Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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The New Corporate America

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

More than 50 years ago, on January 17, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against the growing power of the military-industrial complex.

How have we done since then?

Big corporations have only become more powerful. They don’t advocate for direct governance; they don’t want that headache. What they want is to control the governors through the use of the pocketbook. And they’re succeeding.

For decades, they tried to convince the courts that corporations are people, and they finally achieved their goal in 2010 in Citizens United v. FEC, when the Supreme Court said corporations have the same right to speech as living persons.

Some will argue that the protected speech is for “associations” of people and not corporations, but this is akin to the magician’s deception when he waves his right hand while pocketing the ball with his left. The end result is that corporations can now use their vast wealth to influence elections and further their agenda even if many of their shareholders disagree with their decision.

From this case was born the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, which stated that corporations now have the right to exempt themselves from laws that violate their religious beliefs.

Hobby Lobby says that corporations – constructs of the state – have religious rights even though they’re not real persons. And the Supreme Court agreed. Why? Because Hobby Lobby is a conservative Christian company whose founders’ views echo those of Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas – and to a lesser extent, Kennedy.

Can you imagine if a conservative Muslim company had tried to claim a religious exemption from following a law that most Christians supported? The Supreme Court wouldn’t even have heard the case.

These decisions are abominations, to be sure. But they are not the end. They’re the beginning. What’s next?

Corporations will push to avoid penalties imposed by the government for illegal actions. They’ll claim that fines which impose more than a minimal burden are excessive and a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. And under this court, they’ll win.

Then they’ll attack the government under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, asserting that they must be provided due process before the government can regulate them more harshly than they want to be regulated. The regulations, they will claim, amount to a taking.

Don’t believe me?

Look at Kelo v. City of New London, where the Supreme Court held that a city could use eminent domain to take away a private landowner’s property and give it to a private developer even though the landowner didn’t want to sell. Yes, the landowner eventually got paid. But that’s not the point.

What’s troubling about this case is that some normally liberal Justices sided with the city, including Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer. The dissent, including Justices Scalia and Thomas, argued that this would allow the rich to take from the poor, which is exactly what is happening, though not in as open a way as occurred in Kelo.

And what about that Kelo property? What kind of fabulous development occurred there? Why, it’s a vacant lot.

My point is that the Supreme Court will twist any argument, any law, to ensure the continued health of corporate America. It has been so for decades and it will continue until we elect officials who are true populists, true believers that people are more important than companies.


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The Myth of Equal Opportunity

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

There has never been equal opportunity in America. Sure, there’s always been opportunity, but it’s never been equal. The wealthy have always gotten better opportunities than the poor. Whites have always gotten better opportunities than blacks or Hispanics or Asians or Native Americans.

Men have almost always gotten paid better than women for the same work. Taller people make more than their shorter peers and the beautiful make more than those of us who are less gifted in the looks department.

But a lot of folks perpetuate the myth that we all have the same chances to improve our lots and that simply isn’t true.

Wealthy Americans send their children to first-rate schools (who can blame them?). They hire people like them – friends of friends or children of friends or even the friends themselves. We are a country that bestows privilege on the privileged.

And we all are victims of unconscious bias, believing lighter skinned people are better than darker skinned folks. Don’t believe me? You can take the Implicit Association Test developed by Mahzarin R. Banaji of Harvard.

Even black people who take the test generally ascribe better qualities to lighter skinned folks than they do to black people.

We also ascribe better qualities to taller people, prettier people and people who dress better. Study after study has shown that we discriminate subconsciously all the time. How does this play out in denying equal opportunity to all?

Police officers of all races subconsciously assume blacks are more likely than whites to be engaging in criminal activity. Teachers subconsciously assume whites are smarter than blacks. Employers subconsciously assume blacks are more likely to loaf on the job or steal or show up late for work.

Add up all these subconscious biases and you get a pattern of second-class treatment that isn’t intentional or mean-spirited – it’s just the way our brains work.

“I’m not one of them,” you say. “I don’t have those biases.”

Maybe not. Maybe you’re one of the very few who can legitimately make that claim. But probably, like me, you have these biases and you have to deal with them.

And the best way to do that is to acknowledge you’ve got them. Accept that you think – deep below the surface – that white is better than black, rich is better than poor, and handsome is better than ugly. Only then can you begin to overcome those hidden biases, by identifying them and giving them some sort of numerical value that you can gradually lower, each time you make a decision, until the number becomes more and more negligible.


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Why do some of us seem to embrace ignorance?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

There’s been a movement underway for the past two decades or so to embrace ignorance. It was born out of disgust at the hectoring of liberal intelligentsia from Harvard and other premier universities, who delighted in telling the rest of us how to live our lives. This backlash is understandable, to be sure, but it has been taken much too far.

What began as a simple crusade to stop the “We know best” mantra of the East Coast elites has mutated into something almost unrecognizable – something hideous.

Some people take a perverse pleasure from being anti-intellectual, from embracing ideas that are idiotic just because they’re the opposite of what these elites say is truth. They point to the instances when the elites got it wrong as justification for rejecting everything the intellectuals say.

For example, a good many people refuse to believe in climate change. I’m not talking about people who dispute that humans are a primary cause, though they too are often unwilling to accept facts as truth. I’m talking about people who actually believe the planet isn’t warming.

They point to arcane statistics and anomalies to support their position, using, for example, the year 1998 (which was unusually hot, but not as hot as 2014) or 1934 (which was hot in the US but not so hot elsewhere) to make the case that the world isn’t getting hotter.

Then there are the fanatics who believe that vaccinations are somehow a terrible thing, that we’re better off somehow by letting diseases run rampant through the human population. They remind me of the story – likely fictional – of various peoples who cut off the arms of their vaccinated children. They cite discredited research and religious or cultural mores to support their positions.

And let’s not forget those who dismiss evolution despite archaeological records confirming it time and again. Sure, some say, evolution is probably real, but humans are special. We didn’t evolve from other creatures even though lots of other species did.

These are just a few examples.

What is it about knowledge that scares them?

Some, no doubt, think the intelligentsia is peddling falsehoods so that the elites can acquire and/or maintain power. Some are contrarians who don’t like being told what to do or think. Some are simply angry at their lot in life. And some are so protective of their beliefs that anything interfering with those beliefs, anything that makes them question their reality, must be wrong.

Unfortunately, they would drag us to the bottom with them. Better that the whole world collapse in ignorance than a few smart people tell us we’re living our lives wrong.

We all live in communities (the biggest being Planet Earth), but too many of us refuse to accede to the greater good. We form our own small communities to bolster our ignorance and say, See. You don’t know best. Look at how many of us believe X. We must be right or we wouldn’t have so many followers.

And the thing is, in the short term, it’s often hard to prove them wrong. Only by studying our failures from the distant future will we see clearly the mistakes we made. Then they will be obvious.

Of course, then it will also be too late.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot lately.

When we’re confronted with a major injustice, we eventually rise up and confront it. Consider slavery, which took centuries to eradicate and which still has not been eliminated completely (it exists in small pockets, particularly in the sex trafficking industry) but at least is now considered evil by society.

Eventually, We came to the realization that it was wrong, even though many people opposed its demise for religious or sociological or anthropological reasons.

But when confronted with minor injustices, we don’t necessarily rebel. We accept those injustices as part of the society we live in. Sure, some of us act – as in the Ferguson, MO, and Occupy Wall Street protests, among others. But the greater society shrugs off the alleged injustice by saying that’s just the way the world works.

We feel the wrongs are too slight and the odds of winning too slim – the powers that run the country are too formidable and will fight to the death to maintain the status quo. And frankly, too many of us agree with the status quo in some way. We concede that a particular case may be unfair, but we believe that – overall – the system works.

And it may, to a degree.

But we’re in a situation where too many of us are being kept down by those who hold the wealth and power. The rich write laws to protect the rich. The powerful utilize their resources to ensure their grasp on power. They may understand that a revolution will come eventually IF they take things too far, but they don’t believe they’re at that point yet.

So far, they’ve been correct.

I wonder what it will take for the masses to act. When will we say, Enough?

It’s a measure of how concerned the rich are that both Democrats and Republicans are finally talking about wealth inequality. Politicians still aren’t doing anything about it, and the two parties have very different ideas about how to bring about parity, but at least they’re talking about the issue.

What will it take for people to get serious?

Maybe we can’t expect mass protests over minor injustices. Maybe money always wins. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I wish the people elected to serve the people would actually SERVE THE PEOPLE and not just the wealthy. Crony capitalism is every bit as evil as a dictatorship or an oligarchy.

And yet we continue on, creating more loopholes for hedge funds and massive banks, keeping their taxes at historic lows so they won’t be inconvenienced by having to share their wealth, so they won’t take their money and run to some other country that will permit them to clutch their grubby hands around their ill-gotten gains.

Politicians no longer run America. They have become servants – just like us – only perhaps a little higher up the ladder.

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God or Not God?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

There is evidence of God everywhere. And there is evidence of the lack of a God everywhere. It all depends on your point of view.

Some point to the intricacies of life, the sheer magnitude of chance that brought about creatures such as humans, with all their complexities, as proof that they could only have come from God.

Others point to the archaeological records that show unmistakable evidence of evolution and assert that if we evolved from lesser creatures, there can’t be a God. They say every miracle, every bizarre and intricate feature of the world, can be explained by science, even if science can’t explain it yet.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed during the Holocaust, saw unimaginable suffering at the hands of the Nazis and yet retained his faith, believing God was with the Jews and other victims, suffering alongside them, sharing in their agony.

This God came down from the heavens, figuratively speaking, and suffered with humanity as unspeakable horrors were dispensed.

Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, writes about the death of God in the novel Night. And indeed we wonder how a kind and merciful God could allow such suffering by His people at the hands of fanatics and evildoers.

Would not a real God prevent such tragedies?

Free will – the believers say. God gave us free will, which is why this kind of horror can exist. And yet those same believers pray to God for intervention in their lives. They believe God helps protect them from all manner of evil.

So why does God protect them in their small lives while refusing to protect humanity on a larger scale? They have no satisfying answer for this.

What is the truth?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s impossible for we mere humans to understand. God either exists or He doesn’t but we’ll never know for certain.

Any proof one side submits will be struck down by the supporters of the opposite point of view. Were God Himself to appear before the population of the planet and proclaim Himself to all, nonbelievers would reject Him, stating that it was a trick of some sort – aliens: an advanced race of people – even a mass hallucination caused by air pollution.

And were atheists to show through science that God could not possibly have existed because of the way the universe evolved, believers would dismiss their arguments as incomplete. They would assert, accurately, that one cannot prove such a negative.

So, since certainty can never be achieved, why are so many people so committed to their beliefs? Why do so many insist that only they have the truth and we must all acknowledge it?

I submit that both sides have fallen into the trap of polemic human thinking. We tend to fit everything into black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. We’re wired to think that way. What benefits us is good, what harms us is evil. Few of us accede to the notion of an indifferent universe or an indifferent God.

And yet I think we must live our lives that way, as if there were no God or an indifferent one. We must create our own meaning, find our own truth, conquer our own internal torment. It’s okay to believe in God. And it’s okay not to. It’s okay to consider the possibility that we may never know the truth.

The only evil at play here is forcing others to believe what we believe, insisting we have the truth of the world inside our insignificant selves. For whether there is a God or not, we will not know the answer in this, our only lifetime on Earth.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Why We Need Regulation

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

American business leaders like to say they’re over-regulated, and if government would just get out of the way, the free market would handle everything, self-correcting when necessary.

Many of them think of government as an evil that should be kept as small as possible. They cite instances where big government – an inefficient beast, to be sure – has bungled some project (like the rollout of Obamacare) that the private sector would no doubt have avoided.

But there are a few problems with their position.

First, capitalism, left unchecked, does not freely correct itself. It creates monopolies that bully those who would compete against them. Does anyone really think that Apple, Google, United Health and Wal-Mart want competitors to force them to lower their prices? Of course they don’t.

Some say that innovation will inevitably come along with a better model of whatever service or product has the monopoly and force systemic change.

So what?

In the meantime, for 5 or 10 or 20 years, the monopoly will dictate everything and crush all those innovators who are not sufficiently capitalized or secretive or lucky to survive their trampling.

Second, the private sector rarely has to worry about operating on the scale that government does. If it did, it would make many, if not all, the same mistakes that government does. Big companies have lots of inefficiencies, just like big governments. That’s why monopolies tend not to survive over the long haul. But they create lots of misery while they’re on top.

Third, companies are generally not concerned with the public welfare. Their focus is on maximizing shareholder profit. Companies that have done good deeds for the sake of the public have been sued for failing to maximize profits – that’s why 15 states and the District of Columbia have legislated the creation of public benefit corporations.

Without regulation, companies could run amok, leaving us to clean up their messes. See any number of industrial cleanup actions (particularly in mining and energy) for evidence of their short-sightedness.

So I wish our “Leaders” would stop defaming our government and instead work on ways to make it work better – more efficient and more responsive. Because we need a strong government to rein in the excess birthed by capitalism. We don’t want a dictatorship, but we are not helped by a toothless tiger either.


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Belief vs. Action

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Some people think that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion give them the right to say or do pretty much whatever they want. However, these freedoms are not absolute. The most common example given is that you can’t yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

But it goes deeper than that.

Freedom of belief is absolute. You can believe whatever you want and no one has the right to make you say otherwise. If you want to believe that people with green skin are inferior to you, no one can stop you. If you want to believe that only those who agree with your religious views will be saved, then go ahead.

The difficulty arises when people begin to act on those beliefs. Speech is a form of action. So is assembly. So are myriad other activities, all of which affect society in some way.

We live in communities and thus must abide by the principle that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one), unless the many feel the need to harm the few or the one, in which case we are justified in fighting back.

That’s why our Republic is so important. It protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. At least it ought to.

And yet too often we impose our “way” on others. We tend to believe that you’re either with us or you’re against us. We see the world in black and white, yes and no, right and wrong, dismissing the shades of gray, the nuances that make up reality.

Requiring others to convert to your religion harms them. You may not believe it to be harm because you believe they are now saved, but you have harmed them just the same. Demanding others believe what you believe causes damage.

Sometimes that damage is justified. For example, requiring others to enter into democracy when they have endured a dictatorship for decades will cause harm in the short-term because the iron hand is all some of these people know. But over time, most of them will be better off.

So when can we act? When can we be certain we are doing right? The plain truth is that we can’t. That’s why caution is so important. I wish we were a little slower to act, a little more deliberate. We rush to judgment because we seek to understand, but that desire often leads us to a flawed knowledge, an untruth we cling to as if it were absolute.

Freedom vs. Safety

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all want to be safe. We want the military to keep us safe from terrorism; we want the police to keep us safe from criminals; we want the FBI to protect us from the mafia and other internal threats; we want the CIA to protect us from external threats.

We want to be able to go to the store or the library or school or our jobs and feel as if we’re not under imminent threat of attack from some maniac or group of maniacs who have it in their heads that we’re evil and need to be destroyed.

We want to be able to monitor those people who are plotting against us so we can prevent their attacks before they happen. We want to be able to prevent them from getting their hands on weapons that can kill us.

At the same time, we all want to be free. We want to be able to read what we want and say what we want without interference from the government. We want to be able to have a conversation without worrying about whether we’re being monitored by some creepy agency that’s purporting to keep us safe from terrorists.

Many of us want to be able to hunt or keep a gun for protection, and many of us don’t want our Second Amendment rights infringed by those who disagree with our positions. And many of us are afraid that if only the government has weapons, then we are at risk if some madman gets elected and decides to curtail our rights and freedoms. Sure, the odds of that happening are slim, but if we give up our guns, do those odds change?

We don’t want guns in the wrong hands, but we don’t necessarily trust the government to tell us if we’re worthy of carrying them. How intelligent, how sane, how stable must we be to be allowed to possess a gun? And who decides if we’re a threat?

Unfortunately, we can’t have both complete freedom and complete safety. We must sacrifice a little freedom to preserve our communal safety. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. How much freedom do we surrender? How much risk is acceptable? I don’t think we’re far from the ideal balance, but I don’t think we’re there yet either. On guns, I think we need a little more control – on speech, a little less.


Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I like dreaming

Imagining things will someday be better than they are

We will respect each other

Listen to each other

Resist judgment because we don’t know all the facts

We’ll offer support and friendship

And a dollar or two

Because money’s value is not just a number on a bill

But in how that bill can buy a meal

Or a sweater

Or a home

But I won’t give away all my money

Because then I won’t be able to buy beer.

Faith vs. Truth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When we discover a “truth” we want to tell the world about it, for we are excited that we’ve learned this new thing and we want others to share our excitement. And sometimes, that’s a good thing. But sometimes it isn’t.

When we discover that we can save money on fuel by going to a gas station not too far away and we tell our friends and family about it, that’s a good thing.

When we discover that we’ve been wasting resources by taking extra-long, hot showers or mowing the lawn more often than we need to or heating our house to a comfortable temperature even when we’re not home, then it behooves us and our social network to point out the fact so that others can learn from it.

However, when we discover a “truth” like religion and become born again and decide to share that truth with others, we have a tendency to bore or irritate or offend.

Partly this is because religion is (or at least should be) personal.

Partly it’s because we tend to be too enthusiastic in our sharing, assuming everyone will want to know the good news because we’ve become infatuated by it.

And partly it’s because truth like this isn’t truth at all – not to denigrate it, but religion isn’t truth.

It’s faith. It’s belief.

It may be a particularly strong faith. We may be certain our religion is correct based on our reading of holy texts and conversations with holy people and reports of miracles and such, but the fact is that religion isn’t about truth – other than personal, internal truth – the truth of self-knowledge. It’s about using myths and lore and legend to make sense of our lives when we can’t otherwise make sense of them.

If we find truth in religion, if we find meaning where once there was none, yay for us. But the idea that everyone else must share that internal truth is folly. And it’s dangerous. Let’s keep our religion to ourselves.

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