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January - March 2010

Signs of the Times II

In Search of Dreamers

SCOTUS for Free Speech!

Ken Burns' Avatar

Common Sense I

Monday, January 4, 2010

   Signs of the Times II - Happy New Year!!  And, New Decade!!  Time for some more signs of the times . . .  Click on any photo, below, for a larger image.

     At Flaming Gorge, in northern Utah, we stopped at the visitor's center.  Pretty nice place, with good camping facilities and nice opportunities for outdoor activities that seem to have a minimum of government regulation.  Still, the sign for the restroom struck me as odd, especially if you happen to be thirsty!

     We had stopped at Flaming Gorge on our way to a mini-vacation at Yellowstone.  While there, we toured all the main geyser areas.  Parking was a problem during the height of the day.  And, not surprisingly, there was also quite a bit of congestion at the public restrooms.  When people line up for a pit toilet, you can pretty much figure that there is some problem with management at this national park.

     As a frequent visitor to Grand Canyon, I have always chuckled at how the Park Service puts locks on the toilet paper.  Not surprising, really, since it is a particularly valuable commodity.  It is a great example of Adam Smith's diamond-water paradox.

     OK, by now you are probably seeing the theme here.  This restroom is located along the main geyser loop that starts from Old Faithful.  We took this walk during our final morning staying at this location.  We both decided that this facility was one of the worst, if not the absolute worst, outhouse we have ever had to use.  It smelled so bad, that we couldn't even close the door while using it.  And, it is within walking distance of one of America's foremost natural wonders.  Good thing we can't capture the whole essence on the web!!

     On the other hand, the restrooms at Mammoth Hot Springs were pretty good, but unlike the inference from the sign shown here, it wasn't really all that big!!

     After our trip to Yellowstone, we traveled back home via Utah, staying for one night at Bear Lake and two nights at Arches National Park.  Along the way home from Arches, we passed this place, which may be a restroom, but we decided it was unwise to check it out!

     The sign, to the left, was on a table of British foods offered up at the Celtic Festival in Flagstaff.  You can click on it to see it better, but it reads, "Heat Damaged Chocolate Digestives.  Regularly $5.85.  NOW ONLY $3 each."  We almost bought some, but would we really have tried them?  Especially if they were heat damaged??  Probably not, unless we were next to some mammoth restrooms, where the was lots of TP (because it was locked in place), and we were able to get a cold drink after doing our business!  OK, time to get off my duff and get some real work done.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

   In Search of DreamersOver the Thanksgiving break of last year, I was able to backpack into Trinity canyon, so that I could "finish" up my spring break hike that was cut short by an accident.  I was interested in being able to spend some time looking for traces of an old survey crew.  Bill Ferris and I found the sites I wanted to find and got some great photos.  Bill wrote up a great trip report on his blog, and I solicited the local paper for an opportunity to write about our little adventure.  The editor was quite interested and my story ran on January 19, 2010...


Read the full story, A Hike to Trinity Canyon: In Search of Dreamers in
the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal.

Friday, February 12, 2010

   SCOTUS for Free Speech! - The Supreme Court struck a blow for free speech with the recent Citizens United decision.  The case revolved around whether certain McCain-Feingold restrictions were constitutional.  The group, Citizens United, had put together a political video, but decided that circulating it would violate the law and took their challenge to the highest court in the land.  To my mind, the whole campaign finance reform movement has been a farce, at best, and wholly antithetical to the precepts of the first amendment to the constitution, at worst.  I can vividly recall seeing video footage of Warren Rudman (Rep) and Eugene McCarthy (Dem), both retired senators, walking up the steps of the Supreme Court Building, in contesting these laws.  But, I don't remember the specific circumstance, so I couldn't find a web link.  Still, McCarthy was an early opponent of these laws, and participated, at some level, in the reasonably well-known Buckley case.

     One might think that liberals would be more inclined to embrace free speech, but I am coming to the conclusion that the only two "values" liberals really have are (i) government is good, and the bigger, the gooder; and (ii) business is bad, and the bigger, the badder.  Still, the ACLU took Citizens United's side in this case, and the Huffington Post has an unusually cogent and thoughtful commentary up on its site by the former executive director of the ACLU.

     So, there are issues here that have been debated for some time.  The ruling by the Supreme Court is not especially broad, although there is talk that McCain-Feingold is headed for the trash heap.  In the local paper, they published a special commentary on this subject by an academic at NAU's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.  Given the venue (the paper's ad hoc "Coconino Voices" column) and the extended length, one might expect a polite and civil commentary.  Sadly, that was not the case.  Instead of taking the high road, Robert Schehr launched into a screed against the court, calling for the impeachment of the justices voting for free speech (i.e., in the majority).  Well, I couldn't resist penning a response, and the paper published my letter yesterday.  Of course, I don't get as much space as Schehr did, but I think I got my point across:

SCOTUS and campaign finance (Citizens United)

To the editor:

The constitution states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …”  How the travesty known as McCain-Feingold has lasted this long is a puzzle to me.  Its partial dismemberment by the Supreme Court was like a breath of fresh air.

So, when I read Robert Schehr’s commentary, I was cringing when he called for impeaching justices who voted in the majority.  Unbelievable.

Schehr’s diatribe is false and disingenuous.  It is false to assert that “money is not speech.”  Of course it is speech!  If it wasn’t, the only speech we’d get is from the government.  Sort of like Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela, which is not my idea of a role model.

Schehr infers that we are talking about giant corporations.  We aren’t.  The case involved a corporation (non-profit) that was formed to make and distribute a critical video about Hillary Clinton.  That video could not be shown during the 2008 primary season because it violated McCain-Feingold.  If they had mass mailed these videos, then the government would have had to send out the police to round up the offending “speech” and destroy it.  That sends chills up my spine, even if that doesn’t bother Schehr.

Interestingly, corporate contributions are permitted for local candidates in some states.  One such state is Illinois.  One such recipient was a state senator named Barack Obama.  And, at least one donor was a foreign corporation.  All legal.  And, I have no problem with that.  But, I wish that the Supreme Court had struck down the entire McCain-Feingold atrocity.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

A few other points are in order here:

The Barack Obama story.  The CU web site mentioned this tidbit, but I went web searching to insure it was accurate before including it in my letter.  Indeed, I sent the letter to the editor (rather than use the on-line submission) in order to include that support, because I feared that he would think it was nonsense and we'd have to dance around the issue, or that he would drop it out of the letter, and I didn't want that to happen.  So, the state of Illinois has a Campaign Disclosure site, where you can search their database for this information.  I did two searches - one for "Citibank" and another for "AstraZeneca" (in the "Last or Only Name" box) and got a list of their contributions.  They both made small ($1000 and $500) donations to the "Friends of Barack Obama," one in 2001 and the other in 2002.  These are exactly the kinds of corporate donations that have people up in arms.  They were, of course, for his campaign for state office, not his race for the U.S. Senate - such a donation would be, and still is, illegal.  AstraZeneca is a British-owned firm, although the donations came through their Delaware offices.  So, in his State of Union address, I don't know if Obama is being disingenuous, or just plain hypocritical, when he said, "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."

Money as free speech.  When I first read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, I was instantly convinced by his argument that political freedom is an illusion without economic freedom (although the reverse need not be true).  That is, you can't exercise any political freedom without economic resources.  So, if you don't have access to money, you don't have the ability to operationalize any political freedom.  Powerful stuff.  And, quite frankly, in a country where the political opinion is pretty much 50-50, the "money" isn't just on one side of the political spectrum.

There are risks from corporate donations.  Most opponents, Schehr included, make the mistake of thinking that giant corporations can just pour money into a campaign and win.  Laughable.  First, stockholders may react quite unkindly to this kind of expenditure, and even write restrictions into their own firm.  And, again, in a 50-50 country, can a firm, especially a giant firm, really afford to potentially alienate half its customer base?  I don't think so.  Consider the left wing opposition to advertisers on Glenn Beck's most excellent show on Fox News.  These advertisers never endorsed Beck's opinion of anything, and he isn't running for office, yet they were cowed into pulling ads on one of the most widely seen shows on cable - which is what advertisers want.  So, how likely is it, really, that they contribute money directly to a political campaign?  Slim and none.

Corporations need not be large.  The other big issue here, which I mention in the letter, is that the complaining about "corporate donations" only presumes large corporations.  As I just noted, these firms would be skating on thin ice to engage in much of that kind of activity (if legal).  More likely, you'd get small groups that have to incorporate in order to conduct their business.  And, they are the ones most likely to jump into the political fray - e.g., the Swift Boaters of 2004.  The "corporate" designation is legal necessity.  But, all you ever hear about is the scare tactic of the big corporation.  Indeed, here in Flagstaff, one resident has a business selling t-shirts.  A couple years ago, he was selling shirts that said, "Bush lied.  They died." along with the names of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Despicable.  But, the state legislature decided it should be illegal.  Also, despicable.  And, eventually overturned by a court.  The main argument was that he shouldn't be allowed to profit from his free speech.  Yeech!

Some large corporations are exempt from McCain-Feingold.  Surprised to learn that "media" corporations don't have to abide by some of the McCain-Feingold restrictions?  Well, not really, when you consider how politics is done.  And, I suspect that most people would probably agree with the exemption, but it is still a case of playing favorites - only certain corporations get free speech rights!  Indeed, over the last election cycle, there had been some talk of prohibiting bloggers from political speech as part of these ridiculous laws.  So far, that hasn't happened.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

   Ken Burns' Avatar - When PBS aired Ken Burns' 12 hour documentary, "The National Parks," I recorded it for later viewing.  This past week, I have finally gotten around to watching it - pretty much an episode each night.  I am through four episodes and have two left, but feel compelled to do a bit of blogging about what I have seen so far.

     On the one hand, at least this epic isn't all about race, which is the theme of his earlier works, The Civil War and Baseball.  I think that race has to be a major theme of the "The Civil War," but he pushes the agenda a bit far in that documentary.  Still, I give him 5 stars for that film and I own a copy.  But, then he goes over the top with this theme in the later "Baseball" documentary, which led me to get tired of it and stop watching somewhere along the way.  At least in "The National Parks," the issue of race (primarily with regard to Native Americans) seems more muted.

     That got me to thinking about it a bit more.  Clearly, we can all despise the fact of the Civil War, so making it all about race and an indictment against white Americans works.  And, really, baseball is just a game, so who really cares if that story can also be made all about racial injustice?  But, the parks story presents a filmmaker like Burns with a dilemma.  While he could make this all about race, too, he is in a bind since he wants to extol the virtues of the National Parks.  Flawed though those virtues are.  So, I am glad that he had to squirm in making this film, and couldn't play the same race card he usually does.

     Still, he does have another card to play - businesses are bad and greedy and we should hate them.  So far, over the course of six hours, the drumbeat against business has been unremitting.  Even when a business seems to be getting good treatment, there is usually a twist in the end - for example, the railroads helped to preserve some places, but it was so they could profit, hence they could not be trusted.  A particularly memorable story involved James Hutchings, who built a hotel in Yosemite Valley.  He was roundly criticized in the narration, and one early tourist is quoted as complaining about the cloth dividers which separated the upstairs rooms.  The intent was clearly that Hutchings was trying to scam tourists by charging a lot and providing little.  Yet, in the next breath, the narration goes on to describe how Hutchings hired John Muir to build a sawmill and that one of the first things he built were walls to separate the hotel rooms!

     The story of the Grand Canyon is also long on indictment of business, especially in the form of Ralph Cameron.  Yet, there is no mention that Cameron actually bought the Bright Angel Trail from the previous proprietor - the implication is just that he owned the trail by being there.  And, while the Kolb brothers get generally good coverage, not a peep about Mary Colter, nor the Fred Harvey Company.  Indeed, I am quite astonished at how many spectacular shots of the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon have been shown without a single sighting of the Desert View Watchtower!

     So, it seems to me that this 12 hour indulgence in anti-business rhetoric is really just Burns' version of James Cameron's Avatar.  Really cool pictures, but the story drags on far too long, and no 3-D glasses.  I guess that expecting Ken Burns to be "fair and balanced" was just hoping for too much.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

   Common Sense I - While I am technically still in the midst of reading Atlas Shrugged, I have decided to do a close read of Glenn Beck's Common Sense.  I picked it up last summer and read through part of it.  But, then I set it down and haven't taken the time to go back and finish up.  So, I offered the chance to discuss the book to the two campus clubs to which I am the faculty advisor.  In preparation of such a discussion, I am reading the book with pen and paper in hand, so that I can better think about the issues and themes that Beck raises.  So, herewith is the first part of what I plan to be a five part review of Beck's work as well as of Thomas Paine's original, which is included in this volume.

Note & Introduction
    Beck is clearly passionate about his beliefs and unafraid to express what he thinks.  But, he is also unequivocal about this being a "non-violent" crusade.  At regular (or, not) intervals, he will stop and reiterate that this is not about violence.  He does the same thing on his TV show.  His critics may slam his style, as well as his views, but they never laud his unrelenting advocacy of peaceful change.  So, they aren't serious critics.
     His description of who "we" are is an excellent portrait of the middle class.  But, instead of using that phrase, he paints the picture, so that we can read it and nod with agreement - yes, that is who we are.  He is scathing with regard to politicians and their lip service to the American people.  He writes that we are not activists, but we are frustrated.  This theme reminded me of Nixon's "silent majority" - people who stood with his "values" but weren't about to go out into the streets and march around.  I think there is something to this connection and that Beck is tapping into the same segment of our society.

I.  The Reshaping & Redefining of America
     Beck is keen to write about our discomfort at the way things are.  But, it all seems rather vague and general.  I suppose that reflects our current situation.  On the one hand, we hate politicians, yet, on the other hand, we keep voting them back into office.  His argument that we are inevitably drawn to a "life of ease," thus sacrificing our freedoms and liberties captures the difficulty in getting people interested in the discussion to begin with.  We may empathize with Peter Finch's character in Network when he sticks his head out the window and cries out, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more."  But, then what?
     I think Beck is right when he notes that most Americans don't really know what they believe.  Partly, this is due to just taking our situation for granted.  But, also, I think it is the inherent difficulty in getting people to sit down and say to themselves, "You know, I like the idea of self-rule and freedom."  It seems like it was easier to do this during the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War and WWII, but that it is quite difficult for people to hang their hats on those ideas when not faced with such overt calamities.
     Well, and that tells us what Beck is railing about - covert calamities.  Ones that are hard to define precisely.  Ones that almost inevitably get boiled down into dueling catch phrases ("Kill the Bill" vs. "Health Care for All").  I agree wholeheartedly with Beck's observation that government is an "unreliable ... partner in safeguarding ... liberty."  But, then people want prescription drug coverage, and they want to use public transit, and they like the idea that poor and disadvantaged people get taxpayer help.  In a contest between principles and specifics, it is very hard for principles to win out.

II.  Money - The Real Opiate of the Masses
     I don't know if most readers get the reference to the subtitle here - Karl Marx (but, on the topic of religion).  I don't think that "money" is the right term here, but it is an easy target for Beck.  His discussion about the trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities (Medicare, Social Security, et al.) is spot on.  The problem is that everyone wants a free lunch, and, as any economist will tell you, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.  Beck's relating this to Ponzi schemes in general, and Bernie Madoff in particular, fits in with my take on the true problem.  And, while Beck argues that this is a current dilemma, I would respectfully disagree.  Of course, Charles Ponzi was from an earlier era.  And, when we talk about the housing bubble, certainly many of us will call to mind the famous tulip bubble that infected the Dutch in the 1600s.
     So, I am not convinced that politicians are any better than they were in the past.  The harkening back to the good old days, when character mattered, is . . .  well, disingenuous.  A book I have my students read is Thomas DiLorenzo's How Capitalism Saved America.  I was fascinated by DiLorenzo's cataloging of political abuses in the early days of the Republic, when many states (and, later, the Confederate States of America) actually wrote into their constitutions prohibitions on the use of tax money for road improvements.  These were early examples of unfunded liabilities, or debt gone bad, which almost bankrupted many states.
     When it comes to debt issues, I agree with Beck that it is out of control.  But, debt, in and of itself, is not bad.  And, the relative level of debt we have had was much higher following WWII.  So, I would argue that there is more nuance here than Beck is willing to consider.  And, when it comes to our "dependence" on foreigners when we sell our debt, I take a different view.  If the Chinese decide they don't want to buy our debt, it will hurt them as well as us.  But, to the extent that it makes it harder for us to sell debt, raising interest rates in the process, so it helps galvanize us to oppose this debt.

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