Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.


Band-aids or Systemic Change

July 1, 2014

Let me try to put some things in perspective. I spent a decade in the Legal Service Program which provides lawyers for the poor, first as a store-front lawyer, then in the management of programs or running a clinic. One of the recurring issues we used to debate was whether to focus on what we called “band-aids” or systemic change.

Band aids were individual relief for individual clients, generally much easier to get, but taking quite a lot of time for the few people we could help. It was important work, very satisfying and very frustrating at the same time because we could never make a dent in the needs most of our clients had that way. Read the rest of this entry »


Cooperation Required for Major Health Threats

June 10, 2014

First, it’s so good to have WAMC back doing regular programming. Congratulations all.

Many stations try to give us “news you can use,” by which they mean the things we can do for ourselves. But the things that really matter are the things that require our cooperation.

If we look at our major health threats, I think most people would name heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity. I sympathize with that position. With the help or advice of my doctors I’m keeping diabetes and my heart under control, partly by getting closer to what I weighed in college. So now we have a national health care system. Got those licked. Read the rest of this entry »


WAMC – An Oasis Of Sanity

June 3, 2014

This station is an oasis of sanity in a suicidal world.

So many people refuse to let the reality of climate change seep into their comfortable thoughts. But sealing their minds against reality will not keep it at bay. Changes are coming, and the more we close our minds and eyes the more serious it will be. We and our children and grandchildren are the hostages to the foolishness of our generation. This has got to stop. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Environmental Catastrophe Ringing from the Pulpit?

May 27, 2014

Let me lead with a question – Is the threat of environmental catastrophe ringing from every pulpit and ethical organization in the country? If not, why not? The Bible records many prophets and the price of ignoring them. Surely making clear the moral and religious imperative of preventing catastrophe is a basic function, a duty of the clergy. Read the rest of this entry »


Cities Against Suburbanization

May 9, 2014

Congress has been considering changing mortgage banking, reducing the role of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, the two federal superbanks that have been insuring and buying our mortgages for decades. Actually, the government should stop encouraging the suburbanization of America. Read the rest of this entry »


Global Warming and Human Politics

April 8, 2014

I just got back from Chicago where I attended a national meeting of political scientists.  One of them described at length the local, national and international barriers to doing anything about climate change.  His basic point was that those whose livelihood seemed to depend on activities that are bringing on climate change  are strategically placed to prevent the rest of us from doing anything.  His point is that to make anything happen  it would be necessary to make people come to think about what they are doing as wrong  in the teeth of evidence that it is good for them in their own lifetimes.  That also makes them totally resistant to the idea that climate change is happening,  that human activity is a substantial cause of the change, that it will do any damage  and that it is worth dealing with.  Ouch for the rest of us.

Then I attended a meeting where the speaker described the change of ideas.  He regarded those changes as inexplicable.  For most of human history war had been considered noble, a good thing, that made people stronger and better.  Then just before World War I, that started to change.  After that war, no one makes claims about the generic benefit of war  – war has become an occasionally necessary evil, but not a good thing.  And for most of human history, people had slaves.  Those that could would.  Slaves and slavery were valued.  It made you a big shot, and made your life easier.  Then suddenly in the eighteenth century it changed dramatically in Europe.  England began to block the slave trade  and shortly it was banned in Latin America, the serfs were freed in Russia,  and only the U.S. clung to slavery of the modern nation states.

In the speaker’s description, both ideas turned in reaction  to novels that separately described war and slavery as disgusting, as indeed they are.  In regard to war,  the novel described the scene of rotting and dismembered corpses on a battlefield.  In the case of slavery,  another novel described the brutality of the way slaves were treated.  Both of course were accurate.  The facts, however, were not new.  What was new was disgust.

I’m no novelist but global warming is disgusting.  Global warming is an extinction of ourselves.  We and our children and children’s children  will be strewn on nature’s battlefield  gasping for water and air,  our bellies distended for lack of food,  our homes lost to the elements,  our skin alternately burned and frozen,  unable to protect our children, wives, husbands or parents,  indeed some will become too desperate to care.  Global warming will take everything from us that makes us human.  It has been doing that piecemeal in the aftermath of storms that have left people totally destitute in parts of the world.  It will exceed our capacity to put people back on their feet as the oceans take back the coasts.  It will poison us, as a warming climate spreads diseases for which we have no defenses,  leaving us to rot from diseases few of us have seen  and none of us care to see except as the noblest of doctors and nurses.  It will extinguish our food supplies  and it is attacking the supply of the air we breathe.

Global warming is disgusting. Pass it on.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 8, 2014.

 


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