Liberty and License

December 11, 2018

With this Administration demolishing the regulatory state, we need to talk about the underlying claim of liberty. Conservatives once distinguished between liberty and license. Liberty was morally and socially responsible; license was not. That distinction seems to have disappeared from the conservative vocabulary. And with it the moral order in the country.

“Liberty” is now invoked whenever business confronts regulation. Citing “liberty,” business fought the exposure of Thalidomide even as it monstrously disfigured and eventually killed the child of one of my students. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to waste energy and sell energy wasting products no matter the impact on the climate. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to pollute with mercury, arsenic and an alphabet of poisons, to put anything into products, into or onto our bodies, earth, air and water unless and until someone else can prove it’s harmful. We don=t treat medicine that way but the claim is that it violates the “liberty” of supplement producers for us to ask for tests of whatever they don=t want to have to get FDA approval for. Some might think it also violates buyers= liberty to lead healthy lives B but perish the thought; that’s not economic “liberty.”

Because people Atook the risk@ B they called it Aliberty@ B financial institutions claimed the “liberty” to construct mortgage terms that made it virtually impossible for buyers to come out above water, destroying their savings, credit, health, homes, livelihood, families and future. In the Great Recession of 2008, those terms took the whole economy down as major companies, banks and markets failed in a cesspool of bizarre financial arrangements, subprime mortgages, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps, and similar misbegotten deals. And it was OK to bail out those who were too big to fail because they just exercised their “liberty.”

To the free marketeers, the President and CEOs, regulation is generalized and undifferentiated. All restrictions are regulation and they are all bad unless and until regulators spend decades jumping through hoops. Meanwhile producers bear no responsibility to check whether their products are harmful. They accept no liability when harms become obvious to science, but only when it becomes obvious to the very people who pour their poisons into our bodies and our world.

Put it another way. There is no single definition of liberty. There are different definitions of “liberty” for you and me, different definitions for farmers, cattle ranchers, factory workers, lumber workers, guys, gals, easterners, southerners, people who want to graze their animals on public lands without paying B everyone has their own definition of “liberty” and their definitions pay no attention to the impact on the rest of us or on anyone else. Which means that “liberty” no longer means anything.

Liberty for the founders was universal. “Liberty” now seems to be a sacred word applied to whatever is good for us personally but with no binding meaning. Otherwise why can=t I do what I want to do on public land whether or not it conflicts with public purposes or Cliven Bundy’s insistence that he has the right to graze his animals there. Why isn=t that the same “liberty” he insists on? “Liberty” is whatever a president chooses to do whether or not it is good for the country. “Liberty” is what conservatives think we all should respect when it pertains to their clients. Their “liberty” is meaningless, a signal that we=re talking about selfishness, not rights. They’re talking about what used to be called license to do whatever they want regardless of whom it hurts.

Real liberty regards us equally. We all have the same rights. It makes no sense if you can do to me what I can=t do to you. True liberty is freedom to act short of injuring others. We all count. And that, equality, is as American as apple pie.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 11, 2018.

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Impunity of the men on top?

July 12, 2018

The news has just announced that Alain Kaloyeros has been convicted on all counts. What he was convicted of doing was steering contracts to friends/supporters of Andrew Cuomo. That’s infuriating. Did Cuomo favor projects that went to his friends? That would have put everyone in a position where they had to break the law to be treated decently by the governor. And of course someone else gets the rap. I’m disgusted.

By the way, did the same thing happen when Trump removed Preet Bharara as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York? Since shortly after he was dismissed, we have heard nothing more about Bharara’s investigation of Fox. Coincidence? A subsequent US Attorney understanding who butters his bread? Or was he appointed because he and Trump had an understanding?


Why law?

February 13, 2018

Governments, including democracies, make laws and rules. Lots of folk spend lots of time telling us we don’t need regulation, or at least we need lots less. Laws and rules are restraints on our freedom to do what we want. And most people are honest. So why do we need law?

Let me tell you about a janitor at Albany Law. John DeMateo was very much beloved. Our gymnasium is named for John. He was always ready to lend a helping hand, often going way out of his way to be helpful. He hired students for the maintenance staff, giving them ways to earn the money they needed to get through their schooling. During breaks, especially the summer break, John used to put out an urn of coffee strictly on the honor system. Put in a quarter and take a cup. No one was watching. What John told me was fascinating. He never had any problem with people helping themselves to free coffee. I’m sure some people must have paid a little later when they got that quarter. But they were honest. However, and this is a big but, every summer someone figured out where he kept the money. It only took one. John still put the urns out but he told me that it barely paid his expenses. The vast majority of us were honest, but one dishonest person changed everything.

Law is for the few people whose unscrupulousness can make life miserable. I’ve heard a Harvard dean claim that a code of professionalism is better than law because scientists will follow it. But if there is any significant profit to be made from being unscrupulous, someone will follow that path too. Business tells us that most businessmen are honest. I’m sure that’s true. But how many unscrupulous business people does it take to make life miserable for the rest of us – especially when the unscrupulous, who cut corners that endanger the rest of us, can brag about how cheap their stuff is. Cheap indeed. And that puts pressure on everyone else. It puts pressure on other businesses, especially when it’s hard to find out who’s doing what. How easy is it for us to know that the workers who make our beloved running shoes are treated well? Or to understand the medical implications of all the stuff that goes into our food. Competition isn’t a level playing field. Many regulations are appreciated by business because they squeeze out the unscrupulous and make it easier to treat customers well and still stay in business. Generic chants about regulation are just sloppy reasoning that hide serious issues.

So when Trump and his cabinet officers tell you they’re going to weaken or eliminate regulations, does that mean everything is going right so we can trust what people are doing? Or does it mean a green light for those who are going to take advantage of non-enforcement to do us harm? Most people want to treat others well, but the few that don’t care will make life difficult for the rest of us. Sloppy language covers serious mistakes.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 6, 2018.


My introduction to Iran

November 10, 2017

With Iran in the news I’ve been remembering my own introduction to the country. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Iran in winter, after the semester had begun where we were supposed to teach. We were taken to the home of Prime Minister Hoveyda and stood there not knowing what to do or say. As it happened, I was standing next to the Prime Minister. Looking down, I realized we were standing on a magnificent Persian carpet.

We have a friend here who admired the carpet of another Iranian who instantly responded it was his. Sure enough, when our friend Bob got home, there was the carpet, rolled up and leaning against a corner. Bob was beside himself, not knowing what to do. But his friend showed up a few days later and admired the carpet. It’s yours, Bob quickly responded and the carpet was returned to its proper home. But I didn’t know that in the Prime Minister’s house and barely understood their system of etiquette.

I’ve since learned that it’s risky to make small talk with someone much higher on the social ladder – in any country. But I didn’t know that yet.

So I admired the Prime Minister’s carpet. Understanding American culture much better than I knew Iranian culture, Prime Minister Hoveyda dropped to the floor, motioning me to join him. He then turned over a corner of the carpet and gave me my first lesson in distinguishing the quality of Persian carpets, turning what could have been my intense embarrassment into a warm introduction to Iran.

Our next stop was Shiraz, near the ancient capital of Persepolis, in the desert over four hundred miles south as the crow flies or something like nine hours by car or bus. We went to what was then named Pahlavi University, designed to be an American style institution. All but one of us had graduate degrees so that we could teach there. The students were required to speak English and spoke it reasonably well.

But this country hadn’t told Iranian authorities who was in our group, or what we were qualified to teach. University officials had asked for natural scientists and one art historian, understanding that art historians were broadly trained and could be versatile. We had an art historian and people in the natural sciences. But we had an equal number of people in social science, economics, history, law and politics. The Peace Corps, and the late President Kennedy, wanted to get Americans over as soon as possible. So who was available determined who we sent. That was a problem, however, so Peace Corps and diplomatic personnel neglected to convey the information.

Therefore we were taken to the Provost’s office. He assembled the heads of each of the departments at the University. After he explained the situation, he asked department chairs which of us they could use. Since their semester had begun, we would be underemployed for a while, but our hosts were gracious in helping us get our feet on the ground. By the end of the semester we enjoyed many friendships among faculty and students. Our welcome was warm even if a bit chaotic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 7, 2017.

 

 


Generosity and the Las Vegas Massacre

October 17, 2017

Two weeks ago, I’d prepared commentary about the value of generosity in foreign affairs but awoke to the horrible reports from Las Vegas. I went ahead with it while I caught my breath and planned commentary about guns. But generosity is very relevant and I want to return to it. Gun rights definitions which don’t account for the thousands of people killed with guns every year are simply selfish. The it’s-my-gun-so-you-have-no-right-to-regulate-it attitude is selfishness, not liberty.

Stephen Paddock shouldn’t have been able to climb to the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort with automatic weapons just because he claimed the right. Automatic weapons don’t prevent government tyranny as gun advocates sometimes claim; they’re weapons of war and provoke tyranny. We all have a right to safety and security but nuts with powerful weapons deprive us of that birthright. In a battle between self-defined freedom seekers and the military, everyone loses, permanently.

Generosity and its absence are underlie most of our political struggles and the gridlock in our national affairs. Selfish definitions of liberty which refuse to take account of the damage to others are out of keeping with our national history and traditions. Like misbegotten gun claims, arguments for an unregulated market, which ignore the hundreds of thousands of people injured by selfish business and corporate practices, are hypocritical cover for outrageous behavior. Selfishness is not a definition of freedom.

Generosity is relevant in yet another way. Our polarized politics and lack of respect for each other reflect declining generosity, when me, me, me is all that matters but opponents don’t. When people throw bricks through windows, and shoot bullets through skulls over politics, there’s no safety except in hiding. How many congressmen and women will have to be shot before Congress comes to its senses? Unwillingness to work with a president of the other party, lest he accomplish anything, is about disrespect, where only one’s own purposes count. If it was appropriate to prevent a vote on President Obama’s nominee, though a majority of the Senate would have supported Garland, is there any reason to respect any decision for which Gorsuch is essential? If it was all about them, then it’s equally appropriate that it’s all about us. That’s not democracy. That’s war.

President Trump says we all come together after a tragedies like these. We know that has been nonsense, that pleas for help after Sandy were scorned by representatives of other parts of the country, and Trump treats the efforts of Puerto Ricans as less worthy than those elsewhere. People in the continental US would have been equally helpless except that relief agencies and the Red Cross were able to organize supplies where they could be delivered, and the destructiveness of the hurricane in Puerto Rico went far beyond what happened elsewhere. But no, this was an opportunity to disparage people who aren’t part of the Trump coalition. Shame.

Even the right not to be shot in the back by officials with badges has somehow become a political issue, as if there are two sides to that question. By comparison, I’m all for the immigrants and their generous patriotism. I’ve had it with selfish imposters like Trump, Cruz, and McConnell. This country may be great again but only when we are rid of the people whose political ideal is to tear us apart.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 3, 2017.


The Future of Jobs

April 18, 2017

Automation is changing the workforce. It creates some highly skilled jobs but eliminates many others, from service jobs like taxis to previously professional tasks like document review. Factory jobs are decimated by automation.

The industrial revolution was largely built on repetitive factory production lines, based on physical dexterity, repetition and obedience, not higher education. Automation handles repetitive tasks well. Eliminating them affects people very unequally.

How can we deal with that change? The historic Republican free-market approach, now pushed by Tea Party Republicans who control Congress, is that it’s none of our business.  For them, it’s every man, woman and child for him- or herself. Millions in breaks for big corporations and no security for the workers whose lives and livelihoods are the playthings of  markets, financial institutions and corporate interests. But woe to countries that forget their people, engulfed in power struggles and bloody civil wars with the fate of ordinary, hard-working and decent people as talking points and engines of recruitment.

Some jobs have been divided into a large class of “aids.” In Iran everyone from middle class up had a bagi, their term for servant. It’s a world of dependency, power, and deep social division, a world in which people can be taken advantage of. The market, so sacred to the ideologues, is pushing more and more people to join the service economy as maids, waiters, servants and sometimes as sex workers.  Notice the contrary pressures on the women’s movement, with some vying for the few high-end jobs and others being pressured into demeaning and dangerous activity.

We might share good jobs. Labor unions once looked toward a five-hour day. Or we might create jobs, keeping everyone busy and satisfying more of the community’s needs, from building and repairing bridges, roads, water systems and electric and internet grids, to watching over playgrounds. But actually we’re going the other way. Jobs that can create opportunities are being dropped. The pressures are all on workers to find or create ways to survive. We all feel the taxes but don’t notice the benefits.

I see our separation by wealth, color and origin blinding us to common problems. John Adrian Witt, a Yale historian speaking at Alumni House last week, sees organizational failure, like the 1920s before unions and public service organizations finally jelled, leading toward the New Deal reforms in the 1930s.

The New Deal gave us a powerful administrative state, capable of opposing and controlling corporate greed that demeaned and poisoned workers with dangerous equipment, noxious chemicals and contaminated foods. But that effective administrative state became the Republican target, stated theoretically as “regulation” – regulation everyone can be against unless broken down to the safety and honesty it is designed to protect.

There is also an ideological issue, especially when the unchecked power of the market is pushing the public to turn on each other and itself.

Workers are entitled to security. Graduates of high school, colleges, and universities are entitled to good jobs. Our job should not be to ask workers to justify their lives to the market; it should be to employ people to make a better America, much as the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt founded the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and many others. We can support each other, and make a better America for all of us. The market isn’t the answer; the market is the problem. When it doesn’t do what we need, we need to do what it screwed up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 18, 2017.


For Valentines Day 2016

February 9, 2016

It’s the time of year to think about love. I used to think that if you hadn’t heard Cho Cho San sing in Madame Butterfly about that fine day when Lieutenant Pinkerton would return to her, one had never heard a love song. Musically, I still think so. But what it really communicates is longing. Is that love?

Much of what we hear as popular music, or art songs or operatic love songs are songs of longing, loss or jealousy. Where’s the love?

Contrast that with Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy in Carousel where he starts thinking of the child he and Julie are expecting. First he thinks about the things he’ll do with “my boy Bill” until he realizes that the son he is dreaming about could be a she, and then realizes the ways that he will have to provide for her. Of course he is sexist in the ways that he thinks about his son or daughter, but he is also realizing and warming to the responsibilities of a loving husband and parent. Billy comes to understand that love is about the ways he can make his family’s lives better, not merely about his own pleasure.

Billy makes a big mistake and pays with his life. But the soliloquy that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote for him says a great deal about what love is about, the ways it transcends longing and jealousy, the joys of giving, the humanity of caring. I think that says a lot about the love that many of us experience. We seek the responsibility, the opportunity as well as pleasures of truly caring about others.

For me, that includes the satisfaction of taking seriously the needs of other Americans, of all origins, faiths and colors, and openness and respect toward visitors and immigrants. Respect and concern for others is part of asking the same for oneself. Ours is a very diverse country and it will be moreso in coming years. We can teach new generations of Americans that success is just a process of stomping on others to gain advantage or we can communicate the values of mutual concern and respect – toward others, and toward ourselves. Ultimately, peace depends on how well we treat each other, and how confident others are that they can live in peace and harmony with us.

The modern world has upended some ancient accommodations among peoples. Jews lived at peace in the Muslim world for a millenium and lived precariously in the Christian world for much of the same period. Colonialism played a part in changing that for the Muslim world. The racism and classism of colonialism stirred the Muslim soul and some of that has come out as anger. That illustrates the importance, as well as the morality, of the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated. For me it also points to the satisfaction of truly caring about others.

May I end with the words of the ancient Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 9, 2016.

 


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