Wednesday, November 15, 2023

What goes around comes around

The Ecstasy of Owen Muir
Ring Lardner Jr.
1954, Fiction, 272, 281, or 302 pages depending on edition

This is a book guaranteed to offend staunch members of a particular religious affiliation and staunch supporters of a certain political stripe. Others, whose views are more accommodating, will find hilarious satire within its pages.

Ring Lardner was a popular journalist who wrote humorously about baseball and other topics. His son was a screenwriter, one of the Hollywood Ten convicted of Contempt of Congress for their refusal to participate in Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt. When asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” Ring Lardner Jr. responded, “I could answer the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I’d hate myself in the morning.” This answer resulted in a stint in prison.

Owen Muir is the son of a Long Island financier, but cares more for books than money. Despite his efforts to remain obscure, Owen is elected president of his eighth grade class. Returning home, he attempts to explain to his father how he obtained his dubious honor. To this the elder Muir replies, “What are you telling me all that nonsense for? Look, Ownie, you’re a bright fellow in your own peculiar way, skipping grades and getting those marks. You ought to be beginning to think about things in grown-up terms, realistically. One of the basic rules of life, and don’t you ever forget it, is results count, nothing else does.”

Later in the book, his father explains how capitalism and advertising work, “The particular item you’re manufacturing may be useless in the sense that no one in his right mind would buy it of his own accord, and anybody who does buy it will feel afterwards that he’s been had. But the way our economy works, no occasion when money changes hands is useless.”

However, prior to Owen’s attempt to dabble in capitalism, he attends college: “In college as in school his unorthodox appearance was held against him and the fact that his attitudes were also non-conformist made him even more of an outcast. Barred from some undergraduate pursuits by ineptitude and from others by popular demand, he was compelled to the solace of his own devices. He listened to Sibelius in the hours devoted to football practice, read Schopenhauer during proms and absorbed facts while his classmates were exchanging gossip.”

With all that intellectual activity going on, Owen acquires ideals and refuses to register for the draft. Being a person of principal, Owen experiences harsh consequences which he could easily have avoided by compromising his principals. And so goes his life; Owen finds and follows ideals and attempts to find a place in a world filled with hypocrites and shallow thinkers.

This book is worth a read for its humor, but also for its depiction of the early 1950s. The American zeitgeist has changed since then. The fifties decade looked nothing like the sixties or seventies. Strangely, 2023 resembles 1954 to a fair extent. Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Divided we fall


Here in Amerika we have two strong political parties and several week ones. We could have many strong parties or none at all, but we’ve fallen into a convenient binary rut. Amerika’s green and orange parties have had minor disagreements at times, but presently those disagreements are major. At one time those parties shared what were called “facts”, but differed as to opinions. Today, however, the two parties don’t even acknowledge the same "facts".

 Facts are meant to correspond to reality to some extent, but since the greens and oranges vehemently disagree on which narratives are factual, at least one of those parties no longer cares if their “facts” correspond to reality. In other words, they lie.

 It should be easy to identify which party lies, but it’s not. That’s because various purveyors of “news” have chosen sides. So now it’s hard to tell if the “fake news” side is really the one telling fake news or if the other side is gaslighting us.

 How to properly interpret the intent of the Second Amendment has often been discussed, but there’s been no discussion about how to interpret the intent of the First Amendment. If freedom of speech really meant freedom to fib freely this country could not have survived this long. I think the founders intended freedom of speech to be tempered by factuality. Amerikans deplore dictatorships that expurgate truth while promoting lies, but lately they’re willing to allow falsehoods here.

Some Amerikans examine “facts” in light of “evidence” while others would rather go with their guts. Not every gut feeling is a healthy one however; some are composed of hatred, fear, jealousy, and other emotions more personal than true reflections of reality. Knowing this some use rhetoric designed to inflame emotions, instead of factual arguments. We could pass laws compelling people to speak truly when speaking freely, but first we would have to set a standard for what counts as evidence of truthfulness. That standard would have to be tight enough to limit lies while loose enough to allow for opinions. It would be a tricky law to write and enforce while protecting freedom of speech. Such a law won’t be written any time soon because the greens and the oranges have no intention of cooperating.

 People are able to cooperate in workplaces and schools, but many politicians now choose money and power over morality. Sadly, if we don’t soon learn to cooperate for the general good, Amerika won’t survive.


Thursday, May 04, 2023

Oh, no, not again

 Once again America's financial credibility is on borrowed time. On January nineteenth, 2023, US Treasury Secretary, Janet L. Yellen notified Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker, and other leaders of both houses, of the steps she was taking to prevent the United States defaulting on its debt. She would cease investing in the retirement funds of civil and postal workers, stop new borrowing, and cash in some retirement fund investments. By law, she has to pay it all back once the debt ceiling is raised or suspended. However, Kevin McCarthy and fellow Republicans intend to put conditions on raising the debt limit, while President Biden has said he won't negotiate over money that's already been spoken for. Biden has the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment on his side for what that's worth. Section 4. of the amendment basically says if the US owes money, it must pay it back. Quibbling about the debt is not okay.

Yet quibbling over repayment of the debt has occurred on multiple occasions. Some of this quibbling has caused partial government shutdowns which force affected workers to scrimp and borrow until their paychecks are restored. The 2011 stand-off over the debt ceiling caused a downgrade in the country's credit rating costing the US an extra billion dollars in debt interest. This time around, President Bidden has made it clear that he has no intention of bargaining.

While the Obama administration considered invoking the 14th Amendment, it quickly dismissed the idea. Instead, Obama agreed to spending cuts. This time, the House Republican majority has passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling that would reverse much of the Inflation Reduction Act intended to tackle climate change. Another of it's provisions would de-fund the IRS, a move that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said would reduce future revenue. A third provision would place additional work requirements on those already burdened by poverty and poor health.

President Biden released his 2024 budget proposal in early March. If implemented, it would raise taxes on those earning over $400,000 and roll-back tax benefits granted to the wealthy in 2017. During the final week of April the House Republicans passed a bill that would raise the debt ceiling at the expense of Democratic gains. It stands no chance of passing since the Senate won't take it up and the President will veto it. On May first, the Treasury Secretary warned that the US could reach the debt ceiling by as early as June first. Talks between the president and Congressional members are scheduled for May 9. Those talks could be rocky since there is little consensus among Republicans and Biden's firm stance leaves little room for negotiation.

Legal experts disagree about what would result if the Section 4 of the 14th Amendment were invoked. One fundamental question comes down to who besides the House has authority  to force the House to do it's job of repaying debt. Some say the President could order the Treasury to continue borrowing, but others argue that the President lacks this authority.

Sadly, we budget and spend before sitting down to discuss how much we're willing to borrow. The debt ceiling carries legal weight, but so too does Section 4's requirement that we pay our debts. The legal conundrum that results when the 14th Amendment bumps up against debt ceiling legislation, provides an underhanded opportunity to whichever party wants to bludgeon an already approved budget.

The 14th Amendment has a Third Section that could make a difference in these stalemates, yet I've never seen that Section mentioned in discussions of the debt ceiling. Section 3. says one can't be a President, Senator or Congressman, etc. if one has taken an oath to support the US Constitution and has engaged in insurrection or rebellion against it. "Insurrection" generally implies violence, but "rebellion" can be simple obstruction, such as a refusal to obey an order or fulfill a duty. Repaying government debt is one such duty. Refusing to pay it is rebellion.

If the debt ceiling is breached, then those responsible will have refused to honor US debt, will have engaged in rebellion, and will, therefore, be ineligible to remain in office. But who would enforce this? Certainly not the very Congressmen that voted not to honor the debt. Perhaps the President or the Senate could force those Congressmen out of office. Perhaps not.

What could make a difference is if the American people themselves called out their errant Congressmen. Here's what I'm writing:

Dear Congressman ______,

Please be advised that if you do not honor the United States debt you will have violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment this act of rebellion will result in your being ineligible to remain in office. Should that happen, I will urge your removal from office.

The Fourteenth Amendment
Section 3.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The oath that the amendment refers to is this:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

Section 4.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.