The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Not SAD it's January 25th

Anne and I were discussing this morning how January is our least-favorite month. Apparently Cardiff University, Wales, professor Cliff Arnall agrees:

Arnall found that, while days technically get longer after Dec. 21, cyclonic weather systems take hold in January, bringing low, dark clouds to Britain. Meanwhile, the majority of people break their healthy resolutions six to seven days into the new year, and even the hangers-on have fallen off the wagon, torn off the nicotine patches and eaten the fridge empty by the third week. Any residual dregs of holiday cheer and family fun have kicked the bucket by Jan. 24.

Some good news. First, sunsets are 35 minutes later than they were a month ago (in Chicago, anyway; in Cardiff, Wales, they're fully 44 minutes later).

Second, if January 24th is the worst day of the year, then today is not the worst day. Unless, of course, you're one of the 80,000 people who dies today. More likely, you're one of the 6.2 billion people who won't die today, so things are looking up!

And Chicago today is sunny, bright, and above freezing, which is wonderful for this time of year.

Still, we're looking forward to May.

I just can't stand rules like this

The BBC reported last week on a new workplace rule at a firm in Germany.

The firm, which until recently had a staff of 16, forbade complaining or whinging in the workplace, on pain of immediate firing:

[E]mployees have a clause in their contracts which states: "moaning and whinging at Nutzwerk is forbidden... except when accompanied with a constructive suggestion as to how to improve the situation."
Ramona Wonneberger, chief executive of Nutzwerk, came up with the idea. She claims that "negative energy" puts a dampener not just on workers' moods, but also on productivity.

The story raises several questions. First, these are Germans, right? I've met plenty of Germans and I think only we Chicagoans outdo them in the quantity or quality of our complaints. Second, how bad was the problem that Wonneberger felt she needed to do something about it? Finally, how does one determine whether a comment constitutes a complaint, or is merely the predicate for a "constructive suggestion?"

Deutschland Über Beschwerdeführen, I guess.

Corporations, not parties, are the problem: Guest blogger Yak

I've asked Yak, one of the friends I mentioned Sunday, to give us his two cents. He gave us a couple of bucks and said "keep the change." And just before posting this, CBS and Time Warner announced a merger. Interesting, no?


I think the first idea I need to reinforce is that I am not a Democrat and do not embrace the hope that if Democrats can "take back" the federal government, this should in turn "take back" America. I do not believe there is a fundamental difference between Republican and Democrat in this country, though at the local and perhaps at the state levels this may not be as true. Perhaps this is the opposite of what conventional poli-sci takes as truth. One of the reasons I don't see a substantive difference is that both sides are predominantly older, rich, white male lawyers. When so many members of Congress have such common backgrounds, I don't think we can expect much real difference among them. With a deeply entrenched bureaucracy handling the day-to-day operations of the federal government—see James Q. Wilson's "Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It" for the most objective and generally lucid explanation I've seen about this—our policy makers argue about semantics, posturing for sound bites and empty rhetoric. I know this is generalization, but I just don't see enough of a difference between Dem/Rep to view either as "the problem." To me, they both are.

Let me also add that I do not believe a Republican conspiracy is driving the problems I've asked about (rhetorically, or at least Socratically). If Dem basically equals Rep in my opinion, then neither is intrinsically less desirable as a political representative, and neither is conspiring against anyone. You're right, most of our crises can be attributed to human vices or apathy. Put someone in power and he (yes, he, still vastly more likely than "she") will likely bend his power to serve his personal needs. The Greeks understood this. But then, they had a democracy; we live in a republic, and most Americans don't seem to understand (or, you're right) care about the difference.

Let me throw a Supreme Court case at you: Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 11 US 394 (1886). This is the decision that is widely identified as the case that gave corporations the same protections under the 14th Amendment as individuals. With this precedent, the courts were quick to extend this interpretation to giving corporations the same legal rights and protections as individuals. When that happened, I think, the American political landscape changed forever. Now a legal amalgamation of assets and financial resources far dwarfing almost any individual could operate in ways that served its best interests even when those interests ran contrary to individual citizens—or when those interests were predicated on the illusion of what Marjorie Kelly calls "shareholder primacy." Over time the corporation rose in power and influence, and nobody could stop it. It is virtually impossible to fight a corporation - and where one falls, several more rise from its legal corpse. Re-read Heinlein's Friday starting on page 120 (of the edition I borrowed):

Any territorial state is a sitting duck. But fighting a multinational is like trying to slice a fog. Where's your target? You want to fight IBM? Where is IBM? Its registered home office is a P.O. box number in Delaware. That's no target. IBM's offices and people and plants are scattered. you can't hit any part of IBM without hurting somebody else as much or more But can IBM defeat, say, Russia? It would just depend on whether or not IBM could see a profit in it. So far as I know, IBM doesn't own any guerrillas. [You can] take [your] own sweet time getting set because Russia isn't going anywhere. It will still be there, a big fat target, a week from now or a year.

Heinlein's commentary, a mere aside buried in the fast-paced plot, makes a point that many people tend to forget: A company like IBM doesn't have borders, it isn't tied to a piece of geography. The corporation may have started in the United States but that doesn't mean the IBM Corporation is bound to US ideology or politics unless its own organizational mission benefits from that association. Thus, it becomes difficult to regulate; legislation for such a company must go beyond the US borders to truly affect the corporation. And with the rise of private security companies, Heinlein's work becomes even more eerily prescient.

My perspective on the American condition can be laid out like this:

A very small percentage of Americans control a very large percentage of the assets, wealth, and resources in this country. Through their investment managers (who in turn are grotesquely overcompensated) they shape the direction of capitalism, which is carried out by corporations with the purpose of maximizing the bottom line. If something doesn't increase profits, there's no reason to try it - which is why so many corporations aren't more socially or environmentally responsible - if the potential fines and PR spinning are less costly than fixing the problem in the first place, then it's business as usual, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Consider General Electric, which pays hundreds of millions of dollars in fines every year. What do they call this? The cost of doing business—and they budget for it! Anyway, corporations are largely owned by private investors or investment plans, whose participation are largely dominated by other corporations and investment plans. At the end, who benefits the most? A very small number of private investors - the richest people in America. If this appears circular, good, it is. The introduction of new money in the 80s and 90s with financial machinations and the tech bubble shifted some of the money to new investors, but when the markets "corrected" a few years ago, what a surprise, the same faces show up that have been there all along. Read Kevin Phillips' "Weath and Democracy" for more stats. It's not that the rich control America actively, it's that the consequences are inevitable and too big for any of us to stop or even slow down. We aren't even a mosquito biting in a tender spot; we don't matter because we can't stop the corporations that control the media, the majority of access to our political reps, the culture in which we're all so immersed, even the education we've received and the information we can access to continue learning.

I don't know who's ultimately in charge if Dem=Rep and the top rich have the most access to power via their disproportionate resources. It analyzes like a plutocracy but the rich don't seem to pull the strings actively. I've heard the word "meritocracy" thrown around but that's not accurate, either. "Aristocracy" and "oligarchy"? I dunno. It just seems we live in a nation that isn't what it claims to be and has elements of structures we're taught don't exist here. And for most of us, every day goes along without any clear sign that things are different than we were taught and believe. Why question the American Dream when most of us have food, shelter, and some of the considerations that allow us to move a little farther up Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs? Just don't get me researching Bohemian Grove again - that stuff really rattles my sociopolitical-economic cage...

It's really hard to get anything concrete on these ideas. It's taken me several years to piece some of this together; such a vast societal inertia is really hard to push against. I'm still not done tying threads together, which is why I can't give you a nice neat executive summary of my theory with E.B. White-sized bullet points. And I'm not convinced I'm right, either. I feel as though I'm onto something Big and Paradigm-Rattling, but the closer I get to illumination the more I wonder "why bother?" I can't change anything, I don't really want to try, I just want to live on my country property and make a good life for us without more challenges than life will throw at us regardless of any non-conformist ideas we may have. Fortunately, I have a great deal of work ahead of me this spring, so there won't be much consideration for these ideas until the summer. For anyone who wants to get a better foundation to understand my perspective, here are some suggestions:

Bakan, Joel. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press, 2004.

De Graaf, John, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic . San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001.

Hartmann, Thom. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft. New York: Rodale Books, 2002.

Hawken, Paul. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.

Hooks, Bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kelly, Marjorie. The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003.

Miller, Ron. What Are Schools For: Holistic Education in American Culture. Brandon, Vt.: Holistic Education Press, 1990.

—Guest blogger Yak

Canadians move right, but not that far

Canada yesterday elected a minority Conservative government, sending Liberals home after 12 years in power.

The Conservative leader, now Prime Minister-elect, Stephen Harper, has no plans to privatize the Canadian health system, nor to open up the country to a flood of immigrants from the south. But he is closer to the U.S. than outgoing Liberal PM Paul Martin was, a fact which crippled Harper's last run in 2004.

Also at issue were some of the same social questions we're fighting over down here:

Martin warned that Harper would try to reverse last year's vote legalizing same-sex marriage, would seek to erode abortion rights and would pack the judiciary with conservative judges.
Harper stayed above the fray, insisting that those social issues were not on his agenda. Instead, he promised to slightly reduce the national sales tax, replace a sputtering national day-care program with direct payments to parents and increase penalties for gun-related crimes.

Yes, the Conservative wants to toughen gun laws. But let's wait and see about those social issues. I expect the next couple of years will see some fireworks in Parliament.

The biggest difference between the Canadian Conservatives and our Republicans is that the Tories really are free of significant corruption. In fact, the Liberals lost in part because of a campaign finance scandal, in which Federal money was used to fund pro-Federal advertisements in Quebec. This caused an outrage in Canada similar to the outrage felt over the U.S. funding scandal me think about this...

Also of note, since Harper doesn't have a clear majority of Parliament, he has to work with the opposition. It's quite an interesting concept: the two biggest parties, duking it out on the floor, coming up with policies they both can live with for a while.

Oh Canada.

Why regulation was a good idea

Another thing government does better than business: make businesses play nicely with each other.

Cable companies and telephone companies are fed up with the free Internet because they have to carry it on their backbones for free. So they're looking for ways to charge for use, including creating premium access for a fee.

One of the easily foreseen ways this "premium access" could manifest, as the Washington Post reports, looks like this:

[Y]ou may one day discover that Yahoo suddenly responds much faster to your inquiries, overriding your affinity for Google. Or that Amazon's Web site seems sluggish compared with eBay's.
...For the first time, the companies that own the equipment that delivers the Internet to your office, cubicle, den and dorm room could, for a price, give one company priority on their networks over another.

Perhaps it's time to re-regulate telecommunications? Or maybe I'm wrong, and we should de-regulate further. How about letting the Post Office charge more to deliver mail from certain buildings? Or how about letting electric utilities charge differential rates by political affiliation?

Lengthy post on conspiracies and coincidence

"[I]t has been a nervous year, and people have begun to feel like a Christian scientist with appendicitis."—Tom Lehrer

We live in a nation founded by a conspiracy. A group of committed, passionate, and intelligent men met in secret for years, plotting and scheming, until finally they took arms against their own country and set up a radical left-wing government that subsequently became the model for the rest of the world. Grandchildren of those revolutionaries tried to do what they believed was the same thing, and got squashed in the bloodiest war the world had ever experienced.

Back and forth we've gone for almost three centuries now, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, but always with groups of committed, passionate, intelligent people on every side, convinced of their absolute correctness and moral authority, and unwilling to compromise their most cherished beliefs.

Surrounded by these groups are what Nixon called "the silent majority," who basically don't care. The committed, passionate, intelligent people fighting for their beliefs think the silent majority are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Why else would they not agree with the committed, passionate, intelligent people on our side?

Nixon, I hate to say, was correct. There is a largely silent majority in this country, who generally don't care about politics as long as things are going relatively well. There's food in the fridge, there's something on TV, the kids are a little weird but otherwise aren't doing anything we didn't do at their age, why worry?

Except, when you look a little deeper, the silent majority almost always gets it right. Or, at least, when viewed through their self-interests, they don't get it really very wrong.

I can think of only two major exceptions, times when a functioning democracy got it disastrously wrong: Germany in 1933 and Argentina in 1945. Except, these were barely-functioning democracies in shattered states, with huge numbers of formerly comfortable people who were, for reasons they didn't truly understand, now very uncomfortable. The governments that enacted Jim Crow and Apartheid, the Guillotine and the machete, while democratic for some, were not truly functioning democracies.

But looking at other "failures of democracy" it turns out the people tend to vote in their own best interests almost always. Looking back on Watergate, we wonder how Nixon got re-elected. We forget that by 1972 he was already bringing the boys home from Vietnam, and that his opponent—a true statesman, I need to add—was a horrible candidate. And we forget that "Watergate does not bother me," as Lynard Skynyrd sang, pretty much summed it up for the part of the country that was still seething about the Democratic party's reversal on Jim Crow.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."—Upton Sinclair.

The 2000 election, like the similarly-contested 1878 election, came during a period of relative calm and prosperity, and featured two lacklustre candidates with no apparent fundamental differences. (They actually did have fundamental differences, but most people ignored them. More on that in a moment.) There was a little voting fraud, but not really more than usual, and certainly not as brazen as the fraud in 1960 that put Kennedy in office. And yes, Gore won the vote, but Bush won the office through existing Constitutional processes, and—I can't emphasize this enough—most Americans were OK with that.

Failure of democracy? No. Success, I think, because the vast majority of the country realized that contesting the election past the Supreme Court's decision would cause more harm than good. Our choices were to obviate the Supreme Court, or accept a flawed decision, and it was clearly in the long-term interests in our country to do the latter.

Of course, people who were paying attention knew that a number of right-wing think-tanks had nurtured relationships with Republicans since the early 1970s. These think-tanks, for example the American Enterprise Institute, had come up with coherent and compelling arguments to reduce the size of government, devolve power to the states, free business from regulatory interference, and bring these ideas to the rest of the world.

Then there's the Christian right, which has waxed and waned in power for, oh, 2000 years. Fundamentalists (of any religion) have always had a coherent and compelling argument: "God said so." There's really no arguing with that point of view. A religious fundamentalist has a clear, unwavering belief in his own correctness on the point, that almost nothing can shake (since God frequently tests the faithful in mysterious ways).

"Every revolutionary is a closet aristorcrat."—Frank Herbert

Both groups, as is the rule for ideologues, are convinced they're right, everyone else is wrong, and if people just heard the message they would understand, too. We have the answer; don't listen to the "other side" because there is no "other side." There is simply truth and falsity. You're either with us or against us. Someday, you'll understand, and agree; but for now, we need to be in control, to show you the truth.

Since the 1970s, these two groups have worked together. And for the most part, since their opponents were in control of either the legislature or the executive throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they didn't succeed. But they perservered, they compromised, they made deals with people they couldn't stand, until in January 2001 when their guys finally controlled both the legislature and the executive.

But this is no more because of a conspiracy than the circumstances that put the Democrats in power in 1933. (Or that put the Republicans in power in 1861. Or that put the Democrats in power in 1801.)

When people are out of power, they are much more likely to make compromises than when they're in power. I could write an entire essay on why this is so (and perhaps I will later), but what the Right did from the 1970s to the 1990s is simply pool any power they had and leverage it. And they waited, getting their pieces in place, making connections, raising funds, organizing. This is politics. But isn't this also a conspiracy? Yes, in the strict sense that two or more people acting in concert constitute a conspiracy. But no, in the broader sense that there was anything secret or malicious about it. In fact, and here's what we need to remember, they told everyone what they were planning the whole time.

People in 2000 who didn't know what the Bush presidency was going to be like were either not paying attention, or they just didn't care. And this applies as much to the people who should have cared and paid attention, like the Gore campaign, as to the general public. Partisans on our side think most people weren't paying attention, but really, they just didn't care.

And why should they have cared? What messages did people hear? Both candidates were, in their own ways, neither coherent nor compelling. So the voters gave them an even split, figuring that neither would be around very long, and in 2004 we might get better guys to run. Come on—you thought the same thing, even if you had a "Gore" sticker on your car way back in 1988. "He's not my first choice," you thought (about whichever of the two you supported), "but he's better than the other guy."

Since 2000, of course, we've seen a needless foreign war, the systematic dismantling of the Federal government, outright theft of billions of dollars, a stifling of political discourse, and a declining economy. You can't say the Republicans didn't warn us. It's what they've always done.

"The answer is most likely the 'omnibus explanation:' stupidity."—Jerome Leitner

Since 2000, also, our party has fallen apart. It's a lot harder to take responsibility for a loss than a win; this is human nature. So every constituent group in the Democratic party, barely together when we had power, fell completely to bickering and finger-pointing when we lost it. We look at two candidates who couldn't figure out which constituency's message was most important, and consequently blew—yes, blew—two elections that should have been cake-walks for us, and we blame...the Republicans?

Some, including some of my dearest friends, see this state of affairs as evidence of an evil conspiracy.

But it's not, really. It's evidence of our opponents being in power, and doing the things that people have always done to stay in power. Both Roosevelts slapped the press around. Johnson rammed civil rights down his party's throat by stifling dissent and harrassing anyone who disagreed with him. Clinton outmanouvered the opposition partially by embracing their programs, a practice called "compromise" that is universally hated by partisans everywhere. Carter, in contrast, couldn't bring himself to play the game and got schooled by a senile nincompoop.

Moreover, the "conspiracy" is so inept it's failing spectacularly. Patrick Fitzgerald is a Republican, and he brought down the Republican majority leader and the Republican vice-president's chief of staff. John McCain is a Republican who will, mark my words, make life a living hell for the ideologues after the next election when he starts running for President again. A growing number of Republicans are standing up and saying that, no, forcing people to be Christian is not Christian, and smothering the press is not "small government."

Two mine disasters in a month is a horrible coincidence, but people now see that the probability of a mine disaster goes up when the agency responsible for mine safety is run by a former mining executive. The spectacular thefts and failures of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Delphi, and other companies hurt hundreds of thousands of people, people who now see that private enterprise does not always do things better than government. As the number of dead soldiers in Iraq creeps toward the number of dead in the World Trade Center attack, as the truly frightening regimes in Iran and North Korea get the bomb, people now see that committing our entire military to getting rid of one tinpot evil-doer does not bring us security. As Abramoff squeals like Ned Beatty in his underwear, as Diebold's malfeasance is explained clearly enough that my mom understands it, as New Orleans lies in ruins, as the ideological purity of the right-wing think tanks hits the messy realities of life, people now see that voting has consequences.

As soon as the Democratic Party stops trying to be everything to everyone, they'll have something to vote for.

Next: Ideas about how that can happen.

More on Google

Adam Sharp, of Maryland-based Sharp SEO, actually read through the Justice Deptartment's Google subpoena. He posted a blog entry excerpting and linking to the actual Google subpoena which is, in turn, hosted on Ziff-Davis' website:

In Google’s understanding, Defendant would use the one million URLs requested from Google to create a sample world-wide web against which to test various filtering programs for their effectiveness. Google objects to Defendant’s view of Google’s highly proprietary search database—the primary reason for the company’s success—as a free resource that Defendant can access and use, some levels removed, to formulate its own defense.

Now here's my take on Internet privacy.

Astute readers may notice that Sharp's blog has no link to biographical information, nor does his "under construction" corporate site. Really astute readers will notice that he has a link to my blog entry on this topic and figure out how I knew about his blog.

When Sharp linked his blog to mine, our blog engines shook hands, and my blog engine made a log entry commemorating the event. I saw the log entry and clicked on the referring link to find out who was linking to me. I expect he's going to do exactly the same thing in reverse shortly after I hit the "Post to Weblog" button.

Since I wanted to link back to his blog, I wanted to give him proper attribution. I haven't written for a newspaper since college, but I like to think I still retain some journalistic sense about sourcing my material. So I first looked on his blog for an "About" page or some other identifying material. Finding none, I browsed to his corporate website and found the "under construction" page. No info there.

Next, I ran a WHOIS query on his domain name, and got exactly what I wanted: his name and state of residence, which is sufficient for proper attribution.

(I also found out, in preparing this post, that my own registration is quite out-of-date. My apologies to any stalkers who have wasted time lurking in the wrong place.)

My point is this: Privacy on the Web is difficult to maintain. You have to take active steps to limit what people can find out about you, especially where public databases like the Internet registry are concerned. And, every Website you visit logs your IP address, browser, referring page (where you were when you clicked on the Website's own link), and click-stream (how much time you spent viewing each page, and in what order you viewed them).

That said, if someone wants to find you, they will. The Internet doesn't really make that any easier than it was 30 years ago when most people could be found by calling 411. Oh wait: most people can still be found through 411. Never mind then.

We as a people have always given up certain kinds of privacy as a cost of having an open society. Ours was the first country where land records were made public, the better to have good title to property, which helps everyone. Corporate documents, including personal information about coporate ownership, is public information: it encourages corporate responsibility, among other things.

The Internet is the same. You get all this information at your fingertips, but in order to give it to you, the provider needs to know where to send it (your IP address) and how (your browser type). If you want to have your own piece of the Internet, you need to tell some registrar somewhere who you are—at the very least so you can pay the registrar.

This is a complicated topic on which I will write more after I shovel the walk.

First snow since December 24

Chicago got its first measurable snowfall since December 24th last night. As of 6 am CST/12:00 UTC, we have the following reports from area weather stations:

Station Snow
O'Hare 127 mm (6 in.)
Midway 102 mm (4 in.)
Milwaukee 127 mm (6 in.)
Rockford 127 mm (6 in.)

Sadly for cross-country skiiers, today's forecast calls for temperatures around 3°C (37°F), which is just warm enough to turn the snow into a heavy, soupy mess but not enough to ski along the lake.

Speaking of heavy, soupy, messy snow, I will now go shovel.