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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

There are times when I think that maybe I should start another blog devoted entirely to commentary about stupid letters published in the Chicago Tribune. I don’t know about other papers but the Trib is notorious for regularly publishing letters that would appear to be written by idiots. The latest such letter is on a topic that is on a lot of people’s minds nowadays - many millions of people in fact - extending unemployment compensation benefits. The letter’s short, so here it is in toto.
Congress should not extend unemployment benefits. Any extension of unemployment benefits beyond what unemployment insurance covers will be tantamount to theft.

I am not a rich person and I will soon be looking for work once the summer is through, but I realize that confiscatory taxes will not solve the world’s problem. Neither will printing new money. Give free markets a chance for once.
I assume that most people who read this blog possess a high degree of intelligence, so I needn’t point out the obvious nonsense of the alleged "reasoning" to back up the argument that unemployment compensation should not be extended. But you have to wonder why the Tribune published it. Maybe they were intrigued by someone who wasn’t rich but didn’t need to work or look for work until the autumn leaves began to fall.

I couldn’t resist this dig at the Tribune’s "Voice of the People" editor - but these comments are less about a silly letter than about the problem it purports to discuss - the problem of unemployment - excessive and perhaps chronic unemployment.

First a few observations about where some of the jobs are and who is filling them. This is all from my fairly recent personal experience. We had a long delayed flood control system installed. All of the workers were Hispanic. One spoke a little English. The rest spoke only Spanish. We had a chimney rebuilt. All the workers were Spanish speaking. Its been a while since we built our garage - but all of the workers were Polish and spoke only Polish. Our maid service is staffed with Polish only speaking women. They are usually accompanied by a male who speaks enough English to understand that you shouldn’t clean a sink with shoe polish. The local independent grocery store is staffed by two groups - cashiers, 90% European - and stock men - those who do the grunt work - 100% Spanish speaking Hispanics. Our gardening service is 100% Spanish speaking except for the owner, who speaks reasonably good English.

A while back I had the need to talk to tech people about two similar products. They spoke to me from India and from the Philippines. And just a week ago I ran into trouble with another product and chatted on line with a tech who I assumed to be somewhere in the US based on her use of English - but later, in a series of follow up e-mails about a replacement product, the "English" usage identified foreign workers, likely based outside of the United States.

I’m not necessarily complaining about the ethnicity or citizenship of these workers. For all I know, they could all be U.S. citizens or legal immigrants with green cards who just haven’t gotten around to learn English. On the other hand, I doubt that the people I’ve had to deal with in India and the Philippines are US citizens who decided to live in those countries - though it could be a way to get work that they couldn’t find at home. But it’s pretty clear that a lot of businesses - including some that aren’t necessarily in the "small business" category - prefer to hire foreign and foreign speaking workers. How much this contributes to our dangerously high unemployment rate is open to question. Obviously it has some effect - but I think there’s a much bigger question that will have to be faced at some time in the future - perhaps not the too distant future.

We keep hearing from alleged experts and pundits in general that one of the reasons that profits are being reported all over the place is that companies are operating with fewer workers than they had before the current recession began. What the pundits don’t say and what seems obvious to this untrained observer, is that there is no shortage of any goods and services for those who can afford to buy and utilize them. As long as the dollars keep pouring in and the profits keep accumulating - what incentive is there to hire more workers? Obviously, if demand increases and businesses need more workers to meet that demand, they’ll resume hiring. But until then, we’re stuck in this fantasy land of needing to "create" jobs. But how do we do that if the jobs aren’t needed?

One of the advantages we enjoy in a modern industrial society is increasing efficiency in the work place. What human strength and sweat used to accomplish is now accomplished swifter and easier with robotic equipment. What once needed large numbers of clerical workers can be accomplished by far fewer working at computers. But there is a down side to this brave new world. Across the entire spectrum of the creation of goods and services, the need for human involvement continues to shrink and what we may eventually end up with is an entire segment of the population for whom no private sector, money earning jobs are available. We may one day be faced with a choice of having to fashion a society similar to the Marxian slogan of "From each according to his ability - To each according to his need." I prefer to look to science fiction for a description of a perfect world where the children achieve adulthood and then choose what they want to do with their lives - become poets or artisans - and the state accommodates and devises ways for all to be adequately supported.

We keep hearing about the desire to achieve a "green" society - and indeed there may be new industries that will be created to change the way we power our businesses and our homes and our means of transportation and new workers will be needed to run those industries. It may slow our job losses down a little - but I don’t see it moving us off of the disastrous curve on which we find ourselves - represented by an ever increasing population and an ever decreasing need for human involvement to provides all the needs of that increasing population.

I hope I’m wrong and that we’ll continue to find ways to keep enough people employed and earning money to avoid having to make drastic changes in the way we function in our society - but I don’t think I am. I won’t be around to find out one way or another - but maybe these words will still be here decades from now - and people will come across them and say - holy mackerel, here’s a guy who saw it coming back in 2010 and nobody nominated him for a Nobel Prize. Such are the burdens and rewards of the lonesome blogger.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I never thought I would one day be saying this but I feel sorry for Jesse Jackson. I remember watching him with tears in his eyes as he stood in the crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park listening to the newly elected president, Barrack Obama. I can imagine what he was thinking at the time - that at last, after decades of struggle - the dream that he had shared with Martin Luther King was becoming a reality. He had tried to become the first black man to realize that dream - but there was never a ghost of a chance of him becoming president. He was just the wrong black man for reasons that could fill this page and then some. But I’ll cite just one reason. He was a man too rooted in the past - in many ways a victim of a past that he couldn’t move beyond. Similar in ways that Obama described his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He’s had a long career of being an advocate for issues affecting African Americans - but also of showing up and voicing an opinion in places and on issues of all kinds. But now, with his nonsensical comments about the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers being like a "slave master" who considers LeBron James a "runaway slave" he has become irrelevant.

In my opinion, he has been irrelevant for some time, but the news media have continued to pay attention to his activities and his pronouncements - maybe in deference to what he once was - or maybe because he’s convenient filler material on newscasts and odd inches in newspapers. Perhaps if I could understand why every throat clearing and eye winking of Sarah Palin gets covered as "news" - I’d better understand why Jackson pronouncements are still considered worthy of valuable news space and time.

This morning I heard liberal talk show host Ed Schultz defend Jackson’s "runaway slave" comments as justified because HE was responding to an attack on James by the Cavaliers owner. Not commenting on the conflict as countless pundits have done - but reesponding to Gilbert on James’ behalf!! Now if Dan Gilbert had attacked LeBron with racial epithets of racial innuendo, I would expect some reaction from someone like Jesse Jackson - though from what I’ve seen of Mr. James, he’s perfectly capable of defending himself. No doubt Gilbert went over the top in criticizing his former player. It was the sort of rant that needed to be uttered in private - not to the world at large, though I agree with some of the underlying sentiments as I wrote here on July 7 (second item.) But there was nothing racial in his comments and the only conceivable justification for Jackson to have jumped into the fray - at least in his mind - is that LeBron James is a black man. A millionaire - probably several times over - but a black man nonetheless. If he had been a white man and Gilbert had attacked him in exactly the same way - would Jesse Jackson have become involved? Of course not. But would there have been some other "rights advocate" who would have become involved in the same pubic fashion? Again, of course not.

What is so sad about this incident is that the huge fan base for professional basketball - that is, those that shell out the bucks to attend the games are mostly white. They attend and they scream themselves hoarse for the players on their home teams - the majority of whom are black athletes. White kids and black kids alike, look up to these super stars as heroes.. There’s nothing racial about the fan/player interaction. Jackson however, sees a racial element in the relationship that black basketball players have with owners or fans simply because they are black - and he sees bigotry and racial discrimination where they don’t exist.

Unquestionably, racial prejudice is still very much with us. You can find it on the Internet - on signs at tea party rallies and on billboards in "red" states. But the argument between Dan Gilbert and LeBron James has nothing to do with race - and when Jesse Jackson grabs hold of something like this and tries to make it into a racial "incident’ - to me it shows how out of touch with today’s reality and how irrelevant he has become. And shame on any media that reports this kind of nonsense without labeling it as such - the latest bit of nonsense from the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A sort of follow up of my post of July 7.

As readers of this blog may know - because I have mentioned at least once - I was once at the business end of a Federal indictment. Fortunately it never proceeded to a trial. A judge, blessed with the gift of logic and more than a passing understanding of law and what can and can’t be considered a crime, threw the case out of court, admonishing the prosecutors for bringing it in the first place. Looking back, I know I dodged a bullet because had there been a trial, I might well have been found guilty - and today I would be fearful of being accused of any crime and appearing before any judge, even if I knew I was as innocent of the criminal allegation as I was when it happened to me many years ago.

As a nation, we claim to be proud of our system of justice - of being a nation of laws, not of men. Unfortunately, it’s men who administer those laws and the chance of receiving "justice" seems to depend on who’s the administrator in a given case. In other words, what luck or misfortune puts you in a particular court in front of a particular judge. I’ve been writing about the Drew Peterson case assigned to one Will County Illinois Judge Stephen White, he who decided that a hearing on what hearsay evidence might be allowed at trial should be held in public. Now the judge has decided that Peterson must remain in jail while prosecutors appeal some of his rulings on hearsay evidence. That could take months and usually it allows for an accused to be freed pending the outcome of the appeal. Except when a judge determines that there are "compelling reasons" to keep an accused locked up. And Judge White’s "compelling reason" is that he believes the evidence proves Peterson’s guilt. Or words to that effect - but it doesn’t really matter what his actual words were because the judge’s reason for keeping him in jail has been publicized all over the place. I read it in my morning paper - as I am sure did many potential jurors - and what does a juror to think when he knows the judge already believes that Peterson is a murderer? What I would believe is that there’s no way the trial can be considered "fair" no matter what the outcome.

In the same paper where I read what Judge White already believes about Drew Peterson, there appeared another story about another judge in another courtroom in Illinois. Neither the judge nor the defendant in this case were household names. In fact the judge’s name wasn’t even mentioned in the story but a few minutes of research identified her as BlancheHill Fawell. It wasn’t a case that had received any publicity. The newspaper item - all of 38 lines in a 5 X 2½ inch space, was buried on the inside of the paper - but in a civilized "nation of laws" you would think it would be a headline story from coast to coast - and at least a mention on the evening news.

It’s a case about drunk driving. The defendant was an habitual drunk driver.This was his tenth drunk driving arrest.He’d also been cited multiple times for driving without a valid license - presumably revoked following a previous drunk driving conviction. Obviously this guy was a bad actor who should never be allowed to get behind the wheel of a car. At least not until he had completed a few 12 step programs and could be certified as being rehabilitated. But the judge had another solution. Jail time. Not an unreasonable decision considering the man’s record. He hadn’t killed or maimed anyone yet - but it was only a matter of time. The latest arrest was for running a red light - an offense that could easily have had a tragic ending. So what would be an appropriate punishment? 90 days? Six months? A year and a day?

This man, unquestionably a serial lawbreaker, but not some kind of violent predator, was sentenced to 24 years in jail. I repeat - TWENTY FOUR YEARS - for drunk driving. Murderers have served less time. So have rapists and other violent criminals. On the other hand, this was a judge who acquitted a man of beating his ex-girlfriend's dog so brutally that it had to be put down. The dog's injuries occurred while the boyfriend was alone in the apartment with the dog - but Judge Fawell decided there wasn't conclusive evidence.

What is one to conclude from the judge’s decisions in these two cases - the Peterson and the Drunk Driver cases - not the dog beating? It doesn’t give me confidence that our courts are fair and just. It tells me that defendants in criminal cases - excuse me - in alleged criminal cases - witness my personal experience of the distant past - face a virtual crap shoot when it comes to which judge gets assigned to their case. Neither Peterson nor the unfortunate drunk driver are model citizens, but the outcome of their cases might well be different with different judges.

At the end of the day - an expression that I normally dislike but that I think fits this situation - no matter how many times we are assured that we are "a nation of laws" and that there is "equal justice under the law" - it’s the people in charge of interpreting and executing the law who hold our freedom in their hands when we are accused of a crime. It’s really nothing short of a crap shoot - and in my view, for Mr. Peterson and Mr. Drunk Driver - the dice came up snake eyes.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

In a few days, trial buffs will begin enjoying a series of field days as reports of the murder trial of Drew Peterson join the coverage of the Rod Blagojevich trial. Already the papers and television and radio newscasts are reporting on pre-trial decisions of the Judge - the current important one being his decision to allow hearsay evidence from a clergyman who allegedly was told by Peterson’s fourth wife Stacey - who has been missing since October 27, 2008 - that she was persuaded by her husband to provide him with a phony alibi for the night before third wife Kathleen Savio was found dead in her bathtub. Undoubtedly, Peterson’s defense team isn’t happy with the decision but I have to wonder if it makes any difference what the judge decides about allowing or disallowing hearsay evidence because it’s all been heard before.

Back on January 30 I questioned whether Peterson’s trial - the one that’s now about to challenge Blago for headlines, would amount to double jeopardy. I asked the question because at that time, a "hearsay trial" was being held in public. That is, all of the potential hearsay "evidence" was presented and discussed and reported extensively in newspapers and on radio and television. Chances are that several if not all of the jurors that will sit in judgment of Mr. Peterson, have already heard the hearsay evidence that the judge has disallowed for the "real" trial. But the hearsay hearing was months ago. Maybe people have forgotten the "evidence" considered at that hearing - and it’s reasonable to assume that they won’t be influenced by what they can’t remember. But hold on. The memory restorers are here to save the day.

Yes, under our wonderful system of the free flow of information about ongoing murder trials - as opposed to the British system that bars reporting on such trials until they are over - the Chicago Tribune and other media organizations are already reporting on what the judge is saying the jury can or cannot hear. So they don’t need to remember what they may have read or heard months ago. It’s all going to be publicized again. There’s no gag order on the news media so jurors can go home after a day of listening to all of the allowed evidence, curl up on their favorite couch, drink in hand - and read all about the terrible things that so many people said about Drew Peterson and what he probably did to his third AND fourth wives.

As I said in January, I don’t know if Peterson is a serial killer or the unluckiest man in the world. I know that hearsay evidence is not normally allowed in murder trials and that a special exception is in place for his trial. But that special exception has virtually assured that Peterson cannot get a fair trial even if 99% of the hearsay evidence that the whole world heard about a few months ago will not be "heard" by the jurors who I predict will convict him of first degree murder.

UPDATE It seems that the Peterson trial won' be competing for attention with the Blago trial after all. The prosecution wants to include some hearsay evidence that the judge has barred and is appealing his ruling - delaying the trial for as much as six months - during which time the judge says Peterson has to stay in jail. It's beginning to look more foul than fair - but we'll find out, maybe around Christmas!!


And don’t spare the after burners on what I assume has to be your private jet. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I am no fan of professional basketball. Having got that out of the way - this non- stop chatter about LeBron James and what team he might play for and for how much has become ridiculous. The specter of wealthy team owners groveling before His Highness LeBron begging him to accept their millions being an item of breathless breaking news on radio and television and front page headlines - yes FRONT PAGE HEADLINES is positively sickening.

Mr. James may be a nice man - but all the nonsensical fuss is about his being much taller than the average man and his ability to toss a basketball in the air and come down through an opposing team’s net - helped in no small way by the aforementioned height advantage - is beyond nonsense. It’s an insult to the intelligence of those of us who try to follow the news. Actual NEWS! He isn’t on the verge of announcing a cure for muscular dystrophy. He doesn’t have the solution to the BP oil disaster. He plays basketball for Cleveland and may switch to another team net year.

This whole thing sickens me in two ways. First because of the news media treatment of his decision making as though it was a news story affecting our lives in at least some small way. And second because what sports figures have become. Fungible. Performing to a cheering crowd in one city one year - only to move to another city and another cheering crowd the next for a few extra dollars. More often than not for a few extra million. In my youth, when I was something of a fan of a particular team sport, players were local athletes who were gratified to be able to be signed by and who grew with their local team. They weren’t ready to be heroes to home town teams only until some other town’s team offered them more money to be their heroes.

I don’t wish Mr. James any ill. I just wish he’d choose who he wants to play for and for the news media to revert back to covering news.