Trust no one

Yesterday I read an interesting column by Ben Stein at the New York Times website, entitled “The Hard Rain That’s Falling on Capitalism.” It’s about the miracle of American capitalism through most of the last century, and how it only works when the playing field is level, which it increasingly is not. The “hard rain” of the article’s title is runaway corporate greed and government complicity.

Here’s Stein’s central thesis:

[I]n capitalism, the most fundamental building block is trust.

When yeoman farmers sent their savings to banks in London and Glasgow and Paris, they had to be able to count on it not being stolen. That was what allowed capital to be accumulated and deployed, and for the entire world economy to take off.

(Incidentally, the taking-off of the world economy in just this way during the 17th and 18th centuries is one of the big backdrops for The Baroque Cycle [and it’s about a million times more interesting than that makes it sound].)

I always thought the whole point of everyone being equal under the law is that you don’t need trust. Trust is what they used as the basis of commerce in the Middle Ages, and look how well that turned out.

When the state enforces every proper contract, trust is irrelevant. If you sell your car to some guy across town, it doesn’t matter that he’s a slimeball whose check later bounces and who won’t then return your calls. The state’s got your back, with process servers, sheriffs, judges, jails, guns, and more, all working for you.

You might say this requires people to trust that the government will do its job protecting your rights and your property. But there again, trust is the old model. Serfs could do no better than trust that nobles wouldn’t come and club them over the head and make off with their women. In the new model you don’t need trust, you just vote the bums out of office when government stops doing its job. (This is why capitalism pairs so essentially with democracy.)

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is, of course, infinitely more subtle. To vote the bums out of office you have to be able to trust the vote. To trust the vote you have to trust the companies providing the voting equipment (until someone comes up with an economical trustless voting system). To trust the companies you have to trust that the government will punish any misdeeds swiftly and decisively. This is where things get circular. What if the ruling party and the voting equipment makers choose to collude? There’s the rub. More broadly, what hope is there for democracy or capitalism when business and government decide to work for each other — which seems to be the sole ambition of the Republican party, in almost as many (few?) words — and cut out the little guy? As Ben Stein writes,

Empires come and go. Economic systems come and go. There is no heavenly guarantee that capitalism will last forever as we know it.

Trust is great for interpersonal relationships. It’s terrible as the basis of governments and economies. Until we can entirely banish trust from those systems, it can be exploited, as it has been so shamelessly these last few years.

We know what we can trust Republicans to do. Ben Stein is a notorious Republican. That’s why it’s ironic that, by his own argument, a vote against Republicans is a vote for capitalism.

O say, can you see?

Over the years, I have written at length to numerous people (and even persuaded some of them, really!) arguing against the so-called “flag desecration amendment” that keeps rearing its head in Congress. This is a proposed Constitutional amendment that would make it a crime to burn the American flag (e.g., in protest) or mistreat it in various other ways that constitute “desecration.”

Never mind that the very word desecration (deriving from the same root as sacred) implies a religious aspect that the flag does not deserve — there are all kinds of reasons why amending the Constitution for this purpose is a very bad idea, beginning with the fact that there is no flag-desecration emergency in this country, and we don’t amend the Constitution on a whim, without a clear and present need. (The only real need served by this amendment whenever it comes up is the need of some senators to appear patriotic — or to make others look unpatriotic.)

Unfortunately, one of my senators, Dianne Feinstein, supports this amendment whenever it comes up. Last year it came dangerously close to passing the Senate. Here’s an exchange we had on the subject.

I wrote:

Dear Senator Feinstein,

Our poor Constitution can’t take much more abuse.

You must oppose the amendment to permit laws banning flag “desecration.” America has no flag-desecration crisis, and even if it did, the right answer would be to rally the flag-wavers in opposition to the flag-burners.

Here’s the slippery slope we’re creating:

Burning the flag: illegal
Smearing mud on the flag: illegal
Smearing mud on a 49-star flag: illegal?
Smearing mud on a picture of the Statue of Liberty: illegal?
Smearing mud on a picture of the President: illegal?
Speaking ill of the President: illegal?

I won’t quote her entire response, which was quite long. (Of course it was a form letter.) A small excerpt:

Unfortunately, we will have to disagree about this issue. I strongly believe that the American flag holds a unique position in our society as the most important and universally recognized symbol that unites us as a nation.

Here was my reply.

Thank you for your response, Senator. I would like to leave you with two further thoughts on this subject:

  • You movingly described the impression made on your 12-year-old self by the famous Iwo Jima photograph of the flag being raised. The lump in your throat came not from the law, and not from the flag, but from American ideals of courage and achievement. Do you expect that a legal obligation to respect the flag will make the same impression on a 12 year old today?
  • While the flag may be the only official symbol of the nation, for all practical purposes it is roughly co-equal with a pantheon of other images: the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the White House, John Hancock’s signature, etc. Do we extend to those images the same Constitutional protections? If not, expect to see the Statue of Liberty burned in effigy where once you might have seen a flag burn — is that an improvement? Or if we do, how is this not a slippery slope?

If we were suffering through a rash of flag burnings, and if they were dangerously destabilizing to society somehow, I might feel differently. But we’re not, and as it is, I submit that it’s more likely for the very sight of a burning American flag to move a 12 year old to patriotic fervor than anything the legislature is likely to do.

For every American who burns his or her flag there are thousands who will wave theirs proudly. This country will remain great exactly as long as we are confident in that fact.

What Carl Sagan means to me

Yesterday I blogged about my 11th-grade math teacher, Mr. Arrigo, one of my greatest teachers ever. But any list of my greatest teachers must include Carl Sagan, even though he wasn’t “my” teacher any more than he was everyone else’s in the whole world.

Sagan’s famous Tonight Show appearances happened right around the time I was old enough to stay up and see them. Early on I remember being annoyed by his criticisms of Star Wars (to wit: that spaceships don’t make whooshing noises in space, that Chewbacca deserved a medal at the end too, etc). But then my mom, who I think had a bit of a crush on him, urged me to read Broca’s Brain, and I was hooked on his brand of science education.

Then came Cosmos, which was eagerly anticipated in our household. We counted down to its premiere for weeks. When it finally aired, the cheesy new-age music and Sagan’s, er, limited acting abilities — the camera lingered forever on what was supposed to be his awestruck face as he sailed through the universe in his kinda lame “ship of the imagination” — left us at first unenthused. But then came his story of Eratosthenes and I got another one of those emotional learning moments that I wrote about yesterday. The following is from Cosmos, the companion book to the PBS series:

[Eratosthenes] was the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile, at noon on June 21 vertical sticks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as the hours crept toward midday, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. A reflection of the Sun could be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well. The Sun was directly overhead. […]

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow. […]

The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in shadow lengths. […] For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the circumference of the Earth [which] is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

This is the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet, and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with an error of only a few percent […] He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a planet.

In the TV show, when Sagan said matter-of-factly, “This is the right answer,” I got a lump in my throat. At once I was propelled farther down the paths of learning, teaching, science, and, of course, Carl Sagan fanhood.

It is more than just a shame that Sagan died before his time of a rare disease, ten years ago today. (This blog post is participating in a Carl Sagan “blog-a-thon” to commemorate the occasion.) There is no doubt that if he were alive today, he would never have permitted science to be debased by politics to the extent that it has in recent years. Sagan knew that we ignore science at our peril and excelled at conveying that message. He saved the world once before, by popularizing the nuclear winter theory of the aftermath of even small nuclear wars, assuring those insane enough to consider such wars that they could never avoid spelling their own doom as well as their enemy’s. Who will take up his mantle and bring the Promethean fire of science back to light a world darkened by his absence?

What brings you here?

Herewith, a selection of search-engine queries that resulted in hits on this blog, according to my server logs.

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A good day

An orderly transfer of power? No tanks rolling down city streets? Republicans in tears? Donald Rumsfeld facing war-crimes charges? Dennis Hastert finished? Katherine Harris ruined?

Good ol’ Constitution, maybe the last bit of life hadn’t been wrung out of you yet after all. Good ol’ voters, knowing when the country is in real trouble and needs your help.

Maybe I won’t have to flee to Amsterdam with my family.

Maybe we actually can restore our rights. Maybe we can heal the planet. Maybe we can get some accountability. Maybe we can govern with compassion.

Maybe we can wipe the smirk off George Bush’s face. Maybe we can tell Dick Cheney to go fuck himself. Maybe we can give them two years of heartburn and sleepless nights.

Maybe it’s OK now to take my family to Disneyland.

Big oil’s last-ditch deception

I just received the following e-mail from‘s Wes Boyd and am passing it along. Please pass it along too if you can.

Don’t be fooled

Big Oil paid for
this bogus voting guide.
Spread the word.

I just received an election ballot slate card in the mail called “Information Guide for Democrats.” I’ll bet you have too. Look for it. Then throw it away. It’s pure deception. And then get mad. Pretending to be a Democratic slate, this mailer recommends against Propositions 87 and 89, the Clean Energy and Clean Money Initiatives. There’s a picture of this mailer in the sidebar to the right, so you can identify it.

Corporate interests are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat these two initiatives. And they don’t mind lying and cheating to get what they want. We have to fight this with the simple truth. And with word of mouth. Please pass this email on to all your friends and relatives in California. We’ve got to get out to vote and defeat these guys.

Here’s the slate of endorsements made by MoveOn members themselves:

(based on member votes)

This is a REAL progressive slate. We’ve included a copy of this slate designed for printing and taking to the polls, after this email below. Or go online and check out the endorsements of any public interest organization.

The fact is, the Democratic Party, every major Democratic leader in the state, and the most prominent Democrats nationally including President Clinton and Vice President Gore all strongly support the Clean Energy Initiative, Proposition 87. Of course, big oil is absolutely determined to kill it.

And every major civic organization supports the Clean Money initiative, Proposition 89, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. You can check out the endorsements in the links for each proposition above.

Why are big oil and other big money interests working so hard to defeat these progressive initiatives? Because if the truth gets out, they lose. Because if the Clean Money initiative, Proposition 89, passes, they won’t be able to do deceptive mailers like this one. So they’re pulling out all the stops.

We have to counter their lying with truth. We have to counter their money with passion and word of mouth.

Please pass this email on to everyone you know.

And please vote on November 7th.


— Wes Boyd and Joan Blades
November 5, 2006

P.S. Speak Out California has produced an excellent progressive voter guide that summarizes the initiatives and key endorsements:

For a copy of the MoveOn endorsements slate that’s easy to print and take to the polls, you can get a PDF here:

Or just print this:

Total paranoia

An unpopular ruling party is widely expected to be routed in an upcoming election. As voters go to the polls, election observers note numerous voting irregularities all favoring the ruling party. After the votes are counted, contrary to a substantial body of reputable (but unofficial) polling data, the unpopular party retains its grip on power yet again. But this time the anomalies are too blatant, the public does not accept the result. Protests flare up around the country. So the leader of the unpopular party imposes martial law to suppress dissent.

It’s an old story. It’s happened countless times in troubled countries all over the world. But it couldn’t happen here, right? Right? So I guess it’s only a coincidence that (a) the makers of most of America’s voting machines are in the Republicans’ pockets, (b) those machines are trivially easy to hack, and (c) just a week and a half ago, the Republicans snuck through in the dead of night a new law that specifically makes it easier for Bush to declare martial law, upending yet another inconvenient centuries-old tradition.

The Disneyland drumbeat

Andrea has continued beating the drum for planning a family trip to Disneyland soon, and with the kids in the prolonged grip of a combined Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan frenzy I am similarly inclined. There’s just one problem: Disney is the enemy and I will not give them aid or comfort.

They have an excellent chance to redeem themselves by firing the jerk who said that the mainstream media is too liberal and it’s his job to slant news coverage to the right “so conservatives don’t have to be concerned.” That jerk is Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director. (ABC is owned by Disney.)

The major news organizations in this country have forgotten that it’s their job to be adversarial. To promise one group or another that they “don’t have to be concerned” is to abandon the mantle of journalism.

Mark Halperin must go. With that one gesture I would be willing to let bygones be bygones.

Well Disney? The country seems to be getting ready to return from its wandering in the arch-conservative wilderness. Will you get back in touch with the real Main Street U.S.A. or ride the Republican machine over the impending cliff? One family’s vacation plans, and the health of our republic, hang in the balance.