Archive for May, 2011

Small business and the Great Recession

May 31, 2011

Click to enlarge or open

Click to enlarge or open

In the long run, the health of the U.S. economy depends on small and newly-created business.  Not only to small businesses create a large fraction of new jobs (often a majority of new jobs, if you don’t count jobs lost through small business failure), but small businesses are the seedlings that grow into future large businesses.  Every Fortune 500 company was once a small start-up.  And when new technologies and businesses emerge, it is seldom the Fortune 500 companies that take the lead.  IBM Corp. was not the leader in personal computers, nor Eastman Kodak Co. in digital photography.

These two charts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the decline in the number of small-business startups and in small business hiring during the past few years.  The decline actually began before the official start of the Great Recession, and continued after its official end.

The Federal Reserve Board’s “quantitative easing” is intended to help small business.  By making more money available to banks, and by driving interest rates down nearly to zero, the board intends to make it easier to finance business startups and business expansion.

The charts only run through March, 2010, so they don’t provide any information on how successful the Fed’s effort is.  But it doesn’t seem to have had much effect so far.  The big banks aren’t investing in the real economy.  Debt-ridden consumers have every reason to cut back on spending and pay down existing debt, rather than take out new loans.  Businesses can’t be successful unless they have customers, and, in the present economic climate, it is hard to see where new customers will come from.  Unless something changes, the Great Recession will be self-perpetuating.


The meaning of Memorial Day

May 30, 2011

Memorial Day is the most meaningful of our national holidays.  Maybe it is the only one that has any meaning.  The Fourth of July is no longer an occasion for listening to patriotic speeches on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence; we watch fireworks displays, but don’t necessarily remember what the displays are for.  Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and maybe for expressing gratitude for our blessings, but nobody except maybe school children remember the Pilgrims and their quest for religious freedom.  Presidents Day, combining Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, is an insult to both of our national heroes.  The only national hero to whom we pay any respect at all is Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is well that we celebrate Memorial Day, originally created to honor the Union dead in the Civil War and now to honor all who have fallen in our nation’s wars.  The men (and now women) in the uniformed services pledge to put their very lives at the service of their community.  As somebody once pointed out to me, the armed services are the only institution in which you can be ordered to do something that is almost certain to get you killed, and it is a felony to refuse to obey that order.

Even if you think a particular war is a mistake, even if you think most wars are a mistake, even if you think all wars are wrong, you have to respect that patriotism and dedication.  Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and other troops serve at the orders of the President and Congress, who are accountable to we, the people.  The troops do not send themselves into battle.  If a war is wrong, the responsibility rests not with the troops, but with we, the people.

The American military has another virtue, and that is deference to civilian authority.  They’re not in the habit of staging military coups.  The military in many other countries, including our Latin American neighbors, regard themselves as the repository of national patriotism, with the right to take over when the civilian authority is on the wrong path.

Our American exceptionalism reflects the greatness of the first commander-in-chief, George Washington.  He always followed the orders of the Continental Congress, no matter how much he disagreed.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he was so popular he could easily have made himself king or dictator.  Some people proposed that he do so, and, given the serious disarray of the newly-independent states, there were strong arguments in favor.  The liberators of many Latin American nations did just that.  But Washington disbanded the army and went home to Mount Vernon, to await the call of a legal civilian government.   That has been the tradition of our military ever since.

The oath that the members of our armed forces swear is not personal loyalty to a dictator or king or the armed forces themselves, but to the Constitution of the United States, which they swear to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Over the generations, they have kept that oath.  It is their willingness to sacrifice their lives which won independence for the United States as a nation, preserved the Union from being broken up and kept the nation free from foreign monarchs and dictators.  We the people can show our gratitude by honoring the memory of the dead, attending to the needs of living veterans and each, in our own way, supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

Memorial Day: a chain e-mail

May 30, 2011

A dear friend sent me this e-mail chain letter a few days ago, and I’ve received other versions of it over the years.  I agree whole-heartedly with the feelings behind it, especially “God bless them all!”  But there is one word I would quibble with.

It is the
not the preacher,
who has given us freedom of religion.

It is
not the reporter,
who has given us freedom of the press.

It is
not the poet,
who has given us freedom of speech.

It is
not the campus organizer,
who has given us freedom to assemble.

It is
not the lawyer,
who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is
not the politician,
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the
salutes the Flag,

It is
who serves
under the Flag,


We can be very proud of our young men and women in the service no matter where they serve.

God Bless them all!!!

Makes you proud to be an AMERICAN!!!!!

The word I quibble with is “not.”  If I were circulating that e-mail, I would change “not” to “as much as.”   We honor the men (and now women) in uniform who have given their lives to defend the United States against foreign monarchs and dictators.  But, with all respect, it is we, the American citizens as a whole, who have kept the United States a free nation.  What our fallen troops have done is to make it possible to have an independent nation in which to establish freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, the right to vote, the right to free trial and the right to vote.

If I were writing an e-mail chain letter for Memorial Day, here is how I would phrase it:


Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid”

May 29, 2011

I’ve always liked the great old Woody Guthrie song, “Union Maid.”

Guthrie wrote it while on a trip to Oklahoma in May, 1940, with Pete Seeger and Millard Lampell, after one of his hosts criticized him for not writing songs about women union members.  Guthrie, Seeger and Lampell sang for striking oil workers, the Unemployed Workers Alliance, and homeless people along the banks of the Canadian River in what was called a Hooverville.

Click on Woody Guthrie wiki for Guthrie’s Wikipedia biography.

Click on Sandy Pope for the home page for the woman currently running for President of the Teamsters Union.

What kind of a socialist is Strauss-Kahn?

May 28, 2011

Before his arrest in New York City on charges of attempted rape of a hotel maid, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was considered the front-runner for the Socialist Party’s nomination for President of France.

Socialism historically has been a movement against economic injustice and in favor of greater economic equality.  Socialists claim to represent workers in their struggle against the economic elite.  How does Strauss-Kahn fit into this historic tradition?

Strauss-Kahn entering friend's Porsche

According to Forbes magazine, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer said his bank balance is in the “low seven figures.”  He was paid roughly $420,000 as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and got an additional $75,000 to maintain a style of life appropriate to his position.  He and his third wife, Anne Sinclair, an heiress and TV personality, have economic assets estimated by Forbes as worth $100 million to $200 million. Most of this is the art collection of Sinclair’s grandfather Paul Rosenberg, an art dealer who represented Picasso, Matisse and Braque.  This estimate does not include more than $90 million worth of art she’s sold over the years.

Strauss-Kahn and his wife live well.  He and Sinclair own a house in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. (which is headquarters of the IMF), not one but two luxury apartments in Paris, and a traditional Moroccan house in Marrakesh.  The houses have a combined value of $15 million, according to Forbes.

Strauss-Kahn’s wealth is small change compared to the wealth of the world’s billionaires, but it is a lot by most people’s standards.  Political opponents call him a “caviar socialist.”  There was an uproar when he was photographed getting into a friend’s $140,000 Porsche earlier this year.

He and his wife of course have a right to spend their money as they choose.  The question is whether someone who is (literally) wedded to great wealth can understand and champion the interests of working people.  His record in French politics and as managing director of the IMF help provide answers to that question.


Rand Paul in defense of the Constitution

May 27, 2011

Rand Paul, the freshman libertarian Republican Senator from Kentucky, conducted a seven-hour filibuster to delay renewal of expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act – such as the one that gives Homeland Security the right to check on what library books I borrow, and makes it a crime for the librarian to tell me about it.

Paul is derided as an extremist.  But if it is extremist to defend basic Constitutional liberties, call me an extremist, too.   If the United States continues to have a constitutional form of government, history will record that Rand Paul had a sounder understanding of the Constitution than do President Barack Obama or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Click on Rand Paul’s Stand Against the PATRIOT Act for comment by Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor of The Atlantic magazine.

Click on The Patriot Act and bipartisanship for pointed comment by Glenn Greenwald on Salon.

[Added 6/1/11]  Maybe I was premature to praise Rand Paul for his understanding of the Constitution.  He recently told Sean Hannity on Fox News that Muslims and others who listen to violent speeches ought to be locked up.

Click on Rand Paul, Making a Name for Himself  for comment on this by the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen.

Click on Criminalizing Free Speech for a reconsideration of Rand Paul by Glenn Greenwald.  As Greenwald pointed out, nothing that Rand Paul said is as bad as what President Obama has done.

Click on The Most Interesting Man in the Senate for a profile of Rand Paul by Reason magazine.

Why the Senate rejected Ryan’s plan

May 27, 2011

Click on After Senate’s Medicare Vote, Ryan Remains Unbowed for a National Public Radio interview with Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee.

Click on Ryan Budget Would Increase Health Care Spending for Medicare Beneficiaries for analysis by Paul N. Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Click on Sharing Costs is No Way to Fix Medicare for analysis by Peter Orzag for Bloomberg News.


The legacy of Osama bin Laden

May 27, 2011

This two-part video series by Al Jazeera told me things I hadn’t known.  Osama bin Laden was the one behind the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.  The notion that he suffered kidney failure or was on dialysis was an urban legend.  Bin Laden was taken advantage of by the government of Sudan, but had a tight relationship with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, whom he helped defeat his internal enemies.  More than any detail, it opens up a world to which I wouldn’t otherwise see.

It is a mistake to think of Osama bin Laden as yesterday’s news.  He is dead, but his example lives on and, unfortunately, will continue to inspire for some time to come.

Sexual abuse, hotel maids and why unions matter

May 26, 2011

Do rich and powerful men ever commit rape?  Evidently many people – including Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher, and Ben Stein, the conservative American writer and TV personality – think that the eminence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, could be guilty of the charge of attempted rape brought by a hotel maid who, as they both point out, is a mere nobody.

Public opinion polls indicate that a majority of the French people, and an overwhelming majority of French socialists, think Strauss-Kahn was set up.  And judging by the comment threads of some of the on-line articles I’ve read, there are many Americans who think a white Frenchman who pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room is inherently more credible than an African immigrant maid.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The fact is that hotel guests who sexually abuse hotel maids often get away with it.  Hotels want to please their guests.  Hotel maids – often women of color, often poor immigrants, sometimes illegal immigrants – are often working on the margin of economic survival, and know they can easily be replaced.  If a hotel guest gropes them, or exposes himself, or worse, it is risky to mention it.  The hotel has every incentive to believe the guest rather than the maid.

If you can do something with impunity, a certain number of people will do it.  There are rich people who think their wealth gives them impunity.  There are international civil servants who think diplomatic immunity gives them impunity.

The maid allegedly raped by Strauss-Kahn was a poor immigrant from Guinea, in West Africa.  She might not have spoken up if not for a supportive employer, the Sofitel hotel corporation, and a strong labor union, the New York Hotel Trades Council.  Holding a union card, being protected by a union contract, meant that she did not have to face with wealth and power represented by Strauss-Kahn on her own.  As the old union song, “Solidarity Forever” goes, What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? But the union makes us strong!

My newspaper training tells me to use words like “allegedly” and “accused of” so as not to assume that someone is guilty of a crime until the person has been found guilty in a court of law.  I will say that, based on the facts that have come out, the police had probable cause to make an arrest, and prosecution to bring charges, and let it go at that.  But the burden of proof is on the prosecution, as it should be.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn will, I am sure, enjoy the full benefit of the law in presenting his defense – if the case even goes to trial.  I’d say the odds are that the alleged victim will be offered a huge cash settlement to keep the charge from ever coming to trial.


Shutdown, default and the debt ceiling

May 25, 2011
Double click to enlarge

The refusal by the Republican majority in Congress to raise the ceiling on federal debt means that, on the one hand, they think this issue is so important they are willing to put the functioning of the federal government at risk, but, on the other hand, they are unable to come up with a plan to actually bring the budget under control, and so leave it to President Obama to figure out.

A lot of people who discuss this issue assume that this would mean that the federal government would default on its existing debt.  A default would be catastrophic.  U.S. government bonds would no longer be considered an absolutely safe investment, which means the Treasury Department would have to pay more interest to attract lenders.  This would not only mean the federal debt would compound at a faster rate.  It would push up U.S. interest rates generally.  It would be more expensive to take out a car loan, a home mortgage or a small business loan.

Fortunately there are other options.

The most likely option would be a partial shut-down of the federal government.  I can’t guess what would be cut.  Presumably the military and Homeland Security would be exempt.  Would the national parks be closed?  Would the Postal Service suspend or reduce mail deliveries?   I don’t know.  Would it be legal to reduce or suspend payments for Social Security, Medicare and other so-called entitlements programs mandated by law? I don’t know.  Would federal employees have to take a pay cut or suspension of wages? Maybe.

Another possibility would be that the Federal Reserve system would simply create money to pay down the national debt.  That, in fact, is the normal mechanism by which money is “printed.”  It is what was done with “quantitative easing.”  I can’t guess the long-term consequences of this would be, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea.  But it is an option (if the Fed agrees – admittedly, a big “if”).  Creating money by buying Federal bonds would provide a means to keep the federal debt within the legal limit while continuing the normal operations of the federal government.

The final possibility is that President Obama would simply refuse to comply with the debt ceiling on Constitutional grounds.  But such a confrontation wouldn’t be his style, and the Constitutional argument seems weak to me.  It rests on Section 4 of the 14th Amendment states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.”  But it is an option.  He could make his Constitutional claim and see what the courts say.


Wedge issues and generation gaps

May 24, 2011

I’m 74 years old.  I’m a member of the most fortunate generation in American history so far.  Like almost everyone in my generation who was willing and able to work, I held reasonably secure jobs at reasonably good wages.  Between my discharge from the Army and my retirement, I had only two employers.  Now I enjoy a secure retirement, based on Social Security, a company pension and my own savings and investments.

Few people under age 55 enjoy are so fortunate.  They have typically experienced layoffs, downsizings, flat wages (in inflation-adjusted terms) and diminishing pension and health benefits.  During the late 1980s and the 1990s, when I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, some companies in Rochester negotiated two-tier wage contracts, under which existing wages and benefits would be maintained for the existing union members, but newly hired workers would get less.  The assumption was that people will fight to keep what they have, but accept being denied what they never knew.

Labor unions are based – or should be based – on the principle of equal pay for equal work, and the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.  Besides being morally wrong, two-tier contracts are short-sighted.  The newly-hired second-class workers will direct their justified resentment not at the company, but at the union leaders and members who sold them out.  If sacrifice is necessary to preserve jobs, it should be shared by everyone, including management.

Now Paul Ryan, Alan Simpson and others propose a two-tier retirement system.  People of my generation would get to keep our Social Security and Medicare at current levels, but the new retirees would have to retire later and receive fewer benefits.  We current retirees would be foolish to fall for this.  The wrath of the generation behind us would fall not on those privatized Social Security and voucherized Medicare, but those of us who still enjoy retirement security.  I don’t believe that the proposed cutbacks are necessary, but, if they are, they should be shared equally by all.

You already see this in the split between union and non-union workers.  Some non-union workers, seeing the better wages and job security that union members get, do not conclude that they should have unions of their own.  Rather they think of the union members are enjoying special privileges that should be taken away.


Where the deficit comes from

May 24, 2011

If you are serious about reducing the U.S. government’s debt, you need to start with the figures shown in this chart.

Click to enlarge

The largest factor in the debt is the Bush-era tax cuts.  If you thought the most important thing is to reduce the government’s debt, you would restore tax levels to the level in the 1990s.  This means middle-class taxes as well as taxes on the rich.  I’m willing to do my share, if the millionaires and billionaires do theirs.

The next largest factor in the debt is the economic downturn.  Government outlays for unemployment insurance and food stamps increase, while fewer people are earning wages and salaries to provide tax revenue.  If you thought the most important thing is to reduce the debt, you would make a plan to put Americans back to work.

The third largest factor in the debt is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now mutating into wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and maybe Yemen.  If you thought the most important thing is to reduce the debt, you would make a plan to wind those wars down.


Dimitry Orlov’s worst-case scenario

May 23, 2011

I have long seen the parallels between the economic stagnation of the United States and the plight of the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era – the failure of industries to compete, the crumbling infrastructure, huge trade deficits, huge foreign debt merely to prop up the material standard of living, the decline of the standard of living despite this, and the projection of military power worldwide as a denial of decline.

But I never until recently thought there is a possibility that the United States would completely collapse as the Soviet Union did.  Even at the depths of the Great Depression or the worst of our Civil War, the United States held together as a society.

Dimitry Orlov makes me to think otherwise.  Like James Howard Kunstler, he points out the interlocking and reinforcing nature of our problems.  The peaking of the world oil supply, the change in global climate and other ecological problems are serious, but not beyond the power of human beings to deal with.  But in the United States, such problems are combined with commitment to open-ended quagmire wars, an economy running on debt rather than production, and a gridlocked government less and less able to perform routine functions, much less cope with crisis.

Orlov says that many of the strengths of the United States will become weaknesses and vice versa, as happened with the old Soviet Union.  One of the things the United States offered its citizens is the possibility of home ownership.  In contrast, the typical Russian family consists of three generations crammed together in one apartment.  But when affordable gasoline ceased to be available, this Russian family was in a better position to survive than the scattered American family will be, with its members stranded in suburbs hundreds of miles apart.

There have been times in the past when the U.S. government was as corrupt and ineffective as it is now, and eventually progressive and populist reformers emerged to fix things.  But in those eras, the United States was growing in wealth and strength.  Reform was a matter of making adjustments so that all Americans benefited from the nation’s forward progress.  Today’s situation is different.  We are in a situation in which the country’s future survival is as much at risk as in World War Two or the Civil War, but unlike in those eras, the peril is not obvious.


Bertrand Russell’s rule

May 22, 2011

When people are mistaken as to what is to their own interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.


A wooden yards-long gravity-power xylophone

May 21, 2011

Here’s a new YouTube video to replace the one that died. [10/17/13]

The supercomputing human brain

May 20, 2011

Superhuman: the Incredible Savant Brain.

Infographic by

War school: a parable

May 20, 2011

Stick with this until the fifth minute to see the kicker.

Hat tip to The Browser.

Iran’s nuclear deterrent

May 19, 2011

I think it is likely that Iran is working on nuclear bombs and missiles because that is what I would do if I were Supreme Leader of Iran.  So long as people in the United States or Israel talk about attacking Iran, the rulers of Iran will try to acquire a deterrent.

Jonathan Schell in The Seventh Decade: the New Shape of Nuclear Danger, pointed out that every country that acquired nuclear weapons did so in response to some external threat.

The United States developed nuclear weapons for fear that Nazi Germany was trying to do the same thing.  The Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack by the United States.  Britain and France sought to deter a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union as well as to not be completely dependent on the United States for their defense.  China sought to deter the Soviet Union and the United States.  India sought to deter China as well as to assert great power status.  Pakistan sought to deter India.  North Korea and Israel are countries under siege with a need for deterrents.

It is understandable that the leaders of Iran, surrouned by a nuclear Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and U.S. fleet, would also seek a nuclear deterrent.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that a nuclear Iran would be a threat to the United States.  That is not so.  Russia is the only nation with a sufficient nuclear stockpile to threaten the existence of the United States.  But if Iran had only one nuclear weapon, and a missile capable of delivering it to the United States or Israel, that would be sufficient to deter an attack by either of those countries.  The United States would not be attacking Libya if the Libyan government had nuclear weapons.

I admit I could be wrong about Iran.  I thought Saddam Hussein was working on weapons of mass destruction for the same reasons I now think so about Iran – because that’s what I would have done.  I was surprised when Iraq’s nuclear weapons program turned out to be nonexistent.  I may be surprised about Iran, too, but I don’t think so.

The development of nuclear weapons by Iran’s would be a very bad thing.  It would likely spur acquisition of nuclear weapons by Arab nations whose rulers, as the Wikileaks documents revealed, are deeply concerned about the possibility of a nuclear Iran.  The more nations whose leaders have their finger on nuclear buttons, the more likely it is that someday that one of those buttons will be pushed.

But I don’t know what can be done to prevent it.  Possibly Iran would drop its nuclear weapons program if peace could be achieved with the United States, Israel and Iran’s Arab neighbors.  I don’t see a path as to how this can be accomplished.  I don’t think sanctions and threats will achieve this purpose.


A century of psychology and social control

May 18, 2011

Links updated 9/17/2016:  Click on this if the embedded videos don’t work.

Recently I came across this four-part BBC series on how the corporate and governmental elites use the ideas of Sigmund Freud to manipulate and control the public.  It is full of fascinating facts I never knew.

Freud taught that human beings are at the mercy of powerful desires and emotions arising out of the subconscious mind.  The theme of this series is how corporations and governments in the 20th century sought to bypass critical thinking and manipulate the public by tapping into these desires and emotions.

The first program in the series is above.  It describes the early career of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, founder of the profession of public relations.  Born in 1891, Bernays was brought to the United States as a boy, and he served during World War One in the Wilson administration disseminating war propaganda.

During the 1920s, Bernays pioneered the use of advertising based not on the objective merits of a product, but on the consumer’s desires and anxieties.  He broke the taboo against women smoking cigarettes in public, for example, by making cigarette smoking a symbol of women’s liberation.

Bernays believed that the average human being was too stupid to be an intelligent decision-maker in a democracy.  If American business could find out what people wanted on a deep level and provide it, then traditional democracy would be unnecessary, he thought; if people could express themselves through focus groups, traditional political participation would be unnecessary.

Producer Adam Curtis follows Bernays into the 1930s, when he advised the National Association of Manufacturers on its propaganda offensive against the New Deal, and helped organize the 1939 World’s Fair, a tribute to the ability of the free enterprise system to satisfy the public’s needs and wants.  He touches on now Nazi propagandist  Joseph Goebbels openly rejected rational argument, and appealed to deep emotions and instincts.  It would have been interesting to compare Nazi and Soviet propaganda, inasmuch as both ideologies rejected the ideas of Sigmund Freud, but you can’t get everything into a one-hour program.


UN says North Korea aids Iran missile buildup

May 17, 2011

A leaked United Nations report says that North Korea, aided and abetted by China, is helping Iran develop its missile and nuclear programs, in violation of UN sanctions.

This is bad news.  The greater the number of countries that have nuclear weapons, the more additional countries will want nuclear weapons, to defend themselves against the existing nuclear powers.  Nuclear proliferation will snowball.

At the same time, if I were President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran, I would be doing my best to acquire nuclear weapons and missiles.  North Korea has arguably the most oppressive regime on the planet, but the United States does not dare attack it because of its nuclear weapons and missiles.  If the Iraqi or Libyan governments had possessed nuclear weapons, the United States would not have attacked those countries.  So when the Iranian rulers read discussion in Israel and the United States about attacking Iran, they draw the natural lesson.

An attack on Iran, besides being a crime against humanity, would not be a “solution” to the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons – not unless the attackers were prepared to invade and occupy Iran indefinitely.  Otherwise the likely result is to instill the Iranian population with a desire for revenge so that, in the course of time, the attack would bring about what it was supposed to prevent.

The only long-range answer to the problem of nuclear weapons is for all the countries that possess weapons to turn control over to a neutral international authority, and for credible guarantees to be given nations such as Israel and North Korea who think the need nuclear weapons for protection against attack.  I don’t think it likely that this will be done any time soon, but, if the world is to be safe from nuclear war,  it will have to happen sometime.  Nuclear deterrence has worked so far, but there will come a time when it doesn’t work.

Free speech and burning Korans

May 17, 2011

The Rev. Terry Jones, an obscure Florida pastor with 50-odd followers and a cigarette lighter, has made himself into a world figure by burning a Koran.  He was denounced by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petreaus, not to mention Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.  They blame him for Muslim riots from Pakistan to Dearborn, Mich., and they say he puts American lives at risk.

Rev. Terry Jones

Jones is a malicious fool, and the image of burning books is offensive to anybody who believes in freedom and reason.  Book burning conjures up images of Nazi Germany, with its bonfires of “un-German” books, or the former Roman Catholic Inquisition, which burned books (including Korans) as well as people.

But here’s the thing.  Jones has not killed anyone.  He has not threatened to kill anyone.  He has merely exercised his Constitutional right of free speech, the same Constitution that protects American Muslims against religious persecution, in an unwise way.  There is no “Muslim rage” exception to the First Amendment.

If some Christian or Jewish Americans attacked some random Muslims because of their rage over the 9/11 attacks, their rage would not be an excuse for their crime.  No matter how angry you get, you are still legally and morally responsible for your own actions.  In the same way Muslims who attack random Americans or Christians are morally responsible for their actions.  Many of us Americans are angered at the burning of the American flag, but we refrain from going on murderous rampages.

If the Rev. Terry Jones poked a bear with a stick or threw a stone into a wasps’ nest, he would be responsible for what happened next.  Bears and wasps are not morally responsible for their actions. Human beings are.  They have a choice as to how to react.  The best way to deal with people like him would be to ignore him – to deprive him of the attention he craves.

But as long as we’re talking about doing things that enrage people, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus between them are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslim noncombatants, as a predictable byproduct of war operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In my opinion, their actions have done more to enrage Muslims than all the fundamentalist Protestant Christian preachers in the world put together.

Think about it.  What would be more likely to send you into a rage – (1) the reduction of your home town or city to rubble by a foreign occupying army, (2) the killing of loved ones by a misguided missile or by a nervous trooper at a roadblock, (3) the disappearance of somebody you know into a secret prison for no known reason, or (4) a YouTube video of the desecration of a sacred symbol of your religion by somebody on the other side of the world?


Term limits: an e-mail chain letter

May 16, 2011

Some friends of mine sent me the following chain e-mail last night.

The 26th amendment (granting the right to vote for 18 year-olds) took only 3 months & 8 days to be ratified!  Why?  Simple!  The people demanded it.  That was in 1971…before computers, before e-mail, before cell phones, etc.

Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven (7) took 1 year or less to become the law of the land…all because of public pressure.

I’m asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise.

In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the message.  This is one idea that really should be passed around.

  Congressional Reform Act of 2011
1. Term Limits. 12 years only, one of the possible options below..

   A. Two Six-year Senate terms
   B. Six Two-year House terms
   C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

2.  No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

3.  Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately.  All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 10-1-11

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career.  The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S. ) to receive the message. Maybe it is time..

THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS!!!!! If you agree with the above, pass it on.   If not, just delete

I think the frustration many Americans feel with Congress is thoroughly justified, but these proposals don’t get at the real problems, which are (1) the power of big money in campaigns and elections, (2) the way Congress, their staffs and members of the Executive Branch take jobs with powerful vested interests when out of office and (3) gerrymandering of congressional districts to create uncontested seats.

I think that, all other things being equal, experience is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Lobbyists don’t automatically retire after a maximum number of years.  Increasing the number of new and inexperienced congresspeople will not reduce the lobbyists’ influence.

Note that, under the 27th amendment to the Constitution, no pay raise for Congress can go into effect until after the subsequent election. As a historical footnote, that amendment was enacted 182 years after being introduced as part of the original Bill of Rights in 1789.

I agree with having Congress participate in Social Security and Medicare, but don’t think that a proper subject for a constitutional amendment.

The Constitutional amendments I would favor are as follows:

To require legislative districts, on the state as well as the federal level, be drawn up by nonpartisan commissions based on rational criteria, and to allow districting to be challenged in court based on irrationality.

To limit the rights given a “person” under the Constitution to individual human beings, not corporations, organizations or groups.

The first proposed amendment would make elections competitive, or at least more competitive than they are now.  I don’t agree, by the way, with drawing district boundaries to create racial safe seats for member of minority groups.

The second proposed would make it possible to limit the power of corporate and organizational money in politics without somebody claiming this was a violation of free speech rights.  Individuals within a corporation or organization have free speech rights.  A corporation is not a person; it is an organizational structure, created by law, to give certain privileges to members of the corporation.  Curbing the power of corporations would still be a difficult struggle.  Such an amendment would prevent the struggle from being an impossible one.

The proposals in the chain e-mail do not get at the root of the problem.  We should be concerned about the ventriloquists, not the dummies.

If you can’t see my pictures and charts…

May 16, 2011

If you can’t see this web log’s pictures and charts, double click on the blank space and see what happens.

I can see the jpg and gif images all right on my Firefox browser, but not on my Safari browser.  I don’t know what the problem is, but double clicking seems to take care of it.

If you’re having any other problems viewing this web log, this post’s comment thread would be a good place to report it.

The greatest infographic ever drawn

May 16, 2011

Double click to enlarge

Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information, wrote in the former book that this chart, drawn by the French engineer and civil servant Charles Joseph Minard in 1861, “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

I’ve admired Tufte and his work for decades.  You can’t understand the contemporary world without understanding statistics, and, as W. Edwards Deming said, no number means anything unless it can be meaningfully compared with something else.  Where statistics are concerned, a good graphic is worth a thousand words of text – provided the graphic presents the information understandably and without distortion.

The graphic above on Napoleon’s retreat is a great example of how to do it.  At a glance, you can see the position and size of Napoleon’s army on the map at any given date, and how it dwindled as it advanced, then retreated.  A second glance, at the line on the bottom, shows the temperates on the dates during the retreats.

I read Tufte’s first two books in the 1990s, when I worked for Gannett newspapers, which were a pioneer in presenting graphic information, and I recommended them to everyone who would listen to me.  I still recommend them to all newspaper editors, graphic designers, technical writers and individual citizens who want to avoid being misinformed.


Bertrand Russell’s message to our descendants

May 15, 2011

Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s most important and most interesting thinkers, lived from 1872 to 1970.  The video is from a BBC Face-to-Face interview in 1959.