Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

March 30, 2016

Corporate greed

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:33 pm

The other day a friend irritated me. He used a buzzword, “corporate greed.”

That one’s been bothering me for a while and I really wasn’t sure why. After all, I’m not fond of corporations much myself. I’ve worked for a few in my time and I was always happiest when I was an independent contractor rather than an employee, and when I was one I was happiest when I was furthest from corporate HQ.

I don’t dispute their right to exist, I just prefer a different work arrangement than a Dilbert cubicle.

But I have friends who loathe the very idea of corporations, some with much more experience working for them than I do.

Sometimes I want to tell them, “So don’t drive a car, or use a cell phone, and find out who owns that newspaper you read.”

Corporations it seems, get no love. And greed must be the worst thing in the world from the way people talk about it.

Hollywood, you may have noticed, is very down on corporations and “corporate greed.”

From what you see in movies about noble Davids fighting corporate Goliaths you’d think films were made by humble craftsmen working in cottage industries. Never mind those cautionary tales about how Hollywood accountants can make the biggest hit of the decade into the biggest money-loser on paper to explain to investors why the movie that made the actors and producers rich isn’t going to repay their investment.

Corporations are particularly loathed on the left end of the political spectrum where people who are terrified of multi-billion dollar corporations are perfectly fine with multi-trillion dollar government.

And that’s why I get irritated with that buzzword “corporate greed.”

A corporation isn’t a person in anything but the legal sense. It can’t feel greedy, it can’t feel anything the people who make it up don’t feel.

It’s a form of organization, a way of getting people together to accomplish things they couldn’t working alone. Humanity came up with the legal and organizational structure of the corporation starting only a few hundred years ago. Now considering how many of the essentials and luxuries we enjoy are manufactured and transported by corporations you’d think we’d appreciate them like we do that corporate product sliced bread.

So why don’t we?

Well for one, it does take a certain temperament to work in a large impersonal environment – and I know that’s a stereotype, they’re not all like that. But enough are and some of us find it distasteful, like some really don’t enjoy being in the military. With which it has a lot in common.

For another, we all know large corporations have an influence on government we rightly suspect is not at all good for our country. Because if a corporation cannot feel greed, neither can it feel patriotism.

But is that the fault of the organization, or the fault of the government? If corporations can buy influence, surely it is because governments have influence to sell.

As to the charge of greed, that’s a loaded term. Is greed wanting more than you have? Some folks call that ambition.

Is greed wanting something at somebody else’s expense? That is reprehensible, but it’s not how markets are supposed to work. In a free market people exchange labor, goods, and services in ways that benefit both parties. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.

Of course we know in daily life it doesn’t always work that way. Government can force us to deal with corporations. Corporations can lobby government to skew the playing field in their favor.

But this is a feature of all large scale organizations, including labor unions, NGOs, and professional associations.

Special interests’ influence on government may be the central problem of democracy. One for which there has yet been no solution found. There may not be one.

March 16, 2016

Free Speech

Filed under: Free Speech,Media bias,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:13 am

I think as I please, and this gives me pleasure
My conscience decrees, this crime I must treasure
My thoughts will not cater, to duke or dictator
No man can deny, die gedanken sind frei!
Die gedanken sind Frie (“Thoughts are free”)
– Adapted from a Swiss protest song, 1810

Well, a Trump rally in Chicago on Friday, March 11, was cancelled.

Trump cancelled over security concerns as hundreds of protestors filled sections of the arena and massed outside. Protestors were visibly elated. Supporters simmeringly angry.

This is not good – except for Trump. Some polls indicated astonishing jumps in his support after the incident. Causing some critics to cry hysterically that Trump cancelled as a calculated move.

Trump has been castigated by critics, including some in the GOP, as having incited violence at previous rallies.

I think this is not entirely fair. Protestors at these rallies attend not just to express disagreement but to shut down the speeches via the “hecklers veto.”

True, Trump has a mouth that lives its own life, wild and free. He’s shouted from the podium to throw the hecklers out and expressed a wish to punch them.

But that’s not why his opponents want to shut him down.

On February 22, conservative intellectual Ben Shapiro’s scheduled appearance at California State University LA was cancelled by university president William Covino after protests.

“After careful consideration, I have decided that it will be best for our campus community if we reschedule Ben Shapiro’s appearance for a later date, so that we can arrange for him to appear as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints on diversity. Such an event will better represent our university’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the value of considering multiple viewpoints,” Covino announced.

Covino’s concern for diversity of viewpoints somehow never emerged during previous appearances by radical leftists such as Cornel West, Angela Davis and Tim Wise.

Shapiro is certainly outspoken, but his speaking style is measured, rational and well thought out. Worlds apart from the Trumpster’s bluster.

Which got him no respect at all, when during an appearance on Dr. Drew On Call in February, large transgendered Zooey (nee Bob) Tur put his hand on diminutive Shapiro’s neck and said, “You’d better cut that out now or you’ll go home in an ambulance.”

Shapiro alleged Tur later said he’d meet him in the parking lot. An allegation given credence when Tur later went on record as saying he’d like to “curb stomp” Shapiro for the crime of calling him “sir.”

So let’s clear the air about what’s happening here.

Trump is no champion of free speech. He’s threatened to sue critics. He’s tried to get journalists fired for writing critical articles about him. But ironically a lot of fed-up Americans are rallying around him because he exercises his own right of free speech.

We all know there are things we can’t say in America, and we all know pretty much what they are.

The left owns academia, entertainment, and most of the broadcast media. Though there is no formal censorship in this country of the kind you’d find in North Korea or Cuba, an awful lot of people are afraid for their livelihoods and even their safety if they express certain unpopular opinions or just tell a joke someone takes offense to.

Listen, I’ve lectured in Belarus and taught in Serbia during the Milosevic regime and I said what I pleased. But I can honestly say the two places I’ve worked where I really felt I had to watch my mouth were Saudi Arabia, and an American university.

It’s been this way for decades now and we’re dangerously angry about it. It is not natural for Americans to be afraid of what we say.

I’ve always known we wouldn’t put up with it forever. I wish free speech had a better champion and I hope its enemies wake up and back off. Because if they don’t, free men who wish to speak their minds are not going to retreat to their safe spaces.

March 14, 2016

What we learn from history

Filed under: Education,Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:12 am

I have just finished a long conversation with some of the greatest figures in the history of Western Civilization.

Over the past month I listened with rapt attention to tales of battles on land and sea, of political intrigues, the rise and fall of great states, and the decisive victory that shaped our world.

For 27 years, 431–404 BC, Athens and Sparta vied for control of the Greek world, which then extended from Greece proper west to Sicily and southern Italy and east to the Aegean shore of modern-day Turkey.

My entry into this world was via 36 DVD lectures from The Great Courses by Professor Kenneth W. Harl, professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University.

The lecture course is called The Peloponnesian War. The war the historian and eye witness Thudydides called, “a war like no other.”

I had previously enjoyed the 24 lecture course by Professor John Hale, University of Louisville on The Greek and Persian Wars which gave me a tremendous hunger to know more about the history of Greece.

That civilization we call Western is comprised of the speakers of European languages spoken in Europe west of the Ural Mountains, and in the last five centuries spread to the Western Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The twin roots of that civilization lie among the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews. If you are Western then no matter where your ancestors came from you are part Greek and part Hebrew.

Only a few generations ago this was universally acknowledged. Everyone knew the Bible and high school students on the American frontier studied ancient languages and history. President Harry Truman never went to college, and Gen. George Patton had the reputation of a rough profane soldier, but both could read Thucydides account of the war that led to the downfall of Greece in the original Greek.

And what did they learn from it, soldier and statesman?

They learned that as Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England said, that a country has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

The Athenians and Spartans led a coalition of Greek cities to defeat the invading Persians in a sea battle at Salamis and a land battle at Platea. A generation later they fought each other for 27 years.

Later still the Spartan allies of Boeotia marched into Sparta and destroyed forever the myth of Spartan invincibility.

They learned that to survive and prevail a nation must be adaptable.

Sparta was the premier land power in Greece, but learned to become a sea power to defeat Athens.

They learned to beware of demagogues. Democratic Athens was periodically swept by enthusiasm that led them to confuse their hopes with their abilities as Thucydides said about the disastrous invasion of Sicily.

They learned there are no certain outcomes. After the disaster at Syracuse that cost Athens hundreds of ships and thousands of men, they recovered with breathtaking rapidity. Then on what seemed to be the eve of victory, lost all.

They learned that everything has costs.

Athens funded their war by levying tribute upon the city states of their maritime empire, which their allies came to resent enough to rebel against. Rebellions that were often brutally put down.

They learned about the interdependence of nations.

Athens was forced to surrender when they could no longer feed themselves from their own lands and their route to the grain lands of the Black Sea was cut off.

They learned that civilizations like men, can die. Exhausted by the war, Greece was conquered by Phillip of Macedon and became a province of various empires for the next two thousand years.

And they learned that while many things change, some things never change. And they learned to tell the difference.

We have forgotten these things, but we will re-learn them, perhaps at great cost.

(These and other courses are available from The Great Courses.)

March 8, 2016

Viewing with alarm

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:16 pm

It occurs to me I haven’t viewed with alarm lately. Don’t judge me, I’ve had my own problems to deal with.

Viewing with alarm is of course part of a pundit’s stock in trade, a venerable tradition going back for centuries. We must view with alarm all of the current trends that will lead to the end of civilization as we know it if unchecked.

Civilization has been falling for a while now but hasn’t hit bottom yet.

On the other hand, all predictions of social collapse come true – eventually.

And I must confess to a certain uneasiness about the state of the union. In part that could be because face it, I’m old. As Allan King said, 65 is not middle aged. I don’t know any 130-year-old men. The old always think the world is falling apart.

Except that sometimes it is.

For another, I have two young children and I’m worried they’re not being prepared for a life with rough spots. And by prepared I mean educated with knowledge and skills to sell in the marketplace, and a certain tough-mindedness necessary to make their way in a cruel and unfair world.

So in no particular order, these are some of the things I find alarming.

People don’t realize our resources are finite. I had this conversation the other day with a friend on the left, and by the way those friendships are harder to maintain these days and that’s alarming too.

I made a remark about how the federal budget should be handled like a rational family handles theirs, i.e. figure out how much you have to spend and then argue about what to spend it on.

He claimed the federal budget is different. I said they’re alike in the only way that matters, they’re finite.

He and a lot of others don’t see it that way. Which leads to the next problem.

If we’re not buying nice things (free college, universal health care, etc) then it’s because some mean and spiteful skinflints want you to be poor, unhealthy, and unhappy.

Many of you have probably had small children give you that attitude. They grow out of it eventually. If you’ve had a spouse with that attitude, you’re probably divorced.
Then there’s Jacobinism, it’s the fault of “the one percent.” A one percent that doesn’t seem to include pop stars and athletes but does include employers.
Well to some extent it is. The country is not run by a company of poor men. What’s different these days is not the inequality of wealth. It’s how they got that way; through productivity, or politics.

Americans have never really resented the wealthy, as long as they felt the game was being played fair. But I believe there’s a large and growing consensus that it’s not.
Well it isn’t. The path to riches is mined with complicated regulation and tax codes that make life miserable for would-be entrepreneurs. But the lower rungs of the ladder haven’t been all sawed off yet, to mix a metaphor.

But a lot of the problem is at the lower end too. With 25 to 70 percent of children being raised in single-parent households (depending on the specific demographic) and schools failing to teach how to count money much less make it, then fewer people are going to climb that ladder.

So the narrative goes, if the current lamentable situation was caused by active malice it can be cured by the right guy. And in this election cycle we have two candidates on white horses ready to cure all our ills, just give them the power and forget that pesky Constitution.

To some degree all candidates promise this. The days when someone could run on a platform of, “I’ll be a good steward of the public funds, run things reasonably well, and if a crisis happens on my watch I can handle it” are over. Nowadays candidates have to run by convincing the electorate of the urgent necessity for radical change only they can bring about.

But this time an alarming number of people on both sides seem to be buying it. And that’s how republics fall.

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