all others, not a right to treat all others as though they were equal members of your own family.  It's the other way around.  One's right is to be considered and to be treated as though one were an equal sibling of everyone else.

This is a powerful French moral commandment, perhaps not mentioned among the American inalienable rights only because consistent faithfulness to such a rigorous moral imperative seems unrealistic.  Wouldn't it be something if every American today could live knowing that all other Americans would consider him a brother or her a sister!

By the way, modern French culture is considered among the world's most secular, but this fundamental French ideal seems about as Christian an aspiration as one could imagine.


What did our forefathers mean by "the pursuit of happiness"?  It is an inbred right for an individual to seek to achieve his or her own "happiness."  We are not talking here, in other words, about seeking a good thing for everybody else or for all people.  That's not prohibited, of course, but it it not the natural right being considered here. 

"Happiness" also seems not to be something superficial either, a state of pleasure that quickly passes away.  It would seem out of place to mention seeking sensual delight along with life and liberty, wouldn't it?

On the other hand, it might be going too far to recall that for the educated elite of the 18th century, it was commonplace to say the greatest happiness is achieved by maintaining the highest virtue.  That kind of preachy platitude would also seem out of place here.

But our forefathers did want to guarantee that everyone would feel empowered to pursue the basic things needed to make anyone happy: enough money, adequate shelter and food, security - that sort of thing - along with the freedom to go where one wants and to do what one thinks best, and together with an equal chance at success as everyone else.

So I would paraphrase "the right to pursue happiness" as "the right to strive for our own well-being, our own self-interest and ambitions."

This kind of concept is not articulated in the French call for "Freedom, Equality, and 'Brotherhood,'" but in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mankind, both "security" and "property" are listed as "natural rights."  In the largely agricultural economy of 18th century France (or America), assured ownership of land ("property") was considered the key to one's well-being, and the pursuit of happiness might usually consist of one's seeking to own property.  The more general formulation of the American Declaration  - "the right to pursue happiness" rather than "the right to own property" - helps apply the principle to more varied times and conditions, but is not significantly different in meaning from the French document.


Assuming, then, that we generally understand the foundational ideals of both the American and the French revolutionaries, how are we doing today in our attempts to live up to their ideals?

First, I suppose someone might point out the contradiction between early Americans' saying that Life itself is a right that cannot be taken away from every human individual and, on the other hand, the practice of capital punishment in 32 American states today.  Most of those executed are African-Americans or Latinos, or mentally ill, if not both.

Also, I don't think we need to point out that the French revolutionaries' call for all of us to consider everyone else as our brothers and sisters is a noble aspiration but perhaps a naive expectation.

But what about the rights of Equality, Freedom, and the Pursuit of one's own well-being?  
8 - The Pursuit of "Happiness"

The curious thing to us might be the felt need in 1776 to even mention that a person has a right to seek his or her own good.  It seems only normal: of course, a person would try to secure advantage for oneself and one's family! What else can we expect?  That the individual has an innate right to strive for what's needed for one's own well-being is today so non-controversial as to seem to many of us as not even worth mentioning.

It is striking, then, to recall that indeed both in France in 1789 and in British America in 1776, it was controversial to say that seeking one's own advantage is a sacred right for any person regardless of birth, wealth, or social class.  Without even mentioning the dark-skinned slaves in America - who had no rights at all, natural or legal - we have to remind ourselves that most people in the world in the 18th century were considered to be right where they should be, doing what they should be doing, and it was considered not normal but something close to criminal for a peasant to try to make himself into an artisan or a merchant, or for a house servant to seek to go out on her own, or for a farm laborer to work toward buying his own farm, or for anyone just to move to a different community where conditions might be better.   

So it was a bold, indeed a revolutionary statement in 1775-1790 to claim that every human being, just by being human, had an irrevocable right to pursue his or her own well-being, and was not forced to depend on the largesse (or the whim) of someone else just to get along.

But today, that right is granted by everyone to all.  Success!

9 - Equality

But let's not get carried away.
How are we doing in insuring that all men and women are treated equally by all?  Does a Latino born to a poor family in an unhealthy, crime-ridden neighborhood have an equal chance to succeed in America today?  An African-American?  A recent immigrant with a Muslim-seeming name?  No one would seriously make such a claim, would they? 

a.  The quality of schools in poor neighborhoods is lower than in richer neighborhoods, not to mention in the most expensive private schools that only the richest families can afford.  

b.  We seem to discover more every day how unequally law enforcement officers and court systems treat minority and poor Americans.

c.   High quality health care is not as accessible to the poor, the working poor, or even those solidly in the middle-class in our country and time as it is to the wealthiest around us.

d.   Even quality nutrition is unequally available to various subcultures in America today.

I don't know about France, but in America today in our laws, policies, and practices we are clearly failing to honor the most basic truth which was self-evident to the founders of our nation.  All men and women are created equal.  But we don't mind treating others as though a few of them were better than we are, and many of those others are probably inferior, beneath our notice.

We don't mind that the families and the neighborhoods into which boys and girls are born are far from equal and that the probabilities are stacked against them in modern America just as surely as they were against the poorest peasants in feudal Europe centuries ago.

Do we need revolutionary cries in the street to wake us up again?
10 - Freedom?  

The very heart of the revolutions in America and France almost 250 years ago was to overthrow the rigid regime of a brittle social order unfairly and brutally imprisoning men and women who were willing to work hard and to be responsible, imprisoning them in positions of weakness, insecurity, moral hazard, and relentless oppression.  To free one and all from the strictures of a super-rich aristocracy whose wealth and power put everyone else in their less-lofty places and held them there till they died: that was the goal of our revolution.

We claim to agree with our founders' basic values, with their views of the most fundamental self-evident truths.  

But we have created systems and institutions and have inculcated cultural values that have made a mockery of our professed convictions about our natural rights.  The extraordinary chasm that today divides the Rich from the Middle-Wealthy, and the Super-Rich from all the rest of us has stolen from the vast majority of Americans  any realistic possibility to move from a position of relatively low wealth and power higher up in the social-political order.  Like the lower classes in the 1600s and 1700s in America and Europe, Americans today are destined by the accident of their birth into a particular social stratum to remain there or nearly there despite all their efforts to better themselves, to strive for their own self-interest and ambitions, their own well-being.

We have succeeded in taking from them their inborn right to the pursuit of happiness by denying that all of us are equal, deserving equal respect and social privileges, equal opportunities to move ahead.

And by denying their right to equality, we have cut them off from the freedom that they deserve and that they need in order to go after the social mobility all Americans have been promised since the Declaration of Independence.

Let's begin today to make the changes necessary so that we as a people can return to the paths of virtue and honor put forth for us by our ancestors.