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The Trump administration - with the active support of and the then GOP-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell  - was able to appoint three right-wing judges to the Supreme Court. Given their well-documented ideological biases and relative youth, they will  likely continue to bedevil and distort this country's jurisprudence and further erode respect for the rule of law for many decades into the future.

It is this concern that has promoted Massachusetts Senator Markey and a number of House Democrats to advocate expanding  the size of the Supreme Court by four additional judges. This proposal - - as well as other suggestions such as the imposition of term limits  - could be accomplished by legislation that would require only a simple majority of both house of the U.S. Congress. Is this legislation necessary?  

The unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court in the matter of Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, et al ,  574 U.S. ___ (2014) is compelling evidence that the self-proclaimed commitment of the American legal system to equal justice is little more than a sham embellished by platitudes.

The question before the court was whether the employees - warehouse workers who retrieved inventory and packaged it for shipment to Amazon customers - were entitled, as hourly, non-exempt  employees - to be paid for time that they were required to undergo anti-theft security screenings before they were allowed to leave the warehouse in which they worked each day.

The record before the court showed that the class of employees who brought suit under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938  (FLSA) were routinely required to submit  to security inspections  and screenings that amounted to "roughly  25 minutes per day" after they had checked out but before they could go home. The employees alleged that the screenings were conducted "to prevent employee theft" and they were intended solely "for the benefit of the employers and their customers." The additional uncompensated time, based upon a five day work week, amounted to an additional 6.8 hours at the workplace each week.

In proceedings below, the U.S. District Court for Nevada dismissed the complaint of the employees for a purported failure to state a claim under Fed. Rule Civ. Procedure 12. The court held that "the time spent waiting for and undergoing security screenings was not compensable under FLSA" because the employees could not show that the screenings were an indispensable and principal part of the activities that the employees were required to perform."

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's decision, finding that "postshift activities that would ordinarily be classified as noncompensable postliminary activities are nevertheless compensable as integral and indispensable to an employee's principle activities if postshift activities are necessary to the principal work performed and done for the benefit of the employer," as the record before the court showed. 

Inexcusably, the Obama administration - despite the consistent support that it received from organized labor - joined the employer's appeal and urged that the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals be reversed. Writing on behalf of court, Justice Thomas disagreed with the Court of Appeals. In an extensive and tortured exegesis of the language of the Portal-to-Portal amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act that were passed by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1947 to exempt employers from liability for future claims for "activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said activities or principles," Thomas insisted that question was the sole question before the court.

The Court's holding was not surprising, given Justice Thomas' narrow definition of what he and the other eight judges agreed was the sole issue before the court. Thomas opined that "the security screenings at issue here are noncompensable postliminary activities" because "Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo screenings" and that the "screenings were not integral and indispensable"' to the employees' duties as warehouse workers. 

Left unanswered were the obvious questions: What would have happened if the employees refused to wait for the screenings and insisted upon their right to go home immediately after they finished work? Would they still be employed the next day?

Historically, those nominated as justices to the Supreme Court, with precious few exceptions, have had little experience litigating cases on behalf of employees or fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. With one or two exceptions, this is true of the current court. In addition, as graduates of elite law schools with successful prior careers in the private and public sectors, Supreme Court justices have cultivated scores of influential and well-heeled friends and acquaintances over the years whose values they share. One also suspects that they have never forced to stand in a line to purchase concert tickets or have ever shopped at Walmart. 

For their efforts, the eight associate justices are paid $213,000 per annum; the chief justice receives a salary $223,500. The justices enjoy life tenure for good behavior; their pensions will never be lower than their exiting salary should they choose to retire; they enjoy the same generous healthcare available to all federal employees; they have opportunities to travel to all judicial districts throughout the United States and its overseas territories at taxpayer expense; and they enjoy a minimum of 3 full months of vacation each year. For those reasons, the chasm between the nine judges in the court and the hard-scrabble hourly employees who toil for Amazon in its warehouses is vast, but is it asking too much to expect a little empathy? 

The American legal system has long been a captive of the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected, and almost uniformly hostile to unions and to the rights of workers. Throughout the nineteenth century, most state and federal courts treated labor unions and strikes as illegal conspiracies in restraint of trade. In addition, during the later part of the nineteenth century - in an era dominated by the Social Darwinism espoused by William Graham Sumner and Herbert Spencer - U.S. courts created out of whole cloth the doctrine of employment-at-will. That doctrine was a legal fiction that repudiated the long-standing presumption set down by Blackstone in his Commentaries that any indefinite employment contract was for one year. 

Forty-nine states - with the exception of Montana (which has abolished at-will employment by statute) - still subscribe to that legal concept.

The legal fiction of at-will employment essentially posits an equality of bargaining power between individual employers and employees: Each is free to accept or reject employment, resign or be fired without cause or restriction. However, since employers in "union-free" environments are legally permitted to unilaterally impose, almost without restriction, whatever conditions of work they require as to hours, compensation, and often restrictions on re-employment after discharge in the form of non-competition agreements, the relationship is most often one of inequality in which the employees are burdened and the employers benefitted

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court also chose to grant the equal protection of the laws to corporations long before the same civil rights were accorded to black Americans in the Southern States. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 118 U.S. 394(1886),  the Supreme Court, in some inscrutable way, divined that corporations were persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Incredibly, that decision was introduced into the report of the decision by the case law reporter in the syllabus, and it appears nowhere in the text of the decision.) According to the observers, Justice Waite simply pronounced from the bench, sua sponte, before the beginning of argument that "This court does to wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law, applies to these corporations. We are of the opinion that it does."

That decision was especially perverse in that the court was generally hostile to all claims for the enforcement of equal rights claims of the those recently freed slaves, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, and ten years later would decide the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson,  163 U.S. 537 (1896).  Once again the protection of property rights was held to be more vital than the protection of living human beings.

At the beginning of twentieth century, the United States Supreme Court enthusiastically adopted Herbert Spencer's unequivocal defense of the rights of free contract in the infamous case of Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).  Writing for the majority, Justice Peckham struck down a New York statute which prohibited employers from requiring employees to work in excess of a sixty hour work week. Disingenuously, the Court found that, "The employee may desire to earn the extra money which would arise from his working more than the prescribed time, but this statute forbids the employer from permitting the employee to earn it. The statute necessarily interferes with the right of contract between the employer and employees concerning the number of hours in which the latter may labor in the bakery of the employer..." 

Justice Holmes, in dissent, unsuccessfully sought to remind his colleagues that the law was supposed to be an even, impartial instrument, blind to prevailing ideology: "This case is decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain....The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics."

Later, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt found itself engaged in a tug-o-war with equally reactionary federal jurists. After three adverse decisions in Humphrey's Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, 295 U.S. 555 (1935),  and  Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935), in which the Supreme Court struck down New Deal legislation, Roosevelt filed legislation to increase the size of the court. In response to that threat, a majority of the jurists wisely chose to reverse course and opted not challenge subsequent legislation. 
 
Since the 1970s especially, an increasingly reactionary federal judiciary has repeatedly announced its hostility toward government regulation, civil rights, and legislation in the public interest. The net effect of this jurisprudence has been to unravel the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society, to empower corporations and the disproportionately influential while ratifying the status quo.

Perhaps the most influential of these right-wing judges was Lewis Powell, Jr. who was appointed by President Nixon as an Associate Justice in 1972. Powell, who wrote over 500 opinions, was especially instrumental in helping to orchestrate the court's pro-corporate reconstruction of the First Amendment in the area of campaign finance law, which culminated years later in the 2010 Citizens United decision.  Months before his appointment, Powell wrote a confidential memorandum to his friend and neighbor,  Eugene Sydnor Jr.,  who  was the chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce education committee. Powell's memorandum was entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System." In that memorandum he wrote, "No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack," Powell began his analysis. "There always have been some who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism (communism or fascism)." "But now what concerns us," he continued, "is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts." 

To respond to this crisis, Powell recommended a stealth agenda of incrementalism to roll back environmental and work place regulations, and to counter the civil rights and anti-war movements. His memorandum and  proposed agenda were enthusiastically embraced by the Charles and  David Koch and Richard Mellon Sciafe who, through their enormous, tax-free contributions to the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute, advanced Powell's policy goals and inspired a right-wing insurgence.

Other influential right-wing federal judges have used other forms of sophistry to rationalize their hostility to government regulation in the public interest. The late Antonin Scalia espoused an almost theological commitment to the legal fiction of "original intent." A recent invention, the doctrine of "original intent" is especially destructive. As articulated by its proponents, it attempts to impose a requirement that laws must be analyzed within the framework of an eighteenth century worldview.

In the guise of a purported respect for the understanding and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution which the Founding Fathers evinced, the doctrine of original intent is, in actuality, a most radical form of judicial activism since it ignores the explicit language of the "necessary and proper clause" of Article 1,§ 9, c.18 of the U.S. Constitution; and it imposes the dead hand of the past, in the form of a fossilized litmus test, upon an instrument which, since time of John Marshall, had been viewed as a living, evolving document. 

"Original intent" thus represents a kind of constitutional death-wish. It would, if routinely applied, induce rigor-mortis in the country's legal institutions and perpetuate the advantages which the advantaged already enjoy. Through the use of "original intent," apologists for the status quo have devised an analytical technique that is designed to emasculate this country's foundational document; it also condemns the federal judiciary to the role of a negative, obstructive partisans. The judges and legal scholars who espouse the "original intent" doctrine have thus forged a judicial hammer to batter down any legislative efforts to level the playing field or to promote equality of opportunity.

Although many of these right-wing jurists profess consternation about exercise of power by the federal government in a professedly democratic society, they appear to have few concerns about the exercise of political and economic power by private unelected interests. Rarely have Justices Thomas, Roberts, retired Justice Stevens, Alito, Kavanaugh nor Gorsuch ever expressed any qualms about oligopolies, the growing specter of monopoly capitalism, or their increasingly anti-competitive and predatory practices, nor have they demanded the vigorous enforcement of existing U.S. anti-trust laws. Witness the Court's extraordinary decision in Ohio v. American Express,  , 585 U.S. ___ (2018). In that five to four decision , the Supreme Court held that American's Express's anti-steering provisions - which, by contract, forbade merchants from attempting to  dissuade cardholders from using Amex cards at the point of sale-  a practice known as "steering" - did not violate federal antitrust laws.
resident Trump's selection of Neil Gorsuch, an ardent proponent of original intent, as Justice Scalia's successor, and Brett Kavanaugh, as Justice Kennedy's replacement, are vivid illustrations of the legal influence that the right-wing Federalist Society continues to exercise over federal jurisprudence. Their selections will, in all likelihood, over time seriously undermine the work of regulatory agencies such as the EPA, the FCC and the EEOC since they have questioned the legal precedent known as Chevron deference.

That doctrine stems from a 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, 467 U.S. 837 (1984), in which the Justice Stevens held, without any dissenting opinions,  that " If... the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute which suggests that courts  should defer to federal agencies when it comes to interpreting vague or ambiguous laws defining their responsibilities." 

n contrast to Justice Stevens and Kennedy, Judge Gorsuch and Judge Kavanaugh have well-documented difficulties reconciling their 18th century notions of  jurisprudence with the regulatory regime necessitated by the legal demands of the twenty-first century. Gorsuch is critical of the growing body of administrative because the Founding Fathers, who did not anticipate the evolution of administrative law, neglected to mention it in text of the Constitution. For his part, Judge Kavanaugh has been a vocal  critic of the Affordable Health Care Act and, true to his partisan roots as an unapologetic supporter of corporations and their prerogatives, has consistently voted as a judge D.C. Appeals Court to uphold challenges to environmental and labor laws.

Neither Justice Gorsuch nor Kavanaugh are alone in their hostility to the idea of government regulation, especially by the federal government, that is intended to protect and promote the public interest. As the editorial board of the New York Times warned, "The court's pro-corporation decisions are widening the chasm in power and wealth between the country's elite and everybody else." 

Over the past decades, a majority of the Supreme Court have chosen to breathe new life into the Tenth Amendment, the effect of which is to further drive American jurisprudence back into the early decades of the nineteenth century when even the idea of minimal government regulation, ostensibly in the public interest, was unimaginable. See, for example, Justice Rehnquist's decision in U. S. v. Lopez,115 S. Ct. 1624, 131 L. Ed 2626 (1995).  In that decision, by a 5-4 struck vote, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a San Antonio gun conviction which occurred within a 100 yards of a school on the grounds that the interstate commerce clause did not apply. See also U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, et al,  514 U.S. 779 (1995),  a case in which Justice Thomas came within a "whisker" of returning American constitutional jurisprudence to the Articles of Confederation. 

Despite their professed admiration for the Tenth Amendment, however, a majority of  Supreme Court judges since the 1970s have not hesitated to impose their personal political preferences for free-market, anti-regulation policies through the judicial feat of federal preemption of state laws and regulations to the contrary. Most of the laws and regulations preempted were designed by state legislatures to protect the rights of workers and consumers. In Marquette National Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp., 439 U.S. 299 (1978), for example, the U.S. Supreme Court declared state usury laws to be unavailing against credit card companies engaged in interstate commerce. The effect of that decision, therefore, was to permit credit card companies to exact whatever interest rates they wanted, to the detriment of ordinary Americans.

As another case in point, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S.1 (1976), has severely undermined public confidence in the political system. In that decision, the court upheld some modest limits imposed by the U.S. Congress upon individual campaign contributions. More importantly, however, the court held that campaign contributions by corporations and other large entities were protected by the U.S. Constitution. Congressional attempts to impose restrictions on the financial contributions by corporations and other organizations, because they conflicted with First Amendment guarantees of free speech, would, henceforth, invite strict scrutiny by the court and would require that a compelling state interest had to be shown to pass judicial muster. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti,  435 U.S. 765 (1978), authored by Justice Powell, held that corporations have a First Amendment right to support state ballot initiatives.

Thirty years after the Buckley decision, an even more reactionary court declared that any restrictions upon campaign financing by corporations violate the free speech provision of the First Amendment. In  Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision, reversed two previous precedents that  had upheld modest campaign finance regulations. Justice Kennedy opined that the Court had previously recognized that First Amendment protection extended to corporations and that "under the rationale of these precedents cited, political speech does not lose First Amendment protection 'simply because its source is a corporation;" further "corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the 'discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas' that the First Amendment seeks to foster."

Finally, the five member right-wing majority of the Supreme Court, after the appointment of fellow-traveler, Judge Gorsuch, in Epic Systems v. Lewis, , 584 U.S. ___ (2018), has gutted the ability of employees in private sector to engage in concerted activity to improve wages and the conditions of work free from individual compulsory arbitration agreements. In Janus v. AFSCME,   585 U.S. ___ (2018),  the five ideologues simultaneously delivered a body-blow to the ability of public sector to require non-union members - whom they must still represent - to pay for their fair share of costs of administration, collective bargaining and grievance procedures. As Justice Kagan noted in the dissent, the Court's five member majority were "weaponizing the First Amendment." 

Justice Kagan's observation is prescient for, in the long run, the continued elevation to individual rights to the detriment of the public interest will exacerbate the growth of anti-social individualism and further erode the bonds that have historically united Americans and hobble the ability of government, at all levels, to promote the general welfare. 

 Students of the law understand that there has always existed a tension between fidelity to the letter of the law and the dictates of justice. The ancients remind us that as citizens of a political community we are obliged to seek the summum bonum - i.e., the highest good, the ultimate end -  which is synonymous with justice.

As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Isodore, reminds us that "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens."  Further, "A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher who followed in the footsteps of  Thomas Aquinas, has emphasized that "the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the need of  modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice." Measured by that exacting moral standard, the federal courts have failed to protect the public 

interest and have become pawns of the 1% and the flawed market ideology that promotes and advances their interests to the detriment of everyone else. 
The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced a concept of society and the political community that is conceptually different, and fundamentally at odds, with the  American political tradition. Aristotle taught that "man...is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low on the scale of humanity or above it...inasmuch as he resembles an isolated piece at draughts..."

In fact, the root of the English word civilization is derived from the Latin civitas. The Roman notion of the civitas was endowed with the same mystical meaning which the Greeks attributed to the polis: As a member of the civitas, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, believed that a man fulfilled himself and achieved his destiny - which was to discharge his responsibilities in the life of the republic - as a citizen. Through the civitas, therefore, one became a sociable, functioning human being and thus distinguished oneself from lower forms of life or from barbarians, who because of their lack of knowledge of politics could not create political institutions that would enable them to emerge from their servile state.

 Because the classical conservative tradition emphasized obligation as a correlative of right and insisted that citizenship required conscious and willing deliberation and participation in the political process, it was not uncommon that all of the male citizens of ancient Athens often spent days as members of the Assembly deliberating issues of war and peace and the merits of proposed laws. 

More than two millennia later, here in the twenty-first century United States, notions about politics, citizenship and the obligations of citizens in an ostensibly democratic society stand in stark contrast to the ideas of the ancients. In 2016, a mere 60.1% of this country's citizens were able to find the time or summon the effort to even cast a vote in the presidential election. In the 2021 election,  the number of U.S. voters increased only slightly to 66.3%. The numbers were even worse in the two most recent off-year Senate and Congressional elections: 36.4 % cast votes in 2014; that figure was down from the 37.8 % of voters who cast ballots in  2010. In  53.4% of eligible voters chose to cast ballots in the 2018 elections. Voter turnout in the United States was thus among the lowest in the developed world.

As a result of the failure of young voters, women and minorities to vote in those off year in the 2014 election, the control of the United States Senate and House of Representatives reverted to the GOP.  A similar result might occur in the 2022 election cycle, given citizen apathy and low-information voters who have historically tended to support candidates whose  policies have bee shown to be inimical to their best interests . 

 At the state level, the figures are even more daunting.  As of April 8, 2021, Republicans controlled 54.27% of all state legislative seats y, while Democrats held 44.91%. Republicans composed a majority in 61 chambers, and Democrats held the majority in 37 of those chambers while the Alaskan legislature's house  was organized under a bi-partisan, power-sharing arrangement.  As of the same date, the GOP controlled  27 of the state governors' offices.  
 
 The indifference of so many Americans to the political process only underscores the observation that politics - whether through active participation or abstention - has consequences. Absent serious reform of existing Senate rules that perpetuate grid-lock and minority-control, and the need to reign-in the current  right-wing, activist U.S. Supreme Court, President Biden and the Democratic Congress will be essentially neutered during remainder of his presidency. Simultaneously,  the GOP will be  empowered to continue to wage unremitting war at the state and federal level against women, the LGBT community, minorities, the poor, labor unions, voting rights, regulatory reform, student debt, economic inequality, climate change and a host of other issues.
  
Compounding low voter turnouts, a recent Gallup poll reports that, as of March, 2021,  41% of those Americans who are registered to vote have declared themselves be Independent or unenrolled. The effect of that decision is that these unenrolled voters are unable to participate in the formulation of party platforms and issues. In addition, because they are unwilling to participate in party politics at the ward, county and state levels, they have ceded the power to choose candidates for public office and to advocate for policies to those voters who are enrolled and do participate actively in either of the two political parties.

There are a number of plausible explanations for the current gridlock and dysfunction that characterize current American politics. Undoubtedly, the torrent of private money unleashed  by the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the suppression of voting rights, and the continued success of wedge issues to divide a very low information and distracted electorate have all contributed to the trivialization of U.S. politics. So, too, has the disappearance of journalism as a serious, independent profession and its replacement by pundits and talking heads who endlessly prattle on about who is up or down without any effort to seriously analyze the underlying issues. But they bare only a share of the responsibility.
 
The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maintain, echoing Thomas Aquinas, argued that  that  "the primary purpose of which men, united in political society, need the State is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the critical need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

 Social justice can never be achieved in a political culture where voters are so preoccupied with their own private needs and the acquisition and accumulation of things that they are unable to find any time to participate in the political process. U.S. politics has devolved into to a food fight that is devoid or substance or any acknowledgment of the real problems that bedevil this country. 

Right-wing politicians and interest-groups - aided and abetted by" dark money" - are now engaged in a far-reaching campaign  to further suppress voter turn-out.  Americans who refuse to perform their civic duty, to become informed about the issues and to actively participate in the political process have no one to blame but themselves.

Justice Scalia's Sad Legacy

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This morning's mass shooting in Indianapolis reminds us again of the continuing epidemic of gun violence that ur Congressmen and Supreme Court jurists refuse to address.  As of April 16, 2021, the Gun Violence Archive reports that  147 mass shootings have occurred so far in 2021.Every day, 342 people in the United States are victims of gun violence in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent  Gun Violence. 

Between  1968 and 2017, more than 1.5 million Americans  died in gun-related incidents, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number exceeds the approximately 1.2 million service members who have been killed in every war in U.S. history, based upon estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The emotional and economic losses caused by these gun deaths and injuries, as well as the emotional travail and suffering inflicted upon the families, friends and neighbors of the victims, are incalculable and the cumulative effects of this violence upon our entire society are pervasive. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and hundreds wounded, CBS Moneywatch's Aimee Picchi wrote that, "gun violence in the U.S. also has an enormous financial cost, rippling through the economy in the form of lost wages, medical bills, higher taxes for law enforcement and lower property values, among other factors. Some estimates put the total annual tab of shootings at well over $100 billion, while others put it even higher." A senior staff attorney at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Michael McLively, was quoted by Picchi, "The usual discussion is: There's a mass shooting, we talk about political inaction, and then everyone turns to the next thing that's happening or next disaster. The cost of gun violence goes undiscussed, and it's super important because it's silently affecting everyone." According to the Law Center, researchers conservatively estimate that gun violence costs the American economy at least $229 billion every year, including $8.6 billion in direct expenses such as for emergency and medical care. 

The inability of this country's political and judicial institutions to address this problem has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). Prior to the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Heller, the Second Amendment had always been held by the federal courts to  grant to the people--and not to individuals--the right to keep and bear arms as members of a well-regulated militia (today's National Guard) as previously confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. See,  for example,  U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). 

Sadly, the late Justice Scalia's tortured constitutional analysis and his inability to comprehend the grammatical interconnection between a subordinate clause in a sentence --"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."--and the main clause--"... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"--were an unfortunate consequence of the eighteenth-century ideological bias in which his legal analysis was mired.  In the name of an abstract right of the individual and his putative right to own a gun, Scalia denied the right of concrete human beings--who have died and will continue to die because of handgun violence--to be safe from harm: "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country," Scalia piously intoned, "but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."

 Scalia's unbridled defense of anti-social individualism has since given license to gun nuts and Second Amendment absolutists to thwart every rational effort to control the continuing slaughter of innocent citizens. While most GOP legislators at the federal, state and local levels have enthusiastically embraced the mantra of the NRA that "guns don't kill people, people do," too many Democratic legislators have been cowed into submission.

 How does one explain this insanity?  Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from the liberal ethos of the country in which the Founders intentionally constructed a constitutional system that emphasized the rights of solitary individuals over those of the community and, by means of checks and balances, separation of powers, and a diffusion of political power across a porous, largely unaccountable federal system, signaled a permanent distrust of government and its ability to act as an positive instrument for the public good.       
            
Protecting the lives and safety of innocent citizens the paramount duty of any democratic government. The right of citizens to live meaningful and productive lives without the fear or threat of senseless violence perpetrated by sociopaths and the deranged is a basic human right that trumps any narrow, inflexible interpretation of the Second Amendment.   

 Unless the problem of gun violence is addressed honestly, openly and courageously by judges and politicians, the number and severity of incidents of senseless gun violence will continue to increase. Will this country then descend into the kind of dystopia described by Hobbes, in which the "life of man is poore, nasty, brutish and short?"  If  that dark, future world should come to pass, those jurists and politicians who now oppose all rational forms of gun control will ruefully be remembered as craven cowards who spawned a culture of dearth,

 As citizens of a putative democracy we, too, now have a solemn responsibility. We must demand  through collective action, that local officials, law enforcement, including police  departments and their unions, support sensible  gun control. In addition, we should support all legislative efforts by Democratic candidates for Congressional office and for President to increase the size of the U.S. Supreme Court to eleven or thirteen judges.  Such a change would help to ensure that the Heller decision is reversed and that the Supreme Court would become more responsive to the will of the American people rather than  than the right-wing ideological  agenda of the Federalist Society. 

Work Until Dead: The Pension Crisis

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During Superbowl LII, on February 5, 2018, E-Trade ran a commercial that depicted elderly life guards, fire fighters and disc jockeys' struggling on the job and singing, "I'm 85 and I want to go home" to the tune of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat."  The ad correctly noted that over one third of Americans aren't saving any money for retirement. 

Image result for Cartoons about the pension crisis

Roberta Gordon is a case in point. In an interview with The Atlantic, she stated that she never thought that she would still be alive at age 76 and, if she were, she didn't think that she would still be working. Now, she spends every Saturday at a grocery store and hands out samples for which she is paid $50 a day. She states that she needs the money. Throughout her life, Gordon worked dozens of odd jobs  -  as a house cleaner, a home health aide, a telemarketer, a librarian, a fund raiser. Often, however, she didn't have steady job with an employer that  paid into Social Security and she doesn't receive a pension. Gordon states that she earns $915 a month through Social Security and through Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a program for low-income seniors. Her rent is $1,040 a month and she's been forced to take on credit-card debt to cover the gap, and to pay for utilities, food, and other essentials. She often goes to a church food bank for supplies. 

  Ms. Gordon plight is typical of many Americans who have struggled throughout  their lives to make ends meet, but E-Trade's invitation to invest with it is no solution to their travail. 

From 1940 to 1960, the number of American workers in the private sector by traditional pension plans increased from 3.7 million to 19 million, or to nearly 30 percent of the labor force, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI, and by 1975, 103,346 plans covered 40 million people.  By the early 1970s, many of those retired workers in the United States who were the beneficiaries of traditional pension plans were able to enjoy a comfortable retirement for themselves and their spouses in contrast to the impoverished experiences of previous generations of retirees. Their pensions were supplemented by Social Security benefits that were enacted in the New Deal, and were greatly augmented  by the medical coverage provided by Medicare which was enacted as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation.  

By 2014, only 15% of retired workers in the private sector were enrolled in defined benefit plans. By contrast, many of the defined contribution plans that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 [ERISA} permitted employers to create provide retirees with benefits are based on the amount and investment performance of contributions made by the employee and/or employer over a number of years. Many of those401K plans make minimal contributions to their employees and opt to pay benefits in a  lump sum rather than as a lifetime pension. 

The key event that precipitated a clamor for pension reform occurred in 1963 when the pension plan of the South Bend, Indiana-based car manufacturer Studebaker Corporation  collapsed because of the company's bankruptcy. That event led in a 10-year Congressional effort to enact federal legislation to regulate pension plans. That effort - which was largely shaped by  the lobbying efforts of banks and money managers  -  culminated in the passage of , ERISA. ERISA, amended several times since, ostensibly requires companies to adequately fund their pension plans and mandates that workers vest their pension benefits after a minimum number of years.


Ostensibly, ERISA was enacted to create minimum national standards for pension plans in the private sector.  At the time it was enacted,  a majority of employees were enrolled in traditional pension plans - aka defined benefit  plans. Under those plans, many of which were joint union-employer pension plans, the trustees and administrators were held to a fiduciary duty to exercise prudent judgment to protect the assets invested on behalf of the covered employees.

At the behest of the financial industry, ERISA permitted the creation of defined contribution plans - individual  retirement plans - e.g. 401Ks, etc. Such plans are ultimately controlled by plan administrators and asset managers whom ERISA conveniently exempted from any fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the employees whose assets they managed.  As a result of ERISA, a majority of American companies abandoned traditional pension plans during the past five plus decades and opted to create defined contribution plans, most of which significantly reduced the employers' financial responsibilities to contribute to their employees retirement plans.  

Subsequent legislation amended ERISA and increased the responsibilities of Employee Benefits Security Administration ( EBSA), including the creation of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. In 2009, that agency guaranteed payment of basic pension benefits earned by 33.6 million workers and retirees participating in about 27,650 single-employer pension plans, according to the EBRI. And in 2010, the agency was paying benefits to 1.3 million workers from 4,140 terminated plans.

The overall effect of ERISA has been an unmitigated disaster for ordinary employees and their families. Historically,  long-term employees in the United States who retired after 30 or 40 years at a company received pensions with a guaranteed lifetime income stream.   By contrast, those who own 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts - defined contribution plans - are burdened by two impossible-to-control risks: stock market volatility and uncertainty about their own longevity.

As the 2018 E-Trade television commercial correctly noted, about one-third of Americans really don't have anything saved for retirement, according to a 2016 survey by the finance website GoBankingRates.  Other studies, such has one produced by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think-tank, have documented similar results. Prior to ERISA employer-sponsored pension plans, combined with Social Security benefits and, more recently, defined contribution plans, had truly turned retirement into the "golden years" for millions of 
workers. So until the past decade, workers didn't put much thought into saving for retirement, much less worrying about it.
Since the passage of  ERISA, corporate America has opting out of defined-benefit pensions for decades, and many experts agree that is a major cause of our retirement security crisis Jerry Gazelle, in an article for Workforce reported that, as of June 30, 2012, only 30 percent of Fortune 100 companies still offered a defined benefit plan to new salaried, a figure that was down from 33 percent at the end of 2011, 37 percent in 2010 and 43 percent in 2009.  Gazelle noted that, as recently as 1998, defined benefit plans were the norm among the nation's argest employers, at a time when 90 percent of those Fortune 100 companies offered traditional pension plans to new salaried employees.


By 2017, the future retirement benefits of employees held in union pension plans were at also at risk.  One financial analyst described as it as an "emerging financial crisis among multi employer pension plans in America. These plans are a subset of private sector defined benefit pensions covering 10 million workers and retirees. Most critical are the projected bankruptcies of the Teamsters Central States and the United Mineworkers of America plans, making front page news for the last several months. These plans and many others were undermined by two financial market crashes between 2000 and 2009, corporate bankruptcies, de-regulation, and over-regulation."

Whether even those few, long-term, unionized employees who remain in traditional defined benefit plans will enjoy then pensions for which they worked throughout their lives 
remains an open question. Increasing corporate debt and a lack of pension oversight have exacerbated the problem. 

Tops Super Market chain is one such sad example. In March, 2018, as reported by The New York Times, the chain was cutting prices even though it had filed for bankruptcy the previous month.  In March, 2018, the parent company of the Southern stores, Winn-Dixie and Bi-Lo, announced that it too would file for Chapter 11 protection by the end of that month, and would close 94 stores. 

The private equity firm Lone Star distributed  $980 million in dividends from Winn-Dixie's parent company since 2011, according to Moody's Investors Service. Most of the payments were made by taking out debt on the chain, leaving less money to invest in stores. Marsh Supermarkets, an Indianapolis regional grocer that had also been backed by private equity, laid off more than 1,500 workers and required a federal takeover of its pension plan in 2017.

  Amid the intense competition, the number of supermarkets around the country increased from 2010 to 2015, but the number of supermarket operators declined slightly.  The collapse of many retail supermarket chains implicates the fate of thousands of cashiers, cake decorators and meat cutters, many of whom belong to labor unions and are owed pensions when they retire. Tops, for example, employs more than 12,000 unionized employees at about 160 stores in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. 

  The international food giant Ahold acquired Tops in 2001. The company was sold to Morgan Stanley's private equity team six years later.  Under the firm's ownership, Tops loaded up on debt and paid out roughly $300 million in dividends to its investors, according to Moody's. Even though Morgan Stanley no longer owns the company, Tops never overcame the debt burden. And like other unionized supermarket chains, Tops has had to deal with steep pension expenses. 

When it filed for bankruptcy, Tops said it expected to operate "as normal'' throughout the bankruptcy, but union officials are bracing for closings. "I have never seen a bankruptcy that doesn't lead to closing stores," said Frank DeRiso, president of U.F.C.W. Local 1, which represents Tops workers in New York.

These changes have exacted a toll on unions. Membership in United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest grocery union, decreased by more than 9 percent between   2002 and 2016 to about 1.2 7million members, according to the Labor Department.  "The private equity owners try to drain every last ounce of blood from these companies," said John T. Niccollai, president of Local 464A of the U.F.C.W., which represents grocery workers in New York and New Jersey. "Their feeling is if it goes bankrupt, so be it." 

When Mr. Niccollai started working at the union in the late 1970s, the A & P grocery chain had about 7,000 stores. By the time A & P had filed for its second bankruptcy, in 2015, it was down to about 125. Mr. Niccollai found jobs elsewhere for 3,500 workers who had been displaced by the bankruptcy, but 1,500 of his members were out of work. He recently added membership by organizing some of the warehouse workers at the Peapod grocery delivery 
service, but it is challenging when the industry is increasingly dominated by nonunion employers like Walmart and Amazon."We are fighting hard," Mr. Niccollai added.
***
Not surprisingly, financial planners and investors have waxed ecstatic about the impact of ERISA: "ERISA had an effect on traditional pension plans and killed some of them, but overall it was good legislation," according to James van Iwaarden, consulting actuary with Minneapolis-based Van Iwaarden Associates. "When defined contribution plans were first introduced in the late '70s, they were never intended to replace defined benefit plans, but to supplement them." Today, "Defined benefit plans are dead," says Bob Pearson, CEO of Pearson Partners International in Dallas. "No company I know offers them even as a means to attract senior executives."

As a result of the  demise of traditional pension plans, Wall Street financiers and their enablers have reaped billions of dollars in fees from "administering" and churning 401k plans since the passage of ERISA. The losers have been the ordinary people who work and live on Main Street. Equally indefensible has been the failure of federal oversight to ensure that traditional pension plans are adequately funded and that pensioners are paid before investors. Lastly, corporations should not be permitted to renege on their obligations to employees through the ruse of bankruptcy, the effect of which is to transfer many of the pension obligations to the Federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation which is subsidized by the taxpayers of the United States. These continuing abuses show that, in our current political and economic system, the concerns of ordinary citizens ring hollow while voices of the 1% sound loudly.   

The Myth of the Free Market

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The mythology of capitalism and the market economy that it has spawned have been successfully invoked by critics to emasculate unions and to compromise the ability of workers in the private and public sectors to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Yet that mythology continues to exert a bizarre intellectual stranglehold over so many Americans who should know better. 

The question that needs to be asked about this orthodoxy - as with all other orthodoxies - is, does it, in fact, explain existing social reality? If the markets for goods and services, absent public regulation, naturally seek to move into equilibrium, as advocates of unbridled market economics assert, why then have the annual median incomes of Americans, as of 2018, fallen precipitously since 1999?  

Why have "fair trade" policies, despite increasing levels of education in the U.S., caused a net migration of millions of U.S. jobs overseas during the past four decades, while the U.S. has continued to accumulate ever increasing balance of payments deficits caused by ever increasing purchases of foreign-made goods that were previously made and still could be made in this country?  

  Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times that nearly all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other assorted products sold by Apple sold in 2011 were manufactured overseas, primarily in China by third-party vendors with whom Apple contracted for services and products. Apple employs only 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas but, as a result of its exploitation of workers through third-party 
vendors, Apple made a profit of $400,000 per each of its actual employees, a sum greater than that made by Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil and Google. 

Despite the hyperbole, there is one question that is rarely asked in the popular media.  Is Apple, Inc. a model of corporate efficiency and success that should be praised and emulated in business schools throughout the U.S., or is it a corporate pariah that should be roundly condemned and criticized for its unconscionable greed?

      At a White House dinner in February of 2011, President Obama reminded the late and much heralded Apple CEO Steve Jobs that, once upon a time, Apple boasted that its products were made in America and he asked, "Why can't that work come home? Mr. Jobs's reply, according to other guests present, was terse. "Those jobs aren't coming back," he replied.
 That same year, Apple earned in excess of $400,000 in profit per employee - a sum that was vastly greater than the per employee profits of Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.

             In March of 2013, Apple announced that it held $40.4 billion in untaxed earnings outside of the United States as of September 29, 2012, and should it repatriate that cash, the company estimated it would owe $13.8 billion in taxes, or slightly under the federal 35 percent tax rate.

  The company also disclosed a worldwide annual revenue in 2013 in the amount of  $171 billion. In addition, during the five quarters prior to March 1, 2014, Apple officially reported total acquisition investments of $11.12 billion, in addition to the $1.02 billion in cash "business acquisition" payments.

  All of these grim statistics were called to mind again in the light of a fawning and uncritical article by Rebecca Ruiz that appeared in the Business Section of The New York Times on March 4, 2014.  The purported news story informed readers that Peter Oppenheimer,  Apple's senior vice president and chief financial officer, announced his plans to retire this coming in September, after an 18-year career with Apple.

            Ruiz's article was effusive in her characterization of Oppenheimer's performance as senior vice-president of Apple. She noted that "As chief financial officer for the last decade, Mr. Oppenheimer, who started in 1996 as controller for the Americas, helped oversee a shrewd global financial strategy, with Apple garnering record profit and building a significant pile of cash."

            Ruiz also found it a sign of Oppenheimer's business acumen that "As part of the strategy, Apple set up a web of subsidiaries around the world, allowing the company to legally avoid billions of dollars of taxes in the United States. In 2013, Apple raised $17 billion to fund a shareholder payout, a move that potentially helped the company save on taxes."

            Ruiz quoted Lawrence Isaac Balter, chief market strategist at Oracle Investment Research, who stated that Oppenheimer's "done a fantastic job building the war chest," and repeated a statement by Timothy D. Cook, Apple's current chief executive, who credited Mr. Oppenheimer with "managing the company's finances during a period of significant international expansion and revenue growth."

            At the end of Ruiz's column, we discovered that in fiscal year 2012, Mr. Oppenheimer was lavishly rewarded for his success in having helped to devise Apple's multifarious and ingenious schemes for corporate tax-evasion, and in his having enabled Apple to garner obscene 
profits for its shareholders on the backs of an exploited third work-force: Oppenheimer earned $68.6 million in total compensation package. Not surprisingly, Mr. Oppenheimer stated "I love Apple and the people I have had the privilege to work with and after 18 years here, it is time for me to take time for myself and my family," and it was announced that he had been named to the board of Goldman Sachs.

Apple is only one example of why the United States is no longer a net-exporter of goods and services. U.S. trade and tax policies since the 1970s have incentivized the out-sourcing of goods and services. By the end of 2017, China's trade surplus with the United States rose to a record  $347 billion deficit. The U.S. trade deficit with Canada amounted to $11 billion; with Mexico, a $63 billion deficit; with Japan, a $69 billion deficit; and with Germany, there was a 
$65 billion deficit. The data showed that the U.S. imported $2.2 trillion. Automobiles, petroleum, and cell phones were the largest categories. 

The U.S. is a consumption-driven economy. For that reason, in the long run, the migration of jobs to China and other third-world countries will prove to be self-defeating: An increasingly impoverished middle class here in the U.S. will eventually be unable to purchase the high-end goods that out-sourced manufacturers such as Apple and other U.S. based corporations import and try to sell to domestic consumers.

Inevitably, over time, as economic inequality continues to grow and purchasing power erodes, the life-styles of perhaps a majority of Americans will be reduced to that of most Chinese and Indians today. The problem is that, by and large, entrepreneurs and the boards of directors of corporations don't care about the long-run consequences of their behaviors, no matter how 
ill-advised or self-defeating. Perhaps they have accepted too blithely, as a corporate credo, John Maynard Keynes' observation that in the long-run we will all be dead.

            The sole goal of most corporations is to maximize profits to please their shareholders. In distinct contrast to their own employees, almost all of whom as at-will employees may be discharged from employment for no reason or any non-discriminatory reason at all, the shareholders' interests are protected by the boards of directors and, unlike employees, have a seat at the corporate table. To further protect the interests of shareholders,  the laws of the fifty 
states and the federal government  impose a fiduciary duty upon corporations to their  shareholders. 

An increasing body of evidence suggests that the traditional model of the market economy no longer behaves in the way that its most ardent proponents have predicted. As competition has given way to consolidation, and equal opportunity to plutocracy, the anomalies have now begun to overwhelm the paradigm. Whatever comes next, more of the same is not the answer. Given a mindset that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, entrepreneurs and the other vaunted Masters of the Universe remain utterly uninterested in problems such as poverty and pollution, and they have no idea of how to reconcile basic principles of social justice with their desire to make a living.

The Decline of Literacy in the Media

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Ok, I'll confess that as a former English teacher and as a trial attorney, I have been accused of being pedantic. I plead guilty. I'll also admit that the English language, with its irregular verbs,  - i.e.   homonyms (air, heir; ale, ail;  patience; patients, etc) and homophones - i.e. lead (to go in front of)/lead (a metal); wind (to follow a course that is not straight)/wind (a gust of air); bass (low, deep sound)/bass (a type of fish) can be extremely confusing. There are also a litany of nouns that sound similar when pronounced aloud but mean very different things -  try to enunciate, for example, feudal and futile. 

I also admit that, in contrast to Spanish and German, languages in which most words are pronounced as they sound, many nouns in English are pronounced with silent letters and without memorization can not be properly spelled (or spelt, if you're British): as in knife, write, comb, castle, sword, know and hundreds of other words.  But the number of such words is significantly less than in French.

The German language, in contrast to English, has three different definite articles to distinguish the gender of male, female and neuter nouns - Der Soldat, Die Frau, Das Fraulein  -  and the definite articles change in the normative,  dative,  genitive and accusative cases. In addition, the placement of nouns and verbs change where subordinate construction is used as with auxiliary verbs and past participles - e. g. Ich glaube, dass  Ihre Aussage wahr ist. (I believe that your statement has been truthful),

    English, by contrast, does not differentiate gender among male, female and neuter nouns and, because of that, the form of the definite article "the" never changes, regardless of whether the nouns are used as direct objects, objects of prepositions, or in the dative or possessive cases. Further, the use of subordinate construction does not change the sequence of nouns and verbs in a sentence.   
I will also concede that there is a sound distinction to be made between informal English  and its relaxed grammatical rules and formal English. The former is perfectly fine for conversations among friends and in social circles, but the later is required in public speaking and in written commentary lest the speaker or author be dismissed as semi-literate. 

Not surprisingly, as a certified curmudgeon, I have a number of pet peeves. I refuse to excuse the inability of allegedly educated  writers to know the difference between the contraction "You're" and the possessive pronoun "Your. "  Equally inexcusable, is the inability to know when to properly use the comparative  adjectives "less" and "fewer."  And why do so many media commentators not understand know the difference between the prepositions "between" and "among"or  the need to use objective case pronouns as the objects of the prepositions --e. g.  such as "between you and me," not I, and "among the three or four of us," not we? 

But my indignation has been raised to new levels of agitation since the ascent of 24 hour cable television. In order to fill time, the services of endless panels of bloviators and talking heads have been hired as "analysts. " Hardly any are journalists who would know how to do independent  research and have little  to recommend themselves other than their opinions and political pedigrees. Sadly, a number of them seem unaware of the basic rule of subject and predicate agreement. On a number of occasions, I have heard commentators say "There is many sources." Is this too difficult a rule to get straight?

Perhaps as distressing, the repetitive use of objective case pronouns before the use of gerunds  -  where possessive pronouns are required  - has become ubiquitous. It is "his thinking"and "their deciding," not him thinking or them deciding. Is it asking too much of  MSNBC, CNN and Fox News that they require their highly paid panelists to familiarize themselves with the basic rules of English grammar before they embarrass themselves or cause us to cringe in disbelief.

Basic literacy and a commitment to report matters accurately and truthfully are under assault on a daily basis. Words are the vehicles by which we as sentient beings express our thoughts. The improper attention to the use of words and to the rules that govern their use are indicative of sloppy thinking. It behooves us all to try to use words - and the rules that govern their use - properly.  

Ronald Reagan's Policies Are Still Killing Americans

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     Decades before Donald Trump became President, the GOP had already issued a declaration of war against the interests of ordinary Americans. A 2013 study released by the journal Health Affairs reported a decline in life expectancy for women in about 43 percent of the nation's counties. The research showed that women age 75 and younger were dying at higher rates than in previous years in nearly half of this country's counties. Most of these counties were located in rural areas throughout the South and the West.


    Historically, on average, the life expectancy for women has exceeded that of males in the United States by six years, but that disparity has been narrowing according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reduction in life expectancy for some women appears to have begun in the late 1980s, although studies have begun to report upon it only during the past few years.

    The researchers, David Kindig and Erika Cheng of the University of Wisconsin, analyzed federal death data and other information for about 3,141 U.S. counties over the past 10 years. They calculated mortality rates for women aged 75 and younger. They found that nationwide, the rate of women who died younger than would be expected fell overall from 324 to 318 per 100,000 women. However, in 1,344 of the counties studied, the average premature death rate rose from 317 per 100,000
deaths to about 333 per 100,000.   A similar study led by the University of Washington's Dr. Christopher Murray surveyed county-level death rates. It also found that women were dying earlier than life, especially in the South.

    The two studies by Murray and Kindig underscore important regional differences. The Southern states have the highest numbers of people who still smoke. In addition, the proportion of women who did not graduate from high school is also highest in the South. Since the 1980s, the percentage of people living in poverty and those who also lack access to basic medical and dental care in the United States has soared exponentially. This increase is directly attributable to the policies of Ronald Reagan and the "trickle-down" economics that he espoused. 

    Equally a cause for concern, in June of 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a study which showed that, as of 2016, more non-Hispanic whites died than were born in twenty-six states; more than at any time in U.S. history. The study reported that about 179 million residents - or approximately 56 percent of the U.S. population - lived in those 26 states. By contrast, white deaths exceeded births in just four states in 2004 and seventeen as recently as 2014.

    As reported by the New York Times, many of the states in which these declines in birth have been documented are in rural states that voted for Donald Trump. For example, Martin County, in eastern North Carolina, first experienced the decline in white births in the late 1970s, a phenomenon that is now state-wide. The Times quoted Michael Brown, 66, a retired hospital maintenance worker in Robersonville whose two daughters went away to college and never moved back - a pattern typical for young people throughout the county, "There are just hardly any young people in the county anymore "We are the last generation who stayed with their parents," said Mr. Brown.   

    There is also more than anecdotal evidence that the opioid crises that continues to  decimate American communities is fueled by an increasing perception, endlessly reiterated by Reagan, that we should not look to our government to do for us what we can not do by ourselves. As one West Virginia academic  opined, " he opioid epidemic is merely a symptom of a much larger crisis, one we as Americans must learn to solve: the crisis of isolation, despair and hopelessness."
    
    Wheaton College economist John Miller observed that the economy grew much more slowly in the 1980s than during the 1960s, and that Reagan's tax policies especially harmed low income families.  Many of these families, especially white voters in the South and West, were among Reagan's most ardent supporters. By the end of Regan's administration in1988, the bottom 40% of households paid a larger share of their income in federal taxes in 1988 than they did in 1980. Miller noted that the increases in the payroll taxes that financed Social Security and Medicare were greater than the minuscule benefit these taxpayers received from lowered income tax rates.

    Not surprisingly, the richest 1% were the lottery winners as their effective federal tax rate was reduced from 34.6% to 29.7%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Simultaneously, as Reagan increased the military budget, he slashed social spending. By 1988, domestic discretionary spending had declined from 4 .7% of GDP in 1980 to 3.1%. Miller reported that the most adversely affected were programs for vulnerable low-income Americans that experienced an extraordinary 54% reduction in federal spending from 1981 to 1988. After correcting for inflation, subsidized housing had lost 80.7% of its budget, training and employment services were cut by 68.3%, and housing assistance for the elderly suffered a 47.1% decrease.

    These programs, Miller concluded, never returned to their pre-Reagan spending levels. In the meantime, as taxes on corporations have declined precipitously since the 1950s, the growth of corporate welfare and tax loopholes has deprived the government of vital sources of additional revenue that could be used to expand essential public services for ordinary Americans.

     In a similar vein, Mary Williams Walsh and Louise Storey, report that as of 2013 corporations then enjoyed billions of dollars in tax-free financing because of a 1986 change in the tax code supported by Ronald Reagan. They report: "In all, more than $65 billion of these bonds have been issued by state and local governments on behalf of corporations since 2003, according to an analysis of Bloomberg bond data by The New York Times. During that period, the single biggest beneficiary of such securities was the Chevron Corporation, which issued bonds with a total face value of $2.6 billion, the analysis showed. Last year it reported a profit of $26 billion." And, "At a time when Washington is rent by the politics of taxes and deficits, select companies are enjoying a tax break normally reserved for public works. This style of financing, called 'qualified private activity bonds,' saves businesses money, because they can borrow at relatively low interest rates. But those savings come at the expense of American taxpayers, because the interest paid to bondholders is exempt from taxes."   
 
    In a paper first published in 2010, now released as a book,  Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson reported that one in ten people in Japan and Germany suffered from some form of mental illness, compared to one in four Americans. The explanation for this disparity, according to those researchers, is increasing U.S. inequality: As income distribution becomes increasingly
unequal, the society fabric is ripped apart, which adversely affects, to varying degrees,  the mental health  of everyone who lives within the society.

      The American Dream is being plundered before our open eyes while politicians and pundits ominously warn that "entitlements" must be severely reduced. But the only programs they propose to gut are the ones that have provided a measure of dignity and social justice for ordinary Americans since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. These are the 99% of the population who owe their misfortune to the poor political choices that we have collectively made as a Americans. 

    Politics has consequences. Those who choose not to become informed or involved do so at their peril.    

Prayers Will Never Be The Answer

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photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Lott's self-serving critique of gun registration laws in Tuesday's New York Times [ "Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence"] needs to be juxtaposed to yesterday's episode of gun violence in the Parkland, Florida high school. Why should it matter if a few people are inconvenienced by gun registration laws or if their identities are confused with others when balanced against the human toll caused by gun violence? Why should mentally-challenged, violence prone or ill-equipped persons, who are neither part of the military or the police, be given an unfettered right to own and carry guns of every conceivable type and caliber? Isn't the first duty of the government to ensure the safety and protection of its citizens? Why should the possession of these instruments of destruction be elevated to an alleged constitutional right?


Every other Western democracy that has confronted these very questions have arrived at better, safer answers: Restrict guns, require registration, comprehensive background checks, continuing education, and require that all licensed weapons be securely locked in sealed containers.

Professional police forces were created in this country because citizens correctly concluded that they did not want to b e subject to subject to vigilante violence. Given that history, why are the police associations and chiefs of police reluctant to take on the gun lobby even through they, too, are often the victims of gun violence?

Prayers are not the answer to gun violence; legislation is. It is time for every American concerned about this country's endless orgy of gun violence to demand action and to punish every legislator who panders to the NRA. A country that embraces a culture of gun ownership, given the attendant violence it spawns, and elevates it to a constitutional principle is one that is on the verge of implosion. Requiscat in pace, Antonin Scalia.


Pope Francis Confronts Right-Wing Politicians

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                  (Chapter 25 of Private Affluence and Public Squalor: Social Injustice and Economic Misery In America)

   Pope Francis presents a challenge not just to self-styled GOP Catholics who describe themselves as "conservatives" but to the entire Republican establishment and its supporters and enablers. In February of 2017, for example, the Pope, while ostensibly rebuking Myanmar for its mistreatment of the minority Rohinga population, exhorted Christians "to not raise walls but bridges, to not respond to evil with evil, to overcome evil with good." The pope continued, "A Christian can never say "I'll make you pay for that.' Never! That is not a Christian gesture.'"




    Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis sent a letter of encouragement to the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California. In his letter, the Pope reaffirmed the church's commitment to social justice and deplored tyranny amid the "gutting of democracies." He also condemned leaders who preyed upon "fear, insecurity, quarrels, and even justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills on to a 'non-neighbor" 

     The Pope's challenge is likely to become even more formidable and divisive as the Trump administration announces its effort to dismantle the existing meager social safety net that Americans currently enjoy and the environmental, safety and health policies that were adopted to protect the planet and our collective well-being. The Pope's refusal to embrace waht passes for  conventional wisdom in the U.S. underscores the  chasm between the market values - that have accelerated the growth of inequality and public squalor - and the inability of classical liberal doctrine to address the misery created by its own policy prescriptions.
   


    After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama, borrowing a phrase from Hegel, wrote a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. The work became a cause célèbre among those who are often described in the popular media as "neo-conservatives."

     Fukuyama postulated that the emergence of Western liberal democracy, with its emphasis upon individual rights, limited government and market capitalism, potentially represented  the apogee in the evolution of Western  political philosophy: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

    Fukuyama's myopia with respect to the breadth and depth of Western political thought also left him oblivious to the older, still vibrant school of Western political discourse - the conservative tradition, as exemplified in Catholic social teaching. That tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens. The notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.

     Equally emphatic is the Catholic Church's rejection of those economic doctrines that have elevated the primacy of the markets and capitalism over basic human need. In his encyclical, Mater et Magister, Pope John XXIII emphasized the central role of the state in promoting social justice: "As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, 'the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.' It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women
and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman."


    Historically, Catholic social thought has insisted that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as libertarians and classical liberals would have it, to serve only the needs of the individual. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument, designed merely to protect private property or to protect rights, but that it imposes reciprocal obligations upon each citizen as a member of a political community.

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, because God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. It is for that reason that Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. As Aquinas observed, "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..." Historically , Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.

     Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, in contrast to the political philosophy of Speaker Paul Ryan and other eighteenth century liberals who contend that society and the state are abstractions and that only the individual is real. Catholic social thought emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as libertarians and classical liberals would have it, to serve only the needs of the individual. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument, designed merely to protect private property or to protect rights,  but imposes reciprocal obligations upon each citizen as a member of a political community.

     The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, echoing the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is the abstraction. He rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes that belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves. Which then is the abstraction: the self or society?

    Centuries earlier, it was Edmund Burke, a Catholic sympathizer and an alleged favorite of William Buckley, who observed that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny: "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, long before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became pope, issued a guide entitled Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. The bishops insisted that "...[T]he economy must serve people, not the other way around. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions. They also have a fundamental right to organize and join unions. People have a right to economic initiative and private property, but these rights have limits. No one is allowed to amass excessive wealth when others lack the basic necessities of life."

    Because the conservative and socialist tradition share somewhat similar critiques about the limitations and deficiencies of liberal political ideology, the hysteria and discomfit of Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Forbes, a legion of right-wing Catholic thinkers who defend market capitalism such as Michael Novak to Pope Francis' comments are understandable.


     In his inaugural address on January 30, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of the "millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day...I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Seventy-six years later, Roosevelt's message should still reverberate among all but the most indifferent.

    In October of 2013, the lingering effects of the Great Recession continued to be felt across the country. According to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed persons, at 11.3 million, and the  unemployment rate, at 7.3 percent, showed little improvement. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was 4.1 million and 8.1 million individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job while another 2.3 million persons were described to be marginally attached to the labor force."

    Equally distressing, according to the Census Bureau as of September, 2014, 15.4 percent of people lacked health insurance, which, while down from 15.7 percent in 2011, at 48 million, was not statistically significant. A US Department of Housing and Urban Development report noted there were 663,0000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless nationwide on a single night in January in 2013. Further, the US Department of Agriculture reported last month that 17.4 million U.S. households struggled to get enough food to eat because money and that in more than a third of those households - around one in eight US homes - at least one person did not get enough to eat at some time during the year. Lastly, as of the end of 2012, 46.5 million Americans (15.0 percent of the population) were reported to be still living in poverty. These statistics reflect what Michael Harrington described in the 1960s as, "The Other America."

    What has caused the misery index in the United States to increase so exponentially? The public policies of the Reagan administration and the successor administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43 expressed the three verities of classical liberal economic orthodoxy (or, at very least, its libertarian strand): deregulation of business, tax cuts for the wealthy, and free trade that would enable businesses to seek the lowest costs for labor and to pay lowest prices for the purchase of goods and commodities anywhere in the world. Each of these policies was sold to a gullible American public on the basis of sonorous platitudes such as "A rising tide lifts all boats." They are the very policies that Pope Francis has identified as the among the root causes of misery throughout the Western world. The net effect of these callous and harmful policies has been to unravel the safety net stitched together by Franklin Roosevelt,  Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

    An equally important and baffling question is why so many Americans appear to be indifferent to the suffering of their neighbors?  Pope Francis' call for social justice is profoundly conservative, but to the tone deaf, it sounds far too radical. He has reminded all of us that the status quo is no longer acceptable because it is incompatible with human dignity. Those who seek to know the truth of the human condition will acknowledge this basic proposition. By contrast, the clamor and indignation on the right is solely calculated to vindicate the status-quo irrespective of the suffering and misery it has spawned.   


An Easter Message

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       For Christians throughout the Christian world, Easter is the apex of the liturgical calendar. In the iconography of the Christian Church, the Risen Christ symbolizes the redemption of mankind; its new hope and its new possibilities. The words of the Gospel of  Matthew continue to resonate two millennia later: "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay."

   

        The hope for redemption that is epitomized by Easter is the common legacy of all men and women, whether believers or non-believers, no matter their stations in life or their geographic locations. In our own way, each of us yearns to build a better life for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren. But each of us also knows that the quest will too often exact a very personal toll, as witnessed by the crucifixion. William Butler Yeats, perhaps better than most, grasped  the secular implications the Easter message: the possibility alongside the peril and uncertainty:       


Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

         The Eastern Rebellion, chronicled by Yeats, was, at the time, ridiculed as amateurish and folly, but within a short time, owing to the brutality of the oppressors, a new Ireland was born. So today, throughout Middle East, amidst the suffering countries of Southern Europe, and elsewhere in the world, the hopes of a multitude are often met with derision and violent oppression, but their dreams too will be vindicated if they persevere.

      In his inaugural address, John Kennedy reminded Americans  that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own." The creation of a better, more just world will not be achieved by solitary acts alone for the power of the status quo is always too great. Meaningful, substantial change will only be achieved when each of us of recognizes our shared potential as part of a broader public effort to insist that the voices of all of us - including the poor, the bedraggled, the dispossessed, the ill - be heard and addressed by those whom we have entrusted to govern us.

    The Catholic philosopher Jacques Martian, inspired by the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, reminds us, "...the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice...social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."
      
            There can and must be a place at the table for all of God's children. In the quest to achieve that goal, we redeem and fulfill ourselves as human beings. This is the message of Easter that all of us - believer and non-believer alike - should embrace.

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