Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why Pennsylvania Doesn’t Need the Death Penalty

Last week the nation’s highest court chose not to hear an appeal filed by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office that sought to reinstate the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The ruling comes nearly a full decade after a U.S. District Court judge first vacated the sentence in light of prejudicial jury instructions, and just months after the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision following an order to reconsider from the Supreme Court.

It’s now up to District Attorney Seth Williams to decide whether to pursue a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal, a process that would not only dredge up painful memories for the victim’s widow, but is destined to take place in an atmosphere very different than that of three decades ago, when the original sentence was levied.

In 1982, the year of Abu-Jamal’s conviction, capital punishment was overwhelmingly popular in the United States, with nearly three-quarters of Americans favoring it. Since then support for the death penalty has fallen across all segments of society, even among groups that represent the families of victims.

Two days after the Supreme Court decision on October 13th, Gallup released new poll numbers indicating that support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in 40 years. While a majority (61 percent) of American citizens still support it in cases of murder, evidence shows the impetus is emotional (revenge-based) and not practical. Barely a third believe capital punishment is a deterrent to future crimes. And contrary to popular belief, victims’ families rarely get a sense of closure after executions; quite the opposite, families report that the endless appeals process and decades of legal wrangling in death-penalty cases only serve to prolong their pain and more often prevent closure. Read more...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Words of wisdom from an American patriot

The second half of FDR's Commonwealth Club Address, delivered September 23, 1932, in San Francisco.

"A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have know it no longer exists. Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt.

Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land. More than half of our people do not live on the farms or on lands and cannot derive a living by cultivating their own property. There is no safety valve in the from of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start. We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty. We are now providing a drab living for our own people.
Our system of constantly rising tariffs has at last reacted against us to the point of closing our Canadian frontier on the north, our European markets on the east, many of our Latin American markets to the south, and a goodly proportion of our Pacific markets on the west, through the retaliatory tariffs of those countries. It has forced many of our great industrial institutions who exported their surplus production to such countries, to establish plants in such countries within the tariff walls. This has resulted in the reduction of the operation of their American plants, and opportunity for employment.

Just as freedom to farm has ceased, so also the opportunity in business has narrowed. It still is true that men can start small enterprises, trusting to native shrewdness and ability to keep abreast of competitors; but area after area has been preempted altogether by the great corporations, and even in the fields which still have no great concerns, the small man starts with a handicap. The unfeeling statistics of the past three decades show that the independent business man is running a losing race. Perhaps he is forced to the wall; perhaps he cannot command credit; perhaps he is “squeezed out,” in Mr. Wilson’s words, by highly organized corporate competitors, as your corner grocery man can tell you.

Recently a careful study was made of the concentration of business in the United States. It showed that our economic life was dominated by some six hundred odd corporations who controlled two-thirds of American industry. Ten million small business men divided the other third. More striking still, it appeared that if the process of concentration goes on at the same rate, at the end of another century we shall have all American industry controlled by a dozen corporations, and run by perhaps a hundred men. Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already. (emphasis mine).

Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values. A mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, and organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help. The day of the great promoter or the financial Titan, to whom we granted anything if only he would build, or develop, is over. Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of under consumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.

Just as in older times the central government was first a haven of refuge, and then a threat, so now in a closer economic system the central and ambitious financial unit is no longer a servant of national desire, but a danger. I would draw the parallel one step farther. We did not think because national government had become a threat in the 18th century that therefore we should abandon the principle of national government. Nor today should we abandon the principle of strong economic units called corporations, merely because their power is susceptible of easy abuse. In other times we dealt with the problem of an unduly ambitious central government by modifying it gradually into a constitutional democratic government. So today we are modifying and controlling our economic units.

As I see it, the task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order. This is the common task of statesman and business man. It is the minimum requirement of a more permanently safe order of things.

Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal., political and economic, owes to every one an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.

Every man has a right to his own property; which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings. By no other means can men carry the burdens of those parts of life which, in the nature of things afford no chance of labor; childhood, sickness, old age. In all thought of property, this right is paramount; all other property rights must yield to it. If, in accord with this principle, we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier, I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it.

These two requirements must be satisfied, in the main, by the individuals who claim and hold control of the great industrial and financial combinations which dominate so large a pert of our industrial life. They have undertaken to be, not business men, but princes-princes of property. I am not prepared to say that the system which produces them is wrong. I am very clear that they must fearlessly and competently assume the responsibility which goes with the power. So many enlightened business men know this that the statement would be little more that a platitude, were it not for an added implication.

This implication is, briefly, that the responsible heads of finance and industry instead of acting each for himself, must work together to achieve the common end. They must, where necessary, sacrifice this or that private advantage; and in reciprocal self-denial must seek a general advantage. It is here that formal government-political government, if you choose, comes in. Whenever in the pursuit of this objective the lone wolf, the unethical competitor, the reckless promoter, the Ishmael or Insull whose hand is against every man’s, declines to join in achieving and end recognized as being for the public welfare, and threatens to drag the industry back to a state of anarchy, the government may properly be asked to apply restraint. Likewise, should the group ever use its collective power contrary to public welfare, the government must be swift to enter and protect the public interest.

The government should assume the function of economic regulation only as a last resort, to be tried only when private initiative, inspired by high responsibility, with such assistance and balance as government can give, has finally failed. As yet there has been no final failure, because there has been no attempt, and I decline to assume that this nation is unable to meet the situation.

The final term of the high contract was for liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have learnt a great deal of both in the past century. We know that individual liberty and individual happiness mean nothing unless both are ordered in the sense that one man’s meat is not another man’s poison. We know that the old “rights of personal competency”-the right to read, to think, to speak to choose and live a mode of life, must be respected at all hazards. We know that liberty to do anything which deprives others of those elemental rights is outside the protection of any compact; and that government in this regard is the maintenance of a balance, within which every individual may have a place if he will take it; in which every individual may find safety if he wishes it; in which every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility...

Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demands that we recognize the new terms of the old social contract. We shall fulfill them, as we fulfilled the obligation of the apparent Utopia which Jefferson imagined for us in 1776, and which Jefferson, Roosevelt and Wilson sought to bring to realization. We must do so, lest a rising tide of misery engendered by our common failure, engulf us all. But failure is not an American habit; and in the strength of great hope we must all shoulder our common load."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Are corporations the new aristocracy?

Last week I drew criticism from some in the state’s business community for daring to suggest that the decision to potentially turn essential public services over to the corporate sector might require a bit more scrutiny than I felt the Governor’s new panel on privatization was apt to provide.

In the wake of the sometimes heated, but more often courteous exchange of written dialogue with members of the panel and others who represent the interests of the private sector, I decided to give my typing fingers (all four of them) a chance to regain some of their strength and focus on a less controversial topic this week.

Then I saw General Electric chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, and I decided that discretion would have to wait a week.

From the relative safety of my kitchen table I joined Immelt (who in January was named by Barack Obama to chair the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness) on a 20-minute whirlwind tour of his company’s facilities in the U.S. and Brazil as he expounded on the globalization of capital, the inequity of corporate tax policy and how GE is helping America by giving cutting-edge avionics technology to China so it can better compete with Boeing, another U.S. company.

Then came the coup de maitre; at the end of the segment Immelt was asked point-blank by correspondent Leslie Stahl if corporations have a civic duty to boost American jobs, to which the executive, trying his best to appear contemplative, responded with a shake of his head:

“I work for investors,” he said. “Investors want to see us grow earnings and cash flow, they want to see us be competitive, they want to see us prosper.”

And there it was, plainly spoken from the mouth of one of the most powerful business executives in the world: We are here to make money. Period. Read more...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011