Benjamin Franklin Would Not Be Proud

 

With each successive year, the United States Postal Service shows more cracks in its structure, and at no time of year is that more evident than around the year end holidays as letter and package volume increases. It’s difficult to find empirical evidence of the Postal Service’s failings as a delivery service, though anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Just about everyone has tales to tell of late delivery, non-delivery, delivery to the wrong address, or failure to pick up mail. If it seems these failings are increasing, that’s more than likely an accurate assessment because the United States Postal Service is beset both from within and without.

The Postal Service as originally designated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution, says nothing about profitability of the Service, only that it is a necessary manifestation of interstate commerce and communication. The Founders recognized it as a public utility, in other words, not a business for private profit making as much as a service for the benefit of the public, with all the implications for public subsidy that can entail.


Along the way from 1775, when the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin the first Postmaster General of the fledgling United States of America, some right wing factions got the idea that the Postal Service should behave as a quasi-private business still under government control. They got their way first in 1971 when the Postal Service was transformed into an independent agency under the Executive Branch, and then even more importantly in 2006 after Congress passed legislation requiring the Postal Service to fully pre-fund employee retirement health benefits, a requirement which has hamstrung the Service financially ever since.

Commercial Aviation Stamp 1926-76 Scott -1684
U.S. postage stamp issued in 1976 honoring the 50th Anniversary of U.S. Commercial Aviation (1926-1976). Illustrated are the first two airplanes used to carry Air Mail under contract: Ford-Stout AT-2 (upper) and Laird Swallow (lower). Federal Air Mail contracts provided important sources of revenue to early aviation companies, including Eastern Air Lines.

Hamstringing the Postal Service was not an unfortunate unintended consequence of fiscal responsibility measures, but a deliberate step by Republican legislators to ensure the eventual failure of the Postal Service so that its carcass could be picked over by private businesses, with the choicest bits going to the highest bidder. Less choice bits, like mail delivery to remote outposts around the nation, would most likely be ignored, with a consequent loss of mail service to those places. Sorry, not profitable. Travel half a day to the nearest small town to pick up your mail at a privately maintained postal outlet. Sending a letter to that remote outpost? Sorry, flat rate postage no longer applies for first class delivery. That will be ten dollars, please.

Besides being attacked from the outside by vultures, the Postal Service has been hampered lately from within by a toxic work environment fostered by bad, unaccountable management which has led to chronic staff shortages around the country even when the troubled economy would dictate that people would flock to Postal Service jobs that are relatively high paying, with better benefits than most other employers offer. Word gets around, however, and eventually people become reluctant to apply for those jobs regardless of the monetary rewards. Meanwhile, attrition combined with the depressing, hostile work atmosphere saw to it that valued senior employees took early retirement or simply quit to get away from the place. If Congress ever gets around to convening an investigative commission, Postal Service managers will have a lot of explaining to do.

In the 1947 film version of Miracle on 34th Street, starring John Payne as attorney Fred Gailey and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, the Post Office (as it was known then) was a respected institution.

In the meantime, try to be kind to your local mail carrier, who is only trying to make the best of a bad situation and, if possible, get home at a reasonable hour. Post Offices are short of staff, and mail sorting centers have been closed in the past ten years in a short-sighted attempt to save money, resulting in long hours for many mail carriers. Working after dark in the evenings has presented a whole new set of dangers to these people, from urban carriers walking a route being mistaken for prowlers to rural carriers in outmoded vehicles with only two weak hazard lights blinking to warn other drivers on dark country roads that they are sitting ducks as they move from box to box at low speed delivering the mail.

These are unnecessarily dangerous conditions for the carriers on their appointed rounds, and then to be confronted with bullying managers back at the Post Office when they’re finally done with their shift is too much. Something has to change at the Postal Service, starting with the top, but the first shove has to come from what corporate and political America considers the bottom, which are the customers who expect good service from their mail carriers, if only managers and legislators would either do better jobs supporting them or get out of the way and stop actively obstructing them.
― Ed.

 

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We the People

Tuesday the nation celebrates independence from the British Crown and eventual establishment of a democratic republic. That’s the story, at least. Of the independence part there is no doubt, because that is pretty straightforward. It’s the democratic republic part that doesn’t quite coincide with historical reality, and certainly not with what the United States of America has become today. Today it is an oligarchy, and looking back over the history of the country it becomes clear the inclination was always present.

 

The Founding Fathers were never for a broadly based democracy, instead leaning toward governance by a limited set of people – white males with property. Some Founding Fathers, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Washington among them, believed the democratic republic would be stronger if more people owned property, or capital, and therefore had a say and a stake in governance. Though they were rather wealthy men themselves, they would probably be horrified at the current state of income inequality in this country and how that has wrought havoc on the democratic republic they established.

Sprit of '76.2
Originally entitled Yankee Doodle, this is one of several versions of a scene painted by Archibald Willard (1836-1918) in the late nineteenth century that came to be known as The Spirit of ’76.

Suffrage has broadened greatly since the eighteenth century, but a vote for candidate A over candidate B makes little difference when both candidates are backed by the same small clique of financiers and corporate boards. Once the candidate is in office, he or she tunes in the oligarchy and tunes out the voters, at least until the next election. Of what use then is a vote when the person voted for doesn’t represent your interests when in office, will often in fact work against your interests? Strangely, people will vote for that person again two, four, or six years later.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood there is no real political power without economic power. Enactment of his proposed Second Bill of Rights is long overdue.

To regain political power, the people need to take back wealth; to regain wealth, the people need to take back political power. Hand in hand. Remember the capitalist credo: Money talks. We have the honesty of the Supreme Court to thank for enshrining in the 2010 Citizens United decision what everyone has always known, going back to the days of the Founding Fathers, it’s just that Washington, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson had the wisdom to understand the money should be spread around a lot more in order for the government to listen to we the people.
― Vita

 

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I Have Nothing to Hide

 

So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.
― John 8:7 (Jubilee Bible 2000)

In any discussion of government surveillance, such as has been revealed by the recent WikiLeaks “Vault 7” release of CIA documents, there are some folks who are apt to pipe up with “Let the government spy on me – I have nothing to hide.” By that they presumably mean for their listeners to understand they are not terrorists, criminals, or perverts, and to drive home their utter lack of impure intentions they will often add a feebly humorous aside about how government agents would fall asleep from the boredom of eavesdropping on them. How reassuring to learn that government flouting of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution is okay because there are some among us who are without sin! Whether these folks realize it or not, their smug pronouncement comes out of them because in their lives the presumption of innocence has always been a given, and therefore government agents would have no interest in their good citizen behavior. It doesn’t seem to occur to them there are others in our culture who, through no fault of their own, are presumed guilty, and there are still others who are just as law abiding as the “nothing to hide” crowd, but may be concerned about hackers and thieves accessing their data, or simply want to be left alone and feel that their affairs are their own and should not be the concern of the government. We can use locks on our doors not only to keep out criminals after all, but nosy neighbors and government snoops as well.

Jesus und Ehebrecherin
Jesus and the Adulteress; drawing by Rembrandt.

The digital age has changed the game somewhat by introducing new channels of communication and cheap storage for vast quantities of information. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments are no less valid, however, in stating that citizens should be secure in their “effects”; that government officials need warrants; that citizens cannot be compelled to testify against themselves; and that government shall follow due process of law in proceedings against any citizen. Naturally the Founding Fathers did not foresee the age of computers, smartphones, and the internet. They didn’t need to foresee those things, because in looking back on thousands of years of ancient Roman and Greek law and English common law, they were able to extract valid principles which were applicable to the general human condition whatever the particulars of any one era might be. Since their time, we have moved from postal mail and personal messenger to phone calls and telegrams, and now to blog posts and email. Government snooping amounts to the same thing whatever the means of communication, and it is protection from the ends that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution.

That much should be obvious, yet the erosion of the Bill of Rights continues bit by bit, often with the excuse that technology has wrought different contingencies in our modern era. There are no different contingencies – what has changed is that the state of emergency appears now to be permanent because it suits the agenda of powerful interests in the military-industrial complex. In the past, the United States government trampled rights for various reasons which seemed sensible to many at the time, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, to the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Always the advocates of such policies invoked a state of emergency to justify the abuse of state power, but eventually calmer heads and changing circumstances would prevail and the balance would be corrected.

A segment of Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 farewell address, with commentary.

As long as there are enablers of government snooping who complacently and self-righteously announce to everyone within earshot that they “have nothing to hide,” dislodging the powerful interests invested in the current status quo and restoring a constitutionally correct balance between citizens and government will be a protracted struggle. Those who value the privacy of their communications enough to take measures to protect it, such as by using the Tor internet browser or encrypting their emails, are thereby presumed guilty of possible anti-state, criminal, or sexually deviant enterprises by government snoops and their sanctimonious “nothing to hide” enablers because the very action of taking privacy measures draws scrutiny from those groups and is something they deem an admission of being up to no good. It is as if the Fourth and Fifth Amendments have been turned upside down, and objecting to having snoops looking in the windows of your house and walking in through the front door any time they please is fussy obstructionism, definitely unpatriotic, and possibly prosecutable. The “nothing to hide” folks are unconcerned over these developments, secure as they are in the comforting knowledge of their own innocence, though they may want to keep in a corner of their uncluttered minds the notion that the perception of innocence by those in power can shift capriciously, and so they are well advised to note this paraphrased bit from a poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: They came for the Privacy Advocates, and I did not speak out – Because I had nothing to hide.
― Techly

 

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The Kolledge of Electoral Knowledge

Ohio Electoral College 2012 5
Meeting of the 2012 Ohio Electoral College; photo by Ibagli

The 538 members of the Electoral College meet tomorrow, December 19th, in the 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., to cast their ballots for President and Vice President. Many people across the country are unsure about the purpose of or need for the Electoral College, and they think we could do better without it. In Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College, though they never named it as such.

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . “

There is further elaboration on the Electoral College in the 12th and 14th Amendments.

Nowhere in the Constitution is there anything about constraining the Electors to vote for the winner of their state’s popular vote. In 26 states and in Washington, D.C., Electors are bound by state laws or party pledges to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state. The Founding Fathers did not foresee the rise of political parties, and they imagined the Electors would act more independently than has proved to be the case. Political parties now choose the Electors and dictate how they vote, and over half the states have codified that policy into state law. The Electoral College functions now as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the winner take all system in all the states except Nebraska and Maine, which allocate their electoral votes by congressional district.

 

If the Electors exist only to rubber stamp the electoral votes determined by the popular vote in each state, then why bother with human Electors at all? If the purpose of the electoral vote system is to protect the minority rights of less populous states from being overrun by more populous states, then tally the electoral votes allocated by each state’s popular vote and do away with the Electoral College members altogether. If, on the other hand, we expect Electors to act at their own discretion, then do away with the restrictions placed on them by the states and by the political parties, all of which may be unconstitutional, and allow them to vote their consciences.

 

The Founding Fathers had some good reasons for establishing the Electoral College, though they failed to envision how it has played out since the 18th century. As it exists now, it is neither fish nor fowl, neither a body independent of the will of the people nor beholden to it. The Electoral College is beholden to the will of the political parties, and any member who votes independently of that will is termed a “faithless Elector,” and may be subject to legal penalties as well as party ostracism. What good is an institution like that?
– Ed.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, a painting by Howard Chandler Christy. The figures in this painting who were instrumental in the establishment of the Electoral College were James Wilson, in the green coat directly beneath the flags, who proposed it; and seated to either side of Benjamin Franklin, at the center, were James Madison on the right and Alexander Hamilton on the left, the two men who explained it’s function and lobbied for it’s inclusion in the Constitution.

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Getting to Know You

 

Online Privacy and the Founding Fathers
“Online Privacy and the Founding Fathers” by Matt Shirk


The comedian George Carlin used to riff on oxymorons, phrases he found absurd such as “military intelligence” and “business ethics.” To that list we could add “online privacy.” The internet has always been a public place which gives people the illusion of private communication because of how they access it, from a handheld device or from their own computer. Recently in a ruling on a class-action lawsuit concerning Yahoo’s practice of scanning emails, a federal judge affirmed that online privacy is not for everybody.


In the lawsuit brought against Yahoo by email users who did not use Yahoo’s email service but corresponded with people who did, Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for Northern California signed off on a settlement which allows Yahoo to continue scanning the emails of non-Yahoo users without their consent. The major change from Yahoo’s previous practice is that it must do so only while the emails are on its servers, rather than while they are in transit.

That satisfies the letter of the law while doing nothing to redress the grievances of non-Yahoo email users. The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit received $5,000 each. The Judge awarded the plaintiffs’ lawyers 4 million dollars in total. A  45 page PDF of the settlement is here, and the summary starts at page 40. Google is being sued in a similar class-action which is pending before Judge Koh.

Since most people don’t fully read the terms and conditions before signing up for online services, it’s doubtful whether many users of Yahoo, Google, or similar free webmail services are aware those companies are scanning their emails for the purpose of targeted advertising, as well as scanning the other half of the exchange coming from their correspondent. Other users who are aware of the scanning are resigned to accepting it as the price of free webmail. And the “price of free” is another oxymoron Mr. Carlin himself might have gleefully noted.

– Techly 

 

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