Like Talking to a Brick Wall

 


The First Continental Congress of the American Colonies sent a petition to King George III on October 25, 1774, requesting he redress their grievances against the British Parliament related to the Coercive Acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The king ignored the petition, and consequently the colonists’ march toward revolution picked up momentum over the next year, resulting in the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Petitions were the primary recourse of the American Colonists in dealing with their British rulers across the Atlantic Ocean since they had no official representation in Parliament, hence the slogan “No taxation without representation.”

The nation’s founders regarded the right to petition the government as so essential to a free society that they included it in the First Amendment, adopted in 1791. They made the right explicit despite the reality that citizens of the United States, unlike colonists under the British Empire, had official representation in the government. James Madison, who was largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights, understood that while the people had representation in government, their representatives may not be responsive to the wishes of all the people, and that therefore the people required another, independent outlet “for a redress of grievances.”



The unresponsiveness of government representatives to the people has rarely appeared as evident as it does now, when it seems representatives are responsive mostly to the wishes of corporate contributors to their election campaigns. Polls do not necessarily give lawmakers an accurate idea of how some of their constituents are feeling about issues because responding to pollsters is a passive response to a pollster’s sometimes tailored questions. Poll sample sizes are also often ludicrously small on account of the expense and difficulty of polling. Pollsters claim they conduct their surveys based on well-researched principles in order to achieve accurate representation from small sample sizes, but there are plenty of examples to cite in demonstrating that taking polls is as much art as it is science, and not at all infallible. For one example, look at how inaccurate the polling was in several key Rust Belt states in the weeks before the November 2016 presidential election.


Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Q81486
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Woman’s Suffragette movement in England, arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum.


Signing a petition is an active measure taken by citizens numbering in the thousands or millions, as opposed to a select few hundreds or thousands responding passively to a pollster. Citizens mostly seek out petitions on their own initiative, or are made aware of them by friends or family, or by reading the news. The relative ease of signing a petition online, compared to signing one circulated door to door, does not discount that people are participating in the political process instead of waiting for someone to ask their opinion. The distinction is not a small one. Yes, physical participation in a protest weighs far more than signing an online petition in getting the attention of government leaders and the society at large, but an online petition nonetheless demonstrates that the people signing it are paying attention. Numbers have always given weight to petitions, and in the internet age it is possible for millions of people to make their wishes known to their representatives within days of a petition’s first appearance.

The petitions currently circulating urging United States House of Representatives legislators to impeach the occupant of the Oval Office are an excellent demonstration of the need of the people for an outlet to make their wishes known to their government. To anyone paying attention honestly to developments originating from the White House since January 2017, it has long been obvious that impeachment and conviction of the current president would be necessary sooner or later to uphold the rule of law. The nation’s legislators, however, always conscious of political calculations and of the interests of their big money donors, have been dragging their feet to avoid having to put themselves on the line in upholding the oath they took to preserve and defend the Constitution.

Captain Queeg, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, was obviously unstable, but nonetheless discharging him from his command was quite difficult because the captain of a vessel at sea is by necessity an autocrat whose authority is fully backed by a nation’s institutions. For all that, Captain Queeg was not a corrupt grifter with contempt for democratic institutions and a sneering disregard for the norms of civil discourse, and in comparison to the offenses of the current president, Queeg’s official transgressions were minor.

In other words, members of Congress have a constitutional duty to impeach this president for high crimes and misdemeanors he has engaged in too obviously for them to ignore any longer. Whether he will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate is anyone’s guess at this point. It probably depends on whether political calculations indicate to at least a few key Republican senators that the time has come at last to throw the president over the side, at which point many of the rest will scramble to get on board.

If millions of American people had waited politely for a pollster to ask them if impeachment was necessary, instead of taking matters into their own hands and petitioning their representatives, Congress might still be dithering, possibly all the way up to Election Day 2020. The current president may not get convicted in the Senate and removed from office before then, but it’s important that public hearings in Congress shine a light long enough and brightly enough on the corrupt and unethical practices of his administration that even the most disengaged voters will have to listen. A brick wall, no matter who constructed it, can keep people from hearing their government at work as well as keep government leaders from hearing the people, but now that representatives have finally listened to people engaged enough to petition them, it’s important that the rest of the populace listen honestly to the arguments for impeachment, and honest engagement requires more than checking an often lopsided Facebook news feed, a far sloppier way of exercising one’s civic duty than signing an online petition.
— Vita

 

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

 


Private companies have been making their electric scooters available for riders to share in cities around the United States and in Europe over the past two years, and the results are a mixed bag. Riders appear to appreciate the service, even if some of them don’t show that appreciation in how they ride or park the e-scooters. City governments appear to like that the service fills gaps in their often inadequate public mass transit services, even though they are learning that more regulation is required of e-scooter companies to rein in their sometimes arrogant disregard for city ordinances and of inconsiderate riders whose behavior can be a public nuisance. Members of the public who have no personal need for the e-scooters are largely tolerant of their presence in their cities, but in many places they are finding their patience tested by the problems mentioned above.

 


The technology behind e-scooters and smartphones or, in some places, simple cellular phones, makes the business model of sharing e-scooters in a city possible. An e-scooter rigged for sharing has a Global Positioning System (GPS) module and an inexpensive, basic cellular connection for small amounts of data transfer to communicate its exact position and condition. A lithium ion battery provides power. A rider needs to use the internet application provided by the company for use on a smartphone to unlock the e-scooter and provide for payment for the service. Some localities insist as a condition for operating in their city that e-scooter companies make the service available to people without a data connection on a simple cellular phone. One of the ideas behind the service, after all, is to provide a low cost transportation option for poor people.


Lime e-scooters, Masarykovo nádraží
Lime e-scooters parked next to a subway entrance at Masaryk train station in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Martin2035.


The problems arise because, like all private services which take advantage of the public commons, there are abuses. The private companies either do not seek out and pay for permission to park their e-scooters on public property or they may not hold up their end of agreements they have with cities that allow their operations. Since the e-scooters do not belong to them, some riders are unconcerned about how they use them or park them. Equipment abuse is the lookout of the company operating the service, but the abuse of the commons caused by careless parking is a public nuisance at best, a menace at worst. Crime problems have arisen mostly from overnight vandalism of the equipment and from the dangers to workers who must go out at night to find and maintain the equipment.

Bringing e-scooters into cities is a good idea on its surface, and they solve a mobility problem for some poor people or for commuters without cars who find using them more appealing than walking or biking. But with the problems their presence and use are causing by abuse of the commons, it would be better if cities improved their mass transit systems instead. For one thing, e-scooters are not as ecologically benign overall as people may assume, and certainly not in comparison to mass transit options. For another, solving the problems encountered during the initial rollout of e-scooter sharing programs would appear to take up public resources in the form of tighter regulation and consequent enforcement. Wouldn’t it be easier in that case to regulate a comparatively smaller number of mass transit units and operators rather than thousands or tens of thousands of e-scooter units and operators strewn all over a city?

E-scooter sharing programs may last only a year or two more if the current abuses continue, and that’s a shame because many decent people who appreciate the services and have a dearth of other options would probably like to see them continue. Unfortunately this business model appears to go against human nature in that where the commons are concerned, there are always enough bad faith users around to take unfair or inconsiderate advantage of the situation and eventually push the public at large to demand an end to it for everyone. In the words of James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
— Techly

 

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Without Due Process of Law

 

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
― from The Federalist Papers, No. 51, by James Madison.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a fan of civil asset forfeiture, and last year he reinstated the federal partnership with state and local authorities that had been ended by the previous Attorney General, Eric Holder. That partnership allows state and local police to share seized assets with federal authorities if they claim even the flimsiest trespass on federal law by the forfeited assets (in a pretzel-like twist of legal reasoning, it is the assets themselves that are accused, not the person or persons who own them). Engaging the federal government in this way allows state and local police to bypass their civil asset forfeiture laws because they are superseded by federal laws, which are often more favorable to the police. The feds then give the state and local cops a kickback of all or part of the proceeds. This is called “equitable sharing” or, more cutely, “federal adoption”.


100 U.S. DOLLARS - MONEY - Free For Commercial Use - FFCU (26742846243)
Getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation while carrying a large amount of cash can lead to a nightmare civil asset forfeiture scenario for the driver, regardless of the legitimacy of his or her claim to the cash. Only the rich can afford to fight city hall in court. Photo by photoo.uk.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

― The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, with the due process clause.


It’s hard to imagine how the law can be more clear than this: ” . . . nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . ” To be doubly sure, there is another due process clause in the 14th Amendment. Yet here we are, with police abusing the citizenry by stealing from them, sometimes without even a formal charge filed, but only on mere suspicion of a crime having been committed with the asset or assets, and keeping the proceeds in order to augment their budget. There are slight differences in the law from state to state, but in many states the police are allowed to keep seized assets, which also clearly violates the last clause of the Fifth Amendment, the takings clause. It’s impossible to imagine a more blatant case of conflict of interest, adding insult to the injury of the initial seizure.

 

In a civil asset forfeiture case, the burden of proof is often on the citizen whose assets were seized, not the authorities who took them. In order to retrieve seized assets, a citizen must prove they were not used in the commission of a crime or are a result of criminal activity, and this proof must be forthcoming even when the police have not filed a charge in court. Apparently the only thing to prevent the police from more flagrantly abusing the civil asset forfeiture laws more than they do is the basic decency and good character of the majority of them. But men are not angels, as James Madison wisely observed, and to allow these laws to remain on the books is to invite corruption of the police and further erosion of public trust in government.

WilliamJeffersonFreezerCash20-45L
Cash found in a freezer at the Washington, D.C. home of Congressman William J. Jefferson of Louisiana. This photo was entered as evidence in July 2009 showing what was seized in August 2005 from the freezer of the home of then Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans. Jurors in the trial of Jefferson, who lost his re-election bid in 2008 while under indictment for bribery, saw photos of the infamous frozen cash. It was wrapped in $10,000 increments and concealed in boxes of Pillsbury pie crust and Boca burgers. Photo by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A flagrant case of abuse occurred last year in Jeff Sessions’s home state of Alabama, in the small town of Castleberry in the south central part of the state. To generate revenue for his little town, the mayor hatched a plan for taking advantage of Alabama’s very favorable civil asset forfeiture laws by confiscating cash and property from citizens and visitors alike, but especially out of state visitors, often using entirely invented suspicions. The police chief made no bones about it on public forums, where he joked about how the bogus money grabbing had been a windfall for the town of Castleberry and its nascent police department, now flush with fancy new equipment and patrol cars. Eventually bad publicity caught up with the mayor and police chief of Castleberry, and they were hit with a lawsuit. On a national scale, what happened in Castleberry doesn’t amount to much other than a clear distillation of everything wrong with civil asset forfeiture.

Attorney General Sessions, waving the bloody shirt of the War on Drugs, nevertheless wants to continue civil asset forfeiture and expand it, if he can get away with it. His motivations are unimportant other than how they forecast all the draconian policies he’s likely to see through while he is in charge of the Department of Justice. The important thing is that he has opened up one of the very few issues that attracts a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and that has been for less civil asset forfeiture, not more.

Highway robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, with Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry. Under America’s civil asset forfeiture laws, the gold guineas in Barry’s purse, and the horse he rode in on, could be forfeited to the robbers, or police.
The strange history of this policy of official stealing from the innocent and the guilty alike also matters little, except perhaps to those appellate court judges who fall back on referring to obscure precedents of legal reasoning as convoluted and ultimately irrelevant as the debates of clerics who wondered how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Congress can take this matter away from both Sessions and the judges by enacting legislation rolling it back. Really it should be swept away entirely, along with the War on Drugs it purportedly assists, as failed policies which have corrupted the police and eroded public trust every bit as much and in the same way as Prohibition did in the early decades of the twentieth century, when civil asset forfeiture first became a major police tactic. It seems we never learn lessons once and for all, but have to forever relearn 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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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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Don’t Call Me “Stupid”

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart 1804
James Madison, portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
― James Madison

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes in his latest book, Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, that low information voters would do better to stay away from the polls on election day rather than cast their vote based on an inadequate understanding of the issues. This is sensible advice and in an ideal world those low information voters would heed it in order to benefit everyone. No one buys a car, after all, without at least kicking the tires and pretending some knowledge of what’s under the hood. But aside from safety considerations on the public roads, buying a car is largely a personal choice, affecting solely the owner. The effect of a person’s vote, however, amounts to a civic responsibility because it is a decision which affects everyone. This much seems obvious, yet it is amazing how much more effort some people will invest in researching a car or stereo system than in how politicians stand on the issues. In that case, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar makes a valid point.

Are low information voters stupid? Not necessarily. Some feel obligated to vote yet lack the time or desire to get up to speed on the important issues at stake. Others are deluded by questionable sources for their information, such as major media outlets which give a one-sided slant to the news and are often obsessed with sensationalism and trivia. Still others are blinded by party loyalty to information about defects in their preferred candidate. If anything, all of these attributes describe laziness rather than stupidity.

In this age of Standards of Learning testing in the public schools, it appears social studies education generally, and civics education particularly, are getting squeezed in favor of the three Rs, which are more readily documented to show results. Elementary and secondary school education in civics instills in future voters not only knowledge of the structure of government and how it works, but more importantly why that matters to them in their daily lives. That is the vital aspect of civics education which needs to remain with people throughout their lives, and which they are apt to lose sight of in the noise and confusion of earning a living and raising a family.

This is also the Age of Information, when sources of information are more widely available to the common person than they have ever been. Some sources are worthwhile and some are not. Some people view sorting through it all an engaging experience and some view it as drudgery. But it is there for people if they choose to look for it and choose to exercise a capacity for critical thinking which they ideally would have learned from their civics education. Today, for most people in a relatively affluent society, there are fewer excuses than ever for ignorance when easily the equivalent of the ancient Library at Alexandria is available to them in their computers, in their tablets and smartphones, or in the computers and book stacks at an institution usually somewhat less grand than the Alexandria Library – their local public library.

― Ed.


Ancientlibraryalex

The Great Library of Alexandria, drawing by O. Von Corven.

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