Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
It's odd that even though big business regularly complains about the national government, when the national government shuts down, Wall Street tumbles. The stock market is down about 5% since mid-September, when it became apparent that the House wouldn't agree to fund the government past September 30.
As long as the House of Representatives doesn't want the government to work because a majority of the House members believe the government is too large, I'd like to revive my suggestion of two years ago that Congress reduce the size of the House by a meaningful percentage, let's say by a quarter, so that the House would have 325 members instead of the present 435. Each of the remaining members would represent about 1 million constituents and could boast about becoming 33% more productive. The savings in cost would be modest -- Congress isn't a big part of the federal budget -- but it would be a good symbolic move. The savings would allow the government to reopen the Panda Cam and several of our national parks, good places for the newly retired Congresspeople to go and chill out.
Cell phone companies occasionally send me solicitations to switch to their services, usually with promises of better reception, wider coverage area, or lower rates. Today's mail brought a cell phone company's solicitation, with a pitch that I'd never read before.
This one is from CREDO Mobile, a name that's new to me. It opens with "Dear Fellow Progressive" and leads with "If you get your mobile service from Verizon Wireless or AT&T, you should know that they contribute big bucks to radical right-wing causes." The letter states that since 2009, Verizon Wireless has given "an incredible $220,600" to members of the House and Senate Tea Party Caucuses, and AT&T has given "a massive $1,080,000."
That sounds like a lot of money, but then there were a lot of Tea Party Caucus members. Wikipedia says that in January 2013 the caucus included 49 representatives and five senators. Taking that as the caucus's typical membership level, AT&T's contributions work out to be about $5,000 per member per year. Verizon's donations work out to be about $1,000 per member per year. That's a lot more than I give to our congressional delegation (sorry, Earl), but it's less than half my annual cell phone bill. AT&T's contributions work out to be about one cent for each of its one hundred million customers. Far from being generous to the right wing, it looks to me that AT&T and Verizon are being rather stingy. They're certainly nowhere close to competing with the Koch brothers.
As the Obama administration considers lobbing a few missiles at Syria to punish the Syrian regime (which we used to call the "Syrian government," or just "Syria") for allegedly using chemical weapons on its citizens, the New York Times this week posted a graphic (which we used to call "gory") video showing rebel soldiers executing seven Syrian soldiers. The video, which turned out to be not fresh news but 17 months old, sparked an argument that if the rebels are this brutal, then we shouldn't be supporting them by lobbing bombs at the government.
Two days ago Secretary of State John Kerry explained to MSNBC why the video should not deter our government from attacking Syria from a safe distance. I noted this quotation particularly:
Here is my translation of Secretary Kerry's statement:
If we do not kill some Syrian soldiers and nearby civilians with safe and effective American missiles in the hope that the Damascus PTA will take over running Syria, we will see more pictures and videos of Syrian rebels killing the same Syrian soldiers and nearby civilians that our missiles would kill more efficiently. If we do kill some Syrians with our missiles, their survivors will applaud our willingness to intervene in their domestic conflict and will become our friends when the war ends.
This is not striking me as a good reason to get involved in a war. I know the government is saying that we are not getting into a war with Syria, but I also know that our recent history suggests that, as with the famous brand of potato chips, we don't often stop with just one.
Forty-six United States senators voted today against a bill that would have required background checks on people who want to buy guns in the United States, including Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Republicans from Tennessee.
In 2007, Senators Alexander and Corker sponsored legislation to denounce states that issue driver's licenses to aliens in this country unlawfully, saying that allowing illegal aliens to carry dirver's licenses presents a risk to our national security.
This leads to the delightful conclusion that Senators Alexander and Corker, and many others, trust illegal aliens with guns but not cars. They're apparently fine with undocumented immigrants going to the gun shows to buy guns as long as they take public transit to get there.
The post-Newtown debate over gun control and the Second Amendment has pitted advocates of gun control against believers in the Second Amendment. Proponents of gun control (generally the same group as opponents of mass killings) can't see the sporting purpose in allowing people to possess and use 25- and 50-round ammunition clips. Opponents of gun control strongly object to federal and state governments limiting their ability to buy and own any sort of weaponry.
Some government restrictions on private armories apparently withstand a Second Amendment attack: for example, we can't own machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and tactical nuclear weaponry. If the Second Amendment protects individual rights as broadly as its backers say it does, then the government can't prohibit us from owning these useful items of destruction.
How, then, can the Supreme Court make a principled interpretation of the Second Amendment that protects the private right to own guns without opening the door to my homeowners' association acquiring first-strike capability? It occurred to me that the doctrine of original intent, favored by Justices Thomas and Scalia, offers an answer.
The doctrine of original intent states that the Supreme Court should interpret the constitution in accordance with the intent of the Framers -- that is, the original intent of the document -- rather than to accommodate changes in politics and society. Not every justice agrees with this, but it is a useful starting point.
The Second Amendment states that as a well-regulated militia is necessary for defense, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be abridged. Most people who talk about the Framers' intent focus on what is meant by a well-regulated militia, and argue that the right to bear arms should be limited to the right to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia. I suggest that we should look instead at the Framers' intent in using the words "defense" and "arms."
"Defense" has a plain and simple meaning. It means defending territory that one already possesses, rather than attacking territory that one does not possess. People can defend their homes. ("A man's home is his ammunition cache," as the saying might be revised to read.) People can as part of a militia defend their counties and states from invasion and insurrection. It's consistent with that reading to say that people can't take guns to schools and shopping centers.
Similarly, the term "arms" meant to the Framers single-shot rifles and pistols, swords, bayonets, catapults, and cannons. "Arms" didn't include automatic and semi-automatic guns, tanks, rocket launchers, and nuclear bombs. A creative legislature might adopt, and an alert judge might uphold, a gun control measure that protected the right of the people to keep flintlocks at home to protect themselves against intruders, and prohibited people from carrying weaponry on the street. I think the judge could even quote from opinions of several conservative members of the Supreme Court to show that the prohibition is consistent with the original intent of the writers of the Constitution. It would be an amusing and possibly worthwhile exercise.
As it does almost every year lately, the United States government is bumping up against the debt ceiling. Congress sets the maximum limit on how much debt the federal government can issue. Congress also commands the president to spend more than the government receives; that is, to run a deficit. The administration can finance the deficit either by printing money or by borrowing more money, which increases the national debt. Congress has approved raising the debt ceiling 11 times since 2001.
Within a few months the government will have to print or borrow more money to pay for the spending that Congress has approved. Several Republican representatives are making noises that the nation would be better off if the government shuts down when it hits the debt ceiling than if it borrowed to pay its bills.
Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic representative from New York, found a way in which the government could pay its bills without borrowing more money. Possibly inspired by Mark Twain's story "The Million Pound Bank Note," and after some searching through our laws on coin and currency, he proposed that the Treasury mint a trillion-dollar coin in platinum and deposit it with the Federal Reserve. Why the Treasury? And why platinum?
The Federal Reserve Banks, not under the administration's control, print and issue our currency. The Treasury hasn't issued paper money since 1968 when it gave up printing United States Notes. The Treasury does, however, issue our coins, in denominations and with metal content strictly prescribed by statute. All gold and silver coins, for example, must contain gold or silver that is worth more than the face value of the coin. A $50 gold coin, for example, must contain 1.09 troy ounces of gold. There's no profit to be made in making gold or silver coins.
The Treasury Department may, however, mint platinum coins of any denomination and weight that pleases the Secretary of the Treasury, including, in Mr. Nadler's proposal, a platinum coin with a face value of $1,000,000,000,000.
Republicans in Congress (including Oregon's own Greg Walden) have lined up to oppose the trillion-dollar coin, though it's not clear whether they also oppose the government paying its bills. An administration less charitable than the current one might offer to avoid the debt ceiling cliff by cutting federal spending in those states whose representatives vote against raising the debt ceiling.
Two years ago her doctor told the Aunt of the Left, who was bedridden and gravely ill, that she had only a few days to live. Following her lifelong habit of questioning authority, the Aunt of the Left told her doctor that his schedule wouldn't work for her at all, as she needed to live long enough to see President Obama be re-elected.
At the time I didn't know how strongly the A. of the L. felt about President Obama, but I do now: she told me this story, quite cheerfully, a few weeks ago as we sat at her table sharing a pot of tea. She's planning to be up and about on January 21 to watch the televised inauguration ceremonies. I didn't think to ask her if she's changed doctors.