On This 4th of July

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

I hope y’all are enjoying your long holiday weekends! If you have been fortunate enough to have good weather, fantastic! My family didn’t plan any activities, and it’s just as well, because it has been raining on and off here all weekend. Even got a brief thunderstorm Saturday. But, rain or shine, it is still time to remember and celebrate the sacrifices made in the founding of this nation, and the many freedoms we still — for the most part and for the moment, anyway — enjoy as citizens and residents of the United States of America.

Fun Fact: Nobody actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776!

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On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee presented his resolution for independence from Great Britain to the 2nd Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Not all the colonies were ready to commit, so the delegates took a few weeks off to rest, discuss informally, and communicate with their constituents. Meanwhile, a “Committee of Five” — with Thomas Jefferson as lead penman — was tasked with drafting a formal declaration, which was presented for review on June 28. Congress then reconvened on July 1 to resume debate on Lee’s Resolution. The next day, July 2, they formally adopted the resolution for independence, with 12 of the 13 colonies voting in favor. (Still-hesitant New York abstained.) The day after that, John Adams wrote the following to his wife, Abigail, about the momentous occasion:

“… The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”

Of course, we now know that it was July 4th, when the 2nd Continental Congress formally adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, that became historically celebrated. But, Adams got pretty much all the rest of it correct, even if the celebratory specifics have been modified over time and vary from place to place.

Despite later claims by Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson that they signed the document on July 4, most historians agree that this was false. New York’s delegates finally gave their official support to the Declaration of Independence on July 7, after receiving authorization from their home assembly. But, it wasn’t until August 2, after the Declaration had been copied in clear handwriting onto parchment, that most of the 56 signatories signed the official document. (A few held out until a later date, and two never signed at all.) Thus marks the formal and auspicious birth of the great “American Experiment” that continues even today.

Now, we don’t claim to be a perfect nation or to consistently actualize our founding principles. Our nation and our government will never be perfect. It never can be, because ‘We The People’ are imperfect. But, what we have done for the good, domestically and around the world, over the past 239 years has been truly amazing and unmatched in blood and treasure. It is easy to get caught up in the politics and the various worldview battles evidenced by daily headlines. But, although we are under assault from without and within, I firmly believe that the U.S.A. is still the greatest, most exceptional nation that has ever been. I, for one, am Proud to be an American!

That said, I invite you to follow this link to a video of country music legend Lee Greenwood, backed up by the Jay Sekulow Band, performing Greenwood’s beloved tribute to America, “God Bless the U.S.A.”. Enjoy!

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Executive Authority vs. Executive Privilege

“We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.” — President Obama, not-so-subtly implying that he’ll do whatever he can to advance his agenda

As you may have noticed, the current administration of the U.S. government, arguably more than any before it, has a habit of pushing the boundaries of its authority (to put it mildly). It isn’t very subtle about it, either. In fact, usually its efforts are rather bold (e.g., unconstitutional “recess” appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); “executive amnesty”) and obvious to those paying attention. Unfortunately, the other two branches of government haven’t always taken the necessary measures to put the President in his place. Or, whatever they do is too little, too late. But, what exactly is “executive authority”, what are its limits, and how does it differ from, say, executive privilege, another term thrown around that sounds like it might be sort of similar? I decided to do a little research to help clarify.

checks and balancesFirst, let’s look at the words separately. The adjective “executive” is defined generally as “of, relating to, or suited for carrying out plans, duties, etc.,” or, even more relevantly, as “pertaining to or charged with the execution of laws and policies or the administration of public affairs.” (See Dictionary.com.) The noun “authority” means “the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine,” though it can also refer to “a person or body of persons in whom authority is vested, as a governmental agency.”

Now, a quick review from American Government (or Civics) class. In the U.S., we have a separation of powers between three branches of government: the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive. The first consists of the two houses of the U.S. Congress — i.e., the House of Representatives and the Senate. Their main purpose is to make (i.e., write and pass) federal laws. The Judiciary consists of the federal court system, with the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) being at the top. Their main purpose is to interpret the laws. The Executive branch consists of the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet, and various administrative agencies (e.g., IRS, EPA, FDA, SEC, Cabinet-level departments) that help to carry out executive functions. Those functions are the implementation, enforcement, and administration of federal laws, as directed by the President. The President is also head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces. (For more details, visit whitehouse.gov. Wikipedia gets some of this shamefully wrong.)

It shouldn’t be too hard to realize that “executive authority” refers to the jurisdiction or rights of the President (with the aid of his underlings) to perform the various duties of the Executive Branch. It does not include creating or interpreting laws or performing any other duties reserved by the Constitution for the Legislative and Judiciary Branches or for the individual States and/or the citizens themselves. (See Article II of the Constitution.) These would be examples of “executive overreach”. Of course, this works both ways, since the other branches and the States should not be allowed to assume or usurp duties that belong to the Executive Branch or one another, either. (Unfortunately, the Supreme Court seems to be effectively (re-)writing laws, these days.) This function of the separate branches of government with their respective domains and responsibility of keeping an eye on each other is called “checks and balances” and is designed to prevent any one branch from getting too powerful.

“Executive privilege”, on the other hand, is a totally different sort of thing. As per Dictionary.com, a “privilege” is “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most,” or, more specifically, “a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities.” In this context, “executive privilege” has a very particular application. Here is the legal definition (from Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary):

“The privilege that allows the president and other high officials of the executive branch to keep certain communications private if disclosing those communications would disrupt the functions or decision-making processes of the executive branch. As demonstrated by the Watergate hearings, this privilege does not extend to information germane to a criminal investigation.”

frabz-holderironyHistorically, a president will invoke executive privilege in an effort to resist a subpoena or other means by which Congress or the courts demand access to information and/or personnel from the Executive Branch. Sometimes, the administration will then volunteer limited or partial access to what was requested. If challenged, the “executive privilege” invocation may be denied, if SCOTUS determines the reasoning for it was insufficient and that the larger public interest is served by full(er) disclosure. An example of the George W. Bush administration invoking executive privilege was during the investigation into former presidential counsel Harriet Miers. An example from the Obama administration can be found in the infamous “Fast and Furious” investigation.

It must be very tempting to abuse this privilege and, to be fair, it isn’t entirely clear what its limits are. The concept is not explicitly found in the Constitution but has been inferred by SCOTUS as either inherent in “separation of powers” or rooted within “the supremacy of each branch within its own assigned area of constitutional duties.” But, it is not meant to be simply a CYA maneuver for the President, nor does it appear to be the presidential version of “pleading the 5th”.

In the near future, I hope to also address executive actions, orders, and memoranda, which are often the means by which Obama (as with others before him) attempts to overreach his constitutionally granted executive authority.

‘Til next week….

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Replacing Hamilton on the U.S. $10 Bill

“Our democracy is a work in progress. This decision of putting a woman in the $10 bill reflects our aspirations for the future as much as a reflection of the past.”  — Jack Lew, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury

You’ve probably already heard about it, and if you haven’t, you’ll likely hear more about it soon. The U.S. Treasury will be replacing the visage of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with that of a woman-to-be-determined. Or, rather, Hamilton will share the bill with a woman, though it hasn’t yet been decided how.

“There are many options for continuing to honor Hamilton. While one option is producing two bills, we are exploring a variety of possibilities.”

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren

The new bill(s) will debut in 2020 — 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote — and the theme of the redesign will be “democracy”. Apparently, there was a brief, grassroots campaign called “Women on 20s” that gathered signatures to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. But, despite the President’s apparent approval, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew decided to make the change to the $10 bill instead, since it was already due for a security redesign. This got me wondering about what the guidelines have been historically for deciding whose face will grace a particular denomination of paper currency, and who makes that final decision. I found this on the Treasury Dept.’s website:

“As with our nation’s coinage, the Secretary of the Treasury usually selects the designs shown on United States currency. Unless specified by an Act of Congress, the Secretary generally has the final approval. This is done with the advice of Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) officials.

The law prohibits portraits of living persons from appearing on Government Securities. Therefore, the portraits on our currency notes are of deceased persons whose places in history the American people know well.”

Nothing more about what kind of people should be honored, but I guess that mostly answers my question. I was just thinking that they needed to be a president, statesman, or other significant holder of federal office. I guess not. I also thought that it might be limited to those who lived and were in office predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries. (I.e., centered mostly around the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.) Wrong again. The discontinued $500 bill featured William McKinley (1843-1901), the $1000 bill featured Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), the $10,000 bill had Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) on it, and the $100,000 bill had the only portrait of someone who didn’t hold public office until the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924).

Social media has apparently been all atwitter (yes, that was a pun) about this, lately. Many from the political right are rather skeptical about the reasoning behind this decision. Some think that Hamilton is “a little too white for this administration” and that this is merely one more effort by “progressives” to remove “rich, white slave owners” — i.e., the Founding Fathers and others — from U.S. currency and other places of honor. Some have also suggested that doing this now will somehow give a boost to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Personally, I’m not sure how much of that I buy into. Other commentators have made other good points. S.E. Cupp, for instance, thinks it is an “empty symbolic gesture.”

“Surely, putting a woman on a U.S. banknote will be an important step forward for gender equality and advancing women’s rights, with a tangible, measurable return on investment, so to speak. Sorry to be sarcastic, but I just can’t summon the excitement to celebrate something so trivial and, in a way, insulting to women….

Why, after decades of complaining that our American economic system is oppressive, male-organized, unfair and broken, are modern feminists now begging to be featured on its most famous symbol? Moreover, what good are symbols in confronting reality? Putting a woman on the $10 bill has nothing to do with ending domestic violence, for example, or with preventing college rape. It won’t change the difficulties a woman faces balancing work and home life.”

Among other things, Mona Charen calls out the stupidity and arrogance of the move:

“Let’s start with stupidity. If there’s one figure whose face arguably does not deserve to adorn the currency, it’s the man on the $20 bill, not the $10. That is Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, adamant opponent of paper currency (!), friend of slave power and scourge of Native Americans. Who can forget that when the Cherokee appealed their treatment by the state of Georgia to the Supreme Court and won, Jackson refused to enforce the law? Jackson pushed for and signed the Indian Removal Act, which led directly to the forced deportation of nearly 17,000 Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and others — known as the Trail of Tears….

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Here’s the arrogance: The Treasury Department is downgrading Hamilton, without whom there might not be a United States currency, just because they yearn to check a “diversity” box, and without consulting the American people. Hamilton was a poor kid from the West Indies who immigrated to New York, joined the patriot army at age 17 or 18 and organized an artillery company, became an aide to Gen. George Washington, authored more than half of the Federalist Papers, and served as the first treasury secretary of the United States, where he structured the finances of our infant republic so that we didn’t drown in debt. He was also a fierce opponent of slavery. Hamilton belongs in the pantheon of American heroes….

Here’s the solution: Upgrade the security features on the $10, but keep Hamilton in his spot. Dump Jackson from the $20 and hold an essay competition among American high school seniors for his replacement. It would be a great exercise in the appreciation of excellence. Both sexes may be nominated. There are many American women who could be chosen: Emily Dickinson, Harriet Tubman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan B. Anthony? But by announcing in advance that you’re choosing a woman, you’ve guaranteed that the honor will be downgraded to the ‘best woman’ rather than the best candidate.”

I am certainly not against the idea of having a woman and/or person of color on a U.S. banknote, as long as s/he is truly worthy of the honor and that another, true American hero is not displaced in the process. I absolutely agree with Charen (and Steve Forbes and others) that, if any, Jackson should be the one to go. (Note: Jackson’s military victories in the War of 1812 and/or the fact that he founded what became the Democratic Party may be additional reasons/excuses that the current administration has for not replacing him.) Also, it would indeed be preferable to have more input from the citizenry before making such an historic decision. But, assuming Sec. Lew won’t change his mind, the public can still chime in. The Treasury Dept. has a special site set up with more info on the subject, as well as the opportunity for people to suggest who they think should be given the honor of joining(?) Hamilton on the $10 note.

In addition to those Charen noted, various suggestions I have read included Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Wilma Mankiller, Ayn Rand, etc. Here are nine that I like….

Abigail Adams (1744–1818): Influential “Founding Mother” and First Lady (i.e., wife of John Adams, 1st U.S. Vice President and 2nd U.S. President)

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): Abolitionist, suffragist, and women’s rights activist

Clara Barton (1821-1912): Teacher and Founder of the American Red Cross

Sarah Livingston Jay (1756-1802): Influential “Founding Mother” and wife of John Jay (NY governor and first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court)

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880): Abolitionist and early feminist

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896): Renowned author, including on such controversial topics as slavery (e.g., Uncle Tom’s Cabin), religious reform, and gender roles

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Former slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate

Harriet Tubman (c.1822-1913): Former slave and noted ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad; also served as a scout, spy, and nurse [for the Union] during the Civil War

Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814): Influential “Founding Mother”, author, women’s rights advocate, and “Conscience of the American Revolution”

If aesthetics is a concern (i.e., having an attractive or noble visage), I suppose a few could be ruled out. But, I don’t know how much of a deciding factor that will be. I tend to favor the idea of honoring someone from the Revolutionary War era, especially since that is when our (representative) democracy began. With that in mind, I favor either Adams or Warren. Then again, the biggest advances in civil rights for non-whites and for women began in the mid- to late-1800s. For that era, I’m leaning toward Tubman or possibly Anthony. (Hey, if Washington and Lincoln can each get a coin and a bill, maybe Anthony can, too?) But, I’d be happy with any of them, I suppose. Heck, if they get enough good suggestions, maybe they’ll replace Jackson next.

What about you? Do you have a favorite? Or, do you think the whole thing is ridiculous?

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Advances in Bionics

Yes, I realize that the title might make you think this post belongs on my “Heroes and Aliens” blog, but this is about the real-world development of “bionic” prostheses and orthoses. Last month, I ran across a list of really cool, recent advances in the field of bionics that I thought would be fun to investigate a bit further and share with my readers. (H/T Dr. Hossein Eslambolchi) I tracked down a few links that will show and explain further the concepts, design, and application of the new tech. It’s some exciting stuff that will be able to help many who have lost (or never had) limbs or have suffered Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). Check it out!

Tendon Transfer: Researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Washington have developed a new tendon transfer surgical procedure that “uses an implanted passive hierarchical artificial pulley mechanism for attaching multiple tendons to a single [undamaged] muscle, in place of directly suturing tendons to the muscle.” They still need a few years to develop biocompatible materials and coatings and such, then more testing. But, the improved natural grasping function (with less muscle energy) will help people recover function lost due to illness or injury.

How neurobridge technology works

How neurobridge technology works

Neurobridge sensors: A collaboration between The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and non-profit Batelle, this new technology bypasses the damaged nerves causing paralysis. The brain’s signals are routed through special sensors implanted in the brain’s motor cortex, where the signals are recoded and re-sent to directly stimulate the muscle via a special “sleeve”.

ReWalk Robotics: Almost a year ago, ReWalk Robotics announced that the FDA had approved the ReWalk Personal System for home and community use. The system is essentially a wearable exoskeleton that helps paraplegics stand and walk by giving powered assistance at the hip, knees, and ankles. “ReWalk provides user-initiated mobility through the integration of a wearable brace support, a computer-based control system, and motion sensors. The system allows independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait patterns of the legs, similar to that of an able-bodied person.”

BiOM: The BiOM T2 System utilizes a battery-powered ankle-foot prosthesis with an internal spring, which compresses to absorb impact and releases to propel the foot forward. “Personal Bionics™ emulates a specific individual’s muscle and tendon function through unique Bionic Propulsion technology. People with amputations now have an ankle device that controls ankle stiffness and power during the stance phase of walking, emulating natural muscle function and enhancing their mobility.” Also, “The device replaces the function of the individual’s lost muscle and tendon anatomy and provides more energy than it stores.”

Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAP): Stanmore Implants is conducting a UK study on a bone implant that provides a secure, easily-accessed, irritation-free attachment point for a prosthetic limb. In other words, no socket required. “This means that loads experienced during daily activities, such as walking, can be taken through the skeleton rather than through soft tissue.” (Note: Current study is only being done on above-knee amputees, as yet.)

Implantable Myoelectric Sensors (IMES): A multi-institutional team, including the Illinois Institute of Technology (see link), has developed a system consisting of “multiple single-channel implanted EMG sensors which provide control signals for control of artificial limbs.” With IMES in each affected muscle, the amputee gains 6-8 degrees of movement at the same time, as opposed to only two degrees provided by surface EMGs.

Tactile feedback: Researchers are developing haptic (i.e., tactile feedback) technology to give a more sensitive sense of touch to a robotic hand (which may eventually be applied to prosthetic limbs). Through a  combination of hardware & software, the hand gains the ability to determine an object’s relative hardness or even shape (e.g., round or square).

Luke Arm (photo: DARPA)

Luke Arm (photo: DARPA)

The Luke Arm: After almost eight years of development and testing, the DEKA Arm System has been approved for commercialization by the FDA. Nicknamed the “Luke Arm” (after Luke Skywalker’s bionic limb in the Star Wars sequels) and funded by DARPA, the system was created by Dean Kamen and his DEKA R&D Corp. “What makes the DEKA Arm unique is that it can carry out multiple, simultaneous powered movements, and its wrist and fingers can adjust its positions to perform six different user-selectable grips. In addition, force sensors let the robotic hand precisely control its grasp…. [S]pecial switches on the user’s feet… wirelessly transmit signals to the arm’s computer, allowing the user to control multiple joints simultaneously.”

Cyborg Beast: For something a little more low-tech for children, try this: an open source-designed, 3D-printed plastic hand that is mechanically controlled by moving one’s wrist or elbow. Heckuva lot cheaper than the usual devices, too!

There are other revolutionary advancements being made, of course, but these nine are probably a good representation of the variety of technologies and approaches being used in this field. Advances like these also represent hope, since they will one day provide or improve not only mobility (including range, flexibility, and normalcy) but also the confidence and independence that goes with it. Plus, there’s that whole potential for superhuman performance that would be pretty cool, too!

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What to Make of Jade Helm 15

“All we want to do is be sure our guys are trained for combat overseas. That’s it.”  — Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria

“Friends, when it comes to freedom, we must question, verify and vet everyone and everything. We must never check our brains or blindly trust, especially the government.”  — Chuck Norris, actor, author, and activist

Are you scared?

First, what is “Jade Helm 15″ (aka “”Operation Jade Helm”)? It’s the codename for a huge military exercise — or series of exercises — to be carried out across the nation under the purview of U.S. Special Operations Command. Beginning June 15, 1200 troops from the Green Berets, Navy SEALs, the 82nd Airborne, and possibly others will conduct counterinsurgency training in relatively-isolated areas within at least nine (originally seven) states ostensibly chosen for their terrain — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. A statement from the Pentagon stated that locals “can expect nothing much different from their day-to-day activities since much of the exercise will be conducted in remote areas. The most noticeable effect the exercise may have on the local communities is an increase in vehicle and military air traffic and associated noise.” Also, there should be a brief economic boost for businesses serving the visiting troops until exercises end September 15.

Jade Helm convoyThis has some people concerned that the exercise will be either the beginnings of martial law or, at least, training and/or conditioning for imposing it in the near future. Since Jade Helm was announced on March 24, and with subsequent sightings of long convoys of military vehicles snaking their way to the areas in question over the past several weeks, dire conspiracy theories have made their way into the public conversation. Chief among the propagators is paranoid nutcase and radio host of “Infowars”, Alex Jones. Rasmussen polls in mid-May had nearly half (45%) of likely voters “concerned that the government will use U.S. military training operations to impose greater control over some states.” Also, “Among voters who oppose military exercises in their state, 82% are concerned that the federal government has greater control in mind.”

Initially, due to his own concerns and those of many of his constituents, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for the National Guard — well, technically, the Texas State Guard — to keep an eye on the visiting troops and make sure the rights of Texans were not infringed. Personally, I don’t blame him (and neither does Chuck Norris), but his predecessor, Rick Perry, disagreed with the decision and the message he felt it sent. By the time the above-mentioned poll results were released, however, Abbott was singing a new tune:

“[M]y office has been in communication with military at multiple levels, and we have the greatest assurances that these are normal military operations and they’re going to work out just fine.”

Oh, I feel so much better! /sarc/ All along, the federal powers-that-be have attempted to reassure everyone that nothing sinister was underway.

“These are among the most patriotic, courageous, independent-thinking people I have ever been around. They are not robots that are going to go door to door confiscating people’s guns, or rounding people up into vacant Wal-Marts. That’s not going to happen.”  — Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Chairman of the House Armed Services, speaking with the Wichita Falls Times Record News

“In no way will the constitutional rights or civil liberties of any American citizen be infringed upon while this exercise is being conducted.”  — Josh Earnest, White House press secretary

Of course, if something sinister was being planned, they wouldn’t exactly admit it, would they? In fact, they would probably issue statements, well, like those above.

Some have indicated that it is an insult to question the motives of the maneuvers. Former Gov. Rick Perry, who I like a lot, said as much to the Dallas Morning News:

“It’s OK to question your government. I do it on a regular basis. But the military is something else. Our military is quite trustworthy. The civilian leadership, you can always question that, but not the men and women in uniform.”

But, see, the enlisted men and women in uniform follow orders and aren’t always aware of the big picture or the motives of their superiors. It is precisely those superiors — i.e., President Obama and some of the generals (after he purged many from the ranks) — whose motives I and many others (e.g., Norris, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul) question. As Norris put it,

“[W]hat’s under question are those who are pulling the strings at the top of Jade Helm 15 back in Washington. The U.S. government says, ‘it’s just a training exercise.’ But I’m not sure the term ‘just’ has any reference to reality when the government uses it. It’s pretty sad and bad when major military ops are ordered in a large, fiery state like Texas and not even the governor or its senators know the specifics. It’s neither over-reactionary nor conspiratorial to call into question or ask for transparency about Jade Helm 15 or any other government activity. To those who merely think we should check our brains at the door of the White House and trust what the government does, I would reiterate to you the words of one of our government’s primary founders, Benjamin Franklin, who said, ‘distrust and caution are the parents of security.’”

After being misquoted by some in the press, Norris later clarified:

“I never ever said that that seven-state U.S. military operation intended to take over Texas…. I do believe, in addition to the largest domestic military training, it is also a display of power (near the southern border) intended for deterrence of enemies like ISIS and other terrorists, who the FBI have already said are present in all 50 states…. And I will reiterate again that the White House and the Pentagon could have easily avoided any controversy about Jade Helm 15 if its primary Washington leaders would have called for a confidential informative meeting with the respected governors of the seven states in which it is being held this summer.

They also would have been very wise not to place on Jade Helm’s official operation map that Texas and Utah were ‘hostile states.’ When will they learn? Don’t mess with Texas!”

Screen-Shot-2015-04-18-at-7.52.04-AMAll kidding aside, Norris makes a great point that the communications efforts have been rather deficient and contributed to suspicions. Regarding the “hostile states” matter, given what sort of training Jade Helm is to be, it makes sense that certain areas on the map would be designated as being held by the “enemy”. I mean, these are essentially “war games”, right?

Back to the matter of communications, it now appears that more than just the seven states listed above are hosting unusual military maneuvers. For example, just the other day there were reports of similar training operations up north.

“[T]he U.S. Army is also conducting military exercises in Flint, Mich., where residents say they were caught off-guard when explosions rocked portions of the city. A spokesman for Flint city government says the blasts were part of a training program to help prepare the military for combat in urban environments.”

Hmmm. Michigan is known to have large numbers of Muslims — possibly the most of any state in the union –, including many in Flint. Norris said he thought Jade Helm served as “a display of power… intended for deterrence of enemies like ISIS.” So, maybe this is a not so subtle way of letting the more radical elements know that the Army is nearby and what it can do? Still, why couldn’t City Hall have given local residents a heads-up beforehand?

As for Jade Helm, when it comes right down to it, I am of two minds on the matter. I don’t want to give credence to alarmist, conspiracy-minded rantings. I don’t want to believe that so blatant a move to control the populace would be made by even this administration, let alone with the cooperation of the Pentagon and members of Congress. On the other hand, there are misguided people everywhere, and given the way things are going in this nation, I wouldn’t put it past Obama et al. to attempt something this extreme. Does that make me paranoid? Better to be cautious than to assume the government is entirely benevolent. I think Franklin and the rest of the Founding Fathers would agree.

What do I make of Jade Helm 15? Honestly, I just… don’t… know.

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Ben Carson on Political Correctness

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”  — Benjamin Franklin, author, inventor, political activist, Founding Father

So-called “political correctness” has increasingly become the bane of the First Amendment and anyone who understands and supports it. Most limitations on free speech are dangerous, and when government takes it upon itself to outlaw certain types of speech (e.g., “hate speech”), the Constitution is further eroded and, as Franklin says, we are on the road to tyranny. Even before such legal measures are officially taken, there is plenty of pressure from certain people — mostly, but not exclusively, on the Left — to badger and shame the general public into conforming to their ideas of what types of speech should be acceptable. Only certain words allowed, certain topics avoided.

200_one_nationIn 2013 Dr. Ben Carson gave his second keynote address at the National Prayer Breakfast. You may remember that it caused some stirring in Washington and around the nation — nervousness and offense from the Left, excitement from the Right — which led to early calls of “Ben Carson for President”. See, Carson isn’t afraid to say what he thinks needs to be said. So, without intending to offend anyone, his somewhat extemporaneous speech included remarks indicating he was clearly not on board with the President’s policies. This was especially awkward/entertaining, because the President was sitting just a couple chairs away. Obama was clearly uncomfortable, but when it was suggested afterward that Carson call to apologize for offending the President, Carson did not think such a call was warranted.

In his recent book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, Dr. Carson talks a lot about the need for open and honest communication, if we are going to solve this country’s problems. “Political correctness” is a huge hindrance to this effort, so he spends some time early on discussing it. I don’t always agree with Carson or his approach to some things, but in this I think he makes some great points and suggestions for overcoming this barrier to solutions which also serves to undermine our freedoms and make many of our problems worse.

“Self-appointed political correctness police (PCP) have set up speech guidelines that go far beyond the requirements of kindness, good manners, education, and tact. They forbid the use of the word slavery by conservatives, the mention of Nazism by conservatives, or the mention of homosexuality in anything other than a positive context, to name a few of their rules. Going even further, they continually grow their list of terms they believe are offensive, tripping up innocent people with their increasingly strict speech code. By bludgeoning people who violate these rules, the PCP establish a chilling control over the speech of a nation that was founded on the principles of freedom of speech. Intent on managing the national conversation, they mock and belittle anyone who violates their tenets of speech or behavior with such ferocity that few people will dare trespass their boundaries….

Many well-meaning Americans have bought into the PC speech code, thinking that by being extra careful not to offend anyone we will achieve unity. What they fail to realize is that this is a false unity that prevents us from talking about important issues and is a Far Left strategy to paralyze us while they change our nation. People have been led to become so sensitive that fault can be found in almost anything anyone says because somewhere, somehow, someone will be offended by it.

To stop this, Americans need to recognize what is happening, speak up courageously, avoid fearful or angry responses, and ignore the barking and snarling as we put political correctness to bed forever. This is the reason why I choose to continue speaking out despite the many efforts of the secular progressives to discredit and silence me. It is also the reason why I continue to encourage Americans to stand up for the freedoms that were hard-won and must be preserved if we are to remain a free society….

When talking about hypersensitivity in our society, it is important to distinguish between those who are truly sensitive to comments and those instigators and manipulators with feigned sensitivity and outrage. To the first group I would say it’s time to grow up and start thinking about what you can do to contribute to society’s well-being instead of choosing to be a victim of speech that is sometimes intentionally cruel and at other times completely innocent. The best way not to be easily injured by others’ speech is to step out of the center of the circle so everything is not about you. By thinking about others and looking at things from other people’s perspectives, there is much less time to feel that someone is picking on you or your interests….

The real key to staying cool and calm is to relinquish selfishness and always consider the feelings of others. When someone is being particularly mean and nasty, I simply think to myself, He or she used to be a cute little baby. I wonder what happened? Thinking about that question will soften your attitude and lessen the likelihood of an inflammatory confrontation….

Sometimes a true wound can be so deep that it clouds the thoughts of the injured party to the point that they can no longer be objective. In such cases, continued explanations tend to result in diminishing returns or even exacerbations of the misunderstanding…. Sometimes you just have to realize that you cannot heal all wounds no matter how hard you try.

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856

In today’s political scene, some people are so traumatized by perceived past injustices that they cannot conceive of any good thing that a group member who they believe has been unfair to them can do. They tend to demonize these individuals for past wrongs perpetrated by others and there is no changing their minds. It is important for the demonized group to understand this mentality and patiently attempt to undo the damage that has resulted in such attitudes. Both Republicans and Democrats can benefit from this advice.

Whether by creating hypersensitivity or drawing angry reactions, [Far Leftist activist Saul] Alinsky’s organizers’ goal is to make the societal majority feel that their opinion is the minority opinion and that the organizers’ opinion is the majority opinion. The ability to co-opt the mainstream media in this endeavor is a gigantic coup. If the majority of people who are rational, reasonable, and full of common sense feel that their opinions are out of sync with everyone else, it is easy to shut them up and beat them into submission. This is what has occurred in America today. Hopefully by bringing this to light, more people will see the necessity of seizing the banner of bravery just like Nathan Hale, Patrick Henry, and many others in the past who stood up to tyranny.

Why was freedom of speech so important to our nation’s founders? Many had come from countries like England where verbally opposing the king frequently resulted in a jail sentence or even death. The founders also felt that the free exchange of ideas would result in better government and would prevent government from becoming too big and self-important. These are the very reasons we must once again insist on freedom of speech and expression, and we should be repulsed by the very idea of political correctness that muzzles the populace.

If we are to survive as a united nation, we must learn how to engage in civil discussion of our differences without becoming bitter enemies. We cannot fall for the Saul Alinsky trick of not having a conversation while try to demonize each other…. [L]et’s toss out the hypersensitivity and roll up our sleeves and start working together to solve our problems. If each of us is willing to extend the benefit of the doubt or overlook verbal missteps, political correctness will become impotent.”

Wise words. I hope I can follow them consistently. What about you?

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Should This Guy Sue the IRS?

“It’s not fair to the American people who work for a living that one day they can knock on the door, walk in their businesses, and say, ‘We just took your money.’ … I always thought your money was safe in the bank, but I wouldn’t say that now.”   — Lyndon McLellan, entrepreneur and victim of unfair civil asset forfeiture

Lyndon McLellan is a law-abiding citizen and a hard-working, local small businessman in Fairmont, NC, who had never been in trouble with the law or the IRS. So, imagine his surprise when combined forces from the local police department, North Carolina’s Alcohol and Law Enforcement, and the FBI showed up one day at his establishment, L&M Convenience Mart, asking to speak with him. Not only did they accuse him of breaking federal law, but they informed him that they (via the IRS) had already seized every penny from his business bank account: $107,702.66. This was done under what is called “civil asset forfeiture” law.

“Took 13 years to get it, and less than 13 seconds, I guess, to take it away.”

McLellan working in his store

McLellan working in his store (Photo: Institute for Justice)

McLellan was shocked, confused, and devastated. This was his livelihood! Worse, he didn’t even realize what he had done! As they explained to him, he was guilty of “structuring”, a term McLellan said he wasn’t familiar with. Decades ago, laws and regulations were put into place to help catch drug dealers and money launderers by flagging regular deposits of $10,000 or more. The financial institutions receiving such deposits are required by the Bank Secrecy Act to report them to the U.S. Treasury Dept. “Structuring” (aka “smurfing”) is a term for the tactic used to avoid detection by making sure deposits are broken down into smaller chunks of less than $10,000 apiece. Financial institutions who suspect this is being done with criminal intent must also report this as “suspicious activity”.

Problem is that many people aren’t aware of this law or are sure that, since their business is legit, they don’t have anything to worry about. Also, as in the McLellan case, bank tellers sometimes request customers keep their deposits under $10,000 in order to avoid unnecessary paperwork. Obviously, though, this didn’t turn out well for McLellan and L&M. What makes things worse is that the agencies involved tend to have a “seize now, ask questions later” attitude. They don’t need proof of criminal activity to proceed, nor are they required to even charge a suspect with a crime, let alone get a conviction. Plus, local police departments are incentivized to go along with it all, because they share in the spoils.

Needless to say, McLellan got himself a lawyer — Robert Johnson from the Insitute for Justice — to combat the system and advocate on his behalf. In fact, it has been almost a year (i.e., since July 2014) and no criminal activity by McLellan/L&M or involving the money has been identified and no charges have been filed. But, it’s really tough fighting against the government, especially when it has a vested interest in continuing what it is doing. As Johnson explains,

“The government has a financial incentive to broadly apply the forfeiture laws. When an agency like the IRS takes money under the forfeiture laws, that money goes back into the pockets of the agency and it’s available to the IRS to fund law enforcement activities without appropriation from Congress. It’s a powerful incentive for law enforcement to abuse civil forfeiture laws.”

The whole issue of civil asset forfeiture has been coming under a lot of public scrutiny of late, as more and more questionable cases are brought to light, particularly where average Americans have innocently violated the structuring laws. In October 2014 the New York Times reported on several arbitrary seizures, which led to the agency announcing a policy change to only pursue those structuring cases where the money was known to be tied to criminal activity. (The Dept. of Justice made a similar declaration this past March.) When given the broad strokes of the McLellan case in discussions with the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee in February, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen admitted, “If that case exists, then it’s not following the policy.”

So, why wasn’t the case immediately thrown out?

Many defendants in these cases accept a settlement deal just to be rid of the hassle. The feds offered McLellan 50% to settle by March 30, but he declined on principle.

“I guess I’m old school. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If you’re right, you’re right. And in this case, I feel like they’re wrong. And I was raised on —- preached to about —- what would be right and what would be wrong.”

I agree, and I don’t blame him for deciding to make a stand. McLellan was then required to prove his innocence in court. Does that sound wrong to you? It does to me. As the Heritage Foundation’s Jason Snead told Melissa Quinn at “The Daily Signal”,

“In criminal cases, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Civil forfeiture cases flip this basic legal tenet on its head. Once the government shows that your property is subject to forfeiture, the burden is on you as the owner to disprove the government. In effect, you are asked to prove your own innocence in order to win back your property. That is a high hurdle to clear.”

No kiddin’!

L&M Convenience Mart (Photo: Institute for Justice)

L&M Convenience Mart (Photo: Institute for Justice)

About a week and a half ago, “The Daily Signal” reported some good news in the case. Citing the above-mentioned government policy changes, U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker filed documents saying that the lawsuit against McLellan has been dropped and all of his money will be returned to him. Sounds great, right? Well, it is, but the news is not as good as it should have been. For one thing, government bureaucracy being what it is, it could take a few months before McLellan gets the money that was (unlawfully?) seized.

Secondly, McLellan incurred over $20,000 in legal fees and expenses in his efforts to prove his innocence and get back what was rightfully his. Congress passed a law back in 2000 that says people in these circumstances are to be fully reimbursed for those fees and expenses. But, the government dismissed the case without agreeing to pay this.

Thirdly, as per government policy, the seized money was kept in an interest-bearing account. It is not clear to me whether or not McLellan is legally entitled to that interest. But, it definitely seems like he should be, since it would have been accruing interest all this time in the store’s account at Lumbee Guaranty Bank, if overzealous federal agents hadn’t seized it.

Finally, it should be noted that neither the DoJ nor the IRS (nor anyone else involved) has admitted that the case against McLellan was bogus, that neither he nor his business was involved in anything criminal. No regret for putting an innocent man through hell, either.

Johnson said that he will continue efforts to make sure his client is recompensed for all relevant fees, expenses, and interest.

“They came into his store and turned his life upside down, caused him all kinds of heartache and expense, and now they’re just trying to walk away as if nothing happened and forcing Lyndon to bear all those costs. It wasn’t right to begin with, and Lyndon shouldn’t be the one left holding the bag at the end of the day…. The government needs to make Lyndon whole.”

IMHO, the IRS is a bully that has grown way too powerful, throwing its weight around and overstepping its function and authority. This whole “civil asset forfeiture” issue is just one example. I think McLellan should sue the IRS, the U.S. Treasury Dept., and probably Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, not only for the fees/expenses/interest for which he is legally due but also for compensatory damages for any lost business due to cashflow problems. Heck, I would even throw in damages for “mental anguish”, due to grief and suffering through this entire, unnecessary ordeal.

But, maybe he should way until after he gets his $108K back, first….

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When Minimum Wage Laws Hit Home

“It would be comforting to believe that the government can simply decree higher pay for low-wage workers, without having to worry about unfortunate repercussions, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that labor is not exempt from the basic economic principle that artificially high prices cause surpluses. In the case of surplus human beings, that can be a special tragedy when they are already from low-income, unskilled, or minority backgrounds and urgently need to get on the job ladder, if they are ever to move up the ladder by acquiring experience and skills.”  — Thomas Sowell, esteemed economist, author, columnist

You know, it’s one thing when hard times hit people and places that you aren’t personally connected to. You can distance yourself from the hardship, in a way, because it isn’t really affecting you. For example, if a local diner or Starbucks or clothing boutique or hardware store is forced to close down because it’s no longer profitable, it doesn’t bother me that much. Sure, I feel badly for the owners and workers, and I am upset by the economic factors that led to the closing. But, since I don’t frequent those establishments or have an affinity for them, I don’t really “feel” it much. (Unless, of course, a good friend was employed there.) But,… when businesses that I do like are forced to shut down, especially when due to bad laws resulting from foolish economic policies, that torks me off!

Borderlands Books storefrontSo, imagine my dismay when I heard/read about the closing of a bookstore — one specializing in science-fiction, at that — because of particularly onerous minimum-wage laws. The store in question is the famous Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I have never been to the store, and I live roughly 2800 miles away, but the situation still really bugs me, because it is so unnecessary.

As a bastion of progressivism within the liberal state of California, the city & county of San Francisco not surprisingly has long been at the high end when it comes to minimum-wage laws. (Not that such laws are only advocated by progressives. There are some “conservatives” who don’t understand their true impact, too.) In 2012 it broke the $10/hr mark and, as of Jan. 1, 2015, it hit $11.05/hr. As if this wasn’t enough, last November voters passed Proposition J, raising the minimum wage to $12.25/hr on the first of this month (5/1), with subsequent increases over the next three years bringing it up to $15/hr on 7/1/2018 (plus annual CPI bumps) and tying it with Seattle’s as the highest in the nation.

You might think this is great for the workers, but imposing such laws goes contrary to free-market principles that have been proven to work, and it actually does more damage than good. Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands, found this out the hard way, as did his employees and customers. While he supports minimum-wage increases in principle and is confident that it’s still good policy, Beatts did the math and realized that it was going to kill his business. In an exchange with the New Yorker‘s Vauhini Vara, Beatts maintained,

“There are tens of thousands of people in this city that are going to benefit. Businesses are going to pass the costs to consumers, and the product of that money that’s being spent is going to go to the lowest-paid people in this city. I think that’s a good thing. But the mathematics of it says that I can’t keep running my business.”

The report issued by San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis regarding the new laws projected that minimum-wage workers would have increased spending power. (Well, no kidding!) But, it also admitted that about fifteen thousand private-sector jobs would be lost. The hope is that these losses would be compensated for by expected overall economic growth. Beatts’ sunny outlook for the bigger picture seems typical of those who have swallowed the liberal/progressive assurances that “it’s all good.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually reflect reality. Let’s see what Dr. Thomas Sowell has to say:

“Conceivably, the income benefits to those low-wage workers who keep their jobs could outweigh the losses to those who lose their jobs, producing a net benefit to low-income individuals and families as a whole — at least in the short run, ignoring the long-run consequences of a failure of many low-skilled people to acquire job experience and skills, which could be a larger economic loss in the long run than the loss of pay in an entry-level job. But to say that there might conceivably be benefits to low-income people does not mean that this will in fact happen.”

As is typical for a small, independent establishment, Borderlands’ profits are small and payroll takes up a large percentage of expenses — 42%, according to Beatts. To be fair, there are other factors working against small businesses in general and independent booksellers in particular, like rising rents, competition from large retail chains and department/warehouse stores, and sometimes electronic alternatives. But, Borderlands has been surviving this long, and the new minimum-wage laws exert an unnecessary burden which, in this case and others (see below), is breaking the proverbial camel’s back. According to Vara,

“Overall, raising wages to fifteen dollars an hour would increase the store’s operating expenses by nearly twenty per cent. In 2013, Borderlands turned a profit of about three thousand dollars; the higher expenses would mean a loss of about twenty-five thousand dollars.”

When he first realized the minimum-wage increases endangered his livelihood, Beatts considered a number of options that might help him stay afloat, but few were viable. A sudden 20% increase in sales was highly improbable, and he really didn’t want to cut his staff of five, which would also mean increased hours for those still employed. Price increases would not work, either, since people will not normally pay a premium over the retail price stamped right on the product itself. (Unless, of course, relatively low supply and high demand make it a “collectible”. But, that is not the bulk of their business.)

Still, there is a bit of good news to this story.

After Borderlands announced their closing on their website, the store got a lot of press, including much sympathy from Mission District locals. Beatts had some initial objections, but with the urging of some concerned customers, the Borderlands staff developed a Sponsorship Program, where (hopefully) a minimum 300 people would pay $100/year apiece. (Go here for more info, including what the sponsors get in return.) The program was announced on Feb. 19th and within a week they had over 500 sponsors, allowing the store to stay open at least through March 2016 and adding a little bit of much-needed cash reserve. They will solicit for sponsors again next year. “This process will continue each year until we close, either because of a lack of sponsorship or for other reasons.”

That’s terrific and a true testimony to good marketing and customer loyalty! I hope enthusiasm for the program continues into subsequent years. But, it is not something that will work for most small businesses, nor does it justify the high minimum-wage laws. If it was me, I certainly wouldn’t want to have my business’ viability dependent on such a program. (Of course, I would never live or work in San Francisco.)

Speaking of collectibles… (I did that earlier, remember?) …

Comix Experience storefrontAs if the Borderlands closing wasn’t bad enough, another iconic genre establishment in San Francisco may also be shutting its doors — Comix Experience (and Comix Experience Outpost)! You know I have a soft spot for comics and superheroes. (If not, check out my other blog: “Heroes and Aliens”.) Like Borderlands, Comix Experience has been around many years, eking out a small profit despite high expenses. Owner Bryan Hibbs, a “leading figure” in the industry, was “appalled” when he realized the new minimum-wage laws would result in an additional $80,000/year in expenses. (Holy paystubs, Batman!)

“I didn’t know that. I thought we were talking a small amount of money, something I could absorb.”

Hibbs seems a little more realistic about minimum-wage laws than his counterpart at Borderlands.

“Despite being a progressive living in San Francisco, I do believe in capitalism. I’d like to have the market solve this problem. We’re for a living wage, for a minimum wage, in principle…. But I think any law that doesn’t look at whether people can pay may not be the best way to go…. Why can’t two consenting people make arrangements for less than x dollars per hour?”

Why not, indeed?

Like Beatts, Hibbs can’t raise prices over what is on the covers. (Not for regular, new(ish), non-collectible books and other items, anyway.) Nor can he go above market on collectibles. He says he can’t really cut hours, and he and his six employees are already stretched thin to cover 7 days at two stores. Thus, another brainstorming session was in order.

Though reluctant to go the “crowdfunding” route, Hibbs decided to implement something rather similar to what Borderlands did. Their new “Graphic Novel-of-the-Month Club” costs $25/month on a month-by-month basis or $240/year for annual membership, for which members get a monthly graphic novel (duh!) plus other perks. (Younger customers can pay $15/month for more kid-friendly fare.) Beyond the 334 memberships (at the annual rate) required to cover the extra $80K, any profits from additional club dues will also be split between the employees. (Personally, I would have put any extra into cash reserve, since the employees are already getting higher wages.) The Comix Experience staff like this solution because it is more market-driven and it reflects the store’s values and strengths.

Notice that in both cases above, the small businessmen did whatever they could to keep not just some but all of their employees on payroll. (I wonder if either might have a better shot at survival if they reconsidered cutting store hours and one or two employees. Maybe Comix Experience could just shut down the “Outpost” location?) It is great that they have been able to do so for so long and still stay afloat (barely), despite excessive expenses (including minimum-wage laws) in “progressive” San Francisco. But, not all small businesses can manage that, and even Borderlands and Comix Experience are being pushed to their breaking points.

The bottom-line, though, is that misguided laws — e.g., for minimum-wage / “living wage” — just make it harder for small businesses to make it and keeps many of those who most need entry-level jobs from getting and keeping them and climbing the success ladder. Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a little more of what distinguished economist Thomas Sowell has to say on the matter:

“Most [unemployed] workers are perfectly capable of producing goods and services, even if not to the same extent as more skilled or more experienced workers. The unemployed are made idle by wage rates artificially set above the level of their productivity. Those who are idled in their youth are of course delayed in acquiring the job skills and experience which could make them more productive — and therefore higher earners — later on. That is, they not only lose the low pay that they could have earned in an entry-level job, they lose the higher pay that they could have moved on to and begun earning after gaining experiences in entry-level jobs. Younger workers are disproportionately represented among people with low rates of pay….

Among two million Americans earning no more than the minimum wage in the early twenty-first century, just over half were from 16 to 24 years of age — and 62 percent of them worked part time. Yet political campaigns to increase the minimum wage often talk in terms of providing ‘a living wage’ sufficient to support a family of four…. But 42 percent of minimum-wage workers live with parents or some other relative. Only 15 percent of minimum-wage workers are supporting themselves and a dependent, the kind of person envisioned by those who advocate a ‘living wage’.

Nevertheless, a number of American cities have passed ‘living wage’ laws, which are essentially local minimum wage laws specifying a higher wage rate than the national minimum wage law. Their effects have been similar to the effects of national minimum wage laws in the United States and other countries — that is, the poorest people have been the ones who have most often lost jobs.”

Ironically, even liberal activist organization ACORN tried to get its employees exempted from minimum-wage laws, arguing,

“The more that Acorn must pay each individual outreach worker — either because of minimum wage or overtime requirements — the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire.”

Yes, indeedy.

The above quotes (including the one at the top of the post) were from Sowell’s book, Basic Economics, 4th ed. But, if you want something to read online, check out these two articles: “Minimum-Wage Laws: Ruinous ‘Compassion’” by Thomas Sowell and “The Minimum-Wage Myths” by Kevin D. Williamson.

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Florida as an Example of Free Trade

I confess, I am still getting caught up with “things” since returning from my recent vacation and am not able to complete my planned article for tonight. (For one thing, it’s Mother’s Day, and I have to pick up my mother at the airport.) So, instead, I would like to share a few facts about free trade in Florida from an article I have been holding onto (h/t NCPA).

Free trade often gets a bad rap (rep?) for causing job losses, but what really happens is a shift in the type of jobs that are available. In fact, since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force at the beginning of 1994, a couple of interesting things have happened in Florida. First, 1.6 million private-sector jobs have been added. Second, the state’s manufacturing output has increased.

Cargo ship docked at Jaxport (Jacksonville, FL)

Cargo ship docked at Jaxport (Jacksonville, FL)

Here are a few more facts:

  • More than 275,000 jobs are supported by exports, including 18.3% of Florida’s manufacturing jobs.
  • In 2010, Florida exported $3.6 billion in agricultural products — almost 40% of its agricultural output.
  • Since 2010, exports of goods overall have increased 10.7%, to the tune of $5.9 billion.
  • One-third of Florida’s exports go to countries with whom the U.S. has a free trade agreement. These agreements have increased exports — e.g., Florida’s exports to Chile are up 320% since the U.S.-Chile free trade agreement of 2004.

These encouraging facts are noted by Bryan Riley, a Senior Analyst in Trade Policy for The Heritage Foundation, in his article, “Trade and Prosperity in the States: The Case of Florida“. Riley believes that free trade benefits could be even better for Florida if not for two federal policies: the U.S. Sugar Program and the Jones Act of 1920.

The former is a protectionist measure that requires quotas on foreign sugar imports. While intended to help the American sugar industry, all it really does is raise the price of sugar for Americans. (Yup. From 2000 to 2014, we paid 85% more than consumers in other nations.) The Jones Act mandates that only American-made (and predominantly American-owned and -crewed) ships can transport goods between American ports. This keeps domestic shipping costs “dramatically” higher than necessary. If foreign ships were allowed to transport gasoline to American ports, Riley says Floridians could be paying 20-30 cents less per gallon.

Still, despite these misguided federal policies, Florida is benefiting immensely from free trade agreements. Riley’s concluding remarks follow:

“Florida is positioned to prosper from continued growth in trade with Latin America and the rest of the world as trade barriers are reduced. Physical barriers, such as limits imposed by canals and ports that cannot handle modern cargo ships, and government barriers, such as limits on shipping and the use of imported inputs, are falling around the globe. Florida’s congressional delegation should take the lead in making sure U.S. government impediments to trade and prosperity fall as well.”

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Christianity and the “Modern” Society

“[T]he history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere.”  — David B. Hart, author and professor

I am a bit pressed for time this week, as I prepare to drive up to Maryland to spend several days with family. (Hiding from the downtown riots in a quiet, mostly-Jewish community.) In fact, I’m writing this on Monday night, since I likely won’t have time to work on it later in the week. Therefore, with minimal commentary I present to you another excerpt from Dr. David Bentley Hart’s award-winning book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009). (It won the Michael Ramsey Prize in Theology in 2011.) Enjoy!

Modern Society“What, after all, does it mean for a whole society to be truly ‘modern’? Completely modern, that is, as opposed to merely possessing modern technologies or obeying the axioms of modern economics. I have already offered a partial answer to this: it has a great deal to do with a society’s understanding of freedom. But, in a more purely historical sense, if we take the word ‘modernity’ to mean not simply whatever happens to be contemporary with us but rather the culture of the Western world as it has evolved over the last four or five centuries, then it seems obvious that a society is truly modern to the extent that it is post-Christian.

This is not to say, obviously, that modern society is predominantly inhabited by non-Christians or atheists; it is only to say that modernity is what comes ‘after Christendom,’ when Christianity has been displaced from the center of a culture and deprived of any power explicitly to shape laws and customs, and has ceased to be regarded as the source of a society’s highest values or of a government’s legitimacy, and has ceased even to hold preeminent sway over a people’s collective imagination. And the term ‘post-Christian’ must be given its full weight here: modernity is not simply a ‘postreligious’ condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society but has ‘lost the faith.’

The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things — they would never have occurred to us — had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren. That said, it is undeniable that — however much certain Christian moral presuppositions may continue to exercise their vestigial influence over us — the history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere; and this, for many of us, is nothing less than the history of human freedom itself, the grand adventure of the adulthood of the race (so long delayed by priestcraft and superstition and intolerance), the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.

Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith.’ Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of ‘Greek science’ were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness.

Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion, Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion. This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.

Dark Ages - metal logoTo be fair, serious historians do not for the most part speak in such terms. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, ‘intellectual journalism,’ and vulgar legend. One continues, of course, to see the entire medieval period now and then vaguely described as the ‘Dark Ages’ in popular histories; but scholars are generally loath to use that term even of the era to which it ‘properly’ refers: the period between the final fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476 and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in A.D. 800 (or, more broadly, between the fifth and eleventh centuries); and they have abandoned the term not only because it sounds derogatory. The very idea of an unnaturally protracted period of general darkness after the fall of the Western Roman Empire began its life among the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, who liked to characterize the ‘new learning’ they advocated as a reawakening of ancient wisdom from a millennium of inglorious slumber. But most good historians know that the intellectual and cultural revolution of the Renaissance was the flowering of innumerable high medieval developments, fecundated by a late infusion into Italy of scholarship and classical Greek texts from the dying Byzantine Empire of the Christian East….

Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. However assiduously the diligent, painstakingly precise academical drudge may labor at his or her meticulously researched and exhaustively documented tomes, nothing he or she produces will enjoy a fraction of the currency of any of the casually composed (though sometimes lavishly illustrated) squibs heaped on the front tables of chain bookstores or clinging to the middle rungs of bestseller lists. For everyone whose picture of the Middle Ages is shaped by the dry, exact, quietly illuminating books produced by those pale dutiful pedants who squander the golden meridians of their lives prowling in the shadows of library stacks or weakening their eyes by poring over pages of barely legible Carolingian minuscule, a few hundred will be convinced by what they read in, say, William Manchester’s dreadful, vulgar, and almost systematically erroneous A World Lit by Fire. After all, few have the time or the need to sift through academic journals and monographs and tedious disquisitions on abstruse topics trying to separate the gold from the dross. And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling about itself for centuries now.”

Well,… that explains a LOT!

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