The Dysfunctional House

February 26, 2013

I’ve spoken often about why sequester type budget cuts threaten a weak economy and can worsen the debt. Today I want to talk about history.

In 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled over the shape of Congress. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had the largest populations. The Carolinas and Georgia realized they had far fewer people, but since the primary activity of most Americans was farm or plantation labor, they thought their size would eventually give them large populations. So they formed a six state coalition for representation in proportion to population, especially with the added voting power of three fifths the number of their slaves – turning the principle of majority rule into a deal with the devil. Read the rest of this entry »

Due process & targeted assassination

April 24, 2012

Tasked with helping draft a constitution for India after World War II, B. N. Rau traveled abroad speaking to jurists. In Washington, Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter advised Rau not to include a due process clause in the Indian Constitution. Instead India should have a clause simply requiring that no one be charged with a crime but by the law of the land. That was the meaning of the Magna Carta in 1215 which said:

 No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned … or in any way destroyed … except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

 That meant Parliamentary supremacy. Whatever crimes and procedures the legislature defined were kosher. But there was no check on the legislature. Read the rest of this entry »

Our Stake in Europe

December 6, 2011

Do we have a stake in what is happening in Europe? Some countries, particularly in southern Europe are having trouble paying their debts in a recession. It shouldn’t be a surprise – taxes shrink in a recession. Of course in some places it is pathological – Greeks refuse to pay the taxes they owe in such large numbers that they are bankrupting their country. But the problem is wider, with deep roots in the recession.

As a result other countries have been reconsidering their participation in the Euro and even in the European Union itself. Should we care? Read the rest of this entry »

Should we let government attach their GPS’s to our cars?

November 9, 2011

Earlier today the Court heard arguments in United States v. Jones. For a solid month, the feds tracked Jones with the aid of a GPS device hidden on his car. And they got him. He dealt drugs. The feds figured it out and convicted him. Why should anybody care? GPS data can be very revealing. Shouldn’t we cheer? Read the rest of this entry »

The Threat to American Democracy

January 11, 2011

I’m angry and I’m not going to mince words. I fear for our republic.

Most Americans have little awareness of the violence in our past. But murder has been a feature of American politics since the Civil War, often making elections meaningless. Mass slaughter of Republicans after the Civil War allowed Southern Democrats to retake the South, by eliminating and terrorizing the opposition. Even the U.S. Supreme Court chose to look aside and let the South have its new “peculiar institution,”: substituting a reign of terror for legal slavery. Read the rest of this entry »

Violent Videos

November 10, 2010

The Supreme Court heard argument in a case about a California statute banning violent video games. The law mimics almost precisely the way the Supreme Court requires that laws restricting obscenity be written: the banned acts have to be precisely described, appeal to base instincts, be patently offensive, and without any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. In other words, if it’s worthless, it isn’t speech and government can stop it.

The justices doubted whether they should prohibit another form of speech, and if they prohibited violent speech, what next? Those questions would apply equally to obscenity. But my question, and Justice Breyer’s, is why we can ban pictures of naked people but not images of disgusting and worthless violence?

We commonly hear that obscenity and pornography are potentially harmful to women. Men who see it might do violent things to women. But the video games at issue do precisely that; they depict very violent behavior purely for the pain they cause. What’s the point of saying that sex, which is legal, and sometimes blessed, is off limits so long as it isn’t literary, but violence toward men, women, children or animals, which is illegal, and for which we put people in prison, is protected?

I once listened to an elderly women that I had long known describe to me and to her daughter her own sexual ignorance when she was married, and the pain that caused her. Some sex education would have been very helpful. I haven’t heard anyone tell me they missed out on life because they hadn’t seen films of people pouring gasoline on others and burning them to death.

I understand that people have dressed up their views of nudity and sex in religious garb. Yet any scripture that could be cited against sexual misbehavior also has plenty to say about misbegotten violence. There’s a choice being made and I wouldn’t blame it on God. The question for us is whether prudery is important more important than protecting people from the most obscene violence?

A portion of our country believes that exposing people to naked bodies or sexual behavior will ruin them for life and bring down the republic, but exposing them to violence and then handing them weapons just makes “men” out of boys. Actually, that is a much more direct threat to the republic.

Laws against porn, obscenity and violence are in tension with fundamental First Amendment principles – both are designed to control people’s minds, to make sure they think one way rather than the other. But it isn’t any more problematic for violence. Of the two, violence seems much more dangerous to the social fabric.

If we really want to make “men” out of boys and “women” out of girls, I’d suggest national service would provide a much more valuable lesson in shared responsibility – for all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 9, 2010.

The Rest of Us

September 23, 2010

Congress passed unemployment relief this summer over sustained Republican objections. Having lost that battle, Republicans in Congress are still fighting to maintain tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. There’s a fundamental problem here. Read the rest of this entry »


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